2.2.01: 19-20 June 2012: Amtrak from San Jose to Portland

From San Jose to Portland – The Overnight Train

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Return to our Washington State Adventure
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Bike touring might have been the gateway from the daily drudge of a job I had for 28 years.  But that sounds too negative.  The romantic in me wants to see it differently.  There’s everything right in wanting something that, in it’s most simple terms, sets you down as a vulnerable cyclist, on a roadway, sweating as we labor our way up hills, and trusting the drivers of one ton cars to know how close their passenger mirrors are to our elbows.

Biking down the Pacific Coast Highway was a dream.  It might have ben an ignorant dream, based on little more than a vague, naive notion of crashing waves, headlights cutting through a foggy curve, and freedom.  Maybe it was a cycling overlay of some Humphrey Bogart movie, like the Maltese Falcon.  But it was our dream, and we set out, six months ago, to do it.  We trained our bodies and minds.  We switched over to touring bikes.  We equipped ourselves with a myriad of biking and camping gear.  We went on two overnight rides.

So it had finally come down to it.  We were two rookie adventures.  For a frantic two days, Marian and I had packed, and repacked, and made emergency dashes to bike and adventuring stores.  In the end, we had each of our Surly’s in their own Amtrak boxes, mostly because they were big enough to keep both wheels on, and required the least disassembly.  in the muggy afternoon, we donned one of our two sets of camp clothes, and took our other pannier and handlebar bag, one for each hand

We loaded our boxes in the back of the truck.  We each had one large U-Haul box, with three panniers, trunk bags, helmets, tent poles, and other gear we couldn’t stow as carry-on.carry.  We had carefully weighed our U-Hal boxes, making sure we were under the weight limit.  We each carried on pannier aboard.  Rather than repack everything, I carried on my heaviest pannier, the one with the tools, rain gear, tubes, and other maintenance oriented stuff.  The pannier seemed to weigh a ton, but there was no weight limit.

Then, in the last few minutes, it was time for pictures.  In the era of film cameras, film and processing made pictures an expensive proposition.  That led to carefully composed shots.  In the era of electronic pictures, once the camera has been purchased, digital pictures are almost free.  And we take so many more of them.

It seems that our journeys always began with David.  This one started the same way.  The three of us wedged ourselves into our little red truck, and drove to the San Jose Train Station.  Once we got everything unloaded, our son politely asked if we wanted him to stay.  We took pity on him  and sent him on his way.   It was time to trust others to do their jobs.

It seemed strange, almost unreal.  A few miles from the San Jose Station Waiting Room, stood our house  I felt almost foolish, an actor, not a participant.  I had to keep telling myself that, at the end of the day, I would not go to my own bed, wake up in my own house, and do those ordinary things.

We were on our own. More importantly, we were anxious on our way.  And, we waited, something we weren’t accustomed to.  We explored our temporary stopping point.  The major room of the restored train station in San Jose was beautiful.  Sadly, the restrooms have seen heavy use, and are in poor contrast to the rest of the station.  On our trip, we would see more stations.  Generally, other stations, for towns far smaller than San Jose (the tenth largest US city), were almost as grand, and more lavishly restored.

The Waiting Room wooden benches were as just uncomfortable as endless writers had described them, whether they be in churches, or parks, or train stations.  The late afternoon light poured through the high windows.  The heat and humidity, while not oppressive, made the Waiting Room uncomfortable.  After a few minutes, we moved to one of the side portals.  A pleasant breeze, cool and refreshing, made us feel more welcome.

We tried to reorient our thinking.  We needed to be more conscious of our belongings.  If something were misplaced or stolen, it would not be an easy thing to replace them.  Still, as we took turns exploring, keeping guard of our two carry-on panniers seemed unreal.  For the remainder of the trip, we were conscious of the security of our belongings.

An important event began, without any warning.  We made real, personal connections, with another human being.  We would do this many times during our trip.  Looking back on this, I am surprised.  I recently retired from the world of aerospace.  Almost all of my trips were by air.  If I chose to interact with other travelers, I could do so.  If I chose to be solitary, alone to my own thoughts, I did that.  But our train and bike trip was a revelation to me.  The people I was traveling with were far different than business travelers.  I found an entirely new range of personalities, interests, and needs in the people around me.  I broke free of my insular, shielded cocoon.

Our first opportunity was with Tom, a volunteer at the San Jose station.  Our relationship with Tom began as passenger-to-station agent.  We were awaiting for the northbound Amtrak.  Tom was making sure the Amtrak and Caltran passengers were on the right platform.  There are far more Caltran passengers to deal with than Amtrak, and they must take a tunnel across to the far platforms.  Once we passed the threshold of formality, we told Tom about our trip.  We were taking the train to Seattle, but, we were laying over in Portland.  He remembered that, and would come by, using that as a conversation starter.  Tom began to share bits of his life with us.  Tom is over 80, having worked for the railroad for a very long time.  He has a house in Nevada, and worries about the influx of large developments, which drive his fees and taxes up.  We hope he has many years yet to come at the station, and that he finds a way to keep his house.  Tom fussed over us, making sure we were ready when the train finally rolled in.

We waited, along with dozens of other people at the station, waiting to go north.  A surprising number were going on to Seattle, but most were riding to Sacramento.  We settled onto our bench.  Not being much a magazine reader, I had gone against type, grabbing the latest copy of Adventure Cycling.  Marian and I read it, off and on, for two days.  The only article I remember is the one of biking the Iron Curtain, separating East and West Germany.  As I recall, it was mostly flat.

The shadows stretched across the tracks, marching toward the main platform.  Sunlight was still shooting through gaps in the roof, blinding any who sat in their beams.  But the darkness finally won.  In the growing dusk, my over active mind conjured up the mystery of our journey, my excitement increasing as the shapes of objects became less distinct, less certain.  The narrator in my mind was active, whispering about the darkening shadows, the uncertainty of our future.  It sounded like a voice-over from a B movie.

Announcements, often almost incomprehensible, bellowed over the loud speakers.  Our train was late.  Tom explained that another north bound train had been involved in a pedestrian incident.  The incident had occurred somewhere to the south , and was slowing all train.  Would-be passengers began to mill around, becoming more talkative to strangers.  We connected with a second person.  She was a young lady, returning to Sacramento from Santa Cruz.  She was wired for sound, talking a mile a minute, giving us her life history in the space of a few minutes.  For that brief time, we were her closest confidants.  Then, we parted, never to see each other again.  Secretly, we wondered how many cups of coffee she had drank.  She, simply, could not stand still.  We hope she got off her train in Sacramento, and everything went well for her.

The future finally arrive, 45 minutes late.  Alas, it was not the Hogwarts Express.  And we were not in Kings Station, at Gate 9 3/4.  (I want to go to Hogwarts when I am old enough – maybe to Ravenclaw).  Tom, and the train Conductor, herded most of us into the back of the train, steerage.  A few got into the sleeping cars.  Our car was at the very back.  We climbed to the second deck, and found our seats.  The first deck is usually reserved for rest rooms, baggage spaces, and accommodations for special needs people.  And, while I might have called us as steerage, in point of fact, our accommodations were far superior to a bus or an airplane.  We had leg room even first class passengers on a plane don’t have.  The seats were wide, and comfortable.

I got a brief chance to compare the sleeping car service with ours, the next morning.  By chance, I took an opportunity to get off the train for a moment, somewhere in Oregon.  I should have been more aware, but I didn’t realize this was code for smokers being able to puff away, frantically, for a few moments.  When the double toot of the horn happened, I was near the front of the train.  I quickly boarded the nearest car, and found I was in a sleeper.  Knowing they would not throw me off the train, I acted as if I belonged.  Climbing to the second desk, amid the highly polished wood fixtures, I worked my way back to our section, separated by the dining car.  Everything was more plush, almost to the point of luxurious.  And the people up forward dressed and acted just like first class anywhere, snobs.

Our excitement took only a short while to wear off.  We were awake for the Oakland and Emeryville stops, wondering why they were so close together.  And then we settled down, trying to go to sleep.  The night seemed endless.  The air conditioning was on, full force, chilling the compartment.  We huddled together, sleeping fitfully.  I thought longingly of our sleeping bags, safely in a box, in one of the baggage cars.  Some passengers droned on about the most inane things – just like the cell calls you hear in the supermarket line.  I spent an eternity trying to find a comfortable position.  We stopped in Martinez, Davis, Sacramento, Chico, and Redding.  I might have a hazy recollection of some of the stops, but nothing clear.  So, I did sleep.  But it was the sleep of a warrior on the front lines, or a traveler in a perilous plight, not the safe, sound sleep of my home.

I awoke in the pre-dawn, perhaps awakened by the Redding stop.  Marian slumbered on.  I looked at her, envious, but was unable to find a reason to sleep more.  I went forward to the observation car to watch the shadows slowly lose out to the probing rays of sun.  The view of Mount Shasta was pleasing to tired eyes.  Marian, a year earlier, had taken this train up to Albany, south of Portland, to visit her sister, in Corvalis.  She had described this very sight.  It was just as I had imagined.  After a time, I went back to find Marian awake.

We went forward to the dining car.  At the time, I had visions of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest.  Of course, if that vision had ever existed, it was long dead.  The table service was for four, not two.  And there were holders for high-and-low, not a rose on the table.  The tables were tightly bunched together.  We shared a table with two elderly ladies, who could talk about nothing else than how one of them had been ill the night before.

After breakfast, we spent time in the observation car.  Going around the east side of a very deep blue Klamath Lake, we could see a snow-capped mountain peeking over the end, but I wasn’t sure which one.  Many had their iPhones or cameras out, taking pictures.  I had to keep from laughing at those with iPads, trying to take the same pictures.  The views varied from beautiful, to mundane, to occasionally trashy.

Back in our seats, we read, dozed, and looked out the window.  As lunch time neared, we were taught a lesson on the differences between the sleeper class, and the rest of us.  There were repeated announcements, taking reservations for lunch.  Only after they had drummed up business for 30 minutes, did the porters come around to the rest of us.  I got us one of the remaining earlier time slots.  At lunch, we shared our table with an elderly couple.  The husband had been a solider in Hawaii, and spent most of his life in Oregon.  He seemed quite knowledgeable about blasting, and heavy equipment operations.  Later in the afternoon, we listened, without pity, as the announcer explained that the projector was not working properly in first class, and they would not be showing the afternoon movie.  However, the wine-tasting would go on, as scheduled.

The long day finally began to draw to an end.  The train, nearly an hour late in San Jose, had never been able to recover the time.  And, for passengers needing to make connections in Portland, this caused major problems.  They finally pulled the Portland connectors off at Eugene, and put them on buses.  We, on the other hand, felt no time pressure.  That would not have been true had we gone straight through to Seattle.  By plan, this was exactly the scenario we had worked to avoid, by laying over in Portland.  We did not want to arrive in Seattle, at a strange terminal, perhaps at mid-night.  We would have been faced with the prospect of assembling our bikes, and then having to find accommodations.

We crossed the Willamette River, on the Steel Bridge, into Portland.  Later, we would discover that Portland is the city of bridges.  In fact, one running event crosses most of major bridges as part of their event.

We, finally, got to the station.  It was spacious, well lit, and beautiful.  Our biggest concern was how to get our bikes put together, and head to our motel.  Waiting at baggage claim, we found ourselves, once again, back in the heat and humidity.  We ran into another fellow traveler.  He was beginning a Portland to Santa Barbara tour.  He had a Surly, but had modified it so that it broke down into two pieces, joined by couplers.

Assembling our bikes was simple, something I had made certain I knew how to do on Monday.  Most of the passengers in the station gave us a wide berth, which made it easy to keep an eye on our gear spread out on the entire bench near the rest rooms.  As we were putting the finishing touches on our preparations, Scott, one of the Portland Amtrak staff, dropped by.  Scott is very active in the Portland biking community, and came to see if there was anything we needed.  He gave us an outstanding cycling map of the Portland area, and explained how to get to our motel.  He explained that we would have to recross the Steel Bridge, making it sound pretty simple.

Armed with that information, we rolled our bikes out of the terminal.  An Amtrak Security Guard (complete with side-arm), gruffly told us not to ride our bikes on the sidewalk.  Still confused about where we were going, I pushed my bike over to him, to confirm our directions.  His demeanor instantly changed, and he became a problem solver.  He tried to help us.  And then he added that it didn’t matter if we rode on the sidewalk, that everyone did.  We headed out, able to see the Steel Bridge in the distance.

I became immediately lost.  At the time, I did not realize how tired I was.  I had been 20 hours on a train.  I could neither comprehend a crystal clear map, nor understand street signs well enough to get to the bridge.  I had not programmed this small trip into my Garmin, and I found that the most simple decisions were almost impossible.

Our most basic problem was that, we could not figure out how to get to the pedestrian walkway.  We could not simply follow the bikes, since they were whizzing around, everywhere.  We had imagined it would be on the same level as the roadway.  It turned out to be at shoreline level, very easy to find and cross.  But, only by bumping from pedestrian to jogger to biker did we find ourselves on the right path.  We quickly crossed, and made our way to the motel.

This was our first experience with getting into a motel with our bikes.  We leaned our bikes outside the office, and one of went in to confirm the reservation and agree to the terms.  The motel did not bat an eye at our bikes, but did not have a ground floor room for us.  We had to go up a small elevator to the second floor, one at a time.  The room was just the right size for us, our bikes, and our gear.

When we had booked the hotel, on the far side of the river, I had wondered if we were going to be in a less attractive part of Portland.  That turned out not to be the case.  May offices and first class hotels were within a few blocks of where we were staying.  By good fortune, Marian’s brother-in-law, was in Portland, attending a conference.  His hotel was only a block away.  We walked to a little Mexican place, and shared gossip with Charlie for a while.  It was nice to be with someone familiar, in an unfamiliar place.  Charlie turned out to be a wonderful source of support through the trials and tribulations we were about to face.  After final hugs, we went back to our motel, to rest our heads on unfamiliar pillows.

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Read about our journey from Portland to Bremerton, on trains, ferries, and bikes
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