I boarded my first Amtrak at 10:10a PT Friday in Los Angeles, but my trip didn’t really begin until a couple hours later when I surmised the observation car, three coaches ahead, was the place to be. Now that I’ve spent 36 hours on board the Coast Starlight Train #14, I’ve learned about 36 not-so-secret tips I wish I’d known Friday morning before climbing onto the train.
Having experienced a long ride, such as this, I’ll only take planes and automobiles in the name of haste from this day forward. It was a steam horse of an entirely different color and the price wasn’t bad either. If I’d had money to burn, I’d have sprung for the $700 sleeper car, but sleeping in the coach seats had me out for eight hours, so I’m not complaining.
The only discount for sleeping in coach was sharing a super-wide seat with a sorta super-wide gentleman who snored. The man behind me growled and rustled his snack sack often, but hey, they’re just people like me.
Without my CPAP on high, I likely snore, too. I know I hogged one outlet for my three or four electronic devices, but I offered up my USB ports and the other outlet when I saw SW-guy looking that way longingly.
What I wish I’d known earlier — much, much earlier —was the observation car is first-come, first-serve, with limited seating. But, sitting with others is more than half the beauty of the trip. I chose the only empty easy chair on the car first, but as soon as I spied a young man vacating his table seat across from a couple, I made my move.
Introductions weren’t necessary as they moved to their sleeper car shortly and another chair-dweller joined me at “my” table.
Randy from San Francisco is an architect and appreciated my “i miss barack” sweatshirt. I only tangentially planned my wardrobe around the navy blue, long-sleeve, nearly two-long-years-old shirt. It seems much older for some reason.
The shirt’s loose and warm, it matches my jeans, if not my eyes, and it allowed for easy layering, since the weather changed dramatically between sunny Southern California, the snowy Oregon forest and rainy Seattle.
Back at my table, we didn’t even ask one another’s name until dinner reservations required us to do so. I was fasting, as I’ve been researching the mental and physical health benefits of an occasional 24-hour fast. I’d decided a day-long ride along the rails was the place to try it.
Earlier, Randy pulled a sandwich from his briefcase and offered to share, but I heroically held my ground until 6:10 p.m. Between not-so-secretly following the scent of a lousy microwave pizza and salivating over the kid across the aisle’s cookie, we were joined by two other gentlemen at our table.
I feel comfortable calling them gentlemen, instead of the journalist’s requisite “men” only, because during the next three hours, we also became better acquainted and they acted exactly like real gentlemen. And, the discussion didn’t center entirely, or barely at all, on the sentiments expressed on my chest.
My two other traveling companions were both teachers, but I was never sure of the younger man’s credentials. Twice he referred to “my students,” so I’m surmising they were elementary kids due to the teacher’s young age. The older man, white-haired and pony-tailed, taught junior high, high school, home school and college sciences. Randy also taught at a community college, so I was beginning to feel inadequate. All three men were cyclists.
As the California coastline flew by, or we flew by it, the three kept me apprised of the history and geography of the scenery we were enjoying. From a barn built atop the ruins of a minor mission that now houses Disney busses to the King’s Highway the train follows, my reporter’s notebook was getting crowded.
Did you know there are crowded RV parks literally between the highway and the ocean’s edge? A few Airstreams slotted in along the hundreds of fiberglass camper trailers and thousands of swimmers, surfers and explorers. The weather outside was nearly 40 degrees at the height of the day, but a few crazy folks were braving the water in wetsuits. One toddler simply wore her birthday suit.
As the daylight faded, the distant mountains smudged the horizon and the view became more pedestrian, if that’s possible at 80 mph. I must admit there were the usual gas stations, motels and lumberyards — lots more lumberyards, as we moved north. The older teacher at our table started talking about property values and we compared his 40 acres of beachfront woodland to our many more acres of dryland wheat. He won that pissing contest
It was fun to watch Randy trail the dining car supervisor to the back of the train, trying to get a good dinner reservation. He came back with a table set up for two hours later and the other two men moved on. I became absorbed in the New York Times Magazine left behind and Randy got to work drafting an A-frame on his laptop.
Silence had reigned ever since the four-year-old retired to his coach or disembarked. The info tech businessman directly opposite our table had been entertaining the little one and some cousins from the other tables with funny noises — a mouth trumpet, he told them he’d swallowed for breakfast. But when Tommy’s little Scooby Doo Mystery Van started riding up the man’s rib cage and the boy’s R2D2 sippy cup came dangerously close to his iPad, it was Ruh-Roh and Tommy was shunted back to momma.
As we left each small town along the way, we struggled to keep up with the headlights on the parallel Pacific Highway. But, in the open stretches between cities, they were eating our steel sparks, as the engineer opened the throttle to 75 and 80. Pink neon signs were indistinguishable from the rail-bed and Christmas lights became a blur.
After a disappointing dinner, I returned to my seat around 10 p.m., determined to make the best of what I assumed would be a very long night. However, once I’d retired my cell phone, burrowed beneath my sweater-cape, raised my feet and reclined my back, I remember nothing until 6:37 a.m.
Pink tinged the sky as I struggled to right myself. The world outside had transformed overnight, as well. Huge copses of evergreens crowded the rocky slopes and low-hanging clouds drifted close to small mountaintops. An occasional triplet of birches was loaded with snow, too and occasionally acres of blue lake peeked from behind the forests.
I rushed to the end of the train, in a gait resembling a drunken sailor, just as we approached a third horseshoe curve followed by a narrow tunnel.
Click. Click. Photographic proof of the light at the end of the tunnel and the darkness surrounding it.
The rocky ridges on my side of the train contrasted brightly with the trees and snow on the coach’s other side before and after the tunnel’s blackness. Icy streams cut swathes in the snow and one field was decorated with circles and Mobius shapes from the snowmobiles that must’ve played there the day before.
Herds of six to 12 fuel tanks were gathered, snowbound near switch lights and occupied cabin areas. Like fat sausages, they nestled beneath the snow cover, powering our new neighbors and lighting our way in “dawn’s early light.”
I was determined the second day to be more diligent about recording sights, sounds and, hopefully, more tastes for my readers, but equally as determined not to repeat the dining car experience. The lower level café was missing its credit card reader and a microwaved bean burrito is not my thing, so I ordered a grilled chicken BLT wrap delivered to my seat. It was delicious and lasted me for two meals with a chocolate chip cookie still squashed somewhere near the bottom of my tote bag.
After a morning oohing and ah-ing over the breathtaking scenery which seemed to change, literally as we crossed the line from Northern California into Oregon, I returned to the observation car for more good reading material, observations and conversations. The latter was not to be Saturday, so I enjoyed some sunshine and a weak signal from someone’s open Wi-Fi connection in the business class.
It gets dark much earlier in northern Oregon and Washington state, so napping became the order of the day until we reached Tacoma. With Seattle in my sights, I began coordinating my bags and plotting my next trip on Uber from King’s Station to a downtown Hilton.
But, before I log off for the night from my superlative Amtrak Adventure, I must relate one more story that may have more to do with the strange surroundings and my drifting in an out of sleep. Earlier in the evening, a statuesque African-American woman strolled through our coach several times on her way to God-knows-where. We were the last train on the car, after all, and she didn’t appear to be traveling coach, I don’t think.
She was dressed all in black Spandex from her boo-tay to her ankles with a broad band of shiny ebony skin peeking out between the top and bottom. Her silky stick-straight hair and striking make up gave her the appearance of a Victoria Secret model. That must have stayed in my mind after her third sashay past my ever-diminishing confidence.
As midnight neared, I saw her one more time. This trip, I could swear she was wearing lingerie, including thong panties! OMG, maybe it was a bad piece of fish and I was hallucinating.
But, the next day she was back on the runway, only with short hair, the spandex top now paired with a skirt of swirling black nylon, whooshing as she walked.
I was careful not to strain my eyes when she returned and simply drifted back to my much quieter, G-rated dreams of beachfront properties, Airstream vacations and brisk communications between four consenting adults.