Pacific northwest


Last leg of my train journey, sitting in the observation car, watching mares' tails and floccus clouds drift above the high desert east of Flagstaff, Arizona. Hours to my final station of Lamy, New Mexico.

I’m not the only writer who likes to travel by train. Two of my favourites were Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin. It was Chatwin who asked, "Why do men wander rather than stand still?" and answered it in books he didn't like to be categorized as travel writing, such as the wonderful In Patagonia. Theroux wrote, in The Great Railway Bazaar, “Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night's sleep, and strangers' monologues framed like Russian short stories.”

There! Wild horses in the foreground. Yellowing aspen trees in the mid distance.

I think it is somewhat the pace, rhythmic, easy. Occasional inconveniences, sure, as this morning when Train 4, the Southwest Chief, arrived at nearly six instead of the scheduled four-twenty a.m.. Yet how else would I have discovered Wicked Coffee, just a couple of blocks from the station, which opened at five and delivered a product that lived up to its name?

Vancouver, B.C. to Seattle, WA stretch. Amtrak Cascades.
So yes, the rhythm, the swaying. The time to doze, to daydream. The constantly changing views. But mostly the people. Train travel is social. Just the slightest exchange of glance, or a smile, elicits conversation. Not that you have to talk. But novelists, like me, are interested in people and trains make the perfect laboratory for character research. Part of me wanted the double seat to myself, the other part couldn’t help but be fascinated by the perfectly groomed Korean woman, who boarded in Tacoma. She had worked in a nail salon in New York before moving to Portland many years ago, and this trip was her return from the Merry Widow health mine in Basin, Montana, where water from a gold mine is used for healing. In her case, rheumatroid arthritis. That conversation took place on the Cascades, the train that begins in Vancouver, B. C. and terminates in Portland. I rode in a relatively new car. The conductor kindly announced the reasons for even slight pauses along the way. Michelle, the conductor’s assistant, explained that she isn't a fan of the new cars because she can’t see right down the middle of the aisle. But they were fine by me. Local food offerings in the bistro, big screens not only showing our location, but also telling us something about the place. Along Puget Sound, we were so close to the water, it’s clear that any rise in sea level will require a route change.

The land is dusty with sagebrush and the earth is red.

Portland to L.A., on the Coast Starlight, was a different story, a short novel divided into many
Nele and Jen
chapters, starting with tall, 19 year old Nele who was assigned the seat next to me. She was travelling by herself for the first time from Hamburg, Germany, and her rich burgundy hair was the result of her first time visit to a U.S. salon. Although her English was near impeccable, she said make, instead of do, as native French speakers also tend to say, and so the ride turned into a bit of a language lesson.

Hillier and more vegetation. When the internet works I will look up the word wash, because I think that’s what is winding through the earth alongside the tracks, damp and glistening red mud in the bottom. It has rained here recently, but the sky is clearing now.

In the Starlight’s observation car, Nele and I sat with Jennifer, from Ireland, who was quick with retorts and had the habit of twisting her face into exaggerated expressions to ask a question or make a point. As we climbed the southern Cascades, tunnel after tunnel, rivers below, a large reservoir gleaming blue just beyond, she broke into song: “The hills are alive, with the sound of music." The women at the table across, Jill (mother) and Caitlin (Jill's daughter) from Chicago, and another woman, Jane, joined in. Those three were on their way to a Cronescounsel in Mount Shasta. The talk turned to yoga postures and diet and the serendipity of life. Blonde Jill, a former cheerleader who is now training to become a yoga teacher for larger women, passed around popcorn. Jen promised Belgian chocolate after dinner, which most of us had brought along, to avoid dining car prices and food quality. Soon another woman joined us: Alyssa, a sailor, who wanted to join the singing if it started again. She was heading south to Emeryville after an aborted plan to help crew a sailboat south from Astoria. The trouble was gender-based, another crew member who had insisted on calling this experienced sailor “little lady.” We were women talking about being women.

Oh my god, a sandstone butte. Not quite, but almost as good as the Grand Canyon.

During the night, shifting from side to side, earplugs stuffed in, blanket tucked around me, people came and went, including my seat mate, Nele, who debarked at Sacramento after whispering, "nice to meet you." In the morning, as dawn broke just south of Sacramento, there was a new cast. The café car was sold out of yogurt and granola, there was no green tea. But a ship in the distance meant we had come back around to the coast, and that soon there would be water.

Fall of the Wild

Lucky in wild life the last few days of summer: the wet blow of an orca spouting, then rising to display its shiny black back against the uncommonly placid blue of Georgia Strait; river otters darting from sea to shore, holding entire crabs between their teeth; the ubiquitous black-tailed deer that prefer geraniums and roses to the forest fringe vegetation they have evolved to eat.
Whale watching, Georgia Straight, late September

Then the first day of fall, and fish! Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of cutthroat trout, coho and chum salmon nudging up streams to spawn. Except... at the end of the dry season, a single day of drenching rain was not sufficient to fill the neighbourhood creek. Walking to the footbridge that crosses it, I first heard rolling rocks and thought bear, because black bears live in the forest here; it is common to see purple-berry bear poop on the trails. But no bear this time, only a dry river bed up which a lone salmon was trying navigate stones from pebble-sized to small boulders. Just below the bridge, in a deepish pool, fifty to a hundred waited, finning together in a grey moving mass.

Katagiri said, "the fish is the water, the water is the fish."

Anyone who lives in the Pacific northwest is familiar with the miracle of salmon runs and they are no less dramatic for being part of the common lore. No drought here, but a parade of sunny days we celebrated with swimming, picnics, late night trips to the dock to witness two super moons. One of the best summers, people say, waiting in line at the supermarket cash register, sighing as the seasons change. Tell that to the fish, who would be too busy to listen, even if they could decipher human language. For as the days pass, more rain does fall, a steady day of moderately heavy rain pours into the local creek and others along the coast, but the problem is the culvert that runs under the road to town. That's the human language the fish understand clearly as if someone were standing there saying, No, sorry; this is as far as you go. Though they try to leap the fall of water gushing out, they can't make it. A well meaning friend nets a couple and walks them through the culvert to the other side of the road. But then what? And anyway, what is the duty here? To try to undo what has been done to convenience humans, or let nature - and we humans are part of nature - take its course?

Meanwhile, at the entrance to the creek, not many yards from the footbridge, more fish enter and stage in the channel, the small pools leading to the bridge and the ascent of the creek bed. Before they can reach the channel, some are caught in driftwood mazes on the beach and the vigilant sea gulls peck out their eyes. A pair of 13 year old girls try to name the individuals before they die. A dog
toys with a salmon carcass. This beautiful Sunday afternoon neighbours line the sides of the channel to admire the dorsal fins sparkling in a brief reprise of summer. A man enlists the aid of a 12 year old, and the two of them begin grabbing fish by the tail and hoisting them up and over the logs, perhaps ten feet to where they can swim freely, at least until they reach the culvert. Infected by the energy of the of the twisting, flipping salmon and trout, more people join in. Even a four year old manages to hang onto one. A man who was counting later boasts that he has moved at least 25.
As a fisheries biologist reportedly told a local fisherman, because this is an el nino year, the Pacific ocean off the west coast of Vancouver Island is as much as four degrees warmer than usual.  The fish prefer the cooler water closer to land, where glacial streams enter, or so goes the current theory. Thus the more frequent sightings of fish predators, like the orca that day in Georgia Straight. Like the humpback seen breaching ten minutes north.

This morning on the radio a notice from the London Zoological Society on the state of wildlife populations worldwide. The news is not good for there has been a 50% decline in the numbers of fish, birds, mammals and reptiles in the last 40 years, a good portion of it attributed to human demand on natural resources, including animals, but also the habitat that makes it possible for them to survive.

At home, the black spot in the middle of the room is a spider hanging from a new thread. In the morning I find it crunched up like a grey piece of moss on the carpet.