Last week I finally took myself up on my bucket short-list for a solo train trip.
Off to to Portland I went to visit my daughter for a few days. Booking a ticket was easy. Go online, choose your dates, pay with a credit or debit card, then print out the ticket and bring it with you.
The northbound Coast Starlight arrives in Redding around 3 a.m., and it’s recommended passengers be at the station 20 – 30 minutes early, so I stayed up rather than go to bed, fight sleep, fall asleep and then risk missing the alarm. Besides, I could sleep on the train. After all, the train ride was more than 12 hours long. Clearly, this kind of travel is ideal for the unhurried, or the self-employed, unemployed, retired or airline phobic. But it’s also perfect for train-lovers, which I am. I’ve often said I would vote for almost anyone who’d make high-speed rail a priority in the U.S.
A $5 cab fare delivered me to the downtown Redding station where I was surprised to see so many others waiting as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be awake and waiting for anything at 3 a.m. The most practically dressed woman wore pajamas, and brought her own pillow.
My seat was upstairs, but when I got there I discovered it was occupied by a snoring, splayed-out woman, mouth agape – across her seat and mine. When I tapped her shoulder and pointed to my seat, she shifted most of her lower half from it and fell back to sleep, one hip still on my seat.
I tried to sleep and finally gave up and took a walk. I explored the train and found the best place was the Observation Car, surrounded by windows and topped by skylights. This car – also called the “Parlor Car” – had tables and swivel chairs that faced views (at daylight) on both sides of the train.
Later in the morning, after sunrise at Klamath Falls, a pair of Trails and Rails docents boarded who acted as train travel guides. They pointed out nesting eagles and red-winged blackbirds and mountains and lakes and Oregon lore. Very interesting.
There was the Coast Starlight’s sleeper car, which is notoriously expensive, but enticing. The Superliner Bedroom sleeps three and has a bathroom and shower. Meals are included. And it costs $772 per night. The Superliner Roomette has no bathroom, but it sleeps one or two people. It costs $346 per night.
I found an empty mini car downstairs designated just for passengers for disabilities. Also downstairs was a very tiny little “café” and a space filled with all kinds of snacks and drinks.
Upstairs was the dining car, classed-up with white tablecloths and flowers, where reservations-only breakfast, lunch and dinner were served, prepared by chefs. I got a peek at the menu and saw that prices ranged from $7.50 for scrambled eggs and $10.75 for a soup and salad combo, to $25.75 for the Amtrak Signature Steak.
I’d brought protein bars and nuts, but bought a plastic container of mixed fruit from the café that made me wish I hadn’t. Hard mangos, tart apples, sour pineapple, tiny grapes.
Other than to avoid the pucker-up fruit bowl, I learned a few other things during this train trip.
• There’s a lever on the armrest that operates a fairly large (but mostly hidden) flipper-foot rest that can be pulled up and extended so you can stretch out. If you’re lucky enough to have an empty seat next to you, you can have a spacious enough surface to actually sleep in relative comfort. On my trip, the train was packed coming and going, so spare seats were rare.
• The train porters and servers were kind and accommodating. Let’s say you’re stuck with a seat mate who smells strongly of cigarettes and alcohol, whose body is draped across your seat. Just quietly explain the situation to a train employee and chances are good that you’ll be moved to a better place.
• If your seat is upstairs, before you take the trek up the narrow, steep metal staircase, first take advantage of storing your suitcase on the racks downstairs by the exits, unless you need your luggage nearby during the trip.
• Search for the least-visited bathroom, because it will be in the best (relative) condition. In the case of the Coast Starlight’s train 14, that would be the bathroom tucked away near the café tables.
• Speaking of bathrooms, they are small – like a commercial airline’s, but not as luxurious. And the bathrooms can look as if someone were jostled mid-stream, so about the only advice I can offer is to go easy on the liquids, use lots of seat covers and bring hand sanitizer.
• Bring a travel pillow, because the available ones loaned out by Amtrak are those papery little disposable numbers. Reused by passengers. You might also bring a shawl to serve as a blanket, because it can get chilly on the train. And then warm. And then chilly.
• Bring earplugs and eye shades to help with sleep.
• Arrive on time for your train, because if it’s on schedule it will leave without you. On the other hand, be prepared for train delays, so common that the Coast Starlight is sometimes called the “Coast Starlate.”
• This is more about travel in general, but check your destination’s weather forecast before you leave, or you might end up as I did, arriving in a Portland downpour wearing sandals, capris and a summer top.
• Unless you plan to eat in the dining car or buy food from the little cafe for every meal, bring your own food and beverages.
• If you take advantage of the occasional opportunity to get some fresh air and walk around outside during station stops, stay near the train doors. One women was nearly left behind when she wandered too far from the train during her smoke break.
• Get to know the other travelers. I met Grace from L.A. whose niece wants to be a writer, and she wondered if the niece could email me. (Sure.)
And I met a professional fisherman who has liver cancer, who’d sold everything to move near his family in Washington.
I met a woman from Pasadena who’d visited her daughters in Seattle, who told how she spent an entire summer (and $80,000) in Mexico, one of the best times of her life.
I met a kid playing a video game called Fruit Ninja.
And I met a teenage girl named Kelley, who’s taking her entire high school course load online; traveling to Redding to spend time with her sister’s family on their Shasta Lake boathouse.
• If you don’t feeling like talking, you can just observe the scenery and watch your fellow passengers. There was the long-haired guy who set out a spread of bagels and a-nearly-empty jar of peanut butter on his seat tray. There was woman and a man who seemed to strike up a romance just outside Portland. By Albany they weren’t speaking.
• Bring something to pass the time. Many passengers read, slept, talked, played cards, listened to music via earbuds, watched movies on laptops, worked on laptops, ate, knitted, did crosswords, or just stared out the windows. I read an entire book on the return trip (“Those Who Save Us” by Jenna Blum – thumbs up).
On the trip to Portland I wrote. Trains are perfect for writers. You’re captive, you’re not home. You can’t procrastinate and start a load of laundry or yard work or decide to make nut bread or run to the store for something. You’re stuck on a train. You may as well write.
Besides, there’s plenty to write about. So many stories.
Like the story about the Redding woman who crossed “solo train trip” off her bucket list, only to replace it with Superliner Bedroom and Summer in Mexico.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.