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Eavesdropping on the Coast Starlight

A World of Stories Unfolds Onboard

Mija Riedel

San Francisco-based writer and photojournalist Mija Riedel writes about travel, art and the environment.

Usually I'm glued to the window when I travel by train, content to quietly contemplate the world unfolding outside — in this case, the 1,390 miles of rocky coastline, fertile river valleys and densely forested mountains that the Coast Starlight covers between Los Angeles and Seattle.

But soon after we left LA, in the half dozen booths around me, half a dozen interesting conversations were progressing: where to take high tea in British Columbia, where to bike the in the Pacific Northwest, how to stay happily married for 40-plus years. My focus shifted — as it had already four or five times that afternoon — from the golden hills outside the Pacific Parlour Car to the stories unfurling inside. One of the train's greatest pleasures is eavesdropping. On the Coast Starlight, it isn't so much rude or overfamiliar as an accepted means of introduction, and the Parlour Car is especially well-suited to host the enduring, overlapping, intriguing conversations that can continue on, for hundreds of miles — through meadows, marshes, and alongside the Pacific — straight from breakfast through lunch, from wine tasting to dinner to late night dessert.

U.C. Irvine professor Dave Bruce and his wife, Mary spent their last vacation hiking in France.

I was traveling roundtrip on the Coast Starlight — two days from Los Angeles to Seattle, two days in Seattle, and two days back — so at first, I wasn't alarmed to find that an entire afternoon had disappeared in Parlour Car conversation. I still had three and a half train-days to go — plenty of time to separate myself from fellow passengers and study the Salinas and Willamette Valleys, the Cascade Mountains, Mt. Shasta and Puget Sound.

I relaxed into a banquette, across the table from Dave Bruce, a historian from U.C. Irvine, and his wife, Mary, who were sipping pinot gris — the first of four wines we were to sample during the Parlour Car's afternoon wine tasting. Mary was describing the cave paintings they'd seen recently while hiking in France in honor of their 40th anniversary.

"Forty-eight!" a lively, gray-haired fellow called from across the aisle, where he and three friends were sampling pinot noir. He leaned across the aisle and whispered in my ear, "It's the little things."

I glanced back over my shoulder; the trio sitting catercornered to my right had been laughing for half an hour — deep belly laughs that made everyone else in the car laugh too. At least some of their high spirits could be traced to the cabin attendant, Michelle Orr, whose dry sense of humor did as much for the overall giddiness of the Parlour Car as the California appellations she was pouring, and some to Michelle's assistant, Herminio Vargas, whose ongoing litany of wry one-liners sent everyone within hearing distances into borderline hysterics.

"The staff's sense of humor sets the tone," a woman in the booth directly behind me remarked, "Here you cannot help but relax."

The Coast Starlight hugs the Pacific, sometimes just a few yards from the sand.

She had a point. If one isn't inclined to see the Arcade, the Dining Car, the Observation Car, or the Snack Bar, there's really little reason to leave the Parlour Car. There are only five in service in the U.S. — and the only place to find one is on the Coast Starlight. Each car has three sections, and guests with sleeper cabins can have breakfast, lunch and dinner here, on tables with white linen tablecloths and vases of fresh flowers; they can sip coffee and tea in the café from just after dawn till way past dusk; they can curl up in one of the lounge's oversized armchairs and watch the entire West Coast — from the Pacific Ocean to the Pacific Northwest — pass by, outside windows that extend from table height into the ceiling. And they can converse, without pause, from the dining end of the car to the lounge.

Across the table from me, Dave moved on to the petite sirah while Mary studied the hilly vineyards disappearing to the east. "Riding the train is just the best thing in the world," she said, turning back to pair a cube of Gouda with a cracker. She and Dave had traveled extensively overseas, but now, she said, "We're seeing America — by train. A quarter mile off you can see the interstate highway, but on the other side, there's goats."

Aileen (left) heads off for a two-week bike trip, and Kenny and Robin continue on for high tea at the Empress Hotel.

By the time Michelle poured the riesling, most of us knew that Kenny and Robin Lovato — two of the threesome filling the dining area with increasingly irrepressible bouts of laughter — were en route to British Columbia to celebrate their 30th anniversary.

"High tea," Robin's laughter eased into a full grin, "at the Empress Hotel."

"After thirty years," Kenny said, "You just sort of give in. Of course, we went fishing last week."

Robin and Kenny and their newest dear friend, Aileen, a serious bicyclist from San Luis Obispo, were still sipping riesling when I headed back to my cabin for a quiet moment before dinner. When I returned, two hours later, they were still in the same booth, though they'd switched from riesling to petite sirah, and from cheese and crackers to plates of zinfandel braised chicken, and beef in port and goji berry sauce.

That evening and the following day passed in much the same manner and before I knew it, it was the last seating for dinner. Passengers were finishing their final bites of scallops or short ribs or carrot cake, and the Parlour Car had erupted in spontaneous applause for the unfailingly good-humored Michelle. A few hours later, I was flagging down a cab on King Street in Seattle, still thinking about Aileen's upcoming bike trip around four Northwest volcanoes, and the passenger who had finally made Herminio laugh — wandering down to the bathrooms in swim trunks and a towel, asking for the pool. And I was trying to figure out how, exactly, I'd completely missed both Mt. Shasta and Puget Sound. [continued...]