Riding the Pacific Coast Starlight
Train travel is usually advertised as a comfortable and relaxing way to get from A to B. In America, railroad monolith Amtrak invites passengers to “enjoy hassle-free travel” alongside stock pictures of happy couples gazing out clean windows at sparkling vistas. Like a real estate advertisement for an apartment that features a picture of a nearby park rather than its cramped interior, Californian train travel is sold with pictures of national parks you’ll pass at 4am, rather than the views you’ll really see. Fortunately, what you behold is a different kind of beauty.
The Coast Starlight is Amtrak’s most successful line and it runs daily between Los Angeles and Seattle, but my journey will end in Oregon. The dawdling train leaving Los Angeles Union Station spends its first hours trying to shake off the city’s expanse or, to paraphrase a one-time visitor, its ripped backsides. Miles of warehouses, office buildings and squat rail-side outhouses sprawl and rise to the edge of the scrubby hills from which you’re never far in southern California.
Big cars ease across empty landscapes on wide roads. Others gather amid dusty sunshine in vast shopping mall car parks that return a gaze with a rippling flash of windscreens and the shadows of spindly floodlights. Over and over, the gleaming office building or low windowless warehouse gives way to the car park, the concrete waterway, the high fence and new building sites, the unzoned urban wilds of the most-seen city on earth.
Moving north through Simi Valley, seemingly empty apartment blocks, identical except for the five-digit number stamped on their walls, replace the used-car lots and strip malls with cheap signs reading “E-Cig and Vape”. Curtains drawn, blinds closed, windows tinted. Faded signs invite new tenants. Only Chinese restaurants show any sign of life. Barren hills grow steeper before fields and horse ranches become more common.
Oxnard, Oxnard, next stop Oxnard. If this is your stop, please alight here. Walgreens, IHOP, 7-Eleven, Tuff Shed, Action Trophy, Barber RV. Water restrictions are a recurring topic of conversation in California and throughout the train, passengers comment on the sting of residential water restrictions amid the sight of dozens of flickering industrial sprinklers and miles of lush orchards.
North of Oxnard we get our first view of the Pacific Ocean and the famed coast along which Highway 1 travels. A fellow passenger tells me, “It’s almost as beautiful as your Great Ocean Road”. It’s hard to argue; the similarities are striking. Glimpsed between tall trees and sloping houses, the turquoise waters spread out from a long flag-lined pier.
Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles and Salinas are strung out along the coast showcasing vineyards, farmland and forested ranches. From a clearing below the tracks, a woman on horseback gallops towards us, riding her horse hard for a mile or so alongside our carriage before laughing and waving farewell and disappearing into thick woods.
The last RV beach camp, the first almond plantation, the announcement of a well-timed wine-tasting in the parlour car. Sample the wines from the vineyard you’re passing through, announces a cheerful voice over the speaker. We swing away from the sea and into the hinterland. As the exurbs of the San Jose/San Francisco/Oakland sprawl grow nearer, the landscape shifts back to a spread of light industry, lit up like dying candles. The sky reveals early stars.
Oakland Jack London, Oakland Jack London. Dusk has turned to night as the estates turn to suburbs and the apartment buildings grow narrower. As we ease north and away from the metropolis, we journey into the small hours; 1am Davis, 2am Chico, 3am Redding. All is black outside. The occasional lights of a regional city, petrol stations, convenience stores, the drab back of a mall. Nothing to distract from sleep.
Trees. Sunlight. I wake as we reach the Oregon border. Douglas firs and conifers spring tall and gangly from high hills and distant slopes. We’re higher and it’s colder. The landscape shifts again as we approach the town of Klamath Falls. Track works ahead will keep the train here for two hours. I abandon it for the cool thin air outside.
Klamath Falls is home to a curious range of architecture. A giant Art Deco theatre, a Modernist assembly hall of corrugated iron and square glass panels, red brick tenement buildings with evenly spaced windows and external fire escapes, more a film set than a street.
Blooming pots of flowers spill from the curlicues of wrought iron beneath Victorian-style street lights. It’s the sort of town you forget still exists in 2018. Main Street is home to a Bedford Falls-like range of family businesses, antique shops and regional banks. Posters for the Klamath Falls Gems baseball team recur in shop windows and there’s a wilful disregard for fashion that is like a balm after the desperate cool of Los Angeles. A man sitting out the front of a closed pizzeria nods hello to me. A passing jogger does the same.
Back on the train, we soon pass Upper Klamath Lake, a long, still, swampy shallow body shadowed by distant forested hills. Birds bother its fringes and the occasional pelican flaps over reed beds that poke above silvery water. At first it seems like a river, long and thin, but soon it becomes closer to a sea, with the other side barely visible from the train line as it rounds the shore.
The trees close in around us, occasionally breaking for a ravine or peeking highway. Towns appear as low wooden houses, tall silos and rusting car yards, staking out their space. They recede quickly and only a few roads and the occasional winding river mark the territory as connected to the rest of the world. Unincorporated communities may barely rate a dot on a map, but several of them constitute an Amtrak stop. Chemult is a truck stop that seems to have more petrol stations and motels than residents. Broken-down diners mark the edge of the highway that barrels down its broad centre. Everything is for sale or rent. Faded pastel concrete and dusty wooden walls prop up the low-roofed motels that seem untouched since Norman Bates went to jail. Sixteen-wheelers roar by, briefly drowning out the sound of ringing tills as shopkeepers try to keep up with the sudden influx of passengers making the most of the hour they’ve been given to spend here as Amtrak negotiates further track works. The highway is still home to a bright blue church, a cinder-block post office and a diner with a broken window and dusty booths and tables. Outside, an old sign promises burgers and malts.
Chiloquin, Kirk and half-a-dozen other stops flash by as we pass through the forests, the afternoon light lending the hills a golden glow. Douglas firs jut from the mountainside like overlapped seismographic readings. Approaching the college town of Eugene, we follow a slow shallow rocky river, then a yellow-lined road with signs promising “Elk”, “Rocks” and “Danger”. Occasionally, grassy floodplains, crystal blue lakes or valleys open out below us, temporarily offering a glimpse at the shape of the land before being snapped shut by dark green sunlit forest.
After miles of ivy-clad houses ridden with mould, cars on cinder blocks and abandoned warehouses, Eugene arrives like a bright outpost of Silicon Valley. I ignore the train steward’s advice – This is only a short stop and passengers should not leave the train – and make a lunge towards a nearby second-hand record store. The city smells of refried beans and wet trees. Minutes later, I’m back in my seat, holding a clutch of seven-inches bought from a hippie startled by my whirlwind raid.
I pull the curtain against the bright angled sunlight coming in over the timber yards that ring the edge of Oregon’s capital, Portland, known as the Rose City. We’ve left the forests behind, and now we follow highways and the Willamette River north to a different Union Station. As I exit the station’s sliding doors I’m confronted by the smack of a sweet scent. Dozens of rose bushes cluster in a garden around the station, their perfume a forceful reminder that there is no longer a window between the traveller and the world.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 22, 2018 as "Blurred on the tracks". Subscribe here.