Exploring the USA’s West Coast by rail

Posted by Victoria Bourhill on 28 October 2011

There’s nothing like carrying everything you own on your back. That’s what Annette and I set out to do after our rather successful Colorado ski season stint. The easy life of bussing tables, skiing champagne powder and meeting fantastic new friends was over and it was time to see what else the land of American dreams had to offer.

I’d heard only good things about America’s Amtrak service that connects 500 towns around the country. Routes have romantic names: The Coast Starlight, California Zephyr, Maple Leaf and Empire Builder are a few of the many routes, all of which boast their own jaw dropping visions of beauty. Amtrak, a word deriving from the combination of ‘America’ and ‘Track’, has carried people over 34 000 kilometres of track since the early seventies. We were sold on the idea of a trip up the west coast, more popularly known as the Coast Starlight. It begins in the City of Angels and ends in Seattle, home to Frasier and the Space Needle.

This national passenger service seeks to create feelings of nostalgia and awe while travelling along the country’s length and breadth. Understandably so; the spectacular views and historic and geographical information shared en-route make for a fantastically memorable experience. The romantic nature of this journey, it would seem, is an idea sold, and bought by all.
The promise of some environmental eye-candy is what I most looked forward to. What I love about the States is its ability to make you feel like you’re travelling a culturally, ecologically, historically and of course geologically diverse continent. It sure is big enough to be considered one, and its diversity helps me understand Americans’ ability to know almost nothing about the rest of the world. But that’s another story altogether. While my visual expectations were met, another aspect which I had hardly considered is what will stay with me forever: the people. Considering the nature of this journey, it makes sense that I would be exposed to America’s finest run-of-the mill citizens.

An ex-army man was heading for a small town south of Portland. A few years ago a falling telephone pole had struck him on the left side of his body, leaving his left arm permanently immobile and his entire body in constant acute pain. No amount of pain pills or medical marijuana helped. And yet, this man’s spirit could not be broken. He chatted and played cards with us, unashamed of his now-withered playboy-bunny-tattooed arm.

A young Aussie who lost a thumb in a wake-boarding accident was making his way to Canada to continue living life as a ski bum. An African American woman based in Iraq shedded some light on the issue of being a lesbian in the military. And also the controversial issue of being one of two lesbian daughters raised by a preacher. An adventure seeker from Southern California was relocating to Portland, where he knew nobody, just so he could live amongst some of the world’s best mountain biking trails.

Then there was the couple, a newly in lust pair who had met a couple hundred kilometres back. ‘He left the train, walked across the road, bought another ticket and climbed back on’ The skinny young woman in mismatched clothes explained. The couple, who had been drinking and snogging for the better half of the trip, was open to discussion about their newly found relationship and individual but equally rough lives. ‘I drew all the money I have and am heading somewhere new.’ The young man (let’s call him Mr. X) said. They sat next to each other, limbs intertwined, sipping neat vodka and whiskey. These two were clearly running from problems they couldn’t leave behind.

Most stops along the way are short ones, only long enough for a cigarette or a quick walk about. The two had spoken about getting off together at Eugene, a small one horse town just one stop before Portland. The three-day long binge had taken its toll on Mr X who was passed out cold not long after our chat and coincidently, throughout the short stop in Eugene. The couple became quite the pair to watch on the trip and word quickly began to spread that Mr. X’s new lover had jumped ship, taking all his money with her. ‘Don’t wake him up till you get to Portland’ the sobbing skinny lady told the conductor. She had apparently also muttered something about possibly making the biggest mistake of her life (whether she meant leaving him behind or committing a crime I don’t know).

Annette and I and our new train friends had to laugh at the situation unfolding before our eyes. A journalist doing a story on travelling with Amtrak had taken a liking to the couple and immediately sympathised with Mr. X trying to wake him up straight after she stole his heart and all the cash he owned. A good ten minutes later he finally came to and was told the awful truth we all already knew. Mr. Journalist’s sincere reaction made me feel somewhat bad about my initial response, but I chose to stick with the more light hearted approach. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I was not about to make his problems mine. An uncontrollable anger and liquor problem meant that Mr. X’s day ended in cuffs. I often think back to how that story ended and if he had to shamefully return back to the place he was so desperately trying to leave behind.

Not long before the end of our trip a fellow passenger whipped out his guitar in the lounge-come -viewing carriage and began a sing-a-long. Name a song and he’ll sing it. Sadly he struggled to satisfy our hunger for Toto’s ‘Africa’ but made up for it somehow when we all joined in on ‘I come from a land down under’ in honour of our new Aussie friend. There was something fantastic about his semi off tune voice singing to a dubiously tuned guitar while watching the American countryside whizz by. There was a particular happiness I remember feeling at that moment that I will never forget. A moment when I realised I was in love with a country and the dream it offered, a dream that comes in all shapes and sizes, different for everyone. But then I read this quote and nothing could be truer: ‘Most travel is best of all in the anticipation or the remembering; the reality has more to do with losing your luggage.’

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