Coast Starlight to Seattle
February 12, 2007
by Skip Schiel
© All text copyright Skip Schiel, 2007
Just leaving Dunsmuir, near mt Shasta, 3 hrs late, climbing into the mts, along a racing raging white watered river, thru a few hamlets drenched in the early morning drizzle, I sit in the lounge car gazing out at this landscape. Louise brought me to the Martinez station at about 1130 pm, 1/2 hr after the planned arrival time, but we'd learned it was to be 1.5 hrs late, and this schedule held. I waited alone, after bidding a sad goodbye to my partner of nearly 18 years, now reverting to friends, long time, maybe long term.
The scene from the train is this: fog, overcast, water dripping from the windows, a grayness pervades the atmosphere. Occasionally something like a white plastic chair along the river glares out, breaking the monotone. Thru much of this run, the track seems single, but at one pt we passed a parked freight train heavily loaded with wood, logs and lumber. Water abounds here, rivulets entering the main stream, waterfalls, no water scarcity here, that I can detect.
I swivel my seat to view both sides of the train, river now on the left side. The earth has turned brown, from fallen leaves and dried dormant shrubs. Many trees are down, both conifer and deciduous. The train carves a living corridor, existing for the moment, then evaporated. I have to wonder how the track is maintained, whether the rail bed occasionally washes out. Any disasters? Near misses. Catastrophes.
A group of young men sit next to me, talking about drinking beer--this early, 815 am. I imagine the buddy mentality, prevailing in the military, bonding to the pt of insanity and eventual death, for others and self.
We are now high over the river, curving away from it. Who were the first people thru this region, predating whites? And then who were the first whites? The first train travelers, what was their mission, their impression, their speculation, their loves, yearned for and lost? Did young women ride this way to marry men in Seattle during the days of female depletion? Did Chinese build these roads? What did native people think when they first encountered the iron horse? How was this region formed? Glacially? Uplifts? Volcanism? Isn't mt Shasta, which I believe we're near, volcanically formed? The fog outside is thickening. If we walked, or drove, or flew, we might have to lay over waiting for it to clear. But the train, is it impeded?
Arriving at Dunsmuir, the conductor announced we'd have only 4 minutes precisely for an outside stop; freight was on our tail. Those left behind would need to wait 24 hrs for the next train. On a recent stopover a young girl decided to walk to downtown and was left behind. The train departed, carrying her luggage and computer, but not her. Fair warning.
The first sign of snow a slight powdering on only the most exposed sections of earth, roads and paths. As the fog thickens, altitude increasing. The train lumbers on. I'm so pleased to be not missing this by sleeping in, as most of my fellow passengers seem to be doing. Now thick rock outcroppings, perhaps granite, with an admixture of sand. I can imagine Nipponzan Myohoji going thru this region, or Louise and I on a backpacking trip. A changing vista, a changed imagination. This writing aboard the tardy coast starlight is fascinating and for me unique. Rarely do I write from a moving platform, rarely about unfolding scenes. Rarely observing so many people.
A couple behind me chatters away, sounding loving and committed. A young blond woman with one son wavers thru, the top of her breasts conspicuously revealed. Is she fishing? Or simply wishing to look her best? She reminds me of my fabled "train lady," an imaginary sexual encounter that was my first adulterous affair, albeit a fantasy.
I meander, I'm off track, the changing scenery prompts changing themes. Where next?
Tree stumps. Logging? But otherwise little sign of the timber industry near the tracks. Perhaps further in. How are these trees affected by global warming? What will be the succession forest when these are no longer able to adjust to warming? Will this landscape become denuded? We seem to be leveling out, an abundance of conifers, a few ranch like spreads. Vistas, but because of the fog, blankness, wonderment, what lies beyond? As when viewing a shapely woman wearing a clinging gown--what riches lie beneath the fabric, the fog?
I have finished morning coffee, is that a sign I should more on, to another modality like reading, or to another station, like the serving bar in the middle of this car where I can plug in my computer and recharge the battery? At least I can clean up my spelling and grammar, await further inspirations.
We might be passing thru Yreka, home of Betty Ann, Louise's aunt, and former home of the dear Gordon Dunlap. --No, checking the map, that was mt Shasta city, followed soon by mt Shasta itself. We'd been along the Sacramento River, and the highway was #5. --We are along a major highway, the snow is slightly thicker on the ground. Now sunshine, the first of the day, more a glancing blow, a splinter, than an enduring ray. But lending hope. My photography depends on light, and to this pt I've simply not had enough. Now the sky is showing cloud definition--cirrus, nimbo stratus, low lying clouds in the mt peaks. Many peaks in the distance, if only I could get a clear view. We frequently go behind cutouts and trees.
The train corridor narrows, we are significantly higher, snow is about 3 inches thick, the sun is shining, we've seen and I've photographed mt Shasta and the hillside on the left or west of the tracks. More people are assembling in the lounge.
Earlier, the snack bar lady treated me to coffee after I'd handed her my reusable coffee mug, refusing payment, then did the same for the next customer, saying to him, I can't charge you when I didn't charge him, meaning me. We chatted about this arcane system Amtrak uses to count sales. Is she bucking the system, acting from malice, simply doing good to worthy people? She also confirmed my suspicion that Amtrak recycles virtually nothing, bottles, cans, plastic ware, even pillows, as a few passengers overhearing our conversation and I thought.
At the Martinez station I discovered that what I thought was my e ticket was not. Checking on the computer, the drowsy couple staffing the late night station--kept open until train arrivals, despite the late hr--informed me that I'd already received my ticket and they wouldn't give me another until I paid again. I could dig out my first ticket (in my stored package in Napa about to be mailed to my home by Louise?) and either use it as a 100% voucher for one year, or cash it in losing 10% in the process. I'd made the wrong assumption, basing my assessment on air travel protocol, lesson learned.
Passing thru what looks like a red pine plantation. Flat, dull, no view. A small rd on the right. Huge cumulous clouds. I could write like this all day.
Now low lying clouds, frozen puddles and streams, a darkening day. As the landscape changes rapidly, so does the weather.
Time to pee, maybe poop. Lug my gear with me. Prevent theft. Trust no one.