Ponderosa Pine and Pilsner

So far on the Coast Starlight, I’ve been very unproductive. The beauty of the mountains and the ocean has proved far too distracting to study for the GRE or do much interview transcribing, but I have enjoyed the ride. Yesterday I sat next to a woman about my age in the observation car for most of the day, and as Garrison Keillor said in a recent monologue about boats, talking on a train has a different cadence from talking on land. You don’t want to use up all your conversation at once. We did have plenty to talk about, though. She’d been traveling for weeks already on a 30-day pass, couch surfing from NYC to Birmingham, New Orleans, Austin and LA, and we talked about traveling alone as a woman, about regional distinctions and statriotic pride, and about career options for the quirkier majors (she got a degree in playwriting). Between the friendly company and the view of the coast, I loved the Coast Starlight yesterday. (She also let me read her newspaper—check it out: Ballard Street’s in the LA Times! GR represent!)

This morning, however, things were different. I went down to get a coffee around 7 and the man in front of me was buying a Heineken—to get rid of the hangover, he said. The snack car attendant encouraged him in this—the better for tipping, he said. By 8:30, I saw four others nursing bottles in the lounge car and a woman snoring beside me in the observation car had a rather suspect Big Gulp mug at her side. At 3 there’s a wine and cheese tasting in the parlor car (available only to sleep car customers) and local wines for sale downstairs from California to Washington. I enjoyed an overpriced bottle of Blue Moon myself yesterday evening, but I must say, there’s a decadence among these West Coast riders that quite disagrees with my Midwestern sensibilities.

There is one huge advantage over the Southwest Chief on this route. The Rails-and-Trails people narrating the trip through Oregon don’t bother with any silly script about historical happenings in the Cascades; they’re far more pragmatic. This is what I have learned: Do Not—and this is serious—turn on your windshield wipers when you drive through a swarm of midges near Lake Klamath in August. It will only make things worse.

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