On our coffee table at home is a book called Great Railway Journey's of the World. We love travelling by sleeper train. It will always be hard to beat the ultimate, epic trip we took on the trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Beijing in 2005, but as soon as we had planned to visit the West Coast, I jumped at the chance to include a trip on the Coast Starlight. Ever since reading Kerouac as a teenager, I've been fascinated by this railway and the tales of adventure as 'Sal' and his friends hopped on and off these trains as stowaways up and down the pacific coast and beyond.
So, at 8.30 am this morning we arrived rather excitedly at Seattle's King Street Station to board Amtrak Train 11, otherwise know as the Coast Starlight. We would be travelling over 900 miles from Seattle to San Francisco, but the full route continues down to Los Angeles. We checked in our luggage as you would do in an airport, and headed out to the platform. I don't think I have ever seen a train quite so big. Double-decker, and stretching along the platform further than I could see. We found our sleeping coach, and located our room. Surprisingly spacious, the room has a loo/shower, and comfy reclining seats which convert in to a bed at night, with a fold-down bunk above.
The trip to San Francisco takes just under 24 hours. There is little more relaxing than enforced confinement in a 'moving hotel' where all there is to do is stare out of the window, read, chat, and daydream. Oh… and I forgot to mention eat and drink.
The experience on the Coast Starlight couldn't be more different from the Trans-Siberian. On the trans-sib, we were served eggs and steak deep fried in fat that appeared not to have been changed in the whole of the 6,000 mile journey. We were served by an elderly Russian lady, with teeth either missing, or as black as her fingernails. We bought bread and raspberries from the Babushka's on the remote Siberian platforms where we would briefly stop to stretch our legs. The rest of the time, we survived on pot noodles and a box of wine. On the Coast Starlight, we make reservations in the dining car, and are cordially invited to wine tasting in the restored 1950's parlour car. Jack Kerouac must be turning in his grave.
The scenery is ever changing – suburbs give way to vast flat agricultural plains, peppered with saw mills and timber yards. We cross the mighty Colombia river which doubles as the Washington-Oregon state line. We climb up and up through the Cascade mountains. As darkness falls, we rumble through the night, crossing the Oregon-California state line as we fall asleep to the rhythm of the tracks.
In the morning, we'll disembark bleary eyed in to the Californian sunshine. The vast train will rumble on south, sadly without us on board.