My daughter, Shelby, and I arrived in Seattle yesterday just before dark on Amtrak’s Train 14, the Coast Starlight. Seattle and the surrounding area are the last stop on this exploration. We began the train portion of our journey a week ago in Los Angeles, after having arrived there by air then driving around the area for a couple of days. My son and I had been on a train trip two years ago and my daughter had been waiting for her own adventure.
Traveling by train is not for the impatient as they are frequently
late and it generally takes longer than driving the same distance.
After a stressful morning of driving in the rain in Los Angeles with a GPS who clearly thought I wanted to go to Alameda Avenue in San Diego, not Los Angeles, we had to hustle down the corridor to get to the train on time. Note that trains DO NOT wait for late passengers. As we sat in our seats trying to recover from the rush, an announcement came that there had been a train/big rig collision up the way followed by a fire, and the train would be sitting in place indefinitely. After leaving a half hour late, it took us another nine and a half hours to get to Emeryville, across the bay from San Francisco, a trip that would have taken 6 hours by car.
For the first few hours of the trip, Shelby kept asking why it was
taking so long. Finally, the train began to skirt the coast and I
think she began to understand why the slower pace could actually be
desirable. As we approached Santa Barbara, the people on the beach
were all turning and waving at the train as it passed. North of Santa
Barbara, the coast became wild. The train tracks run along a cliff
high above the beach through an area that shows no signs of humanity other than the tracks. The low-growing vegetation was every color in the rainbow, making the ground look like an impressionist painting.
The Pacific was deep blue and purple with the clear sky above, then changed colors as the sky became more cloudy. As we went along, the coast became more rocky and the waves became larger, curling over and crashing into the rocks. I saw whales surfacing and blowing, Merriam’s turkeys walking along, and brown pelicans diving after fish. Later, as we went inland, we saw miles of strawberries, artichokes, garlic, and every kind of leafy green vegetable being grown and harvested.
Following that were hills covered with golden grass, twisted oaks, and grazing animals. By the time we reached civilization again near
Oakland, California, it was dark.
After spending a couple of days in San Francisco, we went back across
the bay to board the Number 14 train again. Since this leg of the
journey began at 10:20 at night and was twenty hours long, I had
booked space on the sleeper car and we were able to go straight to bed as soon as we boarded. At 5:45 the next morning, I woke up and noticed it was getting light outside. I pulled back the curtain and found we were in a mountain range riding alongside a whitewater river. An hour later, we passed Mt. Shasta, totally covered in snow and disappearing into the clouds. This mountain is a bit different from the mountains I have seen in Colorado and Wyoming as it is, by far, the biggest mountain around. It is more than 10,000 feet higher than anything else around it. Beyond that we entered a valley with snow-covered mountains on both sides and a lake in between. My short night caught up with me
and I fell asleep, as did Shelby. Some time later she woke me up by
saying, "Mom, the ground is covered with snow!" Now we were high up on the side of a mountain range, looking straight down into the gorges whenever there were gaps in the trees.
From there we worked our way back toward the coast and went through Eugene and Portland, Oregon, then on toward Seattle. Most of our last couple of hours on Number 14 were spent riding along the edge of Puget Sound. As expected, the skies were grey with clouds and fog, but it was beautiful in its own way.
Riding a train may be slower, but it is well worth it. Train tracks
run through places otherwise inaccessible, and since the engineer is doing the driving, the passengers are free to watch the scenery. There are many, many other advantages, and some challenges, but those are for future installments of this column.