There’s a lot to be said for train travel, especially in countries other than your own! We’re so used to traveling everywhere by car, or rather screaming down highways and byways at a break-neck speed, that we don’t really get to see the country around us – that’s almost certainly the case for the driver anyway! Traveling by train does offer the opportunity to literally sit back, get comfortable, and let someone else be the designated driver/navigator/exploration and adventure martyr – by martyr I mean being chained to the wheel without a seconds thought as to the world that’s whizzing by.
June 2nd and 3rd were two such days for us.
On June 2nd we started at the incredibly antisocial hour of 4am (no, not the train, just us. Why? You know how you get jet lag? Well, we have clock lag or forward lag rather. We cannot seem to get up at ‘normal’ times) to begin preparations for our immediate departure. A quick taxi trip later (we walked the day before, but for some unknown reason this didn’t seem like the brightest idea at 5am) and we were at Pacific Central Station ready and… waiting… Clearing US Customs didn’t begin until 5.30, so we had plenty of time to wander around, get a ‘cawfee’ as we heard someone pronounce it, and generally get a little relaxed. Customs was interesting, we’d already applied for our ESTA’s back in April, but completely forgot about the fingerprint scan and photo/facial scan or whatever the heck they do with that! Had a good chat with the customs official – and I do mean CHAT, not interrogation, he was stunned by our trip plans and admitted to being just a little envious, nice guy.
From there it was boarding the Cascades train, found our business class seats and slowly making our way south. We travelled down along the coast – big surprise for us – and had the incredible pleasure of seeing close to 10 Bald Eagles doing their thing, and some ‘mammal’ doing its, we say ‘mammal’ because we only just saw it duck under, so aren’t sure whether it was a seal or possibly an otter. Either way, we were too happy to care! As we were ‘ooing’ and ‘ahhing’ at this point we became aware of the other ‘special’ sighting we were being priviledged to witness. Seated in front of us were two mature ladies, dressed to impress, one donned a paper-boy’s cap and face swallowing sunglasses, whilst the other was more sedate in fashionable jeans and garish blouse. We could hear them discussing us, and our enthusiasm for ‘those animal things’ outside, and talking about other friends they would soon be meeting up with. For the next four hours we found ourselves privy to the real life dramas of the living embodiment of ‘Patsy and Eddie’ of Ab Fab fame. Patsy making inoxuous remarks about others faliures, whilst Eddie chimed in every so often with more timely gossip – usually revolving around another’s children who’s marriages had dissolved or who had fallen badly in the economic down-turn, and moved back to the family home, their friend having converted the lower section of their home into two independent apartments, how disappointing it must be for the friend, and how they’d never ‘help them out of their mess’. We didn’t know whether to laugh at them for not realising how cliche they were, or cry for the sadness at the lack of humanity they both showed.
Shortly before lunchtime we crossed over the actual border and underwent another round of questions from another, younger, officer – this one was shocked that we were so organised. Maybe being a touch OC is a good thing? For the remainder of the day we rattled on down the line, stopping here and there to let passengers off, or pick others up. At one station the driver made the announcement that ‘It’s a full train today ladies and gentlemen, so if you look around the carriage and see an empty seat, don’t worry, we’re gonna fill ’em up!’ – Patsy and Eddie were not happy, they’d smuggled in a friend from coachclass who now had to be sent back to the Siberian seats. Again we tried not to laugh.
Along the way we marvelled at the ‘changing’ scenery, whilst remaining in the Pacific Northwest we were stunned at how often the terrain varied. Mostly mountainous and covered in dense forest to the north, then a touch sparser down towards Seattle, thickening up again, flattening out, rainforest again, it was an ever changing landscape, and not for the first time were we glad we’d opted to take the train. Perhaps the only downside to taking the train was you didn’t always see the ‘best’ points to each city, being at the back of town we saw things that didn’t appear on the picture-perfect postcard. The guy on the side of the road selling Elk Jerky though was worth it, especially as the idea of dried ‘wild’ meat produce seemed thoroughly disgusting to Patsy and Eddie – they really were worth tipping, such a good show!
Eventually we reached Portland in the late afternoon, gathered our bags that we’d jammed into the baggage shelves – no risk of theft, we could barely pull them out! Made our way into the Union Station and were stunned at the beauty of it. Elaborate painted plaster ceilings, french polished seating for the general public, and of course, the Metro Lounge, for ‘preferred’ travellers, which apparently we were, and will be for the remainder of our trip. What a hoot! We made our way into the lounge, had a good chat with Frank the attendant, grabbed some juices, logged into the free wifi and awaited the next train. We didn’t have to wait very long before being escorted by Boyang to our sleeper carriage and given a general run-down of how the next few days would go. As we were joining the Empire Builder from Portland we didn’t have a dining car, so would be having a cold selection for dinner – sounded lovely to us anyway – but would be ‘fully functional’ by morning, after meeting up with the rest of the train in Spokane, WA. As afternoon gave way to evening we hurtled along through the landscapes of Oregon and Washington, again noting the change from lush mountainous areas to more barer hilly country that was littered with small lakes and rivers – oh, and tunnel after tunnel!
Our ‘cold’ dinner proved to be quite tasty, a Teriyaki glazed beef, with noodle salad, fruit salad and chocolate desert ‘thingy’. I have to call it that, we no one could actually tell us what it was, and as it didn’t last long enough to capture on film I guess we’ll never know! Boyang turned out to be a great guy, constantly laughing and cracking jokes, very chatty and couldn’t do enough to help us. We’ll no doubt have more hijinks with him before we reach Chicago! We’re looking forward to meeting up with the rest of the train, and seeing the famed ‘observation lounge’ and dining car. Yes, we know, it’s all about the food! Until then…