cafe mama

finding magic every day

amtrak coast starlight: the only way to ride from portland to california . july 26 . 2006


"We have ice cold soda: DELICIOUS! The Chicken Caesar Salad: DELICIOUS! And today we have all-beef hot dogs: DELICIOUS!" the passengers around me giggled as the charismatic and consistently enthusiastic conductor welcomed us aboard with a list of the DELICIOUS things available in the cafe car. It was my first time riding Amtrak on the West Coast, and I boarded in Portland, Oregon with Truman (he'll be 15 months old on Friday), heading south on the Coast Starlight line to San Jose, California.

The train, which travels all the way from Seattle to San Diego, was a last-minute decision. I'd considered flying, or driving down to San Jose for Blogher, but the airfare was too pricey and the low car diet (not to mention the gas prices) kept me out of our family SUV. Children under two travel free "on their parents' laps" but the conductor had given us two seats without me even asking. We were perched on the top of the world on the second story of the double-decker train. I sat down and was charmed immediately.

the kiddie room wasn't luxurious, but it did have trucksThe Coast Starlight, like many of the other trains outside of the Northeast Corridor, are roomy and comfortable even in coach. Tickets for my 18-some-hour journey ranged from $90 to $140, and I'd been pleased at the 10% military discount. Being an Army wife does have some perks. I spread out my things and looked around me at the car full of families, holding onto Truman's shirt as he licked the window, eager to play with the pigeons scrambling for treats outside. As the train began to move, I snapped frame after frame of out-the-window shots, looking at my 90-some available exposures and thinking, I'll run out of film in no time!. The view out the window of a train is so much closer, brighter, more tinged with the country's industrial past than the view out a car window. As I was ruminating on the freshness of my perspective and trying to frame the most gorgeous shot of weeds gone to seed against a backdrop of vibrant, sun-faded graffiti, Truman had discovered there was life inside of the train.

Truman squirmed out of my arms and, after a few tries at keeping him cooped up in our seat area, I let him launch himself, swaying wildly, up and down the aisle in our coach. At first, I thought the other passengers might be annoyed, but they beamed at the happy, lurching baby and one family exclaimed delightedly at their own toddler. "See, he isn't afraid to walk!" The poor little girl looked over at him angrily, and he giggled and lunged for the door between the cars.

Four times down and back, a couple of tries at breastfeeding, and I was ready to expand my boundaries. It was time to venture forth. Truman instantly adored the connection between the coaches, where I saw trauma everywhere -- what if his hand got squished in the sliding-open door? Or his little foot got lodged in the division?

truman and mama in the sightseer lounge, day twoTruman was oblivious, and so we wandered. Eventually we arrived at a coach called the "Sightseer Lounge." And I knew it: this was the only way I ever wanted to travel! The Sightseer was like a spacious 50s sunroom, with swivel chairs, floor-to-ceiling windows and friendly folks all around. Passengers were reading weighty novels and drinking cheap beers out of cans. It was paradise. And the photos? Way better than those from our lick-filled, dark coach class window.

Truman was antsy, and we made our way from one end of the train to another, investigating sleeper berths and sneaking sips of other passengers' water (Truman! you bad boy). We pilfered a tiny poppyseed muffin from a pastry box at the end of the sleeper cabin (must be left over from breakfast, I justified to myself) and returned to our seat to consumer our loot.

By 4 p.m., I'd managed to put Truman to sleep and settled in for a few hours of work, enjoying the changing central Oregon scenery, the wheat fields and eclectic assortments of livestock, the bridges and rivers and highways, the tractors and excavators and industrial buildings covered with graffiti or rust, tableau after tableau of workers in hardhats, workers eating lunch, workers looking around at the work to be done. Everywhere near the train, people working....

I'm working too. And though I dread the possibility of a long evening freak-out, I can't wait to ride the Coast Starlight again.

Updated to say: Our train ended up being five hours late and we were a bit grumpy -- and not entirely well-rested -- by the end. But still I would recommend train travel over airplane if you can find the time because (a) people love babies on the train and (b) people hate babies on the airplane. Not to mention, the sights! The wandering the aisles! The people, oh how much nicer they are than on any other mode of transport. Really. I loved everyone I met on the train. Sweet, wonderful, generous, diverse, interesting, funny ... I'm actually missing them after our 24-hour communal adventure.

working with truman

sunset over the cascades

read my previous post . swaptastic . july 26 . 2006