Monday, May 26, 2014

Ridin' the Rails

Your intrepid correspondent is back on the rails, right now between trips. After spending a few wonderful days in Everyone's Favorite City, San Francisco, I boarded the bus in front of the Ferry Terminal at the foot of Market St. that carried me over the Bay Bridge to Emeryville, from whence Amtrak runs all its trains in the Bay Area. A dozen delicious West Coast oysters from the Hog Island Oyster Co. in the Ferry Terminal--overpriced, yes, but excellent all the same (as well they should be)--armed me for the trip.

Amtrak's Coast Starlight, which started at Union Station, Los Angeles, arrived right on time and I found my roomette and hunkered down for the first part of the trip, up to Sacramento and thence north on an inland route through Chico and Redding, awakening in extreme northern California in the mountains near Mt. Shasta, noticing we were an hour behind as the train moved slowly around the curvy mountain ledges.

Beautiful scenery of course and it got even better when we crossed into Oregon, in and out of 22 tunnels through the mountains and then racing past lush green valleys.  The Coast Starlight represents in one small way an improvement over rail service in these parts in the pre-Amtrak days. Then if you arrived from southern California, you had to change in Oakland to one of three carriers headed north. Now you can take the one train that makes the trip the whole way.

Amtrak has tried to make the Coast Starlight somewhat special by including in the consist the Pacific Parlour Car, an old example of Santa Fe rolling stock that was built in 1955. It features nice plush armchairs and a small restaurant section with an alternative menu to the dining car next door. It also has the extra windows up top like the lounge car on the other side of the diner and a bar upstairs and downstairs.

The staff, as with all Amtrak folks whom I've encountered out west, is pleasant and friendly, if a bit California-style laid back. The diner doesn't quite open at the scheduled time. No matter. The announcements made it seem that you'd be lucky if they squeezed you in (although sleeping-car passengers get priority) but then you would find empty tables, unlike my experience on the Cardinal or the Southwest Chief. Of course, I was riding in the middle of Memorial Day weekend. And I shouldn't forget to mention that the lamb shank served for dinner in the parlour car was absolutely superb!

They made up the delay by the time we rolled into Portland at about quarter past three in the afternoon. An hour stop--not quite enough for a dash over to Powell's bookstore. Then on across the mighty Columbia, untamed by the eleven dams, and into Washington State, where we met the not entirely unexpected rain. King Street Station in Seattle, where the Starlight terminates, is beautifully renovated, but despite the bright white-painted plaster, the marble, and the floor mosaics and brasswork, the station has no services beyond a ticket office, rest rooms, and vending machines. 

By this time the train had taken advantage of all of the slack Amtrak builds into the schedules, andwe arrived there a good 55 minutes ahead of schedule, which left me an hour and a half to wait for the connecting bus to Vancouver. Amtrak runs trains to Vancouver but not one that connects with the Starlight--who knows why not? The bus was efficient, and not even disturbing to my system as they sometimes are, but we lost some time at the border because two passengers had issues.

Anyway, we arrived close to schedule quite late at night at the Pacific Central Station in Vancouver, where fortunately many taxis were in readiness for our dozen or so riders. I will return there tomorrow to board the Canadian (ViaRail train number 2) for the trip across Canada to Toronto. In the meantime, today was spent with friends walking through Vancouver's bustling downtown and back by city bus to the marvelous Museum of Anthropology on the University of British Columbia campus. The signs refer to it as MOA which I guess beats DOA. 

It has what must be the finest collection of totem poles and many other artifacts from the First Nations, as Canada refers to its earliest inhabitants, and almost everywhere else. Here is where I got to see pictures and objects from the Kwakiutl potlatches I studied about in the course I took at Cornell that somehow included some classic anthro studies by Ruth Benedict.

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