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Eavesdropping on the Coast Starlight

A World of Stories Unfolds Onboard

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Night fell. My focus shifted from sights to sounds — the wheels' low rumble on the tracks, the occasional deep whistle of the train, the murmuring voices of the Argentinean family next door, the whooshing of the air conditioner, the ticking of my alarm clock. There were no big city lights near Upper Klamath Lake or Klamath Falls. The dark sky expanded and shrank with clusters of stars, four especially bright, maybe the big dipper — it was hard to tell as the train curved around along the shoreline, and my view changed. I couldn't bear to remove my glasses or close the curtains, so I woke up over and over again staring into a soft, ever-shifting skyscape.

At first light, the Coast Starlight curves around Oregon's Upper Klamath Lake.

When I next opened my eyes, the sun was rising. Palm trees framed the cabin window, and bicycles lined the peach stucco walls of an old adobe train station. On closer, still-sleepy inspection, every visible, vertical surface seemed to prop up a bike. Davis, California is considered one of the two most bicycle-friendly places in the U.S., and the view from my cabin early on a Sunday morning confirmed the claim.

At ten minutes to seven, the train pulled out of Davis and turned into the southernmost fringes of the Sacramento Valley — miles of flat, open land bearing thousands of sunflowers going to seed, and watery marshes filled with deep green and rust grasses, and white egrets. By seven, we were running in tight tandem to rumpled golden hills, and I had a newly exact, physical understanding of the word "valley."

We arrived on the shores of San Pablo Bay half an hour later. White egrets with long black legs stalked the mud flats. Low-flying seagulls flew over a few discarded car tires standing upright in the shallow water, a lone blue heron, and white pelicans resting peacefully by the rocky coast, brilliant in the low-rising sun. Purple morning glories draped the length of a rusting wire fence, masking the peeling facades of the buildings beyond. I've lived in the Bay Area for over twenty years, but these views were a first. From this vantage point, two stories up, I could see images of America one rarely sees: bays the size of small seas, mom and pop businesses, protected wetlands, defunct quarries, steep peaks bordering deep valleys, and the very edges of the West Coast.

Except for the rumbling of the train, the world was silent. Wrapped in my blankets and propped on my pillows, waking slowly in concert with the sleepy world outside, I thought this must be the antidote to road rage, the digital world, and general frenzy. I remembered a husband and wife on the first half of my trip, staying in the cabin next to mine. The husband called the cabin attendant to ask if he could pick up the internet anywhere. The attendant shook his head. The wife responded instantly, "That's so great!"

Palms line the Pacific coast as the train travels between Pismo Beach and Ventura, California.

At Pismo Beach, just after 3:00, we picked up the Pacific Ocean and for the next hundred miles, the train hugged the coast, sometimes just a few feet from the sand, zooming by kelp beds, dolphins, scores of gray pelicans, a couple of sea kayakers, a man waving beside a palm-thatched lean-to, caravans of RVs flying wind socks and pirate flags and, on a tiny deserted beach, a lone figure in red swim trunks, dripping wet, talking on a cell phone.

We were just a few hours from Union Station; it was time to track down the New York-New Orleans-Chicago-Portland-Los Angeles train marathoner. I found him reading a book (one of my favorite pastimes, but something that had never occurred to me since boarding the train). He had a neighborly disposition, an easy laugh, and stylish brown shoes. He introduced himself as Jeff Traintime.

Much as I'd have liked to, I couldn't quite take this on faith.

Fortunately, without a word, he reached into his back pocket and produced a California driver's license: Jeffrey Traintime.

Traintime was, as one would expect, a connoisseur. His dad had worked for the railroad all his life, and Jeff took his first long distance rail trip at the age of five. When he finally left Wisconsin — with his rock and roll band — it was the band's lead singers and chief songwriters (Lightning Dan and Johnny Denim) who dreamed up Jeff's stage name. And once Jeff settled into the music business in LA, his surname was only slightly curious.

It still occasionally raised eyebrows, however, when he booked a sleeper cabin, and Jeff has been on just about every long-distance train route in the U.S. — at least once. "This is such a great way to see America," he said, "the long distances in the west, how the geography changes dramatically in an instant."

I asked Traintime about train talk — were my Coast Starlight conversations an unusual stroke of luck?

Jane Parkinson, the Coast Starlight's Parlour Car's LSA, with Jeff Traintime.

"On this trip," he said, "I'm batting about nine out of ten really good experiences. The communal dining car seating has grown on me. In the past ten years, I've come to see it as the high point of the trip, really — not only are you seeing America but you're getting to meet, at random, real Americans."

This reminded me of something the Sleeping Car Attendant, George Giordano, had told me a few hours earlier, as I headed out of my cabin in search of breakfast: "The Dining Car," George said sagaciously, folding blankets and shifting bedrooms into daytime quarters, "is the heart of the experience."

I mentioned this to Traintime and he responded immediately, "Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer."

"Except," I said, thinking of Dave and Mary Bruce, and Michelle Orr, and Ed Littrell, and a dozen other unusually interesting and kind people I'd met over the past few days, "maybe dinner in the Parlour Car." 

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