travelogue: Coast Starlight, from San Francisco to Portland

“On earth there is no heaven, but there are pieces of it”
– Jules Renard

Call me old-fashioned, but there is no way of travel I love more than trains.

That may be a bit of an overstatement, but I really do get excited with the possibility of traveling by train, even when it’s trips that I’ve taken a million times before – like the classic 3-hour Lisboa-Coimbra-Porto, which for the last two years I have been doing quite regularly. I must have lost count on how often I took that trip throughout my life. And still, I am always happy to take it.

Traveling by train in the United States most likely seems like an insane idea. If one already thinks that 3 hours inside a train is just too much, nevermind spending days and days on end traveling in one (which is likely to happen if you actually do a cross-country trip, which is something that I definitely want to do in these 2 years that I get to spend here). But there is something mystical, something magical about it – perhaps it is the way I imagine the American landscape unfolding in front of my eyes, like a movie, as I gaze out the window and contemplate the real territory I had come to look for – rough, vast, industrial at times, rural at others, yet always powerful, with a dimension that for so long has shaped my own imagination. As I had been craving for this real sense of vastness and infiniteness of space, of room to breathe and to move (and to be alone), the train appealed to me as the ultimate symbol of freedom – always moving, never stopping and continuously gazing towards infinity.

So, as I was wondering just where and how I should get away when my one-week Thanksgiving break came up (it started on Friday), I came across the possibility of taking the train up to Portland, Oregon. Portland, who you all know and , is over one thousand kilometres north of Palo Alto, and about a mere 2 hours away by plane. By train, it takes 17 hours to go from Emeryville (a small town on the opposite side of the bay to San Francisco and the closest long-haul train station) to Portland.

So, why not indeed?

Amtrak (the state rail company that serves the entire country) publicized a series of possible train lines that could take me to (almost) anywhere in America, with the right amount of money and the right amount of time. I ended up choosing the Coast Starlight line, “one of the most beautiful train rides in America” – a train that connects Los Angeles, in Southern California, to Seattle, in Washington, about three hours away from the Canadian border, and in the meantime stops in a series of major cities and smaller towns. While the whole trip would take 35 hours to complete – and while I am on vacation and Seattle is on my “To visit” list, I still have a film project to finish – I decided to take a 5-day break and go up to Portland by train, stay about 4 days and leave on Wednesday evening by plane.

I left Palo Alto at 5.30PM on Saturday on a train to San Francisco and then got on a bus to Emeryville, where I got on the Coast Starlight to travel to Portland. Armed with my film camera and plenty of rolls of black- and-white 100 and 400 ISO film and with a photography project due in two weeks, I took about two rolls of photos inside the train. Photos of details, still lives, books and empty cups left abandoned, photos of landscapes and moments, photos of strangers and brief acquaintances with whom I chatted quickly, exchanged courtesies, even jokes. Sitting on the train, unable to sleep more than one hour or so at a time, waking up plenty of times during the night and not knowing what to do with myself, I did what I do best – I watched people, their idiosyncrasies, studied their movements, came up with little stories for them. I watched them silently (as odd as that may sound) – I am not much of an spontaneous chatter, as you know – and whenever I felt brave enough, I talked to them, in my nervous, broken-down English. I sometimes asked if I could take their picture. They all said yes, and smiled, as if they were proud someone wanted to photograph them. And I realized how powerful a couple of words can be, and what a difference they make when you’re trying to capture someone’s image.

I am not sure how and if the photos I took with my camera turned out well at all. However, I did take some photos with my phone, which I will use to illustrate this incredible journey.

Waking up to beautiful views of Mount Shasta, CA
Enjoying lunch in the observation car while passing by Dexter, OR

Around 9 AM, and after a long night of tossing and turning on my seat, unable to find a comfortable position to sleep in, and after sitting on the observation car at 6AM watching the sun rise over Mount Shasta in Northern California, the train came to a brief, 10-minute stop a while after we had crossed the California-Oregon state line.

I got out for a quick breath of fresh air (and when I mean fresh, I really do mean fresh – I had just traded warm California for chilly Oregon, where snow was aplenty – you will get to see this in just a little while). The town was called Klamath Falls, as a proud, Amtrak plaque right by some deactivated railroad tracks so announced. As some people boarded the train and others (not many) got off, a conglomerate of passengers walked around the tracks, took photos, smoked or stretched their legs. I had just left my coat back inside and was freezing, as I looked at the inklings of snow around pavement cracks or gravel.

This little town of a little over twenty-thousand people, involved in a thick layer of cold fog, fascinated me the way small American towns usually do – they make me feel as if I’m a character in some sort of movie (who’s directing it? I have no idea). It captivated me with its almost dream-like quality, and gave me the feeling I always have of having already been somewhere where I have never actually been.

I do not have much more to say about this little town other than I fell in love with it the moment I first stepped into it on a cold, November morning. Why? For no reason in particular, other than that it inspired in me the need to keep on moving and to keep on coming across these tiny places in the middle of nowhere, that mean so little to many and so much to few.

A quick stop for fresh air and pictures
My first view of the town upon descending from the train

As we were getting closer and closer to Portland, the landscapes kept faintly shifting. I finally got to see snow: it had been a couple of years since I had seen so much of it, the last time probably was when I was living in Italy back in 2015 and it unexpectedly snowed in late January. It is late November and I still hadn’t experienced the cold this season – if you know me well, you know that I love Winter, so I couldn’t be more thrilled about November actually feeling like November should feel.

And yet it was as if the seasons kept shifting, and beautiful Autumn colours quickly replaced the white of the snow as we were starting to approach Eugene, OR. Getting lost between seasons, losing track of myself throughout and letting myself go with the landscape, with the interactions aboard the train, with the photographs I took and the book I was trying to read through the trip, traveling with the train was one of the best things I could have done here in America – it allowed me to go somewhere while actually enjoying my surroundings instead of just boarding a plane and getting there faster. Traveling in a train allows you to actually experience the journey of getting somewhere (something that a plane does not let you do) – and as I kept telling my friends about the trip I was about to make, I often remarked that I was more excited about the journey itself than the destination.

And isn’t that what travel – or life, while we’re at it – should always feel like if it’s done right?

Inklings of snow by the Dexter Reservoir, OR
Seasons swiftly changing at Willamette National Forest, OR

On earth there is no heaven, but pieces of it. I would say, however, that these tiny little pieces of heaven I came across with throughout my trip were made particularly special by the people with whom I talked to along the way, and even by the ones I did not talk to but had the chance to watch quietly. Sharing such a closed space for such a long time with the same people really does somehow bring you closer, even if you don’t share a word. So, I would perhaps like to rephrase a point I made before – it was not only the vast, infinite landscape, ultimate symbol of America, that I had come to look for in this trip – it was also its people, from different walks of life, who suddenly came together in the same closed space and made me realize that we all share so much more than what we really think.

I arrived to Portland at around 4 PM yesterday, after switching to a bus at Eugene, OR due to construction work happening on the tracks. Exhausted, I walked to the hostel, feeling happy that I was here, happy that I had just taken this beautiful train ride, happy that I was in America and that I was lucky enough to be experiencing all of this. Sometimes I forget why I came here, but there are certain specific moments where I am reminded. And as I strolled through quiet Portland streets on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I felt a little bit more at home in a city I had never even been in before.

Mount Shasta, CA, as seen from the observation car briefly after dawn

– Inês

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