“That, ladies and gentlemen, is the San Andreas fault,” announced a voice over the speakers.
I looked up and saw the wrinkled hills slip past the train. Somehow, during the night, the Coast Starlight had teleported me from the snow-lined tracks of Oregon and dropped me in California.
“We’re almost there,” I kept thinking. “We’ll see the ocean any minute.” I didn’t want the journey to be over, but after almost 35 hours of non-stop train travel, you could hardly blame me for feeling restless.
The Coast Starlight churns up a lot of longitude. Part of America’s Amtrak rail network, the southbound train carries passengers over 2200 km down the west coast of America from Seattle, Washington to Los Angeles, California.
Seattle’s King Street station was a construction zone when I arrived. The station is a heritage building that has operated for over a century and is currently being restored. After navigating through the temporary drop-off zone, I wheeled my case up to the baggage check-in window.
“Is there somewhere close I can get a coffee?” I asked the attendant.
He looked surprised. “Coffee?” he said. “Yeah, but you’ll get coffee on the train!”
Perfect! Then I remembered I still had half an hour of waiting. Off I ran for my latte.
Traveling solo and justifying my spending with ‘I’m on holiday, so relax’, I decided to splurge on a ‘roomette’ sleeper ticket for the journey. That meant two large facing chairs, which recline and flatten into a single bed, and an extra bed that can be pulled down from above.
After running up the stairs to the second floor of the sleeper car, I found my roomette and immediately made myself at home.
Snooping around, I found two complimentary water bottles, booklets about the train (including dining menus), a wardrobe or ‘closet’ just wide enough to fit my scarf and new Microsoft sweater (my Seattle souvenir, okay?), and a buzzer to call the Sleeping Car Attendant. She soon stopped by offering complimentary cider or sparkling wine.
It wasn’t long before there was another knock on my door.
“Lunch reservation, mam?” It was the Parlor Car Attendant with a handful of reservation tickets.
“Um, I’ll take the 12:30 pm sitting.” She marked a ticket, handed it to me and left to visit the next passenger.
The train left Seattle, steamed past Tacoma and left the waters of Puget Sound behind. I watched the scenery glide in and out of my life in seconds. At one point there were sea lions lounging in the sun. At another, two deer darted through the trees.
In one section, we hit what the driver called ‘the fast track’, which made it difficult to walk between cars without grabbing hold of the gridirons.
“Remember,” came the voice from the loudspeaker, “you do pay for the transportation on Amtrak, but the thrills and the dancing lessons are free.”
The train stopped, departed, and stopped again. Some passengers left, others came aboard. As we approached the Columbia River, the train halted as two boats passed underneath the drawbridge.
As I shuffled into my bed at night, finally settling down, the night sky caught my attention through the window. Stars fluttered over the silhouette tops of fir trees. It felt like camping. I sat up just enough to see the pale glow of snow piled on branches and alongside the tracks.
Some will wonder why I chose a two-day train journey over a two-and-a-half-hour flight. I had two short weeks in America, and I wanted to slow them down.
Most of my fellow sleeper passengers, it turned out, were using the train journey as their actual holiday—just like me, the Coast Starlight was their destination between A and B. Others simply told me, “I don’t like to fly, so I take the train.”
At breakfast on the second morning, the car attendant seated me opposite a couple who had been holidaying in Seattle and were on their way home to Venice Beach.
After questioning them about sights Los Angeles, the woman looked at my breakfast. I was stripping a bowl of porridge, fruit and yoghurt. “You eat very well, you have a very healthy diet,” she said.
I barely responded because, looking out the window, there was San Francisco.
Alcatraz. The Golden Gate Bridge. Just passing by.
On the last evening, a couple of hours before we were due to reach Los Angeles Union Station, the train rounded a curve and the Pacific Ocean unfolded before us. The sun sat like a lonely Christmas decoration in the sky. A couple of ships blurred in and out of focus on the horizon.
The Coast Starlight certainly isn’t of the glamor associated with the Orient Express or the type of train where you might flutter your scarf out the window to wave goodbye to a lover.
But how else can you travel the length of the United States, see mountains and wildlife, and be greeted by the intense Californian sunshine all in two days?
Visit www.amtrak.com for more information.
About the author: Michelle Gillespie is a writer and travel-a-holic from Australia. She also writes in her day job as a Communication Officer. In 2009 she spent over three months living in Scotland. More recently, she traveled from China to India via the Himalayas. Both experiences gave her a love for exploring the world and the need to write about it.