January 27, 2013

Riding the Amtrak Coast Starlight


It’s easy to think of the railroad as the technological marvel that modernized the American West.

The iron rails that first connected Nebraska to California at the close of the 1860s (and would, within a few decades, connect the rest of the western frontier) brought fence posts and farm towns and telegraph lines and far more settlers every year than ever crossed the Oregon Trail with ox teams and covered wagons. A letter that once took months to sail from Boston to San Francisco could make the trip by railroad at the jaw-dropping speed of 10 days.

So who would have guessed that long-distance trains would one day be regarded as the slow-it-down way to travel? Today the Amtrak Coast Starlight takes 20 hours to chug between my hometown of Olympia, Washington, and the east shore of San Francisco Bay—a journey I made both directions last week for a two-day family reunion.

Amtrak bills the Coast Starlight as one of the most spectacular scenic routes in its system, a claim backed by views along the way of a dozen snow-covered mountains. But mountains are just the icing—a treat in the distance when skies are clear.

The real fun of riding a train comes in seeing what’s right outside the window: the wetlands and woodlands, the orchards and fields, the old barns and small-town depots. There’s an intimacy to the view from a train that can’t be matched from the highway. The tracks that once rushed toward the future, sowing farms through the wide-open West, now offer long-distance passengers an unparalleled look at the past.

Elk graze in lowland pastures; ducks paddle in cattail marshes. A rusted dump truck covered with moss stands like found-art sculpture in the woods near the Toutle River, gradually returning to the damp green embrace of the earth.

One of the oldest surviving pioneer homes in the state of Washington, a vaguely Colonial farmhouse dating from 1850, overlooks rolling hills and sloughs at the mouth of the Lewis River. Further south, in Oregon City, mist rises at dusk above the Niagara-wide drop of Willamette Falls. When the town was first incorporated, back in the 1840s, water power looked like the future. It’s a lesson worth bearing in mind.

At night the stars glitter like crystals over the Cascade foothills. The half-full moon and the planet Mars appear on the left, and then on the right, shining on snow as the train swings wide on the climb to Willamette Pass.

Not everything is pretty. There are junk yards and tire dumps and piles of trash bags abandoned by someone too lazy to drive to the landfill. Agricultural workers huddle around open bonfires in the dark, cold hours before sunrise in the Central Valley of California, a reminder that farm life, though different now, still means long days of backbreaking work.

When it comes to rails on the Western frontier, Sacramento was where it all started. Exactly 150 years ago, in January 1863, investors and civic boosters broke ground in California’s capital city on the first transcontinental railroad that would, six years later, connect Sacramento to Omaha.

Look quickly as the train pulls west from the Amtrak station, snakes behind the fabulous California State Railroad Museum, and crosses the river near Old Town to see the spot where that first ambitious shovel of earth was turned over.

It’s there all at once, then gone again, as the train forges on through a ghostly Delta swirling with winter fog.




Like this article? You might enjoy my novel, The Indian Shirt Story, coming as an e-book from Musa Publishing in the summer of 2013. “Like” HEATHER LOCKMAN AUTHOR on Facebook to stay up to date.





3 responses to “Riding the Amtrak Coast Starlight”

  1. Bob Royer says:

    This makes me think about a favorite poem by Carl Sandburg.

    I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains
    of the nation.

    Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air
    go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.

    (All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men
    and women laughing in the diners and sleepers shall
    pass to ashes.)

    I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he
    answers: “Omaha.”

  2. Joanne says:

    I loved it. Somewhere I have a record of a peppy song about the pounding of the last rail so we in the NW were connected. If I can ever find it I will send it to you.

  3. Greg G says:

    Thanks Heather, very nice. I have always loved riding the train since my youth growing up during the twilight years of passenger rail travel before Amtrak. This reminded me of those memories.

    We had a dear friend from church who grew up in Miles City, Montana and whose father worked for the railroad. She once told us: “I never see a train I don’t wish I was on.”
    I agree!