Empire Builder: Essex to Portland, Oregon | Coast Starlight: Portland to Sacramento
This is Part 4 of my 6-part series covering an 11-day Amtrak trip around the western United States in May of 2006. Be sure to read about the planning and start of my journey from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles in Part 1, the trip from Los Angeles to Chicago in Part 2 and on to Essex in Part 3.
Essex to Portland
We left Essex right on time. The nice thing about heading west was that once we got over the Rockies it got light again since we were no longer in the shadows of the mountains. I spend a while in the lounge. Nobody was being social and I went back to my seat at about 8:30.
The next morning we were in Pasco, Washington, at 5:45am and back in the Pacific Time zone. Sometime in the night we had arrived in Spokane, Washington, where the train was split in two. The front half continued on to Seattle, the back half went to Portland, Oregon. The locomotives on the Portland half of the train were coupled just in front of the lounge car. This put the window in the door that usually separated the lounge from the diner behind the locomotives and allowed a view forward that is usually reserved for the engineers. The rest of the morning was spent on the north bank of the Columbia River until we arrived in Portland at 10:15am. This was a short day, and there wasn’t much opportunity to meet any interesting people, so I just enjoyed the scenery.
Union station in Portland was my favorite station on the trip. It’s not as big and grandiose as Chicago or LA, but I think the combination of stone walls and neon signs give is a really neat atmosphere. Outside, the brickwork and tile roof makes for an interesting building. This was my third time through this station. The first was on my first trip to Essex then again on the train trip five months before this one, a December trip to Glasgow, Montana.
I had about four hours or so to explore Portland. I had lunch at a little place called John’s Cafe, the same greasy spoon diner I went to on my previous layover in Portland. I don’t know what it was about this trip, but the food wasn’t nearly as good as last time. Maybe it was just that hot roast beef sandwiches taste better when it’s cold and windy than in the spring.
From there I walked down to the river and crossed the big steel bridge (creatively named “Steel Bridge”) to the other side of the Willamette River. I didn’t want to go too far from Union Stations, so after taking a few photos I started heading back across the river. Steel Bridge is the only bridge in the United States where the lower and upper decks can be raised independently. Road traffic goes on the top deck, with the railroad and pedestrians below. Just when I was getting to the lift section the alarms started going off and a gate closed across the walkway. The lower deck lifted for a boat to pass under, and I was on my way again. Soon it was time to pick up the southbound Coast Starlight.
Portland to Sacramento
Seating on the Coast Starlight was assigned by the conductor at the station. The train was pretty full, and they were doubling us up in the seats. They put me next to a guy that was going all the way to San Luis Obispo. I just put my backpack in the rack over him, popped by boarding pass above the seat, and headed for the lounge. He only saw me twice, just when I had to get into my backpack for a recharger.
The lounge was packed with people, most part of a large group from Japan. I think if I was going to visit the United States from another country, the train would be a good way to see it. It would definitely be a good way of getting an idea of scale – I’m betting there aren’t too many eleven-day train rides available in Japan.
Not knowing how to speak Japanese, I sat down next to one of the few people in the car who were not in the group. He told me he was taking the train all the way to San Diego to go touch Mexico through the border fence, then he would hike the Pacific Crest Trail all the way to Canada. He said he does it every year, working half the year and hiking the other half. I asked him how he could afford to do that and he said that it’s not that hard and he’s surprised more people don’t. Apparently, the secret is in how you’re willing to live the half year that you work. He said that he keeps his expenses to a minimum; no car, lives at the YMCA or some similar place, and said that he has ways of getting free food. Later on I was talking about the Izaak Walton Inn and mentioned that the seasonal employees get free lodging, but that I didn’t know about food and maybe he should get a job at a place like that. He said that wouldn’t work because food is important and a small town doesn’t generate enough waste to feed him. He also commented that his other hobby is train hopping and this is the first train he’s ever bought a ticket on. We talked for some time.
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That evening I went downstairs for a snack and had the most interesting four and a half hours ever on a train. There were two girls talking to the attendant. One of them was trying to buy a bottle of wine and giving him the story that it was her 21st birthday and she left her ID at home. The attendant was humoring them, asking all kinds of silly questions about how he could verify their age. I just got a bowl of cereal, sat at one of the tables to watch, and dozed off after I age. When I woke up my trash was gone and I think I slept for about half hour. The lounge closed at 11 or midnight or something, and the two girls came down and sat down, joined by three guys. the girls said they were on their way to a “speed metal show” in Los Angeles and that they were in a metal band. They definitely looked the part. Soon one of the girls pulled out a bottle of wine that she’d lifted from the counter (she thinks the attendant saw her, and I don’t doubt it.) The other one wanted to get “something else” out, but the others convinced her that it would be a bad idea. They sat there and talked, I was my usual outside observer with an occasional comment to keep me in the loop. This went from them sitting around drinking wine and throwing plastic glasses around to the girls and guys giving each other backrubs. They were getting the guys to propose to them, they proposed back to show them “how it’s done.” Then they got in fights and got divorces. There is no way I can even describe the goofiness that was going on. I should have recorded it, but it went on for over four hours. I should have recorded it anyway.
I learned on my prior trip that there are better places to sleep on the train than your seat – especially if you have someone you don’t know in the seat next to you. I’ve seen people sleeping in empty luggage racks, and I like the long “couch” of three seats they have in the lounge car or the floor between the seats and the wall because the heating vents that run along the floorboard keep me warm. I can’t remember where I slept that night. At about 8am the next morning we were coming into the suburbs of Sacramento. The train stopped and for the second time in two trips, an ambulance met the train. One of the passengers got sick and went was taken away. At least the patient survived this time. On my last trip we had someone die.
We were about two hours late into Sacramento. I just had time to walk under the bridge to Old Town for a few minutes. It was all a little too touristy for me so I didn’t mind that I didn’t have time to see too much.