Please stick with me to the end of this travel diary entry to help me decide if train travel is my cup of tea - or glass of wine, as it were.
The Coast Starlight is promoted as Amtrak's prestige train that runs between Seattle and Los Angeles. Though I am not a veteran railroad buff who can judge the differences in trains, the Coast Starlight offered amenities I didn't expect, but drank in with enthusiasm, including a wine-and-cheese tasting in the parlor car and a choice of evening movies in an adorable little theater.
There was no security, not even an ID check, and no smoking. Some smokers jumped off the train for a quick cigarette at stations. One guy must have had two cigarettes because he failed to be on the train when it pulled out.
I thought the two-level Starlight was handsome when it pulled into the Seattle station. It was exciting to hear the train whistle announce the arrival before it stopped for passengers. As we journeyed down the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts for two days and a night, the whistle was heard often in the distance and I thought how much more musical it is when you are a passenger than when you are held up in traffic to wait for a train, especially a long freight train.
We pulled out of Seattle promptly at 10 a.m., right on schedule. I was to learn later that trains are often late. But four hours late? Unlike plane passengers, train regulars just take it in stride and advise, "If you travel by train you must be patient."
The brochure states that a "break from reality" is guaranteed. That surely is true, especially when it was bedtime and I found my way into Sleeper No. 5 in Car 1131 on the train that included four sleepers and five coach cars, which added up to a long train as we wound down the West Coast past postcard scenery.
The parlor car is said to have cost $1 million in its transformation from an antique discard from an old steam train to its present luxury condition. The parlor car, for sleeper car passengers only, is divided between comfortable lounge chairs and tables and chairs, to give a choice of viewing the scenery or playing table games.
It was in the parlor car that we met Richard Talmy, who instantly became everybody's best friend. Richard has been riding the rails for 31 years because, as he says, "I like people, trains, and travel." A walking travel brochure, Richard explained the scenery as the train passed through the wetlands of the Northwest, Mount Hood, Mount Rainier, to San Francisco Bay, and past thousands of acres of produce fields in California.
Meeting people is definitely a prime bonus of train travel, and though I will probably never again see the Web site designer from Oakland or the woman from Washington who tearfully was on her way to move her mother to a nursing home, I will always remember them fondly. We enjoyed a dinner of New York strip, rack of lamb, and a bottle of German Riesling.
Forget being alone. It is a dining car rule that every booth be filled with four people, meaning that if you are traveling alone you are seated with three strangers. But train folk don't stay strangers for long. By the end of the trip we knew a lot about each other, where we were from, and where and why we were going. In that manner I met a fascinating group of passengers of many ages and economic backgrounds. Several retired couples said they prefer train travel to air travel. Delays don't bother them because they are not in a hurry and they proudly shared stories of long trips cross-country.