Friday, July 4, 2008

Coast Starlight / Cascades

In my last post discussing the more existential elements of my trip, I neglected to discuss the more concrete elements of my travel. The Coast Starlight was supposed to be 34 hours, and ran about 2 hours late. The biggest difference from the Southwest Chief was that the Coast Starlight did not have electrical outlets at every seat (the same is true with the Cascade, which seems to be a similar train model). This restricted my activities somewhat, as I was unable to charge my electronic devices, so I had to ration power. There were outlets scattered throughout the train, but I they were inconveniently located and often in use.

As a result, I finished A Wrinkle in Time, which I had picked up at my parents house and started reading. I also read Ella Minnow Pea, a really creative novel I’d heard reviewed a while ago (I don’t remember when), and finally got around to reading. It’s set on a fictional island off the east coast of the United States, where the founder is venerated for his creation of the pangram “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” But when the tiles that make up the pangram begin to fall, letters become outlawed, and a struggle begins to save the language and the island the characters so love. The story is told in a series of letters, which must abide by the restrictions of the disappearing letters. As language becomes more strained, the one of the word-loving characters becomes more desperate. It’s a worthy read about tyranny and the power of language to combat it.

My seatmate for the entire trip was a high school teacher from a small southern California city named Jim. He was going to Seattle to take an Alaskan cruise. Jim was friendly, and we got along well, but what surprised me was that he had no books, no music, no diversions at all. Perhaps it has to do with him being from another generation, but he spent the whole 36 hours, most of it in his seat, looking out the window or sleeping. His patience impressed me a great deal, and I wish I wasn’t so wired to need constant stimulation.

The view out the windows was beautiful. There was a lot of agriculture in California, but also a lot of beautiful mountain vistas, a few of which were on fire. I’m not kidding, we passed no less than three wildfires, which put out huge columns of smoke that blanked the sky. The reason the trip takes so long despite being a much shorter distance (I think) than the chief is that there is a great deal of curving to get around the geography. There was one mountain, identifiable by the fact it was on fire, that we seemed to circle all the way around, presumably because crossing over on through it was not, to the railroad’s planners, worth the effort. Waking up on the second day, I saw the day breaking on some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever witnessed. In the pre-dawn glow, huge mountains covered in thick forests stretched all around us, towering above and plunging down below. As the light grew, the scenes became no less spectacular. It was around the California-Oregon border (our last California station was at 1:00 a.m., and our first Oregon stop was at 7:00). The California coast (which was much earlier in the trip) was also quite a sight to behold, and at one point we passed a nature preserve and saw sea lions lounging in the shallows. But for me, the Puget Sound was the superior body of water, not as vast as the ocean, but hauntingly serene. The scenery so far on the Cascade has been typical of the Pacific North West, which is to say, glorious.

On the Coast Starlight I got even less sleep than on the Chief due to the fact that a person nearby was snoring like a buzz saw. Seriously, I’ve slept alongside snorers before, loud ones, and I can sleep through almost anything (including, my family will tell you, storms that shake the house), but I’ve never heard sounds like these made by anything that wasn’t mechanical and high-powered. I also had an aisle, making it that much harder to find a comfortable position. The experience convinced me to spring for a sleeper on the Empire Builder (from Seattle to Minneapolis, though it goes on to Chicago).

The passengers on the Starlight were a bit more interesting than on the Chief. There was a pair of Buddhist monks in full orange robes. There was a couple who appeared to be Mennonite or some other traditionally dressing, technology spurning sect (though I guess since trains have been around a long time, they’re okay). There was also a very goth looking couple. Each pair stood out brilliantly against the backdrop of a wash of “average” Americans. Which is not to say that those riding the Chief and the Starlight weren’t racially and socioeconomically diverse. Rather, that diversity has become, beautifully non-noteworthy. When a the children from a white family and the children from a black family were playing together in the aisles of the car in front of me, no one, myself included, seemed to take any note of it other than, look out, kids coming through (or perhaps, damn kids, make noise on the train…grumble, grumble). I think it may have been these pairs, each standing out from the crowd, yet each with someone to share the experience with, that brought on my bout of loneliness expressed in the last post. There is a kind of closeness in joint isolation, where you and the person you are with are brought that much closer by having no one else to take a share of your attention, perhaps a reason for travel I neglected.

I just went to the food car in the Cascade, and it is outrageously good. There are gourmet-sounding food items like spinach quiche and foccacia margarita pizza, and more importantly, a selection of 3 PNW microbrews, including two of my favorite beers, the Pyramid IPA and the Windemere Hefeweizer. The closest thing to a microbrew on the Chief or the Starlight was Heineken, a far, far cry from what’s being offered here. Since it’s a morning train, there will be no beer consumption, but it’s a promising sign that there is at least a potential for quality in Amtrak food, even if it is for the time only regional. Even if I don’t get to try any of the food, it’s one step towards my dream of sitting on a train to Boston eating curried quinoa with roasted vegetables and toasted almonds while discussing politics with a businessman enjoying a t-bone steak. (I’m eating the quinoa for health reasons; I would have rather had the sustainable Pacific Cod/Yukon gold potato fish and chips. The quinoa is very good though, and goes great with the 2009 Red Diamond Cabernet Sauvignon I’m drinking. Also, McCoy, the businessman, chokes on his steak after claiming Reagan helped curb the budget deficit and has to be given the Heimlich maneuver by the RN from Worchester sitting behind him. She went into medicine after her son’s life was saved because under Massachusetts’s universal health insurance system, her son’s life was saved when a melanoma was caught early.)

Heading to Vancouver now, I feel better about the trip. Seattle was nice, and though I was only there a few hours (less than 1/3 the time I was on the Coast Starlight), it seems like a nice city and somewhere I would like to visit. I missed dinner on the train, and walking to the hotel, I passed a place called Mideast Mix (or something like that). It was one of those places you can just tell is good (how else could an unstylish ethnic restaurant survive and be open past ten in an uber-hip neighborhood like Pioneer Square. After checking in and getting settled, I returned to the eatery, not three short blocks away, and discovered the secret of its success. In addition to selling really good falafel and (disturbingly) cigarettes, his menu included gyros, cheese-burgers, and something called a cream cheese [hot] dog. They were open late to cater to the hungry and intoxicated, who the man behind the counter treated with shocking rudeness (possibly due to the fact that they were obnoxious and drunk; he was perfectly polite to me). The food was, as predicted, delicious and the service was fast (if not, as stated before, always friendly).

This far north, Shabbat does not begin until 9:00, so I may blog again this afternoon. If not, I’ll try to do so on Sunday. Shabbat Shalom to all.

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