The comfortable sights of home flash past as you come to the next town. This too is fairly well-known but from this point on it will become less-so, diminishing the bank of the familiar until it is run down and every sight is a new one. New cities, new faces, new weather. A mountain for which you have no name comes into sight. Perhaps you come from a place that does not have mountains, and now, emerging as terrible as biblical reckoning, as unbelievable as storybook, here is a shape, a form, whose every contour shouts out MOUNTAIN. You breathe in, satisfied that this is why you have left home.
Now you have to think, did you do everything? Are you really prepared for uncertainty and your life previous for abandonment? Check your pockets. Pat your bag. Didn't you have a hat? And what about that friend whom you owe $10? Then there's that charity you said you'd give your time to in October. And that shirt, the one which you got at the thrift store for a song and whose tag is written all in Italian. The one that makes you look like you've come to ask a favor of Don Corleone. You leant it to a friend who needed to make an impression on a job interview. Or was it a date? He must have had it by now. You will have to find out how it went. He may have your hat. You will be going back afterall. What a relief.
The train goes on carrying me northward, snug as a tapeworm in the gut of my host. I love the shaking chassis, the muffled sound of the whistle from inside the carriage, the stream of urban lighting flickering past the window, the smells of antiseptic and perfume and marijuana and body. I love taking off my boots of going about the cars in my socks, despite the irritation of the attendants. I love bringing my own provisions aboard - ryevita, almond butter, goat cheese, strawberries, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, granola, a mango, 70% dark chocolate, beer. I love most everything about this magic conveyence that bears me away through the night. Even those things that I wouldn't love elsewhere - the malfunctioning toilets, the lack of timeliness, the re-circulated air - I forgive. Afterall, for long distance travel trains are a sentiment.
Here on the Coast Starlight - Amtrak's West Coast Service - I can read, or talk to other passengers, play ukulele, or just look at a landscape which rises and fades at a stately pace. Klamath Lake, Cascades, Willamette Valley, Eugene, Portland, Olympia, Seattle, near cultivation and distant wilderness. Occasionally the train parallels the highway, but mercifully these miles are few and so I am given a view that is largely natural if not purely wild. Thoreau hated trains, but he didn't know what was coming. There are few modes of travel which still allow for such comfort. Ferries may be the only other comparable transportation now that dirigibles are gone from fashion. Cruises don't count since they lack even a pretense of practicality.
I've come onto this train because I had a yen to head up to Seattle to see some friends and to get some film developed at a favored processor. Really though, I was obeying an imperative migratory urge. I was feeling as Steinbeck had when he wrote Travels with Charlie, a need "to be somewhere, anywhere, away from any here." Seattle was just a happy pretext. I needed to go more than to be someplace, and to that end I could have chosen Wichita, or Calgary, or Istanbul. Too, I went because I love coming back as much as going out. I needed to leave so I could return.
This particular route offers what for many is the vision of a train ride across North America: long, hollow stretches of railway cut through a corridor of towering evergreens. The scenery is magnificent. When a valley drops to one side of the tracks, one can look out on mountains that were they east of the plains would have been appropriated as national icons during the formative years of the Republic. But since the incoming populations came largely from the east, passing more grandiose monoliths en route that well-matched the growing nationanalism, these modest pinnacles are not much noted save by logging companies. A middling 7,000-9,000 feet, barely keeping their snows through the year. Some mountains.
At Portland a duo of volunteers get on to give the history of the Northwest in the cafe car. Their commentary goes from diverting to tolerable to escapable and I creep back to my seat to read. However, there's further interruption. The landscape becomes familiar, but then with enough travel every place takes on a shade of home. Look - there's the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. There's Mount Rainier and there's Puget Sound, mirror-flat in the sunset. (Thought: how far could one go in a rowboat from Olympia? To Victoria? To Alaska?) There's Seattle rising up from its nest of shipping containers. The clock tower looks the same. King Station is under renovation. Is that cafe still open in the University District? The one with the exceptionally attractive staff?
The train comes to stop, and I exit with my bag onto the street.