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The train prepares to roll out of Seattle's King Street station.
Passing Fancies
A view from the train

A stranger on the train once told me that riding the rails is the kinetic way to go. If I could relax, I'd feel the sense of journey. If I could forget deadlines, I'd appreciate what we all seem to miss — that a trip has a beginning, middle and end, distinct parts that make up the whole. In that way, he said, it's like life.

So here I am on this fall morning, testing that Zen notion with a 24-hour whirl around the state. I'm booked from Seattle to Vancouver/Portland, from Vancouver northeast to Spokane, from Spokane back home to Seattle. I leave about 10 a.m. and expect to return at the same time one day later. But I can be late. I've got nowhere to go, except this triangular route. That's a good thing, because Amtrak's on-time record is spotty at best.

Anyway, this is about the going, not the getting there.

If a train journey is indeed like life, Seattle's King Street Station suggests a deprived childhood. From the outside, its red-brick tower says regal. From the inside, its pale yellow walls, fake ceiling and spartan ambience says forgotten.
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Baggage handler at the Portland station.
Though the boarding platform is dotted with pigeon poop, the process is so pleasant and effortless that it throws me off. There is no metal detector to tiptoe through, no I-was-here-first tension in the lines, and nobody cares about my carry-on. My boarding pass is a plain green card with PDX, for Portland, scribbled on it. And as soon as Amtrak's Coast Starlight, bound for L.A. and points between, rumbles into morning sunlight, the station pall evaporates.

We creep through the eclectic SODO neighborhood: past $1 billion-plus worth of sports stadiums, worn metal warehouses and retail cacophony. Strangers settle back in roomy seats. Each has a colored boarding card clipped above his or her seat, revealing the particular destination. EUG for Eugene, SAC for Sacramento, and so it goes.

With plane travel in post-9/11 disarray and gasoline prices high, I thought I'd have plenty of company on this glorious Sunday. Instead, the train is half-empty. That's OK. It affords more room to wander and find out who's here. At the very back of the train, I meet a Portland-based artist and former high-tech worker who says he has rid his name of capital letters. He hands me his business card to prove it.

The observation car, at the center of the train, is the best place to mix. The seats face sideways in front of massive windows so everyone shares the same fleeting show. Scenes glide by, a frame at a time: dusty little houses, fishermen wading thigh deep, two kids standing shoulder to shoulder, waving to the passing train from their yard. I imagine they do that a lot. We skirt golf courses, a blue-green slough, parked freight cars. Familiar scenes from different angles.

A few seats away, a white-haired couple speaks what sounds like German. It's not even 11 a.m., but a weathered guy with long, oily hair and a floppy shirt-tail drinks Jack Daniel's purchased from the snack bar. Three teenage girls, all blond, scrubbed and dressed vaguely like pop-star wannabes, chatter nearby. I don't even bother to eavesdrop. I'd have a better chance of understanding the Germans.
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One of the many barns from Tacoma to Portland.
I wonder where they are all going. Who will get off soon, perhaps as early as Centralia, and who is in for the long haul to southern California? Who is traveling on the train because it's cheap? Who values exploration over speed? Who's afraid to fly?

Then Dominique Logan plops into a seat next to me and props a foot on the window ledge. He looks like he's ready for a Banana Republic photo shoot — pressed khaki shorts; what looks like a fisherman's vest; gleaming-white mid-calf socks beneath sandals; a small, black stocking cap. His earring shines and his eyes have a spark, so I lean over and ask the tried-and-true opener: "Where ya headed?"

L.A., he says, where he lives part of the time. He promptly rolls on, telling me about his boyhood love for trains, how his mom would smell the diesel on him and know he had been hanging around the tracks. He says he'd take his own private rail car over a Learjet any day. He is only 38, but talks like an old-timer about classic trains, how underappreciated rail travel is, what a shame it is that diesel replaced steam. He gets sidetracked at times, telling me about his career and a consulting idea he has, before rejoining the conversation mainline.
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A mom uses a picture window to amuse her child.
"People who ride the train have a different mentality," he says. "They take in life as it is. They don't have to get there, boom, boom, boom. I'm always amazed how people have to find the closest parking space to the mall and then walk around inside for 30 minutes. On planes, you might be stuck the whole flight next to a toilet-seat salesman who wants to tell you all about it."

In fact, he is sitting next to me because he needed to get away from a companion and the argument they'd been having. A little space goes a long way when L.A. is still a day and a half from now.

As we enter Tacoma, Jim Fredrickson taps me on the shoulder and points to the window of the old station, now a courthouse. He used to look outside it for much of his long career with the Northern Pacific Railroad. He went to work for the company at 16, during World War II, when able bodies were in short supply around home. He worked his way up to dispatcher and stayed four decades. Before then, as a 14-year-old with a 19-cent camera earned selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door, he began photographing steam engines and depots. Today, he has more than 30,000 negatives, has authored three railroading books and, at 75, is working on another.

When word came that the railroad was to stretch all the way to the West, Yelm, Steilacoom, Tacoma, Mukilteo and Seattle all battled to become Washington's Northern Pacific terminus. Tacoma won the honor, earning the nickname "City of Destiny." When the line began operating in 1873, it helped birth many towns. The train entirely bypasses most of them now. Tenino, for instance, used to be a main stop.
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The Columbia Gorge at dusk.
As we pass through the Nelson Bennett Tunnel, Fredrickson excuses himself and eases down a tight stairwell to the lower level. That's where the intercom microphone is. As a train expert and lover, he has volunteered his Sunday to chronicle natural and historical highlights we pass. To do so, he must peer out a door window at ground level and stand to the side of passengers inching toward the snack-bar cash register.

He tells about explorers, tribes and assorted facts, such as how Steilacoom is the oldest incorporated town on Puget Sound. He makes a point to tell one of the three teen girls about the Nisqually Delta. She nods, staring vacantly ahead as if he's Dad giving advice.

But Fredrickson knows I'm interested, so he makes sure I notice landmarks such as the rock and sand bumps known as the Mima Mounds. Not far south of Castle Rock, he leans forward and alerts me to watch carefully for the second white fence in a pasture on the west side. We wait and wait, and there it is. In the middle of the long dirt road is a hump that forces vehicles to either side. That's where pioneer Abel Ostrander is buried. He apparently instructed family to place his casket there so he could always see who was coming and going.

As Fredrickson and the train hum along, we sway gently past pastures, dirt roads and swimming holes and through Longview, Kalama and Battle Ground. It seems like we're cutting through backyards and taking a shortcut. But in the stretches that parallel the freeway, I see the automobiles pull away. I remind myself again, this is no race. Besides, we'll get into Portland on time, the world is rolling by, and everyone is relaxed. This is just the beginning. There is a middle and end yet to come.
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The ferry waiting to shove off from Steilacoom.
I could have gotten off in Vancouver, the start of the eastern leg, but I have two hours to kill. So I go to Portland's beautiful depot and note it as another thing Portland does better than Seattle. A little after 4 p.m., and right on time, I'm escorted to a sleeper car I've booked aboard the Empire Builder.

The Empire Builder travels back and forth between Chicago and the Northwest, but when it begins its eastbound run, it actually is two trains. One starts from Seattle, the other from Portland. They meet and merge in Spokane. Then it traverses through the peaks of Glacier National Park and the plains of North Dakota.

The Portland-to-Spokane run has an observation car but no diner car, so Donald the porter hands out cold "box dinners" to those travelers in the compartments. We all leave our sliding-glass doors open. Most of my neighbors are Midwest-bound and eager to chat, but the economy sleeper gives you just enough room to either sit or sleep, so I soon walk the tight halls, bouncing from wall to wall as the train rocks.

As we cruise up the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, I notice that this train is emptier than the last. So I sit near the only people in the observation car, Bruce and Della. Both are in their 60s. He's got the white hair and glasses. She's flashy in comparison, with star-patterned red pants that look like pajama bottoms. I ask where they're headed. Back home to Mansfield, Ohio, Bruce tells me. They came out to Portland so he could attend an annual reunion with naval shipmates.

"She won't fly and I didn't want to drive," he says.

"I last flew in 1983," Della says. "I couldn't get my ears to pop. I said never again." She chuckles uneasily.

"Her watch is still on Midwest time; mine's still on Pacific," he says for no apparent reason.
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Dominique Logan, bound for Los Angeles.
The gorge opens wider with each eastbound mile. She looks out at a basalt archipelago and tells me, "You don't see this from a plane." I sense she says that for her husband's benefit, not mine. He's been complaining about his inability to sleep on the train.

Instead of asking her, "How would you know about the view from a plane?" he kindly tells me, "We've met real nice people on the train. I just think maybe next time I'd like to take a little shorter trip."

Della's right, of course. You can't take in the gorge this way from 20,000 feet or with your eyes glued to the highway centerline. With each mile and minute the sun dips farther and changing shadows re-sculpt contours on hillsides and rock formations. With softer light, we also get sharper focus on the fishermen, jet skiers and boaters squeezing the last daylight from the weekend. We skirt dams, come within a few feet of rock walls and travel through a series of short tunnels.

The observation car fills as sunset nears. A woman with graying hair and four rings on one hand is heading back home to Milwaukee. She had traveled to Sacramento on the Zephyr because she heard the run might soon be lopped by perennially cash-strapped Amtrak. Another woman lugs a baby in a car seat. A guy in a baseball cap, his coat zipped to the neck as if he's watching the sky while sitting outside, seems hypnotized.

The train blasts as we near Wishram to remind the town's volunteer firefighters that we are passing through. They have responded to spot fires on the steep, rocky hillside, but they don't have to work too hard. There isn't anything to harm up there, and nothing but a few tufts of grass to feed the flames.

Little Wishram turns out to be a big stop for some passengers: It's their first smoke break since Portland. They get five minutes, yet that's plenty of time to build an impressive plume. I ask a young woman from Fargo if one cigarette will hold her until Pasco. She exhales. "Probably, not."

The sun vanishes and a full moon takes its place. The only other light outside comes from the distant headlights on Oregon's Interstate 84 across the Columbia. I wonder where they are all headed; no one else seems to. The movie "A Beautiful Mind" is commanding attention on monitors at both ends of the observation car.

I'm the last one staring out the window. The flickering movie images spread enough light through the car that I soon see my own image superimposed on the fading scenery. The effect makes me think about the advice to meld with the going. But there is no one to tell. With darkness, the train becomes self-contained. Passengers disappear to their compartments or sprawl in idiosyncratic lumps on coach seats. I wander up and down the aisles, careful not to bump dangling feet.

I strike up a conversation with a worker who patiently describes the mechanics of how this half of the Empire Builder will couple in Spokane with one paralleling us from Seattle. He talks about his past life as a teacher and how train duty, with its long absences, kills marriages. "It's a good job," he says, "but a terrible life."

One of the few conscious passengers waits for the conversation to end so he can introduce himself. He's Bill Griffee, a Protestant minister from Iowa helping Northwest churches raise money. He's headed back to the northeastern Oregon town of Hermiston after a weekend in Seattle, and is getting off in Pasco. That's only 10 minutes away so our conversation takes a vibrant pace, unusual for a train chat.
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Back home, with a fresh perspective.
He orates about train travel.

"When you travel by plane you never see the beauty and uniqueness of the country, the way the forces of the earth have shaped the hills and valleys, and the great rivers and how people live on the land, the houses they build, the abandoned shacks that were once full of life."

He asks if I had noticed the windsurfers and fishermen we passed, the fire on the hillside and how the golden moon splashed light on the river. He smiles, shakes my hand, and is off into the night.

A dozen more passengers take his place.

We arrive in Spokane a bit after midnight, on time again! I spend part of the 90-minute layover wandering downtown. I listen to a young drunk slur his disappointment about Spokane, then board the westbound version of the Empire Builder.

On this leg, I'm determined to take advantage of my bunk. First, I thumb through a list Fredrickson had given me chronicling stops the train made out here in 1943. I scroll down and see places like Lyons, Galena Espanola, Bluestem Lamona, and so on. Tonight, though, we're plowing straight through the darkness and some of the state's loneliest countryside. We'll hit Wenatchee by about sunrise so I have three hours to snooze. I turn off the lamp, lie back and let the train rock me to sleep.

When the bunks are folded down in the cheapest sleeper, there is nowhere to stand. So as I awake, I slide open the door and crawl out into the aisle. The compartment facing me is already open. Bob Sabin is putting on his shoes. His companion, Susan Carter, tiptoes past me, balancing a sloshing cup of coffee. I say a groggy hello and head to the dining car that splits the sleeper compartments from the coach seats.

I sit alone at a white-clothed table as the train nears Cashmere and Leavenworth. Almost all the tables are open, but within minutes Sabin and Carter are escorted to mine. This is good news. I not only want to meet them, but I can't read the menu because I left my glasses in the sleeper. I'll just have what they're having.

They work at Northern Illinois University, but have set off to check out the Northwest. They're going to rent a car and drive up to the North Cascades, hike the Olympic Peninsula, sample the Oregon Coast. Sounds wonderful but ambitious, I tell them. We're the last region of America the two have explored together, Sabin says, so they thought they might as well do a long-distance train trip for the first time, too.

By the time the French toast comes, we are stopped in Wenatchee, taking on passengers and some freight. Susan doesn't think she is gregarious enough to suit long-distance travel. Bob admits those hours through North Dakota dragged. I tell them the scenery is about to get much better as we hit Stevens Pass. This part of the Empire Builder doesn't have an observation car so I wander and finally plop into one of the many open seats.

The mood is far different than it was when I started in Seattle. People are at the grueling end, not the optimistic beginning, of a long journey. Some chatter about Seattle stereotypes, but I can tell they are tired. Or maybe that's just me wearing down. The scenery is Northwest rugged, but I stare out the window with no more effort than as if watching TV. We head through a 7.7-mile tunnel and past Icicle Canyon, forest, rivers and tiny foothill towns like Index and Skykomish.

We're back on the edge of bustle, making stops in Everett, then Edmonds before heading south toward Seattle. When I return to my sleeper compartment, my bunk has been turned back into a chair. As we head south, the hills and homes float by my eastern window.

I look across the aisle through the windows of the open compartment of my Illinois acquaintances. They are glued to the expanse of Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, islands and boats. I find myself taking it in as I imagine they are for the first time. I begin to appreciate this place.

In fact, I point out the Space Needle, which is invisible to me these days. As we arrive at the station — on time! — he tells me about a book I should read and I tell them what parts of town to avoid. We smile, thank each other, shake hands and part forever.

King Street Station looks better at the end than it did when I left. I hop off, walk the platform, pass through the empty waiting room, and enter a cab at the curb within one minute. It seems rather abrupt for an exercise in slowing down, a trip so fast yet full. Soon, though, the cab gets mired in Pioneer Square gridlock and I become reacquainted with Seattle's concept of kinetic travel. It's OK. I'm in no hurry.

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. Paul Schmid is a Seattle Times news artist.

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