Almost 300 miles into our 1,400-mile journey on Amtrak's Coast Starlight, it dawned on me to check on the kids. I drove down two passenger cars to the observation car, where my nine- and thirteen-year-old sons had piled a table of books, pills and enough snacks to satisfy a Pacific Crest Trail Thru Walker.
But like all who were lucky enough to get a seat under the glass ceiling of the car, their eyes were turned to the view between Santa Barbara and Salinas, California. Hills with yellow and orange wildflowers, windswept dunes, linear fields of lettuce and strawberries. Even the foggy shore did not interfere with the experience, and the passengers swung around in their chairs or walked around the car to take the correct tracking shot before disappearing fuzzily.
It was not a plane trip We took the tour bus version last spring, which is considered America's most beautiful train ride. We paid about $ 600 for the four of us to drive from Los Angeles to Seattle and back.
I was worried that we would have to spend the extra money on a private sleeper unit and white tablecloths so we would not sleep and recover from our four-day stay in Seattle.
In the end, there was little remorse. Our reclining seats were wide and spacious, and the easy access to the observation car and the snack bar gave us an unexpected freedom to spread and separate when family wars of attrition set in. When we got off 36 hours later, we were disheveled and a bit painful, but reveling in the extraordinary views we have seen and impressed by the people who use trains as a practical, social way of getting from one destination to another.
The departure of the train from Union Station in Los Angeles at 10:10 am On a sunny Friday morning it was unfavorable. The hurried spirit of urban life vanished as we kept pace with cars on the highway, rolling past backyard trampolines and clotheslines. We learned a lot about etiquette in the first hour. It's routine, almost expected, to ask strangers where to go and why they chose this route. The retired man behind us, an experienced railroad traveler, was on his way to Bellingham, Washington, after taking Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Los Angeles. A grandmother from Los Angeles had gone to South Oregon to see her daughter and grandchildren. She grunted cheerfully that she would insist that they all come to her next. A college student with a travel bag that almost filled a baggage compartment drove to Sacramento for the spring break.
We also learned that reservations for dining cars are taken very seriously. In a voice reminiscent of a preschool teacher, shortly after we left L.A., a servant announced that the staff would drive through the cars to reserve lunch and dinner (with the sleeping car passengers coming first). Then she repeated the whole game twice. There was a waiting list when the staff reached the coaches, which made us happy that we had decided on the boundless luggage policy and packed a fridge full of sandwiches, cheese, nuts, wine and chocolates. Most of our neighbors had pizzas and burgers from the snack bar in the microwave.
As we drove on, we came up with other rules: You can only get off the train to stretch or smoke at certain stops such as Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Do not wander around without shoes, otherwise you may be sent back to your place like a bagpipe student. Silent times, at least in our experience, were mostly respected; even midnight stops seemed intentionally subdued.
Just when the unrest began to seize about 20 hours and the passenger cars began to smell faint like a yoga studio, the mountain Shasta came. The sight of the snow-capped mountain, California's fifth largest peak, was a highlight of the trip. The view had changed overnight from coastal plains and farmland to pine forests and stone glaciers.
After a short stop at Klamath Falls, Ore, the panoramas got even better: we enjoyed snack-bar coffee, hot chocolate and donuts shimmering edge of Upper Klamath Lake, then meandering through remote snow-capped forests in the Cascade Mountains north of Crater Lake National Park. It enlivened us for the remaining eight hours to Seattle, along with the festive, almost-da-vibe between the standing-only crowd in the observation car.
After four days of sightseeing in Seattle, the kids were less excited about the train ride back to Los Angeles. But we arrived rested in the King Street Station and were more confident in what we could expect. (Not to mention more cold drinks and snacks.) The view of Puget Sound south of Tacoma, so close to the water that it felt like we were on a ferry, was just as impressive on the second time.
Better in California when the students boarded the train in San Jose and passengers with instructions about historic tunnels and the partial approach of the train with the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, the route that Spanish settlers moved from Colonial Mexico in 1776 San Francisco undertook, entertained.
As we approached Vandenberg Air Force Base north of Santa Barbara, the sun was shining and the horizon was clear of fog. We passed SpaceX's launch complex on the West Coast, where a week earlier the Falcon 9 rocket had been launched as part of the Iridium 5 satellite mission, and fields of bright yellow Coreopsis that seemed to overrun lava-like sea cliffs. We saw secluded beaches and a few couples and families swimming and taking quiet walks. Our friendly conductor, who had joined all the spectators in the observation car, stretched his hand towards the shimmering sea.
"That," he said with a big grin, "is my office."
There was a smile and envy nodded, but everyone stared at the horizon. Our adventure would come to an end all too soon.