Sleepless to Seattle

Riding the Rackety Rails Up the Coast

<b>PORTLAND PIT STOP:</b> The city’s Romanesque revival train station
Barney Brantingham

Riding Rackety Rails: I dragged myself off Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, red-eyed from slumber deprivation, and found myself in a pelting rainstorm, which did not appear to bother Seattleites, who flooded the streets, flowing along in bright slickers and cheering after a soccer match.

Barney Brantingham

Rain does not faze these people. Departing from dry-gulch Santa Barbara, I’d spent 30-some hours rattling up the coast, much of it being tossed around in a Mixmaster called a bunk. At least I had the lower. Upstairs, son Barclay was being tossed around like a rag doll all night.

After a few days in Seattle, I realized that I was in a deep-blue, progressive city that has a high opinion of itself. Rather than wallow in postelection gloom, residents are vowing to continue the battle against climate warming despite any Trump-inspired malefactions. It went all-out for Clinton.

“It sees itself as a progressive beacon of hope,” one resident told me. “We don’t want to regress.” It is a polyglot, liberal town, proud of its racial and ethnic diversity.

According to surveys, Seattle is the No. 1 most-well-read city, based on book, magazine, and newspaper sales. Maybe that’s just because people stay inside out of the wet and read. Portland, its rainy neighbor to the south, is No. 2, according to The small town of Bothell (pop. 42,000), just to the north, has one of the brightest, kid-friendliest, best-equipped libraries I’ve ever seen.

My son Ken; his wife, Michelle; and their three teenagers moved here from dry San Diego two years ago and adapted well to the 38 inches of heavy dew a year without complaint. According to the Seattle Times, it’s the fourth-fastest-growing community in the nation and a virtual Silicon Valley, thanks in part to the presence of Amazon, Microsoft, and other big names that pay big salaries. Another attraction for well-paid techy execs: Washington has no income tax, making it a part-time home for many.

Freeways are jammed. Demand is pushing housing prices up. As a result, people living alone are tending more and more to share space. “According to the latest census data, Seattle is now the No. 1 city for rooming up and shacking up,” writes Times columnist Gene Balk.

Far below our feet, Big Bertha was grinding away. She’s a 57-foot-diameter, tunnel-boring machine with bad luck. Originally scheduled to create the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel, a faster way for cars to maneuver through town, Bertha started boring in 2013 and was to finish the tube last December. But she soon ran into trouble, and her giant cutting blades had to be dug out. Work resumed in December 2015, but more problems came up. Work stopped but finally resumed in April. Completion is due in early 2019, with overruns estimated at $223 million.

When I began planning to head north for Thanksgiving, I had a choice of a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Santa Barbara or 30-plus hours via the so-called “romance of the rails.” I chose the iron horse. Ah, yes ​— ​rocking and rolling through the Oregon pines in a cozy roomette.

In reality, it was like sleeping on a carnival ride at full speed. I’ve had better accommodations on a troopship.

All night long we groaned up grades and made long stops, and the train uttered nerve-shattering rail screeches at crossings. Rail travel at this level is not cheap, although meals are thrown in. Better bring your own. So why were people riding the rails? I queried a few of my fellow travelers. Some feared to fly. The eyes of one Santa Barbara woman fluttered with fear when I asked. She was fine with her room, which had a bathroom. Ours was down the corridor.

Another couple found the annual trip a fun, convenient adventure. Quite a few singles snuggled down in their roomettes, even having their meals delivered there. One positive thing about rail travel is that it’s easy to strike up conversations. One woman I met used the train for an easy connection from Southern California to the Bay Area, where she had a coffee-bean-roasting business.

At night we bored though the darkness ​— ​an eerie experience, I found ​— ​plunging into nothingness.

My fantasy “romance of the rails” was like a kiss-less blind date that had long since petered out by the time dawn broke. So when it was time to head home from the Pacific Northwest, I headed for Sea-Tac Airport. Santa Barbara weather forecast: sunshine.


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