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TrainWeb Visitor Traveloge

Irvin Cuevas's Trip on Amtrak's Coast Starlight

The scenery unfolding before my eyes through the window of the Coast Starlight"s Parlour Car is spectacular. This is the only way to get the most from AMTRAK's premiere West Coast train. Go first class. That's exactly what I did, northbound from Los Angeles to Seattle.

For years, this trip has beckoned, but for various reasons, riding the Coast Starlight always seemed to get shunted aside or postponed, for other travel adventures, many of them via AMTRAK. Over the years I had taken virtually all the railroad's long-distance trains ... the Southwest Chief, the Empire Builder, the Lakeshore Limited, the Crescent, the City of New Orleans, and the Sunset Limited.

Recently, as I plotted my annual vacation, the questions arose: "what do I do ... where do I go"? I considered several options, then the lure of train travel became irresistible again, and I knew, just knew, that my next vacation trip would be built around the Coast Starlight.

Fast forward now, to a warm Tuesday morning, shortly after leaving venerable Union Station near downtown Los Angeles. I'm savoring a light breakfast snack of fresh fruit, cheeses, coffee and juice in the Coast Starlight's Parlour Car, just one of the amenities included with sleeper car accommodations. I had chosen an economy compartment for this trip. Actually, because of normal high demand, that was my only choice. That leads to a bit of advice when planning your Coast Starlight experience. Book early!

This trip began without a hitch, departing as scheduled at 9:30 a.m., arriving at our first stop at the Glendale station, on time. Normally this would be just a short pause, but not today. Problems are discovered in the plumbing of one of the sleeper cars. Thankfully and selfishly, it wasn't in my car, #32077, the "District of Columbia". My compartment, #14, is on the lower level, which I recommend, for its proximity to showers/toilets.

During the delay, I leave the train, and spend time on the platform, getting acquainted with some fellow travelers, and enjoy the early morning sunshine of a smog-free day. I strike up a conversation with a female traveler, and discover she is from Denver, and the wife of a wedding photographer who happens to know a former co-worker of mine in Atlanta, GA. As a personal aside here, that was during my days as a TV News Reporter at WSB-TV, Atlanta. Currently I am a TV News Producer/Writer at KABC-TV, Hollywood.

Meanwhile, AMTRAK mechanics brought to the train, conduct a thorough inspection, and determine the problem can't be repaired without an excessive delay. So the decision is made to resume the trip, now 45 minutes behind schedule, and have passengers in that sleeper use shower and toilet facilities in other cars. Those unfortunate travelers would be refunded part of their fare, but have to accept the fact their accommodations would be less that anticipated.

Back onboard and moving again, I have the late lunch service, choosing a very tasty Southwest-style chicken salad as my entrée. For dessert, I choose an ice cream sundae, topped with mouthwatering chocolate. I'll worry about the calories later.

My table-mates are interesting and talkative, the type of folks I like to encounter as I travel. Naturally inquisitive(what would you expect from a newsman), I quickly learn that the young couple from Tucson, Arizona are traveling to San Francisco, connecting to a cruise ship, and then on to Alaska. Also at our table is a 30'ish man, now residing in San Francisco, but originally from Perth, Australia. He tells us he's been in Southern California doing real estate and property management work. He says he "uses" the Coast Starlight as a way to unwind as he travels to and from business ventures up and down the state. I wonder whether AMTRAK uses such reasoning in its marketing efforts. It's a perfect tie-in with the Starlight's onboard ambience and the gorgeous scenery.

For a short while after lunch, I relax in my compartment, soaking in the scenery or reading a novel that always accompanies me on trips. Soon, announcement is made of the invitation to Wine Tasting in the Parlour Car. This is just another of the amenities of First Class travel on the Coast Starlight. Four tasty California vintages are served by Lead Service Attendant Patricia Mendez and Sleeper Car Attendant John Mason. Both employees are bright, personable and informative.

Another feature of this trip is entertainment during the afternoon Wine Tasting. Today it's provided by Comedian/Magician Mark Paskell. He's hilarious with jokes and card tricks, the frivolity is perhaps aided by the audience's wine-induced tipsy conditions(me included). Especially for the children, Mark twists and shapes balloons into all sorts of objects and characters … many resembling animals.

Indeed, all of us are "rollicking & rolling" on the rails, and it's still only mid-afternoon.

Desiring another form of entertainment, and inclined to savor all the Starlight has to offer, I next descend to the lower level of the Parlour Car, to the "movie theatre" for a showing of "CIVIL ACTION" starring John Travolta and Robert Duvall. The large screen video monitor is sufficient in size and the "theatre-type" seats are comfortable. The only things missing are popcorn … and air conditioning. Remember the troubles in Glendale I mentioned earlier? Well, it seems the mechanical problem also affected the cooling unit for this section of the coach. So, it's a bit hot and stuffy, but the movie is very interesting and I "endure" the inconvenience.

At movie's end, the first signs of sunset and deepening shadows are evident. Till now, we have been treated to scenery featuring the California coastline and its vistas of the Pacific -- surf, waves and rugged cliffs to the West and rocky and tree-covered mountains to the East. But now, we are in the broad expanse of the Salinas Valley of California … the vast agricultural center … the nation's "salad bowl". Mile after mile is farmland, some green and verdant with crops of lettuce and many other vegetables. And just as much of the land is brown and plowed, ready for the next planting in the endless cycle that provides so many of the foodstuffs that end up on tables across the nation and world.

There is a stop of a few minutes in Salinas for passengers to get on and off. I step outside for a brief spell, to stretch my legs and savor the cool, fresh air. It is a delightful interlude that also offers me the opportunity to say that I've "been" to Salinas.

But let's reboard the Starlight, and I do so with a healthy appetite for the 7:30p.m. dinner setting. My table-mates are my Denver "train friends" mentioned earlier. I choose the steak entrée, and must admit it is the not the best I've had on AMTRAK. Dessert is another story however. The chocolate/ice cream cake is scrumptious.

By now, dusk has given way to a darkness punctuated only by lights in homes, stores and railroad crossing lights as we zip northward. We are about 12 hours into our journey, and between San Jose and Oakland.

After some casual after-dinner conversation with fellow travelers in the Parlour Car, I retire to my compartment and the latest Tony Hillerman mystery novel. At about 11 p.m. I drift off to sleep, and with my internal clock ticking, awaken several times hoping to get a glimpse of Mt. Shasta and its snow-covered peak glistening under the full moon. Alas, it is not to be. Because we are now behind schedule, it would be daylight before Mt. Shasta is visible. But that's OK.

I awaken to a new day about seven a.m. with a robust appetite, and for breakfast choose french toast and bacon. It's not sufficiently warm, but with hunger and a crowded dining car, I decide not to make an issue of it. My table-mates are an elderly couple from North Carolina on a cross-country tour by train, plane and cruise ship. The silver-haired retirees are both gregarious, and we exchange pleasant conversation. Jokingly they say they are "spending their children's inheritance", as they enjoy their golden years.

We are now in the big timber and mountain country of Northern California. And yes Mt. Shasta in all its snow-peaked splendor is visible in the distance on this gloriously clear day of blue skies and scattered puffy, white clouds. I marvel at the passing panorama as Coast Starlight climbs over and through the Cascades. This is a dream fulfilled as I finally get an up-close-and-personal view of this gorgeous slice of nature—a part of the Golden State that till now, I've "seen" only from a jetliner at 30-thousand feet.

It is near mid-morning as we arrive in Klamath Falls, Oregon. We pause about 15-minutes for some routine service work and supplies. I detrain, and walk the length of Starlight's consist, enjoying the sunny sky, and brisk fresh air. It's quite busy at the depot as a number of passengers get off and on here. I decide to telephone my son Jason in New Orleans, but discover a fairly long line has already formed at the station's few pay phones. And before my turn arrives, the conductor's "all aboard" is heard, and we scurry back onboard.

During all my AMTRAK travel adventures, a highlight is the interaction with other passengers. My favorites have become the Amish folks I've met over the years. And this trip is no exception. I strike up a conversation with an Amish husband and wife and their son and daughter-in-law. I find them very friendly and talkative. They are a farm family from Nappannee, a small northern Indiana community between South Bend and Fort Wayne. Ironically, or coincidentally, this is just a few miles west of Topeka, Indiana, the home of another Amish family I met on AMTRAK's Southwest Chief a number of years ago. This particular family and I have maintained contact … exchanging visits and letters. They have even had me as a guest on their farm for days at a time, sharing their lifestyle … complete with such farm chores as milking and plowing and buggy-rides. WOW! Talk about an experience. But that's a story for another time.

Back to the Starlight, and the spectacular Oregon scenery. I have traveled widely in this great country of ours, and through Europe and the Far East. I can honestly say that nature's majesty Coast Starlight bisects is among the most awe-inspiring anywhere. As we round each curve, I anxiously await the next scenic offering. There are vistas for any visual desires you might have. There are snow-covered mountains, roaring white-water rivers in deep gorges, broad plains with placid lakes, forests filled with towering trees, beautiful blue sky as far as the eye can see, and huge jumbles of volcanic rock from ages-ago eruptions.

It is almost lunchtime, so I pull myself away from the scenery, for a quick shower in the lower level of my sleeper car. As most "" readers know, it's RV-style, but quite efficient and with sufficient hot water. Refreshed, I proceed to the dining car for a cheeseburger/fries/chocolate milk lunch. Yummy. I share a table with a woman and her teenage daughter. The mom is married, so my fantasy of perhaps meeting "Miss Right" on one of my train trips, fizzles. Oh well. We do enjoy "ooing and ah-ing" together as the photo-perfect scenery continues. We've now reached Cascade Summit and get a view of a very beautiful O'Dell Lake.

Then, it's into a gradual descent, moving toward Eugene, Oregon. We will go through more than 20 tunnels and snow sheds, and hug the steep western wall of Willamette Pass. Oh, my! What a thrilling ride it is on this stretch of track.

In the early afternoon, most first-class passengers gather again in the Parlour car for champagne and cheese and another entertainment showcase. Shortly thereafter, in Eugene, my new friends from Denver leave the train to stay a few days with relatives. Then in Portland, my new Amish friends leave the Starlight to connect with the Empire Builder to Chicago. It is with a bit of sadness that I say farewell, knowing our paths likely will never cross again. This however is a reality familiar to every traveler. It just means there must be more trips, to meet more like-minded folks.

Railfans get an added thrill on arrival in Portland. Well, two thrills if you're into railroad station architecture. Anyone who has seen Portland's station knows of what I speak. Its design and grandeur is a lasting symbol of the glory days of passenger railroading in the U.S. During our stop in Portland, I take the opportunity to stroll in and around the station, absorbing its beauty and atmosphere.

Now to the second thrill of the Portland stop. Sitting on the adjoining track is the new TALGO train, now in high-speed service between Portland and Seattle. Swifter than the Starlight, it would depart minutes ahead of AMTRAK. Because its revolutionary "tilt"system allows taking curves at higher speed, the Spanish TALGO covers the distance 30-45 minutes faster. Track and roadbed upgrades are enabling it to go even faster, and Washington state transportation officials predict increasing passenger loads.

Soon after the Starlight departs Portland, I'm back in the dining car for my final meal service of the trip. For dinner I choose the salmon entrée … it's a bit dry and salty for my taste buds, but this is still a nice dining experience, as I share the table with an elderly woman from England and a couple from Washington, D.C.

Trip's end is now only about four hours away, but there still is time for another visit to the "movie theatre" in the lower level of the Parlour Car. This evening's feature is "Message in a Bottle" with Kevin Costner and Paul Newman. The film's sad and touching ending seems only fitting, as now I feel a twinge of regret that my latest train experience is winding down, literally.

Soon, we arrive in Seattle … and after thanking and tipping attendants in the Parlour car and my sleeping car, I step off the Starlight, about an hour and a half behind schedule. But that's not a problem for me. I'm on vacation, and have no connections to make that night.

As you may have gathered from my observations of this particular trip. I was not as impressed with Starlight's food quality as I had anticipated from AMTRAK promotion, brochures and advertising. Hopefully, this was an exception rather than the norm. But with that said, I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the Coast Starlight and highly recommend it to train lovers.

As a footnote: my trip continued with a short cab ride to a Seattle Lake Union area hotel, to overnight. Then, next morning, it would be a flight on a Kenmore Airlines 5-passenger DeHavilland "Beaver" float- plane(something else I've always wanted to do) to the San Juan Islands. There I would spend several days at Friday and Roche Harbors, hiking, kayaking, whale-watching and savoring much fresh grilled salmon. At vacation's end, I returned to Los Angeles on United Airlines, which as you know is AMTRAK's and United's Air Rail package deal. It was an excellent combination for me, since I had just one week for this vacation, not time enough for an AMTRAK roundtrip. Also, if you are planning a similar trip, take the suggestion I took, and book the Starlight northbound, for optimum daylight scenery time. And book early! And book First Class. Demand is high, especially in sleeping cars. Bon voyage!

Irv Cuevas
Seal Beach, CA
April 23, 2000

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