Railroading North America

21/ Tacoma Narrows

21-1int-king-st-110908-dsc06609-usemeDAY 21
Seattle, Washington toward Los Angeles, California
Amtrak Train #11, “The Coast Starlight”
Sunday, November 9, 2008

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight runs for a day and a half down the west coast from Seattle to Los Angeles.

As usual, the train leaves exactly on time, and as we clock off stations heading south, we are either early or on time. Later I will be told that this is unheard of. Astoundingly we will arrival in Los Angeles four hours and fifteen minutes early.

I want to see The Bridge. I assume everybody who passes through here does.

coast-starlight2In 1940, an elegant iteration of the Golden Gate Bridge was built across the Tacoma Narrows. The engineers mis-engineered the ratios of the deck and quickly the bridge became known as “Galloping Gerdy”. Within months, the bridge twisted itself apart in high winds and fell. One dog died. Movies of last moments of the bridge, and a brief tutorial on suspension bridges, can be found here.

Later the bridge was rebuilt, and I’m keeping an eye out.

I see a bridge or two but they don’t look right, but then we glide under two bridges, one old (the replacement bridge, I’m guessing) and another newer one to handle more traffic. I ask around to make sure I’m right.

The train staff seems never to have noticed any bridges even though they make this run twice a week.

21-2tac-narr-110908-dsc06635-usemeSo the picture here is either the Tacoma Narrows bridges. Or not. (further research shows, it is)

My car attendant is an outgoing funny middle-aged woman from Los Angeles named Robin. I like her immediately. By the time she arrives to brief me on my compartment I have doped out everything by eavesdropping as she briefs other passengers in our car.

“I think I’ve got it,” I say as she starts to brief me.

“Am I going to have trouble with you?” She says sternly. “You been listening in on other folks’ conversations? Is THAT what you’ve been doin’?”

The entire crew is Los Angeles based. Later the Conductor will take an interest in my computer in the club car. We wrestle with some of the issues I’m having and decide I’ve done all I can do.

21-3port-engine-110908-dsc06666-usemeI ask him how long he has been a conductor, and he says for ten years. Before that he drove a truck. All VIA and Amtrak personnel I will speak with consider the railroads good jobs. The pay is okay, but the benefits, including medical, and retirement are very good.

I ask him what a conductor does and he seems nonplussed:

“I run the train,” he says. The engineer works for you? “That’s right. The train doesn’t move until I say move it. I run the housekeeping and food services — you name it: this is my train.”

Okay. I’ve got it.

People tell you things when traveling they would never tell anyone else. They figure they might see you at dinner, but they’ll never see you again after the train arrives, and they are right.

Not many people are eating lunch in the dining car on my first day on this train. I get my own table and plenty of room, but am disappointed. I look forward to listening to people who sit at my table.

By the time I finish the dining car is empty except for a woman who sits at a table facing me. She strikes up a conversation. She is going to Portland, a few hours away. She has spent a few days visiting a grown son in Seattle and her relationships with her children sound distant. It does sounds like they do not know one another well, if they ever did.

She stopped in Seattle after living on an island in Canada since spring where she has been doing some sort of public service work.

She is soon off the train, but before she goes she virtually summarizes her life story. She has been a nurse. After she divorced, she survived on her nursing license. Now she has decided she needs to push herself on to something else. “I have let my license lapse — I am a nurse no more,” she says. “This will force me to go find new things.”

That evening I have dine with an American who has been living in South Africa for fifteen years. He is moving back to the United States. He repeats the ‘need to move on’ theme I have heard from the ex-nurse.
The man tells me he has returned to the United States because he is offended by what the Bush administration has been doing (“torture, locking up people and not giving them lawyers, attacking other countries, the demagoguery… “). He cannot understand how his fellow Americans could ever elect such a man.

“When you no longer understand your own country, it is time to come home,” he finally says.

I tell him that is my story, too. He is interested. So I tell him:

21-4int-clubcar-110908-dsc06629-usemeIn 1969, having lived abroad for nearly three years, I was working with Americans in Japan who rarely returned to the United States. I called them “Internationalists”, and they did not disagree.

The people I knew had a worldview, and what they saw was fascinating. But when they spoke of events in the United States at the time (anti-Vietnam riots, the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago) they spoke with a dispassion that disquieted me. They were disconnected and bemused by events in the United States. What happened had no affect on them.

In February 1969 I had been offered a job in Japan, a job that I had wanted and sought. But by then I recognized that if I stayed in the far east, decades might pass and I, too, would become an ‘Internationalist’. I, too, would disconnect from my country.

“So, I am an American,” I told the man.

“As am I,” he replied.

(Photograph, interior, Seattle Amtrak King Street Station looks a lot worse than this picture; the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Tacoma, WA; Amtrak Engine #201 in Portland — eight days later, I would later walk past this engine in Chicago; interior, club car on the Coast Starlight)

Amtrak Train #11, “The Coast Starlight”
Distance: Seattle, WA to Los Angeles, CA:
1377 miles / 2216 kilometers
Trip Distance Total: 7,516 miles / 9,981 kilometers


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