Railroading North America

19/ (to) Seattle

19-a-1sea-station-dsc06554-usemeDAY 19 (a)
Jasper, Alberta to Vancouver, British Columbia to Seattle, WA
VIA Rail Canada Train #001, “The Canadian”
Friday, November 7, 2008

The night is difficult. It is the first since the trip from Kissimmee to Washington, DC that I have not had a private room. Because of a large tourist group boarding in Jasper, Alberta, there were no private rooms available, and I passed on a sleeping berth.

I considered this trip was relatively short. From Jasper to Vancouver the distance is 366 kilometers (227 miles). This leg, through the mountains, takes fifteen hours.

Now: When I consider fifteen hours on a train a short ride, I am obviously getting used to long rides on the train. I ponder this.

Two years ago it took me 16 hours to fly from Hong Kong to Chicago and I still get bleary thinking about that flight (5 meals and 6 movies? — or was it 6 meals and 5 movies?). On a plane, passengers are crammed in. On trains, passengers can walk around trains, and get off and walk platforms when they stop. They talk to one another and learn things. And Amtrak personnel do not shove passengers out of their way as United Airlines flight attendants seem to do on international flights.

Big difference.

This is why I consider Jasper to Vancouver a short hop at 15 hours. This is why I consider Seattle to Los Angeles at 23 hours, just an overnight trip. Time-wise a train ride from Seattle to Los Angeles is Hong Kong to Chicago and halfway back to Hong Kong. Not a piece of cake. But interesting people are just down the hall and scenery usually worth seeing is just outside the window.

Once I tire of visiting and have juiced up my electronics, I’m ready to sleep. This will not be easy. Although the Coach section from Jasper to Vancouver is less than half full, and although I have an entire seat to myself, the seats are uncomfortable. Moreover, the coach is first too hot and then too cold.

Temperature is an irritant but not a problem. When it is too hot I remove some layers — when it cools I pull layers back on and tug my ski cap down over my eyes and ears. The ski cap serves both as a head warmer and eye mask, helping block the bright lights in the car.

Still, the seats are damned uncomfortable and even though I am a lifelong contortionist with horrid posture, I cannot curl into a comfortable position and sleep.

Nonetheless, I decide I have been richly rewarded for my night of discomfort. In Coach I have met a whole different group of people — local, young (though some older), hardworking, all with wonderful insights on a variety of subjects.

During the night the train is descending toward Vancouver and sea level.

Around 2 a.m. I begin to hear the train wheels grinding hard, releasing and then grinding again. The engineer is working to control the speed of the train. One of the challenges for an engineer is controlling the inertia of his train descending a grade. He cannot allow the train to build up too much speed or he risks losing control.

After awhile, the squealing stops, the speed of the train picks up. I know the mountains are behind.

I will not stop in Vancouver, but instead will cross to Seattle and spend a night.

I have got it all figured out.

Back in Jasper while walking to the station I have met a man who, like me, is traveling on a North American Rail pass. For a seasoned traveler he seems to be worrying a lot.

He’s concerned whether he can get across the border in time to catch the Chicago train. He, like me, has been unable to talk to Amtrak and has just noticed he is booked on a bus, not a train, to Seattle. He is not happy because he wants to ride only trains. He is worried how to get from the bus to the train station.

I have researched the answers. Amtrak runs a bus from Vancouver to Seattle, and both the bus and the train arrive and depart at Seattle’s King Street train station.

Yes, he can take a train, The Cascades, instead of an Amtrak bus, but The Cascades leaves in the late afternoon and doesn’t connect with his Chicago train until the following afternoon. But now he worries, what if his bus is late?

He asks the VIA Rail clerk as I wait. I also know that if the bus runs late, Amtrak sends the bus east, chases down the train and puts the Chicago passengers on board.

I keep quiet and wait my turn. I figure his incessant fretting cannot go on forever.

I’m wrong.

Finally, I step in. I tell him I have investigated this and tell him what I know. He begins arguing with me. The clerk and I have eye contact. Desperation. The clerk suggests the man step away from the counter. The clerk will call Vancouver and check everything out for him.

“Now? Will you do it now?”

“Soon,” the clerk says soothingly. “Very soon.”

“But you’re not an Amtrak agent so you can’t really be sure of the answers you get, can you?”

Later I pass the clerk and he mutters, “They ought to issue some of you North American Rail pass people worry beads along with your passes.”

On the Amtrak bus I fell soundly asleep and awoke only when aroused at the US border in Blaine, WA. Here the twenty or so of us on the bus were herded into a sparse room to meet the customs people. It went quickly.

What was I doing in Canada? Riding the trains.

Did I buy anything? Underwear.

“Do you know anyone in Canada?” I had to think.

I do know a fair number of Canadians. Most of them are living illegally in the US and working in Los Angeles. But where were they this morning? Canada? The States? Europe? I was in the middle of a personal stupid attack.

“I don’t know where the Canadians I know are this morning. I don’t think any of them are in Canada, but who knows?” I actually said this. I felt that to answer this question, each Canadian would need a GPS transmitting their location to me.

The customs guy stared. “Thank you,” he said.

Moments later I was back on the bus and asleep.

In Vancouver the Amtrak clerk holds the Seattle Amtrak bus and by noon I am at the King Street Station in Seattle.

In the Seattle station, the Amtrak agent issues me a ticket and sells me a private room to Los Angeles on Sunday. I have decided I need an extra day of rest. He tears up my ticket for Saturday.

He warns me, however, that the Sunday train will not take the coastal route along the ocean because of construction. The Sunday train will run south through Bakersfield and down past Palmdale. It will also arrive three hours early. If I want the coastal route, I must go either tomorrow (Saturday) or Monday.

Sunday is fine with me. Three hours early is fine with me. Lancaster and Palmdale adjacent to Edwards Air Force Base are fine with me:

I have covered the landing of half a dozen NASA Shuttle landings and haven’t been up there in years (I hear that it has grown).

Send me that way and let me have a look.

Seattle’s King Street station is an appalling place. It was probably appalling awful the day it opened a hundred years ago. A drop ceiling covers a maybe interesting original ceiling that has been hidden for fifty years. There is no food, no information, no nothing excerpt unrelenting dreariness.

I escape outside and find myself facing a construction site. The city is trying to control the sewer gases that leak into the station (oh, so that was what the smell in the station was…).

I wonder why they are wasting the money: Sewer gas augments the ambiance.

The taxi driver who drove me from King Street Station to my hotel was black, and unfriendly. It was raining. He didn’t get out as I struggled with my bags. I even had to ask him to open the trunk.

Inside the taxi he was listening to an Obama press conference. It was very loud. “Is that Obama?” I asked. He said yes. After a moment he turned it down.

I asked him to turn it back up.

“You want to hear him?” the taxi driver seemed surprised. He asked me if I had voted for Obama, and when I told him I was passionate for Obama he could not stop talking. He said he thought he would never see this day. He said he was sure terrible things would happen to Obama before Election Day. But now, here Obama was — President-elect. He was proud.

And just like that, we were friends.

At the hotel, he put my bags by the front door, and then stood awkwardly, reluctant to go. I extended my hand. And he shook it — and shook it — and finally he was gone.

With an hour I have escaped the station and am settled in a hotel. It is raining. I do laundry. I shower.

And sleep.

(Photograph: Amtrak’s King Street Station, Seattle. An appalling place, but a construction project just outside the door promises that soon the sewer smell, an important part of the station’s ambiance, may be gone)


VIA Rail Canada Train #001, “The Canadian”
Distance Vancouver to Seattle, WA: 144 miles / 232 kilometers
Trip Distance Total: 6,139 miles / 7,765 kilometers



  1. Still reading and enjoying. Why did I start at Sioux Lookout? I was researching, looking for images of the Sioux Lookout station. Your page came back to my google call. Now I am hooked, and looking forward to leaping forward with you on the Queen around the world. Thanks for your work and hope we can meet, or at least chat online, some day.

    P.S. you have some grammar and typographic error issues. I wouldn’t bother to mention it but your writing is so damn good that I feel a little proofreading by an expert would help, and help inestimably.

    You are a professional. You know how that extra little polish can make or break a text.

    PPS I used to work in government, too. What a small world. But I was the memo/letter/report-writer and polisher.

    Now I struggle as a translator. Makes more dough than writing poetry.

    But reading and writing will always be my one love. Once in a while I find someone worth reading.

    Like you.

    OK. Bye.


    Comment by Daniel Charles Thomas — March 25, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

  2. Oh, and did I mention I ran away to Mexico ten years ago? Heh. Only twenty miles south of home… San Diego Tijuana.


    Comment by Daniel Charles Thomas — March 25, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

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