15 September 2010

[liff] The Tom Peterson Watch Takes Seattle, Part 3: The Amtrak Cascades

2493.This is a chapter in a story that was continued from here.

We stood at the doorway to something I'd never done before; taking a train. I was excited, and The Wife™ was excited for me, as this is something she'd got to do, but never me.

My expectations were a little high, and swathed as I was by the nostalgic atmosphere of Portland's justly-renowned Union Station, I was in high spirits as we were finally admitted out the door. The air of nostalgic near-luxury faded away pretty quickly however: approaching the train, as modern as it was, as something of a slog.

It was memorable in its tedious way counting down the cars til we came to ours. We were in car 8.

I just didn't know what to expect. But, despite the spare nature of walking up to the train (I mean, I knew there wasn't any such thing as a docking tube ... but wouldn't that have been awesome) my excitement was still pretty solidly there. I like the feeling of putting myself in the hands of a trusted crew, of being whisked to another destination without having to worry about my car breaking down enroute. In my mind, I was that seasoned train traveller out of the 1940s, with a felt fedora and a natty suit, and The Wife™ was dressed something like a sophisticated noir chick.

Trains are awesome that way.

Actually, another thing that was awesome was the interior of the train itself. it was one of those Talgo trains, and the inside reminded me of an airliner cabin - at least the few times in my life I've been on one of those.

Tom found it, of course, perfect:

We sat in our assigned seats, putting the seat and row slips in the clip over where we were. This was something I didn't expect, but it makes sense ... that way nobody sees your empty seat and helps themselves to it. And that was important since, as the engineer said, the train was booked solid.

There was several minutes of everyone arranging themselves, people finding seats, and playing with the tray table, until - with a inside-thrill - we got started.

The common thing between Portland leaving and Seattle arriving is that both routes start out of industrial areas. Portland's, you probably all know. But the juxtaposition of natural splendor and industrial flats always gives the eye a feast, in my opinion.

You can have your own opinion. It'd be wrong, of course, but you're welcome to it.

The train's progress over the Willamette gave me a unique perspective on the Saint Johns Bridge:

... which arched in guardian splendor off to the north. The train then cruised through the cut through the North Portland peninsula; I remember chattering some small talk about how these are the memories that make a lifetime with my wife, the modest ones in interesting circumstances; the train proceeded over the might Columbia, with the Interstate Bridge and Wy'East in the distance on one side ...

... Mt Hood is a little tough to see in this resolution, but it's there, trust me ... and the Vancouver port on the other side ...

... and, after a stop at Vancouver's Amtrak station, the trip really begun in earnest. Here was Terra-still-Incognita for me, and the beginning of a three-hour journey along the rails of western Washington.

My love wondered if it were possible to buy a ticket just from Portland to Vancouver. I have found out that this is indeed possible.

The Amtrak fare from Portland to Vancouver is $14.

The trip takes 15 minutes.

Slightly less than a dollar a minute - isn't that absurd?

I should have had the camera snap a few more pix along the way, I know. The interior of Western Washington, though, is something I've seen before, and I was getting into seeing the same sights I usually saw from I-5 though from the train. It, like western Oregon, is miles and miles of pleasant green, small houses on big farms, pleasant countryside. It was beautiful though unremarkable, though this is the area I've lived in all my life, so, perhaps I could be forgiven a sort of jadedness ... but make no mistake about it, I may take it for granted, but I love it more than life itself sometimes. I've seen some other areas of the USA, and ours is a beautiful country, but Cascadia beats them all.

The stop in Centralia was charming. The town sits astride the tracks and the station is in the middle of downtown, looks like those stations, say, President Truman or Roosevelt might have done a whistlestop at, and a very charming painting of the old Hotel Centralia on a wall visible from the train.

Electric lights, steam heat, and a horse-drawn hack to meet all trains. They sure know how to treat the traveller, in Centralia.

The train stopped at Kelso, Centralia, and Olympia/Lacey before breaching the Puget Sound. Centralia was the only real preposessing stop - the rest seemed unremarkable and forlorn, especially Olympia's, which was located on Yelm Hwy some miles southeast of Olympia. I was hoping for a look at Oly's Capitol building, but that was not to be. Soon enough - and it's a good thing because the rushing greenery was actually contributing to The Wife™'s motion sickness (not Amtrak's fault - she's just prone to that, poor dear, always has been) we saw the Sound.

I always thought Puget Sound was one of the coolest things going. It's like being at the ocean without having to go to the ocean; the sea comes to you. And I love the scent of a sea breeze. And the geography of the Puget has always enthralled me. I love the quirky little islands, all of which have some sort of a ferry landing.

The Saint Johns Bridge isn't the only suspension span you get to see from the train. The rail goes along that long sweep of curved coastline along the back side of Tacoma, and you get marvelous views of the now two-span Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

The old one has that Golden Gate Bridge feel, and the new one has that modern, spare, almost Swiss feel to it. I understand the newer one is a toll bridge, which frets me; I've lived too long in Oregon, I suppose, where there's no toll roads to speak of although, I understand, some misguided souls are working to change this. We should hope that they do not succeed. But I do digress, don't I?

Rounding the top of the peninsula Tacoma's built on, We finally get our first look at Mount Rainier ... and if you didn't know you were in Seattleland yet, doubts come removed right here.

There's a massiveness to all Cascade volcanoes that I just can't capture with my little ol' faithful Plastic Fantastic. But I wasn't struck by anything so much as how Rainier loomed, dominated its landscape, even across an industrial district.

I adore Hood, but a little corner of my mind wishes she were more like Rainier. Washington got all the really good mountains, including the one that blew up. Say lavee, as the Frenchies say.

Sidling along Tacoma's downtown we go between the commercial center on the right and the dockland flats which is on the left. Connecting them is this nifty cable-stay bridge, which carries S. 11th Street (if my Tacoma geography is correct) over one of the industrial waterways:

The train then carries us a little south and east of downtown, as the station is near the Tacoma Dome, and then southeast toward Puyallup, thence north through the Duwamish River valley into the south side of Seattle. I saw us passing up what looked like Amtrak stations but which, I found out later, were actually Seattle's LINK light rail stations, and affording at least one more magnificent view of a magnificent mountain:

... and that's all I have for now.

But, before I leave off, riding the train was a fun experience. I enjoyed the strangely-organized space, the interiors that felt like an airplane ... the restrooms were more comfortable than I expected, the tray-tables less. While we had food available on the train, it was kind of pricey, so we brought along peanut butter for her, potted meat for me, tortillas, and made ourselves little rollups right there in our seats.

Travel food never tasted so good. And, yes, I like potted meat. All I'll say about that, right now, is that you know what you think Spam is? This is what it really is. I can't explain why I like it ... but I do.

But however you do it, travel on a train with your love. You'll never regret it.

To be continued.

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Ben said...

The train stations are actually "Sounder" stations, for the heavy double-decker diesel commuter rail (like WES on steroids).

Amtrak does share one, the stop at Tukwila - but I think the train may only stop there by request, not on schedule.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

Thanks for the correction, Ben. You're absolutely correct: I'm getting my LINK and Sounder confused. I'm planning on asking my doctor about this.

Seriously, I saw some of them parked on the tracks at King Street Station getting ready to go for the afternoon. I think I have a few pictures hence.

Benjamin Lukoff said...

There's another Seattle-area Ben reading this blog?!

Yes, your Tacoma geography is correct: that's the Thea Foss Waterway, part of what was once the Puyallup River delta.

I'm surprised you've never taken the train up here before! Glad you finally did it.

Oh, and as for toll bridges in Oregon, you're forgetting the Bridge of the Gods! My wife and I were just down in Bonneville Hot Springs (in North Bonneville, Washington, a mile west of the dam), and used it to cross the river at Cascade Locks, so we could take I-84 into Portland instead of the two-lane WA-14. $1 each way.