train travel


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.