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Riding the Rails

I admit, I have a romantic view of riding trains. Perhaps because the paternal grandfather I never met was a train man, or the fact that Dad would seek out some vintage train on an unused track and take my brother and me on a Choo-Choo train ride (old whistle and all), or that my father would take his daily constitutional on the tracks behind our house. Maybe I read too many Hercule Poirot books.  Not sure, but I just love riding trains. 

With all that in the background, I decided to arrange a 20-hour train voyage from Portland to the Bay Area for a family reunion. I was to travel with my hapless brother who reluctantly agreed because, well, he’s like that. 

And so it was that we set off one sunny summer afternoon aboard the Coast Starlight from Portland. Ready for the clickety-clackety of this locomotive adventure. There is no denying that there has been an effort to beautify the railroad stations of old – and Portland’s Union Station is no exception. An artful ode to our living history — from a time when trains were the only way to travel long distances on land. 

People lined up – and from the outset we had ourselves a motley crew. Folks of every stripe and hue, young and old, big and small, rich and poor. We were by our numbers, a pretty damn good cross section of Americana. 

The conductor was a witty and happy woman who was both ticket taker, seat manager and mother hen to the passengers in her car. While taking the ticket of the man across the aisle who was carrying a tell-tale pink box of the popular Portland Voodoo Donuts, she asked him – quite convincingly – whether he knew about the new Amtrak policy banning passengers from carrying Voodoo Donuts on board. And that she had no choice but to confiscate them. He wasn’t the only one who believed her.  We all did. 

She also sweetly watched over several of our fellow passengers, who seemed to be regulars on this route. One young man who appeared to be autistic was brilliantly knowledgable of the workings of the train. Another man walked the aisles for the entire duration: back and forth, back and forth, hat on, head down, intent but inscrutable. One man who also ambled regularly through our car was wearing an ink-black hippie wig, oblivious to the rest of us. 

The dining car experience was, well – interesting. First (and only) night on the train, my brother and I had dinner (“oh, you’re siblings? We thought you were married!” Married, I wonder, like an old couple who have been bickering for fifty years? Yeah, I get that we look alike – you know, like an owner begins to look like her dog? But eeeyeuw!). 

We sat with a woman who has been riding the rails long enough to notice that they’d changed their coffee. She told us proudly how she’d upgraded from her single-wide to a double-wide to accommodate her new dishwasher — we liked her – she was interesting and a nice train veteran. The other table mate, not so much. Let’s call her the butter thief. With 3 pats of butter still on her plate, of the many things she demanded of our waitress, Regina, was “more butter” “Miss, I don’t like this wine!” “Miss, would you take the price of the wine off my check!” “How is this chicken cooked?” “Are the mashed potatoes real?” “What time does the free movie for roomette customers start in the Parlor car?”

“Oh, Miss. Can I get my sugar-free vanilla pudding to go?  Do you have a bag for that?”

You get the picture. 

The food was, well, not as good as airline food. And, meals didn’t come with the reserved coach seats we purchased – which gets me to the reality of our trip. We were traveling in steerage. It was just fine, thank you. The seat was comfy: with a generous recline and something for your legs that made you feel a little bit like you were sitting in a BarcaLounger. The distance between the seat rows was so expansive that I could barely touch the footrest with my tippy-toes. 

The windows (as you might expect) with very wide and open for taking in the scenery. With curtains, actual curtains, you could pull shut. We opted against the sleeper cars (the cheapest called a “roomette”) because the beds were made out of the seats you bought in a separate car. With aisle curtains that went floor to ceiling. Brother and I didn’t want to share tight sleeping quarters – and frankly the whole setup sounded a tad claustrophobic for anything other than sleeping. 

So, steerage it was. In writing, Amtrak passenger trains get to go first, but in practice, we found ourselves delayed once by a freight train. Our departure was interrupted by a mechanical problem and a wait for a nearby drawbridge let a boat pass. We were, therefore, late, but not too.

All in all, I would do it again. I would pay more attention to “what” you see “when” (we passed much of the beautiful scenery in the dark). I would stake out a seat in the lounge car with its glass-domed roof and softer seats that face outward. I might consider a picnic basket though I’m not sure I would forsake the amusement of the community-seating dining car. We were joined by an awesome older couple from Tucson: she a special needs teacher, he a former deli owner who roasted turkeys every morning, prepared his own corned beef and made his mother’s potato salad recipe to the delight of his customers. 

Before breakfast, we were awakened by a stunning sunrise (captured on camera) along Miner’s Ravine – near the California town of Roseville. 

A nice capper to our adventure on the American rails. 

About Janet

The author of Ruling Woman is a television journalist, based in Manhattan who spends her workdays at 30 Rock, her nights on Broadway, and her weekends at the Farmers Market. Likes to knit, commune with the angels, and travel.

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