travelog 120

Coast Starlight: 38 Hours on the Train

Have you ever heard about "Slow Food"? Or all the other "Slow" movements out there like "Slow Art, Slow Church, Slow Education, Slow Fashion, Slow Gardening, Slow Money, Slow Parenting, Slow Photography, Slow Science, Slow Technology"? Or "Slow Travel"? Apparently it wasn't us who had discovered travelling slow on our last Unimog trip with an average speed of 50 mph from Guadalajara, Mexico, to Vancouver, British Columbia, but there are books and websites dedicated to this topic, and even travel agencies offering "Slow Travel". Talking about it we should not forget to mention "Slow TV", a Norwegian invention from 2009 when they broadcasted the entire seven hours and sixteen minutes long train ride from Bergen to Oslo live from cameras mounted on the train. We have obviously not invented something new here but with our 38 hours on the train from Vancouver, B.C., to San Luis Obispo, California, we beat the Norwegians easily! Although we have to admit that after about 10 hours we had enough of slow travelling and train riding in particular... By the way, "Bergensbanen: Minutt for minutt" was a huge success with over 1.2 million viewers in a country of about 5 million, with 172'000 watching the entire trip from start to finish.

Our trip started on the phone. The nice lady of Amtrak needed to record our personal data because we were crossing the American border. After an eternity on the phone and a few good laughs on both sides (i.e. the ticket for the senior person) it was done. We paid $209 for the 2094 kilometers (1301 miles). $96 for the senior Martin (62 and older gets a discount) and $113 for an adult person. For the "Superliner Bedroom" we would have had to shell out a measly $693, so we preferred the low price and the comfortable seats. As we were booking so late we had to personally pick up the tickets at the station, e-tickets were unknown here. Karen and Leigh, our hosts in Vancouver, insisted on taking us to the train station in the morning. We got up at 4AM, drank coffee standing, filled the thermos cups with more coffee, and drove to Pacific Central Station in the heart of Vancouver. From there we took the bus to Seattle. A whole 10 more travellers boarded the bus which could have transported 50 people. At the American border we had to get our luggage from the bus, schlepp it into a building, pass the customs officials who were still a little lethargic at this time of day, get out on the other side to stow the luggage back in the belly of the bus. In the Seattle metropolitan area we got into the morning commuter traffic but our bus was allowed to use the special car pool lane for vehicles with two or more passengers. King Street Station was also located in the heart of the city, as all of the other train stations on the trip. We had to stand in a long line and wait to get our seats assigned. These seats were extremely comfortable, wide and adjustable, and even had a foot rest. Also we enjoyed huge panorama windows. Of course there was a folding table as on a plane and even an electrical outlet. Only WiFi Internet was reserved for passengers who paid a lot of money for a real bed.

At 9:35AM sharp the train started moving. In the Sightseer Lounge Car with its huge panorama windows, rotating chairs and tables, two National Park Rangers accompanied our trip explaining the sights along the train ride south to interested passengers. First it was the snow-covered Mt. Rainier and then the ride along beautiful Puget Sound with the snow-covered Olympic Mountains on the horizon. Then the train followed the Columbia River and later the Williamette River to Portland, Oregon, where we caught a glimpse of Mount Hood and the Cascade Mountains. Already between Seattle and Portland our train was stopped several times resulting in delays. It was either problems with rail work or an oncoming train that had to pass ours, in any case that's how we got to be more or less two hours late in the first 100 miles of the trip. But time after time a voice over the loudspeakers assured us that this was all quite normal and that the train would make up for the lost time later on. Portland was a long stop. The loudspeaker voice informed the passengers that this would be a good opportunity for the smokers on the train to de-board and light a cigarette. They just needed to be at least 20 feet away from the train. We had our lunch and dinner with us and only bought two overpriced beers in the Cafe Car.

From the backpack we had fresh bread, Canadian cheese, crunchy sugar snap peas, grapes, and strawberries. It had been wise not to bring our own bottle of wine because it was strictly prohibited to bring your own bottles of alcohol on the train and you could be thrown off the train for violation of this rule. The route ran south through Oregon to Eugene. Then we climbed southeast into the Cascade Mountains over the Williamette Pass and to Chemult (300 inhabitants) and on to Klamath Falls which was halfway on our trip. In the Amtrak brochure the route through the Cascade Mountains was described as spectacular mountain scenery where the train was also passing through 22 tunnels. As we arrived in Eugene with more than two hours of delay it was already getting dark when we started climbing into the Cascade Mountains and soon we were unable to determine if the train was going through one of the 22 tunnels or if it was just riding through the dark forest into the night and of course we didn't see any of that spectacular mountain scenery.

The stations where the train stopped for a longer time were not only longed-for pauses for the smokers. We too stepped outside to stretch our legs and catch some fresh air. We also could indulge in one of our hobbies: people watching. The most comical people were riding this train. There was the obese computer nerd who announced his newest discoveries with a loud voice and informed his spontaneous train acquaintances of technical innovations in the computer game world but gave his counterpart barely a chance to contribute something to the discussion. Then there was the wiry smoker who informed everybody willing to listen that he did not drink except for the two beers he got at the Cafe Car to calm him down - and later took a small bottle with a clear liquid out of his backpack every 15 minutes to take a sip and even offered some to his neighbor, probably to corrupt him. He also always held an unlighted cigarette in his hand that he was yearningly drawing on. Or the one we baptized "The Hobbit" because he looked like Bilbo Baggins, round and little and with a full beard who would have perfectly fit into the movie 'Lord of the Rings'. Or the extended Mennonite family with their funny looking hairstyle and the clothes that just did not go with the rest of the train. Or the 16-year old girls with skin tight jeans who were constantly texting or otherwise playing with their phones. Not to forget the multiple-times-overweight black guy who was out of breath and panting just climbing the few stairs to the upper level. It was amazing that he even fit through the stairway and that he was able to squeeze into his seat. Of course there were plenty more characters that were worth seeing which made the long trip a little bit more interesting.

At 10PM the lights were turned off. Now everybody tried to make him/herself as comfortable as possible in the seats. For us it was working for a while but as wide and adjustable the seats were, they were definitely not made to sleep in comfortably for several hours. Fortunately one could sit in the Cafe Car with the laptop and read or work undisturbed. Or read a book the old fashioned way in the seat with the overhead light on. When it was finally getting light we were already in California and the train rode through yellow rolling hills and past green rice fields. Riding into and out of towns we now noticed the many homeless people who had set up their temporary sleeping places along the tracks and lived out of boxes and shopping carts. Soon we approached the San Francisco Bay area. The stop in Oakland was another one for the smokers. When we asked the conductor if we could venture into the station building to look for good coffee and a sweet roll she just said that we would only be stopping for a very short time to catch up lost time. She said that exact same thing at about every station where the smokers got out and every time the stop was longer than 30 minutes and we would have had enough time. But of course we didn't want to risk to be stranded at a train station somewhere in California. Besides, most stations had only a ticket window and nothing else, not even a soda vending machine. Now we went from San Jose to Gilroy, the garlic capitol of the world. Then came the Santa Cruz Mountains and Castroville, the artichoke capitol of the world. Besides garlic and artichoke much more is grown in this area, i.e. mushrooms, strawberries, lettuce and more.

At last we were getting closer to Paso Robles. We waved hello from the train to our friends Blair & Kristin's former "crack house" where we had spent hours and hours painting and doing other renovation work in the summer of 2002 (see our travelog 51). Between Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo the train crossed the Cuesta Grade. There it descended 1000 feet in 11 miles with some curves and a few tunnels, a fact that was showed off in the Amtrak brochure. The train was incredibly slow and somehow we could not quite understand why Amtrak was so proud of the Cuesta Grade, especially not when you once have taken the train through the Gotthard in Switzerland where more altitude difference has to be mastered and there are a multitude of tunnels and bridges. Concerning the railway the US more or less still lives in the Stone Age.

We had originally bought our tickets only to Paso Robles but our firefighter friend Blair had been sent to wild fires in the San Diego area, so he organized accommodation with his parents Sandy and Val in San Luis Obispo. The conductor was very nice and said we should not be worried about the additional costs and just stay seated to San Luis Obispo, after all the train was late enough and this would compensate us a little bit for it. Sandy and Val picked us up at the train station and for the next days we stayed at their beach house in Avila Beach with a beautiful view of the Pacific ocean and the roaring of the waves while going to sleep and waking up. But we will write about our San Luis Obispo activities in another travelog.

May 2014

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen