Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Come Ride With Me...Part 4

Are you ready for the return trip to Idaho? I boarded Amtrak in Bakersfield around four in the afternoon, the same commuter train, the same long slog through the San Joaquin Valley. I briefly had a seatmate who knew something about the area so found out that this is mostly farming - lots of different nut and fruit trees as well as grapes, garlic, and vegetables. I wasn't paying much attention on the trip down, but now I did see lots of trees that were probably of the nut producing variety. Still, not much to see so I mostly took advantage of the free wi-fi to catch up on e-mail and blogs. Going north, I did not have to do the brief bus connection, transferring instead directly to the Coast Starlight from the Martinez station. Fairly new relatively speaking and nondescript, this station struck me as strictly functional but clean and safe for my approximate hour layover. Well, slightly longer as again, Coast Starlight was running a bit behind. By midnight, I was snug in my roomette, sleeping in a bed while the train continued north to Portland.

View of frozen lake and snow-capped mountain from dining car

And thus, I commenced the much more civilized way to travel long distances by train. A roomette includes your own private compartment in a sleeper car (take the virtual tour here), a porter to attend to your needs including making up your bed at night and converting it back into seating for day, access to bottled water, juice and coffee pretty much anytime right in you sleeper car, meals in the dining car and wine tasting in the afternoon. The difference having slept horizontally in pajamas versus partially reclined in my clothes with a bunch of strangers was striking. Adding a roomette is not cheap, but oh so worth it. Much refreshed, I had breakfast in the dining car with this view (I think we were around Klamath Falls, OR), and amicable conversation with a couple from Salem and an elderly man from the Bay area who owns a condo in Sandpoint where I live. Small world syndrome.

One of the reasons Amtrak may run late on these longer runs is through no fault of their own; it shares track with freight trains who have priority. If there is single track and a freight train coming from the other direction, the Amtrak train must pull off on a siding and let it pass unimpeded. Usually these are short waits. But what if your train is headed into the mountains of Oregon and a freight train has broken down up ahead? Well, you have to wait until the train is fixed or can be moved off onto a siding. While eating breakfast, the train had come to a stop, and not on a siding. The announcement came that an 8000 ft long freight train was blocking the tracks ahead, broken down. Next we heard that the delay would be even longer since the crew sent to fix the train had reached the maximum time it could work during its shift, and now we were waiting for another crew to arrive. Another update informed us that the latest plan was to break the train into two parts to more easily get it to a siding. We sat for 3 hours while whoever worked on clearing the track so we could proceed on our way.

So what does one do for three hours on a train? Well, I was comfortable in my roomette, and feeling the urge at last to get out my sketchbook. I'd asked my 6 year old grand-niece if she would draw me a picture in my sketchbook before I left, telling her she could draw anything and use her crayons if she'd like. "Oh, pretty!" she commented about the cover (one I made altering the basic padfolio pattern I use), and then checked out the pen and pencil tucked inside. She only paused for a moment before taking off. I was most intrigued that her first strokes were to draw the leaves, then the stem, whatever that is at the base, and finally the petals. I definitely would have drawn the stem first, then the flower and then the leaves. She alternated between pen and pencil, even though there was little visual difference between the two. Next came the sun, the cloud and I think that's rain. Finally she signed her name followed by a heart - sweet! I shared that an artist always dates her work too and we added that under her name. I let that memory of watching her work, the satisfied look when she was finished, the total inhibition of the process inspire me to turn to a blank page.

Casting about for something to sketch without much enthusiasm, I remembered my Zentangles. Well, sort of remembered them. I have a little notebook where I've recorded many of the tangles and the sequence in which some of them are drawn. I haven't Zentangled for awhile, so I was struggling to remember designs and how to do them. But as you can see, I managed to do two - marveling at how they filled the time. I would not have been able to work on them had the train been moving - just too much movement to draw.

As I finished up the last of the shading, the train got underway. I watched the scenery, Oregon's lovely broad expanses and mountains thickly covered with conifers. No snow - it's been a pretty dry year.

And then it was time for lunch! I have always been impressed by the meals Amtrak puts out - as good as a fine restaurant with an amazing number of options. Dessert wasn't on my radar until I saw the waiters passing by with them. Oh yes, a beautiful round of strawberry cheesecake that was perhaps one of the best I've ever had.

During lunch the train had stopped again - that freight train still blocking the way. I returned to my roomette and did some stretches and a little more sketching (hemlocks with their distinctive drooping tips) and enjoyed my limited view (look - snow!). We lost another hour before getting moving again. But it meant I had ample time to attend the wine tasting, meeting another interesting group of people.

Amtrak train & bus station in Pasco, WA

I'd started to do some calculations now. I only had a two hour layover between arriving in Portland and boarding the train east for the last leg of my trip and my current train was at least 4 hours late. My previous experience has been that Amtrak will hold those connecting trains so transferring passengers aren't stranded. I was confident that I would not miss my train and have to wait til the next day's run. I was partly right. After the wine tasting, I got word that the decision had been made to get the eastbound Empire Builder underway, and transfer those of us connecting to it onto a bus when we arrived in Eugene. Yes, I know - a bus. But it was a pretty nice bus, there were only 15 of us so we could spread out, and Amtrak had bought food and drink for us. Actually, it wasn't much different to riding coach in terms of comfort. We hightailed it up I-5 and up the Columbia Gorge to make connections with the train in Spokane - about 9 hours away. We made one stop to let off passengers in Pasco, WA. 

We'd been driving through fog for awhile, and it had frozen to the trees around the station. So beautiful, and I would have missed it had the train been on time. Yes, always looking for the bright side.

We got ten minutes to stretch our legs and I spent it racing around the parking lot snapping pictures. (Again, I'm betting I was getting puzzled looks.) Then it was back on the road with an estimated arrival in Spokane of 1:15 a.m. I finished up the book I'd brought brought along and then got some sleep.

Empire Builder leaving Sandpoint ID for points east

The train was waiting for us in Spokane as promised and left pretty much on schedule. An hour later, I was stepping off in Sandpoint, right on time (middle of the night, 2:34 a.m.) Bye bye, Amtrak. Unbelievable considering how much time we were trying to catch up, even though Amtrak is known for building cushions into their schedules.

This is what I love about Amtrak. Rarely do they strand their passengers with canceled trains. They do their best to get them to their destination, even if it means busing them around problem areas to catch another train, even if they are running way late. They take care of their passengers, and the passengers appreciate it. If we were in a hurry, we would take another form of transportation. I haven't heard much grumbling amongst passengers in my travels. It's not necessarily cheaper than flying or driving (although sometimes it is), but we're not looking for cheap. We're looking for a different quality of travel. We only wish there were more parts of the United States serviced by Amtrak. Maybe someday - ridership increases with every year.

Thanks for coming along for the ride. And kudos if you've managed to read through my lengthy travelogue and not just look at the pictures. ;-) It was the break I needed and I'm ready to get back to the studio. 

1 comment:

The Inside Stori said...

Thank you for the was so interesting and your return on Amtrack actually sounded doable!!!