The Wild Wild(fire) West

It begins. My first significant travel since I visited Chicago in 2018.

The city bus is packed. We skirt by a 5 car and 12 police officer response to some incident on Third between Pike and Pine, which has become a near-daily occurrence. I’m glad to get away from sirens and flashing lights and street life for a few days. The E-Line in Seattle ends a block from the King Street Station, where my train journey will begin.

I’ve booked business class on the Amtrak Starlight route to Sacramento. Boarding offers a surprise of a steep and narrow (28″ wide) stairwell leading up to the passenger cars. Once we are seated, the stewards announce: “Welcome aboard. There’s no free food in business class anymore, nor any of the other freebies you might be accustomed to prior to COVID. No WiFi. Enjoy your leather seats and your free bottle of water.” But I have a window seat, and a seat next to me that would remain empty for the entire trip so I’m fine with whatever freebies I wasn’t even expecting.

If you need to get someplace in a hurry, take a plane. If you need to unwind, take the train. I brought things to do, but choose instead to spend my daylight hours watching “Landscape TV” as it rolls past the window. I note stuff I would never see from the freeway. A cabbage farm. A brown schoolyard next to a green golf course just north of McChord AFB. The Centralia train station, built in 1912 and enticing me back for a day trip so I can see the inside.

Announcements from the steward regarding dinner reservations for the passengers in sleeper cars: “Don’t push. Don’t cut in line. Showing up before your reservation time will not get you fed any faster.” Meals in the dining car are included in the cost of a sleeper car (about triple the cost of business class). Business class passengers are invited to dine (and pay cash) as space allows. Coach class are relegated to the packaged sandwiches and salads in the “Cafe” car, which is actually a darkly lit 6×8 foot closet, with reefer doors that vaguely remind me of the old luncheon automat from that scene in “Dark City.”

There are blue herons and houseboats on the Kalama River. An alpaca farm further on, and acres of pumpkins. We stop nearly every hour to pick up passengers, and between stops to let northbound freight trains pass. No wonder it takes 20+ hours to get from Seattle to Sacramento.

We encounter heavy smoke in Eugene, and the conductor warns that it will get worse the further south we go. The sky turns shades of mocha and the sun turns red, just before it disappears entirely.

I accept the steward’s invitation for dinner in the dining car. White linen tablecloths, blue linen napkins, roses in vases. Dinner was good, but served on high grade disposable plastic plates, painted to look like fine china. My whiskey was served in a plastic beer glass. The silver was mismatched. The vision of fine dining with crystal and china on the rails, goes a little off the rails.

Everyone’s cell phones light up with a Level Three Evacuation order for Lane County. It prompts the conductor to announce: “The train is not in danger at this time.” But the smoke continues to grow thicker, and after dark we see several fires on the other side of the ridge that are turning the night sky to lava orange. My lungs start to hurt.

Losing interest in my book, I fashion a bed from the two seats, my purse for a pillow, a wool shawl for a blanket. I sleep fitfully, clutching my alarm clock for a 5:15 AM wake-up for my connecting train in Sacramento which will take me east on the California Zephyr to Grand Junction, Colorado.

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