Views from the Train: My US Train Trip by Jo Alex
Riding the Amtrak Coast Starlight, California Zephyr, and Empire Builder
Chapter 1: Leaving Seattle on the Coast Starlight
I always wanted to take an extended train trip. Although my longest time traveling on a train had been only one night and two days at a time, I found riding on the train to be a magical experience. My two one-night trips had been overseas, and it was exciting to see new faces, have conversations with total strangers about where they were coming from and going to, and just to relax with coffee or tea or other beverage of my choice. Of course, a good meal on the train is nice too. And it just feels good when the train lulls you to sleep in its own way – the tracks beneath the floor rolling away hurriedly, the rocking back and forth, the comforting sound of horns blowing softly and rhythmically – knowing I don’t have to be in charge for a while.
This year I decided to pursue my long awaited dream. I was particularly interested in the Amtrak California Zephyr because I had heard how captivating this train route is. So I went for it and booked my long train trip. Luckily, the price was right during the time I had to go on vacation. I have traveled alone before, and while it has its advantages, I simply prefer to travel with someone I know. Especially for long train trips, I suggest taking someone who likes to travel, who is somewhat sociable, and who you have traveled with before.
I asked one of my good friends to take the expedition with me and he agreed: we would split the costs down the middle. After a brief discussion we chose Chicago as our destination city, and I excitedly purchased our tickets from Seattle, taking different routes there and back.
As we left Seattle and rode through Washington State, I realized why I fell in love with this place when I first visited. Luscious trees that change to mystical-looking forests – such stillness evokes both mystery and beauty, and that mountain air leaves me with a renewed sense of energy. Then there was the constant drizzle the first couple of years; I found it to be playful and it made me chuckle for no reason when it dropped on my face. These days, I occasionally get down when I see that drizzle against gray-shaded backgrounds all around me, and then all it does is make me run to the coffee and latte houses. Before the night got darker, I settled for some old brewed coffee – my cup of sunshine.
On our journey through Washington, we passed large bodies of blue water that looked like large rivers or lonely lakes, fed by inviting streams and small creeks.
I was mesmerized by the autumn colors, the trees showing off their various shades of yellow and red, the leaves falling into orange-brown piles that had been there for weeks – a sight that seems a little sad. Next to those were the evergreen trees, so resilient; something I have to work hard at.
We got pretty comfortable in our room on the Coast Starlight, our train from Seattle to Sacramento. Our roomette was a tiny, tiny room, but it is funny how quickly you forget the size of the room and adapt because you are excited about the big trip ahead. We soon got acquainted with our neighbor, who happened to be the train attendant. We were happy to have enough legroom, and the blue seats during the day were comfortable for two. The seats were made into bunk beds at night, which was cozy. My friend expressed how much he enjoyed sitting in the Coast Starlight’s parlor car, or as it was known by us, the royal purple lounge.
The windows of the parlor car were elegantly draped by old purple curtains, nicely tucked away for us to view through the clear windows. Purple chairs were arranged at a comfortable distance from one another. This lounge had a classy and relaxing ambience and was a worthwhile place to hang out by yourself, with a friend, or with a book. My friend brought his computer to the royal purple lounge since he was working on a project; he could not get a good connection speed over the train’s wi-fi connection on that first day, although he managed to receive one or two emails, and this was a little disappointing. Soon, though, he realized that the point of the trip was to look out the window and not at his computer screen, which can easily occupy him for days. We both managed to give up our computers for the rest of the trip. During the late evenings, and between non-scenic views, we got engaged with books and everyday conversations or even just staring out the window. Looking outside at this time, I see splashes of raindrops on my window and parallel to us is the freeway, where cars and trucks are rushing to do errands or trying to get home. It is looking a little gloomy. From mid autumn-time to early spring, the Seattle area gets dark quickly, some days it feels like the sun has disappeared and may not return. On other days the sun casts rays of light for few quick minutes known as a sun break. Even more intriguing to me is when the sun is trying to come out but thin clouds are hiding it, and you see a “sunset like glow” where it highlights the dirt, the fall leaves, and flowers. Today I see a mixture of all that on the delightful ride on the Coast Starlight. On several occasions, I felt like I was being carried to some fairytale land while riding on this train.
Chapter 2: On to Oregon and Reflections of Oregon
The day went by so quickly! Soon we were at the Washington border and arriving in Portland, Oregon. Oregon looks a lot like Washington from a nature point of view, but from the few times I’d been here by car, I knew it isn’t.
From my perspective, Oregon presents finer landscapes than Washington. It’s not so hidden; it comes to you. I had missed hearing the roar of the Umpqua River for miles and miles even before it is visible, and I would not have minded admiring the sapphire beauty of Crater Lake through the train windows as we leisurely passed along. I can sit at that lake all day and just wonder. I still cannot comprehend how nature creates these wonderful elements that live for hundreds and thousands of years as new generations of people emerge, and still exudes a force that can touch each spirit. No matter what your age, appreciating nature has intangible benefits, and many times you return uplifted.
On this train route, some natural wonders are inevitably missed that really are worth a road trip. I still vividly remember my road trip to Crater Lake, the crisp blue water and an “Old Man of the Lake.” After hearing how the mountain lake was created from a volcanic eruption, we decided to take a guided boat tour.
On the tour, I met an elderly gentleman, “Jack” from the Midwest, who told all of us how he always wanted to visit and see the “Old Man of the Lake,” a well preserved log that has been floating upright in the lake for over 100 years. Jack told us that he had been planning for years and years but one thing or another had come up in his life and he could never get around to making his dream trip. So much time had passed, and he decided he was just going to go, which he finally did when he retired, about 20 years later. Jack showed a genuine sense of contentment to be wrapped up in the serene beauty surrounding us. However, we got some bad news from the tour guide –we could not go near the Old Man because the area was closed.
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Views from the Train: My US Train Trip – Jo Alex