Sunday, April 30, 2006

Train 14: Letting go is hard to do

On my occasional visits to the Sightseer Lounge on train 5, I occasionally pass a woman who is busy knitting a wool blanket. She has plenty of time free to work on it, and it's already long enough to cover her outstretched legs. This train is losing time, no matter how much we are reassured by the on board crew that we might make it up. Some way north of Euguene-Springfield, we pass into a siding to allow the southbound Coast Starlight pass us. It's relatively fresh, having only been on the rails for less than eight hours. As we slide past each other a few glimpses are exchanged between passengers. Maybe in twenty four hours time they too will know our pain. We leave Albany (upstate Oregon) at 18.30, exactly five hours behind schedule.

The important thing is to just not care. During my travels over the last week and a half, I have encountered many people who get frantic when the train starts to lose time. It's just a unfortunate fact that a complex situation of politics and railway ownerships leaves Amtrak severely limited when it comes to running on time. If punctuality matters to you, you should know to take the plane. If you want to spend less money, and probably less time travelling as well, then you should probably take the Greyhound. Just don't spoil my enjoyment by complaining. Learn to let go.

With the sunshine filling the cars with warm light, I walk down to the cafe below the Sightseer lounge to write a letter or two. The sunlight is low and sharp, and it casts a precise shadow from my pen as I scrawl rambling nothings to someone special back home. Sitting at the table, I am very low down in the train, sitting just above the tracks and between the front and real wheels of the coach. We have fortunately picked up some speed at this point and we are now sprinting along towards Portland. Every mile is bringing me closer to the end of the American half of my trip.

Over eleven days, I will have described a meandering semi-circle from Montréal in Québec to Vancouver in British Columbia on the trains of Amtrak. Once this half has been completed, I will begin to long journey back, on the northern side of the border. So although the miles and days aren't quite half way through, I feel like I am approaching an important mid-point in the trip.

I have ridden four of Amtrak's finest routes (with a fifth short hop to do on Tuesday) and have passed through thirteen states on my way. I've seen praries, rivers, big cities, mountains, valleys and deserts. I've glimpsed the Pacific for the first time, and I've met many new people from all across this country. I've seen up close what just a small slice of this vast country looks like. And I've had a great time.

So, five hours delay doesn't bother me that much.

Train 14: sleep gaze eat gaze eat gaze sleep

We reach the highest point of the Coast Starlight's route a little while later, with the mountains behind us and to the right, and the vast valley around Grass Lake on our left. The landscape between the mountains is gentle but dry, with red soil and scraggy looking plants. The sky is blue though, and as we start to go downhill the train picks up a bit of speed. I am yawning, despite a dozen cups of coffee at breakfast. I must be an addict, it doesn't have the same effect on me any more.

During the course of the day, the train's parlour car attendant comes over the PA. The Coast Starlight is unusual for Amtrak, in that sleeper passengers normally have an extra car at their disposal, called the Pacific Parlour Car. These refurbished cars offer a well stocked library, wood panelled lounge, large screen movies and wine tastings. However, a mechanical fault in Los Angeles (the train's base) has meant that the sleeper passengers are without their lounge - probably a big downer for anyone who's saved up and been planning a big trip in first class for some time. To compensate the first class 'reception' and wine tasting takes place in the restaurant car during the afternoon. I, of course, with my rail pass ticket, am not invited, so it's not exactly earth shattering news.

Just before lunch time we pass through Chemault, Oregon. The station is another minimalist blink-and-you-miss-it transport facility. There is, however, an intriguing little minibus waiting for passengers with 'Redmond Airport Shuttle' written on the side. I'm guessing this would be a fairly risky connection to make for an aeroplane, considering we're now four hours schedule.

I've not been in the mood for reading or window gazing much on this ride, so I decide to partake of the only other respectable activity on board: eating. This will be my last chance to see if the Amtrak kitchen can make up for my disappointing dinner the other day with a cheaper lunch. So I head down the train around 12.30, and wait to be seated. I sit down with two other men (one of whom was briefly in the chair next to me last night) and a woman. The conversation is slow to start with (there is at least one hangover joining us at the table) but over the lunch menu we start chatting about where we've been and where we're going. As usual, my itinerary takes top trumps for length and probably also for stupidity.

I order the ham and swiss sandwich, which comes with a pile of crisps on the side. Followed by a strawberry cheesecake, it's actually not bad at all, and for $11.50 is a damn sight more reasonably priced than dinner service. So follow my advice next time you go long distance on Amtrak: head to the restaurant for breakfast and lunch, but pack your own dinner. Just don't expect to let the experience linger - as soon as our plates were cleared they were taken away, and before my desert had been ordered, my bill had been brought. The staff in the restaurant car evidently don't like you to linger.

So, four new acquaintances bid each other farewell, and I head to the lounge car. I pick up a hefty copy of the 'Sunday Oregonian' but after ten or fifteen minutes my eyelids are getting heavy. I break my own rule (which I usually follow to help me sleep at night on the train) and head back to my seat for some shut-eye.

I doze off as Oregon slips past...

Train 14: Welcome to Oregon

Train 14: Time slips by

My first night on the Coast Starlight goes quite well. I manage to sleep relatively undisturbed until just after six. This seems to be my normal sleep pattern on the train, and five to six hours seems to be working for me. However it must be getting light now, as the door in front of me is crashing open as passengers start filterting forward through the train to get coffee and breakfast from the cafe and restaurant cars. When I pull up my eye mask up I'm blinded by the bright daylight. We're bowling along through a beautiful sunrise, and I'm left with the usual early morning activity of trying to guess where we are. The train begins to slow for a station, and without an announcement (Amtrak don't make PA announcements during the night to help people sleep) I take a risk and hope we're nearing Dunsmuir, California.

I am disappoited... it's actually Redding, California. We're now running more than three hours late, and we've not even reached the state line with Oregon. It's little wonder that this train has earned the nickname 'The Coast Star-Late'. When I chat with the cafe attendant later, he tells me that in the twelve months he's worked on this train, the best time it's ever kept was to arrive in Seattle one hour late. Three hours is good, and twelve hours is the worst. Much of this is blamed upon the freight railroad Union Pacific, who own and maintain the tracks we're running on. They do not have a good record of helping the Coast Starlight reaching it's destination, and it creates a sorry atmosphere on board. This can no longer claim to be Amtrak's finest train, despite the beautiful scenery we pass through en route.

It's time for my last breakfast on an Amtrak long distance train. So I walk forward at six thirty and join three others who are traveling independently of each other. One man is going to Portland, another to Kelso and a female acquaintance is going to Dunsmuir. As seems to be the norm, as soon as I sit down to eat we enter the beautiful scenery of northern California, and the train is weaving through narrow valleys and steep canyons, with water crashing down a river beside us. We pass peaceful lakes, and as the sun rises the sides of thickly forested mountains are illuminated.

We all have coffee and cranberry juice (one orders it instead of orange, and then we all follow...). I choose the 'Bob Evans Scrambled Eggs'. I've no idea who Bob Evans is, but his trademarked signature is on the menu. Maybe it's he himself downstairs in the kitchen, but I doubt it. It turns out to be scrambled eggs with meat and potatoes mixed in, and served with two fluffy Amtrak pancakes. It's a good start to the day.

We chat about where we're going, where we've come from and exchange the usual conucopia of Amtrak stories. It's always the friendly way to start the day in the restaurant car, and it's a good way for the solo traveler to make new friends.

After breakfast I do what I should have done last night, and move forward two cars. I try to find the coach attendant of my new car to see if this is ok, but she's nowhere to be found. I move my bags and remember to take my seat check with me. Later that day, I overhear a story from a man who was stranded 100 miles from home on Christmas Eve. He had moved seats during the night to sleep better, but hadn't taken the seat check from above his seat with him. Without a nighttime announcement, the conductor hadn't been able to give him a personal wake up, and he'd ended up far from home as the snow began to pile up. Moral of the story? Don't underestimate how important that slip of paper stuck above your seat is.

Shortly after we leave Dunsmuir the conductor breaks the nocturnal silence and tells us about the delay, which he makes to be two and a half hours. Much of it was put down to a re-routing we had to follow during the night. Incredibly it seems, we haven't been held up because of freight trains yet. There is, however, a long way to go, and I am resigned to arriving in Seattle whenever we finally make it. A reasonable evening arrival looks less and less likely.

My new seat is in an older coach, but this means the leg rest adjusts more and I have more room to spread out. In front of me is a young Hispanic couple who have found themselves talking in a mixture of Spanish and English to an older woman who is traveling on her own. They talk about universities, a subject on which the older woman seems to have a great deal to say...

"There is a very very good university in Waco, Texas. Is a Christian University. You can student anything you like there. Good Christian University. Good city too. There is many dollar stores. Dollar stores good for many many things. You don't want to go to Davis. Don't go there. Stick with your own people. Stick with own people. They will see you have no money and they will treat you like a dog there. Don't go there."

Her advice is taken, but I suspect it falls on deaf ears. We continue through the mountains, slowing to a crawl whenever we pass a stationary freight train.

Train 14: Smoke Stop

Train 14: The Coast Starlight

It's Saturday evening in Emeryville, just across the bay from San Francisco. The travelogue has taken a pause since I arrived here, as it hasn't exactly been train based, and I've been catching up with a very dear friend who I don't the chance to spend much time with normally. So you'll have to forgive me for the brief interuption. The journey recommences here. I'll bring you some photographs when I upload them next (probably Wednesday or Thursday, when I'll tell you about the next stage of my trip).

We're at Emeryville station with plenty of time for the 22.12 departure of Amtrak's northbound Coast Starlight. This train will be carrying me all the way to it's terminus - Seattle, in the state of Washington. So far today we've driven more than three hundred miles from Santa Barbara, where we spent a night. And before you post any sarcastic comments, yes, I do know that this very train could have taken me from Santa Barbara. But, like I said, I wanted to spend as much time as possible with Junia, and it also gave us the chance to have a little road trip in the process.

The train is more or less on schedule, and soon we can hear it approaching in the darkness. When it's bright headlights come into view and the clanging of the bell announces it's arrival on the station threshold, Junia gets all excited for me ("Oooo.... I wanna go on a train too..."). I tried persuading her, but tomorrow she's getting on a 747 and heading to the UK for a two week holiday. You can't have it all.

The train pulls in with a roar. There are two locomotives, a baggage car, a transition sleeper, three 'first class' Superliner sleepers, a Superlinerrestaurant, a sightseer lounge and cafe, and three Superliner coaches. There should also be a 'parlour' car for the sleeper passengers (with a lounge, a library, big screen films and wine tasting). However, since I'm at the back in good old coach, that's no problem for me.

I say farewell to Junia (see you in another fifteen months?) and head to the last car, where passengers north of California are directed. The female coach attendant does something that I've not seen before, and actually assigns us a numbered seat when we board. Perhaps this only happens on Californian long distance services, and to be honest I'm a little peeved. I've been given one of the few seats on the car I would deliberately avoid. It's upstairs, right at the front of the coach. So not only is there a foot rest for my long lanky legs, I'm also about to spend the night at right by the door to the next carraige. These have a habit of sliding shut silently but opening with a god almighty crash. The seats are also directly above the wheels of the coach (yep, I admit I'm turning into an Amtrak geek) and they turn out to be some of the bounciest in the whole train. When we have started moving and the coach attendant comes by to take our tickets, several passengers ask if we can move (we have all been grouped together at one end of the empty carraige). Apparently another sixty passengers will be joining us in a few hours in Sacramento, so there's nothing doing until we get there.

Luckily for me, the gentleman sat next to me soon finds somewhere else to sleep (it turns out he curled up in the cafe area under the sightseer lounge) and I have two seats to myself. I do my best to curl up, but the leg rest doesn't adjust much and it's not particularly comfortable. The ear plugs do a bit to soften the crash of the door, so I resign myself to a long night and try to sleep.

I wake up at Sacramento and look out of the window. We're scheduled to leave here at 23.59, but it's already nearing 00.30 and nothing's happening. The coach has filled up, and more or less every seat is taken. I watch a fuel truck refuel some adjacent locomotives. It finishes up and pulls away. Still nothing happens. We start movint after 01.00. I count myself lucky for only one hour's delay at this point, and eventually sink into deep sleep.

San Francisco to Seattle

Junia and James

From Friday 28 - Saturday 29 April, James and his long lost tea drinking, beer swilling, Fromm quoting friend Junia traveled by car from San Francisco to Santa Barbara to visit another long lost friend whose name begins with J. I won't be writing about this diversion here, but normal service resumes with my next train, tonight!