Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sacramento to Portland on the Coast Starlight

As if the mystery and excitement of starting this trip wasn't enough in itself, my train was scheduled to depart from Sacramento at 11:59 pm to Portland. This ticket cost a very affordable $80 with my NARP discount.* Amtrak's ticketing system is rather anachronistic but I (and by "I" I obviously mean my father) somehow managed to box and check in my bicycle** and get to the proper platform to wait, peering through the darkness on tiptoe ready to catch the first glimpse of the train as it came round the bend. I was chatting with a sweet older couple about their experiences with long-distance train travel (I was appalled to hear that they preferred Greyhound to Amtrak) when there was a dramatic collective gasp as the bright headlights of the train appeared preceding its arrival. I helped them with their luggage and settled into my coach seat next to a middle-aged Frenchman. How did I know he was French? I said, "Hello, good evening" and he responded "I am sorry- I am French and therefore cannot understand you." I would have accepted this rather eloquent response were it not for the English copy of Cormac McCarthy's The Road that he had on his lap, but that is beside the point. I settled in to try to go to sleep.

I don't want to dwell on this too much, but I just need to say now that letting people fool themselves into thinking they can get anything approaching even a restful catnap while sitting constrained to an upright position should be an offense punishable in a court of law. With that said, the moment it was light enough to see my own hand and the café opened, I leapt over my French neighbor and raced to the observation lounge to sip coffee, gnaw on homemade hardtack***, and watch the sun rise over the fields and low mountains of the California-Oregon border.

The first stop of the morning was Klamath Falls, Oregon. The area was first settled (read: colonized) in the 1860s, and there is a museum in an old pioneer fort just north of the small town. The scenic volcano caldera Crater Lake, once believed by native tribes to be so sacred that it was forbidden to speak of or look directly at it, is also nearby. Another town of interest in the vicinity is Shaniko. A perfect example of the all powerful hand of the railroad at the beginning of the 20th century, Shaniko became a booming center of textile shipping when it was made the terminal point of the Southern Pacific Railroad. When that station was closed, the town essentially went into a state of cryogenic suspension and hasn't changed since.

I spent almost the entire day in the lounge car admiring the views, overhearing odd conversations, documenting various demographic breakdowns of train passengers, and chatting with other tourists and train staff. I don't know what it is about putting loads of strangers in a long glass box and sending them off into the wilderness together, but everyone was talking like we had known each other for ages. I witnessed teenage girls telling middle-aged women long sagas about disappointing boyfriends, strangers asking each other their opinions on Steig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo**** and very chummy relationships between staff and riders. My favorite involved one of my seatmates requesting to flick the conductor's hat, him silently shrugging his shoulders, and her running up, flicking it, then shrieking with delight as he asked the rest of the car if she'd been drinking.

The route through the Cascades and the Willamette Valley was so breathtaking that my trite descriptions could never do it justice. The mountains and forests were at times partly shrouded in mist, and at others seemed to glow. The conductor announced lakes, canyons, and waterfalls to us in the observation car, and we were so thrilled over the views that when we unwittingly missed one particularly scenic waterfall a few over zealous photographers nearly demanded that we turn the train around. Our voracious appetite for the natural scenery made me think we are a bit starved for it in our daily lives.

After a few more hours of idyllic dairy farms and vineyards, I was in Portland's Union Station, five minutes ahead of schedule. I hopped on my shoddily reassembled bike and headed towards the Portland Hawthorne Hostel.


*You do have to book three days in advance for the cheaper rate, calling for an amount of foresight that I generally lack.
** This service costs $5 plus $15 if you need to buy a bike box. Well worth it if your bike is as awesome as mine is.
*** Lisa's Victorian Hardtack Recipe: Mix a goodly amount of rolled oats, a sprinkling of baking powder and salt, and whatever other grains and flours you have on hand with not-too-much olive oil, rendered bacon fat, organic coconut oil, or other fatty substance. Add a dash of agave or sugar if you see fit. Mash it about with enough water to make a paste, shape it into small, flat cracker shapes, poke holes in them, and bake them at a low heat until they are rock hard and golden brown. Wrap them in parchment and you are ready to travel without fear of starvation for the next year or so. If you should use them much longer that that, do watch for weevils and the like.
**** I counted five copies being actively read in the lounge.

If you know how to do footnotes in a better way, please tell me.


  1. So you are underway! How cool!

    I am reminded of riding the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle myself in 1983. I never even bothered to get a seat in the coach. I spent 90% of my ride in the lounge car doing much the same you described here - chatting, laughing, and sharing the gorgeous scenery of the route together. I met a Southern Pacific Railroad Trainmaster's daughter in the lounge car at the Oakland stop and enjoyed each other's company all of the way until she left the train at Klamath Falls.

    I can totally relate to the predominately uncomfortable seating in the coaches. Have you researched how old the Amtrak fleet is? It is sad but speaks to your opening comments about the fall from grace that rail travel has endured in America. If I were travel by Amtrak these days, I would get a roomette at the very least.

    Being a tech-head, I am curious about how you are recording your journey and what technologies you have with you. Are you equipped with wireless internet access or do you have to wait to get to a stop before you will be posting? Also, are you taking photos along the way?

    Until next time...


  2. Joe! Thank you so much for your comments and questions! I haven't researched the age of the fleet but from the decor I am guessing 80's, early 90's at best, yes? My frugality is getting the best of me on the Starlight but on the trip from Sacramento to D.C. my dad and I will be traveling in style in a full room accommodation, which I think will be all the more exciting after surviving overnight coach seating. As of right now I have no technology to speak of, not even a laptop, but I am looking to enter the 21st century soon!

  3. coach seating by day...crashing out on the floor of the lounge car by night...that's how this tramp rolled.

  4. Hey, it was cool to meet you at the Hawthorne Hostel! I'll definitely be following this blog!

    As for sleeping in coach on Amtrak, I've done it innumerable times over the past decade. While the seats aren't that exciting, they are positively huge by European standards (as told to me by my friend Isy from the UK). It's not the easiest thing to be done, but the key for me is to always wait until I'm tired enough (and a drink or two doesn't hurt.) Earplugs or a music playing device are also a must.

    The Starlight is probably the hardest train to sleep on in coach, due to it always being full and the constant comings/goings overnight. But I've had better luck sleeping on my favorite long-distance train, the Empire Builder.

    It would be nice to be able to sleep in a sleeping car for every overnight train trip, but the cost is too prohibitive for me now, so coach I go!

    By the way, have you signed up for Amtrak Guest Rewards? Oh, the Superliner fleet for Amtrak started operation in 1979, not all cars are that old (and most have been refurbished since then), but the design is very 70's.