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Eavesdropping on the Coast Starlight

A World of Stories Unfolds Onboard

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One gloriously sunny and one moody, overcast day later, I boarded the southbound Coast Starlight at Seattle's King Street station at 9:15 am By 10:45, I was seated in the Parlour Car, nose to the window, camera at the ready, studying the fishermen casting long lines into Puget Sound, determined to focus on the world outside the train for the next two days. In the overstuffed swivel chairs beside me, two men discussed the islands fast disappearing behind us, and the condition of a couple madrone trees. Some people might find it hard to identify a madrone at 50 miles an hour, let alone determine how it's feeling, but not Ed. "Too much salt," he said, studying the mudflats of the saltwater estuary. Ed was a biologist — I'd been listening in on his conversations on and off for 20 minutes — and he'd spent 19 years with the California Department of Fish and Game. He was exactly the type of passenger I was hoping to meet, an expert on the history and geography of the train's route.

The historic Tacoma Narrows Bridge crosses southern Puget Sound.

The Southern Pacific's flagship train, the Coast Daylight was the first passenger train to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco, starting service in 1937 with great fanfare (Olivia de Havilland christened the train's maiden, northbound voyage). The red, orange, and black Coast Daylight was recognized as both the most beautiful and best traveled train in the U.S. The contemporary Coast Starlight takes its name from that historical steam streamliner, and the Starlight, which began traversing the same route in 1949. Up until 1971, a passenger wishing to continue on from San Francisco up to Seattle had to switch trains, not once but twice. Today, the Coast Starlight is arguably the most environmentally sound way to cover the same distance, releasing half the carbon emissions that one would if driving or flying.

Over the next few hours, we passed under the long suspension bridge at the Tacoma Narrows, through Kelso-Longview ("Smelt Capital of the World"), over the bridges and rivers of Portland, and passed half a dozen timber mills. I stayed put, content to study the details of the landscape with an intensity driving doesn't permit, and to eavesdrop on Ed's stories. Ed, I'd decided, had a photographic memory. He spoke quickly, in complete, fact-packed sentences, spiked intermittently with wry asides. By the time the Coast Starlight arrived in the Willamette Valley, around three, I figured I knew him well enough to ask him about the grassy crops blowing outside.

"Looks like wheat," Ed said, jiggling his cork-soled sandal, and studying the fertile fields through wide, wire-rimmed glasses, "somebody in agriculture probably could say for sure if it was wheat or rye or oats."

I joined Ed and his wife, Marsha, in the dining area to sample chardonnay, shiraz, and Snoqualmie White Stop Red from Washington's Columbia Valley. The train paused briefly, allowing us to study the crops more closely while a freight train passed by, heading north.

Blue skies above Portland's Union Station.

"I drive up I-5 occasionally," I said, "I've never seen any of this."

"5 looks like this," Ed said, quickly.

I took a sip of my shiraz and tried to visualize the scenery on the sides of the highway, "I remember it being much more mountainous, not so many crops."

"And that's why you take the train," Ed said, delivering the line totally deadpan, "You can look at stuff."

A fellow behind us could stand it no longer. He turned fully around in his seat, "Are you with the California Department of Fish and Game?" he asked Ed. "What do you think of wetland banking?" He extended his hand. "My name is Gary Price, by the way, sorry to crash."

"Oh no," Ed said, "I do the same thing."

Ed summed up the finer points of wetland banking in two minutes and moved on: the history of the Willamette Valley's salmon and steelhead rivers, how to catch a duck in a funnel trap, and the preferred routes of 19th century fur traders.

Around 5:00, we returned to the lounge and the train began its slow ascent into the Cascades. The sun-dappled boughs of Douglas firs bent tight around the upper windows of the Parlour Car, so close I could see individual pinecones. We passed incense cedars and elderberry trees, threaded through a dozen tunnels, and climbed up beside the steep peaks of Salt Creek Canyon.

Dick and Ann Roby and Mary Kay Madison toast to new friends.

"The Siskiyous form the boundary between Oregon and California," Ed said. "They're high and rugged — we have to go around them, through the Cascades. Back in 1830s, maybe earlier, French trappers came through these mountains looking for beavers."

Snippets of conversations from nearby passengers drifted in and out of our own: an older woman quietly celebrating this journey as a notch on her bucket list; a father's first solo trip with his 10 year-old daughter; a soft-spoken fellow on the final leg of a five-night rail journey from New York to LA via New Orleans, Chicago, and Portland — I turned half-way around to ask how that was going but stopped, just in time. Tomorrow, I told myself, over lunch.

To avoid further temptation, I pried myself from the Parlour Car, bobbed down the sleeper car aisles, and settled into my cabin and the quiet rhythms of the train. Evening shadows stretched across the tops of the surrounding mountains as the Coast Starlight crested the Cascade Summit and passed some of the highest mountains we'd see — Diamond Peak and Mt. Scott, each well over 8,500 feet, and Mt. Thielsen, well over 9,000. [continued...]