We were nearly 300 miles into our 1,400-mile trip on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight when it dawned on me to check on the kids. I veered down the aisles of two passenger cars to the observation car, where my 9- and 13-year-old sons had secured a table and layered it with books, tablets and enough snacks to satisfy a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker.
But their eyes, like those of most everyone else lucky to snag a seat in the glass-ceilinged car, were trained on the views that mark the stretch between Santa Barbara and Salinas, California – rolling hills blanketed in yellow and orange wildflowers, windswept sand dunes, linear fields of lettuce and strawberries. Even the fogged-in coast that day didn’t deter from the novelty of the experience, and passengers swiveled in their chairs or walked freely around the car to get just the right camera shot before it disappeared in a blur.
Airplane travel, this was not.
Last spring, my family and I took the coach version of what is widely considered to be America’s most beautiful train ride. We paid about $600 for the four of us to travel from Los Angeles to Seattle and back.
In the days leading up to our departure, I worried that we should have anted up the extra money for a private sleeper unit (and the white-tablecloth meals that come with it), because we would end up spending our four-day layover in Seattle sleeping and recuperating instead of enjoying the city.
In the end, though, there were few regrets. Our reclining seats were wide and roomy, and easy access to the observation car and snack bar gave us an unexpected freedom to spread out and separate when familial wars of attrition set in. By the time we disembarked 36 hours later, we were disheveled and a bit achy, but reveling in the extraordinary, off-the-highway views we had just witnessed and feeling impressed with the cross-section of people who use train travel as a practical, social way to get from one destination to another.
The train’s departure from Union Station in Los Angeles on a sunny Friday morning at 10:10 sharp was inauspicious enough. The hurried mind-set of urban life vanished as we kept pace with cars traveling on the freeway and rolled past backyard trampolines and clotheslines. We learned quite a bit about train etiquette in the first hour. For instance, it’s routine, almost expected, to ask strangers where they are headed and why they picked this particular route. The retired man behind us, a veteran rail traveler, was on his way home to Bellingham, Washington, after taking the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Los Angeles. A grandmother from Los Angeles was bound for southern Oregon to see her daughter and grandkids, grumbling cheerfully that she was going to insist that they all come to her next time. A college student with a duffel bag that almost filled an entire overhead compartment was heading home to Sacramento for spring break.
We also learned that dining-car reservations are taken very seriously. In a voice reminiscent of a preschool teacher, an attendant announced soon after we left L.A. that staffers would be moving through the cars taking lunch and dinner reservations (with sleeper car passengers getting first dibs). Then she repeated the whole spiel, twice. There was a waiting list by the time staffers reached the coach cars, making us glad we opted to take advantage of the limitless luggage policy and pack a cooler full of sandwiches, cheese, nuts, wine and chocolates. Most of our seatmates ended up with microwaved pizza and burgers from the snack bar.
We picked up other spoken and unspoken rules as we rolled along: You may only get off the train to stretch or smoke at designated stops such as Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Don’t wander around shoeless, or you may be ordered back to your seat like a dunce-capped student. Quiet times, at least in our experience, were respected for the most part; even midnight stops seemed deliberately subdued.
Just when restlessness began to take hold about 20 hours in, and the passenger cars started to smell faintly like a yoga studio, along came Mount Shasta. Waking up to the sight of the snow-capped mountain, California’s fifth-largest peak, as we neared the Oregon border was a highlight of the trip. The views had transformed overnight from coastal plains and farmland to pine forest and rock glaciers.
The panoramas got even better after a brief stop in Klamath Falls, Oregon. We enjoyed our snack-bar coffee, hot chocolate and doughnuts while staring at the shimmering rim of Upper Klamath Lake then winding through remote snow-covered forests in the Cascade Mountains just north of Crater Lake National Park. It re-energized us for the remaining eight hours to Seattle, along with the festive, almost-there vibe among the standing-room-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 at King Street Station on the morning of departure rested and wielding more confidence about what to expect. (Not to mention more cold drinks and snacks.) The views of Puget Sound south of Tacoma, so close to the water that it felt as if we were on a ferry, were just as impressive the second time around.
Things got even better in California, when docents boarded the train in San Jose and entertained passengers with lessons about historical tunnels and the train’s partial convergence with the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, the overland route taken by Spanish settlers in 1776 from Colonial Mexico to San Francisco.
By the time we approached Vandenberg Air Force Base north of Santa Barbara, the sun was shining, the horizon clear of fog. We passed SpaceX’s West Coast launch complex, where a week before the Falcon 9 rocket had shot into orbit as part of the Iridium-5 satellite mission, as well as fields of bright yellow coreopsis that appeared to spill lavalike down ocean cliffs. We saw remote beaches and a handful of couples and families taking swims and quiet strolls. Our friendly conductor, who had joined all the beholders in the observation car, swept his hand toward the shimmering sea.
“This,” he said with a big grin, “is my office.”
There were smiles and envious nods, but everyone kept their eyes fixed on the horizon. Our train adventure would all too soon come to an end.