Sacramento to Portland by train- normally a 15 hour journey. What could possibly go wrong?
It was midnight in Sacramento train station, and I had just discovered that my train- Amtrak’s Coast Starlight- was delayed by at least an hour. UGH. I tried to sneakily work out who was waiting to board the train and who was just trying to get a night’s rest and a bit of warmth on the wooden benches. Frankly, it was hard to tell. A few were carrying ripped carrier bags with possessions and boxes of food bundled into them or an old pillow stuffed under an arm. One scraggly-bearded man was shuffling aimlessly in circles around the room with a glazed look in his eyes. And a few- like me- were sitting, eyes forward, attempting to stay awake but with giant under-eye bags growing by the minute.
Thank god it wasn’t cold, is all I’m saying.
America: the gun thing is real.
TV screens ran up and down the length of the entire cavernous waiting room, displaying Amtrak videos in a continuous loop. The first was explaining how to check in and board the train, the second was some kind of advert for the Amtrak experience- how truly splendid it is to travel by train and all the places you can get to. And the third, casually, was the emergency procedure you should follow if a shooter entered the station with the intention of gunning down as many people as possible.
Well. That was a shocker. WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE.
I glanced nervously around at the other people in the waiting room again, trying to work out if any of them were potential shooter material. The Shuffler had a crazy glint in his eye but didn’t seem physically capable of actually picking anything up, let alone firing a gun. I decided that it was a ‘probs not’ to the current inhabitants of the room being gun-toting, but who knew what new arrivals the next hour would bring to the station. I wrapped my coat a bit closer around me and decided it’d be better not to get my phone out for something to do, just in case.
The time passed surprisingly quickly given that I was hanging out in a questionable location in the actual middle of the night, and eventually a station attendant appeared on the scene and informed everyone that we could head to the platform and wait for the Coast Starlight- it was on its way at last!!!
It turns out that 70% of the people in the waiting room were indeed joining the train in Sacramento. So up we all went to the platform, a strange collection of exhausted looking creatures, carrying blankets and plastic bags and giant packets of Cheetos. I felt rather out of place with my little pink suitcase and lilac Accessorize rucksack, guys.
An introduction to the Coast Starlight
Seven years ago, I had got the Coast Starlight route from LA to San Francisco; now I would be doing more of the train’s route, just a little further up the line. This time I was travelling from Sacramento to Portland. Call me a full on geek pals, but I was excited. The Coast Starlight route officially begins in LA, following the Big Sur coastline through California, then continuing onwards up into the mountains of Oregon, eventually ending in Seattle, Washington.
I’d loved travelling by Amtrak last time I was in the US, and if I’m honest the main reason I wanted to catch the train from Sacramento to Portland was for the scenery I knew I’d see along the way. Weirdly, not so much for the final destination of the 15 hour journey- although Portland is an awesome city. The train announced its arrival into the dark station and after it had slowed to a stop, a conductor got off, handed me a seat number, and on I jumped.
Related: Three Days in Portland, Oregon
When I crept through the darkened, sleeping aisle and reached my assigned seat, we had a problem. The lady who was supposed to be in the window seat next to me was already there, standing and staring down at a large man in his eighties- who had promptly whipped his socks and shoes off and declared that the seat was in fact, his.
‘Oh no, did she give us both the same seat numbers?’ She was asking him in a hushed voice.
‘No- THAT’S my seat over there.’ He raised his voice back at her, oblivious to the fact that everyone around him was attempting to sleep. He was gesturing wildly to a chair across the aisle which was already taken by a lad who was in the depths of slumber.
‘The fellow there doesn’t CARE that he’s in my seat, so I had to take this one. If you want this seat, you’ll have to talk to HIM about it.’
The old lady rolled her eyes and shrugged her shoulders, before heading off up the train to some other empty seats, which hopefully hadn’t been assigned to anyone. Maybe pals, I should have offered my seat to the old lady, but in the interests of silence for the sleeping people, I just wanted the whole thing to be over with. Rather selfishly I suppose, it didn’t cross my mind until a minute after she’d disappeared into the darkness. I sat in my chair next to the old chap, just glad to be able to rest at last. I tucked my things away, settled down with my jacket over me, and closed my eyes.
And that pals, is where my troubles began.
‘I can’t believe you stole that little old lady’s seat.’
I opened my eyes in confusion to make out the old man blinking next to me, hands clasped across his rather rotund stomach.
‘Sorry?’ I whispered.
‘You’re a heartless one aren’t you? Stealing a seat from a little old lady. Do you even have a ticket, hmm? I bet you don’t even have a ticket.’ The man was talking loudly into the darkness, and people nearby were starting to shift in their seats. It was 1.30am.
I was pretty sure he was trying to make a joke, but I wasn’t really up for bad comedy at that hour. In fact bad comedy is something I’ve never really been a fan of, let’s face it. I just very desperately wanted to sleep, and I think that’s what everyone else on the train wanted too. I opted for a weak laugh to humour him, and assured him that he needn’t worry- I did have a ticket. I closed my eyes again.
‘You know everyone on this train better watch out with such a cruel person as you on it. Stealing seats from little old ladies hmm. Who knows what you might do next.’
I frowned but replied with a ‘Ha. Yep. Who knows.’
Silence. Good. Then:
‘You know I bet that poor little old lady is freezing on the platform right now and it’s all your fault. Hmm. You’re a selfish one aren’t you, hmm?’
I BEG YOUR PARDON SIR, THE ONLY SEAT-THIEF HERE IS YOU!!
Is what I would have liked to say.
Obviously I didn’t voice that opinion out loud.
Related: What to do in Sacramento
‘You’ve brought an awful lot of luggage with you, don’t you know how to pack light? Hmm. Taking up all the space on the train. Are you moving house or something, hmm?’ I looked at his heap of luggage on the floor in front of him, which was slightly bigger than mine. I began to think maybe he was just talking to himself.
But I sighed anyway and whispered. ‘No I’m not moving house.’
‘The names Manny. I’m from Canada.’ What an intro. Manny shook my hand and proceeded to tell me exactly why he was getting the train, where he’d got the train from (Salt Lake City), where he was getting the train to (somewhere in Canada), and wound it all up with berating me a few more times for stealing the seat of a helpless little old lady.
Maybe Manny was a lonely person, I thought. Maybe he just wanted someone to talk to. But by the time it got to 2.30am I was simultaneously so filled with frustration and exhaustion that I announced- ‘I HAVE TO SLEEP NOW’– leant my chair back and shut my eyes with such aggression that I possibly pulled an eye muscle. If that’s actually possible.
Five minutes later.
THE SNORING BEGAN.
Manny, Manny, Manny. This was snoring unlike anything I’ve ever heard before, and hopefully unlike anything I will ever hear again. I’m almost certain that nobody in that carriage got a wink of sleep all night long, least of all me. Every time I was at the brink of nodding off at last, the sound of Manny’s snores would violently stab into the pitch black. From time to time I’d hear ‘is this guy for real,’ ‘oh my god!!!’ or ‘whyyy!’ whispered in frustration from unseen voices dotted throughout the carriage.
By 5.30 I gave up my attempts at shuteye. At 6.30, Manny woke up.
‘Did you get any sleep?’ he boomed as the sun was rising above the horizon over the pine trees dotted outside the train.
‘No I didn’t get any actually. I’m shattered.’
‘Oh no. Probably all that snoring you were doing. Everyone was trying to get me to shut you up, you must be the only person who slept on the whole train hmm.’
Was I in a nightmare?? I was not in a nightmare. It was REAL. LIFE. I stayed silent but for some reason forced a smile.
‘I still can’t believe how selfish you are. Stealing that poor little old lady’s seat.’
Manny: ‘Now I can tell everyone back home about the night we slept together!’
Me: ‘ha. Good one.’
Manny: ‘Well I hate to leave you but I’m gonna go get some breakfast!’
Manny heaved himself up and strode further up the train to locate the dining car. Finally it was my chance to sleep.
Good Morning Mount Shasta
But the thing was…by now, things had really got interesting outside. This was the whole reason I’d decided to take the train. So whilst I was completely exhausted and cramped and my eyeballs felt like they might fall out of their sockets at any moment- it was absolutely not possible for me to sleep.
The sky was a pale wash of pastels and as far as you could see into the distance was just land, with not a house or car or road in sight. I’d just left Sacramento where all around the edge of the city was lush green farmland and orchards and vineyards, but this land a few hours North, was completely different. The ground was drier and speckled with pine trees, stretching right out to the mountains. Mount Shasta curved upwards in a snow-covered backdrop to all this beautiful madness. I was in absolute awe, you guys!!
Coffee is the saviour
That is, until Manny returned.
‘I see no-body’s figured out you’re not supposed to be here yet.’
I smiled and raised my eyebrows.
‘Stealing little old lady’s seats. Unbelievable. Told everyone in the dining car we slept together though!’
I know there are plenty of people who would have taken a stand by now, or at the very least simply attempted to find a different seat. But there’s some annoying part of me that seems to attract people like Manny, who probably just want someone to talk to. Those people can then surely sense that my conscience will not let me leave, for the plain and simple fear of offending them. Even if they’re making jokes which are borderline offensive, to me. It’s all very awkward.
I stood up. ‘I’M GOING TO GET A COFFEE.’
Coffee in hand, free seat in the viewing car located, that was it. I had finally broken free!! And I managed to make my coffee break from Manny last a total of six and a half hours.
It. Was. Glorious.
Beauty and drama in the viewing car
The viewing car is a carriage in the middle of the train whose glass windows curve over the entire ceiling, and that is the place to be if you really want to get a view of the world.
By now we were well into Oregon, and the train sped past an expansive flat lake and further onwards through fields covered in a thick blanket of snow. Discarded farming machinery appeared every now and again like abandoned limbs of the Iron Giant. The fields were taken over by pine trees which grew closer and closer together the higher we wound our way into the mountains. Eventually we were so high up that every time a gap in the trees cleared, we were presented with craggy valleys cut into the forest and swathed in clouds below us. It was all rather stunning to tell you the truth.
The train was slowly winding its way back down to a more normal level of land, with the snow appearing rather more on the patchy side, when I heard a gagging sound coming from the far end of the car. (Spoiler alert: this time, the sound wasn’t coming from Manny)
One of the guys who had boarded at Sacramento was having a seizure. Most people had moved away from him, although someone had managed to get him into a vague recovery position. A boy went clattering downstairs as fast as he possibly could to get one of the attendants from the cafe.
Related: Four Days in NYC
No one really knew what to do, but everyone was pretty much frozen to the spot in alarm. A girl in her late teens begged her mum to let her go and help the man as she’d been first aid trained, but the mum explained that if she were to do something wrong, she’d be liable for the consequences, so it would be best to stay out of it. She was not about to get sued.
The man continued shaking and spluttering.
A couple of ladies snapped a photo of the view outside.
Within minutes the man who runs the cafe was on the scene, led by the boy, which was a relief all round. The cafe guy was one of the cheeriest souls I’ve ever seen, and he got stuck straight in helping the man out; thankfully he didn’t have a fear of being sued.
A blonde woman with a classic mum-walk and matching mum-handbag approached from the back of the train, calling out ‘I’m a medic, I’m a medic! I’m supposed to be on vacation but what’s going on!?’
The passengers who had been sitting next to the man explained the whole situation- that he’d said he was extremely hungover but that he was by himself so they had no idea if he regularly has seizures. The woman gasped and asked a few more questions- ‘do you think it’s drugs maybe?’
She explained to the carriage once more that she was a medic, but elaborated that she didn’t actually enjoy the job and had recently quit. She pointed out another few times that she was on vacation but she’d felt it was her duty to come and help out. The crowd smiled and nodded in admiration.
The woman held court while the man from the cafe continued to help the Sacramento-seizure guy, assisted by a newly-arrived team of conductors.
Gradually the panic subsided and the man appeared ok again. The team of conductors plus the guy from the cafe discussed whether the best option was for the seizure man to disembark the train at the next station. Personally it didn’t seem like the wisest option to me (I’m pretty sure it was a station in the middle of nowhere that was also several hundred miles from his final destination) but let’s face it pals, I’m no expert.
A reticent return to Manny
By the time we were back on fully flat ground and seeing more signs of civilisation, I thought it’d probs be time to get back to Manny. I didn’t really want to get back to Manny, as I was certain he’d have something to say about the fact that I’d been gone for almost seven hours. But it was either that or never return, forfeiting my luggage in the process.
It was truly a dilemma.
I’d like to reiterate that I did indeed have a ticket for the train but obv it should go without saying that Manny’s first concern when he realised I’d been gone for hours, was that they’d finally realised I was there illegally and had thrown me off or had me arrested.
‘And rightly so.’
I only had an hour or so to go, so after filling him in on the seizure man in the viewing car (he’d heard the call for help on the tannoy and wanted to know all about it), looked up the Bluejays game score for him online, and had a 20 minute conversation about actual life that didn’t involve him accusing me of being a thieving scoundrel, I stuck my earphones in. And didn’t take them out again until we were crossing the river into Portland.
It’s a strange situation to be stuck on a train for 15 hours next to someone like Manny, but as infuriating as the experience was, I’m also kind of glad that I met him. What an intriguing human being. And as for the Sacramento to Portland train journey itself, I’d do it again in the blink of an eye.
Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment.
LOGISTICAL STATISTICALS: A GUIDE TO THE COAST STARLIGHT AND USING AMTRAK TRAINS
- The complete Coast Starlight route from Los Angeles to Seattle takes around thirty-six hours, stopping at various stations en-route.
- The vastness of the USA means that trains only travel through (normally) once a day.
- At some stations, Amtrak runs connecting bus services to take passengers to nearby cities (eg a bus from Oakland to the centre of San Francisco, and a trolley from Klamath Station to Klamath Falls)
- Sleeper cabins are available on Amtrak trains, but I was going budget, guys. Needs must, ya know!?
- The Coast Starlight is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful train journeys ever.
- The seats are bigger, and way comfier than aeroplane seats, with loooads more legroom. And if you’re not next to someone like Manny, it’s probs not too tricky to get some shuteye.
- The Amtrak luggage policy is much more generous than that of literally every airline I’ve ever flown with, therefore it’s da bomb. Everyone is allowed two small pieces of luggage (a lot bigger than all typical carry-on luggage sizes if you fly), plus two ‘personal items.’ More than enough.
- I would definitely recommend bringing your own stock of food onboard with you. Do not rely on the cafe/restaurant for all your meals! There is a cafe open on every Amtrak train for coffee and snacks, and dining car available for hot food at mealtimes but it’s fairly expensive for not a great quality of stuff.
- Almost every time I’ve travelled with Amtrak I’ve managed to grab a discounted ticket price, by either signing up in advance to get news of their offers (either in an Amtrak sale or in one of their Smartfare offers which are released three weeks prior to traveling), or literally just by checking the website religiously over and over. Because of that, it’s almost always worked out cheaper to travel with Amtrak than to fly, although obviously there’s no guarantee that would always work!