Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Denver to Seattle by Amtrak

There’s a stereotype that autistic people love trains. No one is quite sure why, but I have been into trains since I was a kid, and I enjoy travel by train. Back in 2014, I took a solo train trip from Denver to Seattle. It was my second time to the area, and the journey to and fro was far more interesting than the trip itself. I spent three weeks writing at a spiritualist camp between Tacoma and Seattle. I would nearly finish my first novel, Cast Iron. However, the travel was the real part of the story.

See America by Train

The first thing you have to know about traveling by train in the US is that the train is always late. Unlike the Eurostar that swept me from Paris to London, Amtrak doesn’t keep a schedule. Trains show up when they arrive, and the time of departure on your ticket has very little meaning. The rolling stock is vintage at best. Your destination is written on a small ticket and slipped into a slot above your seat. Small pieces of luggage sit in the same space. Large pieces of luggage go into the baggage car or more conveniently at the vestibule of your car. In 2014, my ticket read Sacramento, the western stop of the California Zephyr. I wouldn’t get my little slip for Seattle until I boarded the Coast Starlight complete with a special observation car and lounge. 

Passenger rail travel in the United States has been nationalized since the 1970s. When passenger rail became unprofitable by the railroads, the government, in a truly socialist move, nationalized it. Amtrak, like it’s defunct British cousin, was meant to provide transportation to places where airlines would never go. While trains do go to every major city, they also go to places where even United Express won’t bother to fly. This would be a valuable part of mass transportation if they bothered to run on-time.

America has gotten a new obsession with trains, COVID-19 has put a wet cloth on them but in pre-covid days, cities spent millions on remaking their train stations to turn them into transportation hubs. It is in one of these stations I sat waiting for my train in Denver. Union Station had been remodeled to be filled with shops, a bar, and 19th century reproduced furniture that harkened back to the founding days of the town in 1851. Denver was bypassed by the trans continental railroad which ran through Wyoming, which boasted a flatter route through the Rockies than the towering 14ers in Colorado. However, fortunately for the beautiful people of Denver, a branch was quickly built from Cheyenne and train service arrived in Denver to the rest of the country. For a little while, it was thought that Denver would dry up and everyone would move to the rail head in Cheyenne, but that was not the case. Denver became the big city in the mountain west.

Finally, my train showed up. It halted into the station and rolled to a stop. I dragged my luggage out to the platform, and soon I was on the train a new city. We passed west of Denver and passed my Aunts house by the railroad tracks. It blurred by. I knew it would make her dogs bark. I waved, although I knew she wouldn’t see me. The train pulled out of Denver soon enough and began its winding way through the mountains and the tunnels that had been blasted and dug out to accommodate the rails. The world just rolls by, people wave at you from the road; everyone is excited to see a passenger train with real people on it. I don’t understand the compulsion, but it is a common one. Perhaps it’s merely an acknowledgment of travel.

I knew I wasn’t going to sleep much on a train like this without some chemical help, so I secreted a cannabis vape in my bag for the journey. I had my regular vape with me as well for station stops, but this was how I was going to sleep. I would inhale inside my hoodie and hold it so long that there wasn’t hardly any smoke to come out. Do this two or three times, be nice and high, and sleep would soon arrive. Keep this in mind as it becomes all the more important later on as the story progresses.

On board comfort on Amtrak is difficult. The seats are old and not terribly comfortable. While no worse, than an airline seat, you’re stuck in them for a couple of days. At some points, you can’t find a comfortable way to sit in them. You end up standing just to give yourself a break. I really should have brought more food with me. The on-board restaurant was far too expensive to use for every meal. The best way was just to snack along the way and wait to get a proper meal at your destination in a couple of days. This is the pattern I followed. I did not have a bunch of money to spend $30-$40 a meal or about $150 a day on food. The train doesn’t stop long enough at stations to get anything there, so you’re stuck with the food cabal and its high prices. There’s not much to do on a train. Cellphone signal is spotty, so it’s taking trips to the observation car to see the scenery better or quiet reading and contemplation. I likely should have been writing, but I wasn’t. I was too occupied talking to people or simply watching the truly stunning landscape.

A different scenery

The scenery from the train is quite different from the regular road routes. Even if you jump off the interstate, rails can go places that regular roads just can’t. Outside of Klamath Falls, Oregon, the train passes through a dense and untouched forest that is a post card. There’s no cellphone signal and so you’re left with the beautiful views of the lakes, rivers, and streams. It is picturesque to say the least. While there are many portions that do go alongside the highway, rails often break off on their paths that have been in place for 150 years or longer. From tunnels to wild animals, this is one of the true joys of train travel.

The Train People

You are sure to meet interesting people on the train. On my outbound trip and return trips, I met a variety of interesting people. Some of whom stand out; others like the older couple just going over the mountains blended into the transient background of traveling. You’ll see people like one woman who lived in a rural area and was traveling to another rural area via train and bus because it was too expensive to driver her minivan to see her family. I also saw people who were combing out wigs on the train, tending children, and doing the normal vicissitudes of life at 50 mph (ca. 80 kilometers per hour) on the rails. Train cars became giant living rooms where everyone was just doing their thing in their own little space. It is very reminiscent of train travel in the rest of the world. Everyone is going somewhere and since the train is traveling a long way, people do whatever they need to do.

That One Girl

On my return trip from Seattle back to Denver, I met a woman who was heading east for a political campaign. I think I made the mistake of talking to her too much. I liked to walk the length of the train for exercise, and one time I saw her seat and stopped for a quick chat. Instead, she offered me her iPad, so I could watch a movie. I sort of felt like a child and moved on quickly. She was traveling for a political convention, and we definitely talked shop for a little. After the incident about the iPad, I merely waved at her in embarrassment. I wanted to avoid seeming like someone who needed taking care.

The drifter 

I ran into this man twice, once on my trip out and again on my trip back. We traded numbers and such and kept in touch, although we have since lost touch. However, it was 7 years ago as I write this. He seemed to drift from place to place and from job to job, working enough to get down the road to the next place. He had a snake bite piercing which was prominent when he talked. He was rather short, skinny, and sported a tan of someone who spent a lot of time outside. His hair was short and scruffy. He sat near me on the train, and we bonded over the fact I had a cannabis vape, and he wanted to smoke out. Smoking, especially cannabis, always brings people together.

The Nerdy One

The Nerdy One was tall, ginger, and sported a freckled face. He joined Americorps because his parents felt like they needed to get out of the house. Somehow he felt the best way to make his journey from the cybernetic world of video games and anime to Seattle by America’s unreliable and aging train service. He had more luggage than I care to think about. He just had to bring all his gaming stuff with him. This added up to at least six suitcases by my count. He was pleasant and fun. He is the type of person I would have never met but for Amtrak. We operated in very different worlds. Between him and the Drifter, we just decided to stick together.

How’d you like to spend 12 hours in Sacramento?

Sacramento is an interesting town. The downtown seems rather dead. There are many banks but not much else. Most everything was closed, despite it being a weekend day. Sacramento, like many cities on the west coast, is a delightful mesh of Anglo-european architecture and habits and southeast asian architecture and values. Just outside the train station, a large apartment tower loomed. It looks to be several small apartments, but the residences all had satellites and many sported a variety of flags, presumably from countries of origin. It looked like a little slice of Hong Kong or Kyoto.

The historic downtown area is not to be missed. They have turned their historic downtown into an old-west playground. You can also see where the city was raised up to combat flooding from the American river. You can climb down and see how they jacked up the whole town so that when the river flooded, the businesses along the river would stay dry. Alongside that, there are plenty of places to eat and little tourist things to do. It is fun and easy to walk around, and there are trees to shade you from the sun. You do really feel like it’s the old west, complete with authentic buildings. However, it was my two train companions that made things interesting. The Drifter and The Nerdy One kept me on my toes. It was with these brothers of the rails that I would spend 12 hours in Sacramento.

On the streets of Sacramento

We had to change trains in Sacramento, and the next train wouldn’t be along for 12 hours. My adhoc companions and I talked about seeing a movie, but it appeared I was the only one who had the money for such a thing, so we skipped it and just kept avoiding the heavy police presence and smoking weed watching the world go by. I’m pretty sure the Drifter was using the both of us as a sort of cover. No one would harass him if he was in the company of more respectable people. He had the type of look that drew police attention. Young guy, obviously transient, and likely up to no good. I have to say that his behavior was acceptable.

Once we left the old west portion of the town, we walked back out into what amounted to a nearly deserted downtown area. The lack of people, especially on a weekday afternoon and evening, was a bit eerie. There seemed to be a bank on every corner and more than a few abandoned buildings and storefronts. It looked like a city that was ripe for redevelopment. We walked around the area until the sun began to set. The trio agreed that we had better get back to the train station around dark. We were strangers in an unfamiliar city.

We waited at the train station until late at night. When we were finally able to pick up the Pacific Starlight going north. Not only was the train terribly late, but there were very few seats on the train. My companions and I were spread out across several cars but agreed to meet in the observation car. We passed the night until we grew tired and decided to make our way back to our seats and try to get some sleep in the crowded rows.


The scenery of southern Oregon streaked by the windows of the train, and every scene seemed to be a postcard. The area around Klamath Falls and Klamath Lake was simply gorgeous. It was a view of the world I had not seen before. Now I felt like I was in the Pacific Northwest with its forests full of green. My companions began to peel off the train. The Nerdy One was headed for Oregon, so he was the first to get off the train. The Drifter got off somewhere in Washington, he and I stuck together for the longest. It was my turn at Tacoma to get off the train. I collected my bags and waited for my ride to my final destination. I was tired, smelly, hungry, and ready for a good meal and bed: typical travel.

On the Return

Tacoma was fun for three weeks. I discovered a tea house and used the local bus system often to get around. I walked around the local area and made use of the local library for its air conditioning and free wi-fi. I met with some cool girls on the bus and bumped around downtown Tacoma with them for a little. Tacoma was a city in transition, with its good blocks and bad blocks. I enjoyed my time, and it would lead to me moving to the area a month later. I’m still grateful for all the dear friends I’ve met here and the impact they’ve had in my life. This trip was not done yet. I had to make the trip back.

I got to the little train station in Tacoma (which has been moved) and waited in the stuffy air for the train. Since the train only started in Seattle, it was relatively on-time this time. I boarded the nearly empty train and waited for it to make its way down to Sacramento to do the trip in reverse. I saw more country this time as the trip was taking place mostly in the daytime and the time down to Sacramento was quiet. I had no companions this time and the train slowly filled up, but we had no shortage of seats.

I didn’t do much in Sacramento this time, as my train arrived in the middle of the night. I stayed in the train station. I didn’t meet anyone on the train this time, so I was alone. I contemplated going over to the movie theater, which was a 30-minute walk away, but ultimately rejected the idea. I stayed put on the long wooden benches in the train station.

I did, however, meet someone on the platform waiting for the East going California Zephyr. He and I would become fast friends over cannabis and spent the night in the observation car talking about his new weed grow. We stayed in the observation car talking for a while. I drew up a plan on how to build the grow higher using tiered platforms and to put them on wheels so that they could be modular and easily accessible for maintenance.

Getting out of town was no easy thing. The police were on the trail or something or someone, and they were searching the car. Knowing that I had an illegal substance on me meant I had to use cunning to duck the police. I stuffed my cannabis vape at the bottom of a Ben Sherman day bag and made my way to the observation car to meet my new friend. I have to say that staying in the observation car was his idea as a way to duck any police searches. I tucked my bag under my feet, so it looked like it wasn’t carrying anything. We waited patiently for the police to give up so the train could leave. I breathed a sigh of relief as the train pulled away into the night.

Two others joined us at some point, and we wiled away the house of inky night until tiredness began to overtake us. Fortunately, this train was fairly empty, so we could stretch out and get some decent sleep. I popped up the next morning and made my way down to the snack car for something to eat. The day was going along fine until disaster struck.

We were crossing the Nevada desert when the power in the train car went out, the A/C ceased, and the train rolled to a stop on a siding. We were used to stopping to let freight trains pass by (the freight companies own the rails) but this was different. After an interminable wait, we were finally informed about the problem. The baggage car had a short and the power from the engine couldn’t reach the rest of the train. It was 3 hrs in the heat before they could reorganize the consist of cars to put the baggage car at the back. The train staff said that such a thing had never happened in their experience before.

It became a bonding experience for we passengers. My car was relatively empty. There were only 4 of us. One fabulous gay hairdresser had large fans to keep ourselves cool. I kept in touch with him for a while until he eventually drifted off. Last I heard, he was in Salt Lake City. We sat, we talked, tried to keep cool and because there was no power that also meant no food and no snack car. It was a long, hungry afternoon until they fixed the train. After a four-hour delay, we were back moving and much cooler once again.

I ran into the Drifter again later that night. We picked him up in Utah. He was perturbed about the train being late, but we both agreed to meet in the observation car once he found his seat. I told him the story about being stuck in the desert and how we got delayed. He had been doing his small jobs, and his brother gave him a train ticket to get out of town again. I wonder whatever happened to that man. As I said, we stayed in touch for a while, but eventually lost touch.

Another trip through tunnels and over mountains returned me to Denver. I didn’t arrive until nearly 11 p.m. People poured into Denver’s Union Station from the train. The stone building was just closing up its shops and bars for the night as I waited to get my luggage from the baggage car. My parents were very nice and picked me up from the station, and so ended my trip on Amtrak from Denver to Seattle and back again.

Cameron Cowanhttps://www.cameronjournal.com/
Cameron Cowan is a writer, thinker, and human being navigating the streets of Seattle.

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