a day of transition; our last full day of travel. as we slept, the empire builder pulled into spokane, wa. there, through a series of mechanical interactions that briefly disturbed my sleep, the train was split in two. the forward portion — including the dining car and the fully functioning kitchen– continued on through the northern cascades, on the way to its final destination, seattle, wa. the rear segment, with our chatty friend michael’s fully stocked cafe car, headed south towards the columbia river and portland, or.
i woke to the sight of volcanic soil barely obscured by sparse, grassy vegetation. a patchy haze bled almost all color from the landscape, reducing it to strata of gray, gunmetal, and ochre. dark ponds and inlets appeared along the train tracks and as we sped by, birds skittered morse code across the water, disturbed by the cacophony of our passage.
wanting to make the most of our remaining hours on the empire builder, we pulled ourselves together and bumbled our way through the swaying cars. with the dining car en route to seattle, our breakfast options were limited. in the cafe car, we signed a form and our friend michael handed over our morning repast. goodbye eggs cooked to order; hello cold ham and cheese croissant.
the columbia river is beautiful. even though it has been dammed along it’s entire length, even though it is lined with industry that sends spreading columns of poisonous smoke into the atmosphere, even though we have shaped it to our own desire; despite all of this, it is still so beautiful. one wonders what it must have been like before we began dissecting it, separating it into slices of electricity and leisure and transportation.
as we neared portland, the clouds began to give way to a perfect, sunny day. what a welcome back!
the train slowed as we entered the city, giving us a good view of portland’s industrial backbone. as we neared downtown, the cityscape became legible, familiar: this is the road we took the night we went to fame!, the once-a-week gay night at the bridgeport pizzeria and pub; that is the bridge that everyone told me to avoid; there is the mighty willamette!
we pulled into portland’s union station — a most handsome building — and along with all of our fellow passengers, disembarked. the empire builder had reached the end of the line. tomorrow, it would begin its return trip across the frozen plains and back to chicago.
we had several hours before the coast starlight arrived, so we checked into the metropolitan lounge to drop off our luggage. there, we were greeted by a woman in her late 40s who unwrapped a framed collage and asked, without preamble, what do you think about that?
this was what i have come to think of as a quintessential amtrak moment: surprising, awkward, harmless and oh-so-awesome.
6.5 days on a train does something to your equilibrium. i spent our entire time in portland feeling slightly out of sorts, unsure whether the sidewalk was moving; unable to stop swaying when standing still. nonetheless, it was wonderful to be back in portland on a beautiful sun-soaked day and it was wonderful to have solid, predictable ground beneath our feet. we meandered through powell’s, departing with 2 new books and 2 snazzy oregon souvenirs. we grabbed some lunch. and then we ducked into ground kontrol, a bar/classic video game arcade on the border of chinatown and downtown portland.
tim discovered this place during our holiday housesitting gig and it became a regular stop on our portland wanders. while i wasted quarters on bubble bobble, xevius, and pinball, tim would kick ass on donkey kong, burger time and miss pacman. i didn’t even know there was a pie factory in donkey kong until tim showed it to me.
from there we made our way back to union station and our rendezvous with my personal favorite, amtrak’s one-and-only coast starlight.
one of the things that makes the coast starlight such a special line is the addition of the pacific parlor car, a double-decker car with a lounge and abbreviated dining area upstairs and a small movie theater downstairs. part starship enterprise, part grandma’s ranch house, it is the closest that amtrak comes to delivering the romantic, glamorous vision of passenger rail during its heyday.
we stayed in the pacific parlour car for most of the afternoon and evening, me reading one of my new books (the way of shadows by brent weeks), tim making friends with older southern women who pronounced his name as if it rhymes with liam. eventually, the dining car called for those of us with 715p reservations, and tim and i had our last big dinner on amtrak.
afterwards, we, along with a quartet of dues paying AARP members, watched julie and julia in the pacific parlor car’s theater. i don’t think any of us felt adequately prepared to watch stanley tucci and meryl streep engaging in giggling, happy-go-lucky foreplay.
that night was marked by two events. the first was my discovery that one of the bathrooms on our car was malfunctioning. the flow of water had not deactivated completely and, therefore, a small stream of (clean, thankfully) water was flowing from beneath the bathroom door, down the stairs towards the main exit. our attendant had already retired for the night, so i spent a few harried minutes racing through the dark, quiet train, searching for help.
the second was far less tawdry. as before, tim and i extinguished the lights in our cabin and sat in the darkness, watching the snowy landscape unspool before us. suddenly, mount shasta materialized in the velvet sky, a great white wing spread across the horizon.
as much as i’ve enjoyed this train trip, it is clear that it meant far more to tim. he knows so much about the history of railroads, about the rise and fall of these naive antecedents to ford, united and wells fargo. when i look at the landscape before us, i see mute, unknowable objects: a crossing, a haphazard stack of ties. tim looks at the same thing and sees an entire story: this is a spur line that used to connect a series of small towns to the main rail artery. it’s been abandoned for years and now they are tea
ring it up to make room for a strip mall.
tim stared out towards the dark horizon, hoping to catch another glimpse of mount shasta. joy and wonder filled his eyes and a small smile played across his moonlit face. i’m the luckiest guy on the planet.
Posted by Wordmobi