The countdown continues as we steadily make our way north
Settling into the train’s rhythmic sway we headed north from Los Angeles and soon left the palm tree-studded but gritty concrete jungle behind. The rails carried us into broad swaths of golden grass, dry soil, low scrub, and even the occasional tree as we headed past the farthest outskirts of LA. On board, we found our “roomette” then made our way to the Pacific Parlour car, an entertainment car unique to the Coast Starlight route that is a throwback to Amtrak’s heyday. It boasts large observation windows, swiveling lounge chairs, café tables, and an intimate dining section along with a lower level theater and is open only to sleeper car passengers. From this vantage point we watched the parched coastal hills and morning fog give way to sunny skies, azure waves and sandy beaches. The train hugs the coastline for over 100 miles as it heads towards Santa Barbara and this section of track is probably the best-known feature of the entire route. Somewhere along the central CA coast the tracks turned inland and our surfers, waves, and distant views of the Channel Islands were replaced by the verdant irrigated fields and vineyards that stretch all the way from San Luis Obispo to the Salinas Valley.
Our dining car reservation came up just as evening golden hour began somewhere between Gilroy and Salinas. Over dinner we reminisced that it had been 8 years since the first (and only other) time we rode the Coast Starlight. We had taken the train from Emeryville (near SF) to Seattle at the start of a short visit with my family followed by a backpacking trip in Olympic National Park. In the intervening years, the train’s menu has not changed one iota! In other ways, that trip feels so long ago and far away.
Dusk fell as we entered the southern reaches of the SF Bay Area last night. The sunset’s warm red-orange tones lingered over the tidal flats. They announced the movie starting in the parlor car’s lower level, but we had to agree with a fellow passenger who remarked “the real show is happening up here!” as the train continued along the East Bay towards Oakland. This was the closest we would be to home for many months. The train left Emeryville under the cover of darkness. Our sleeper car attendant converted our two seats to bunkbeds – Cheri took the lower level and the windows, while I navigated into the upper bunk. As on past train trips, we found that the train’s predictable swaying and rolling motion actually facilitates slumber. I awoke early and peering down to the windows could see silhouettes of conifers against the early light of dawn. It wasn’t long before sunrise then golden hour illuminated the clear air and vibrant colors of northern CA. The train snaked around the western and northern slopes of Mt. Shasta, providing us with stunning and ever-changing vistas as we ate brekkie then settled in for the continued visual feast of hills, trees, rivers and lakes against a backdrop of clear blue sky. Seeing Shasta and the conifers made me realize that we are only 2 days from starting our hike. This realization was followed by a random thought – when we hike through this area in late summer, will we be able to see the Coast Starlight train from the PCT?
I didn’t consult the map to guess at the answer as it honestly doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we will be on the PCT in two short days. Through the train’s windows I feel a gentle but constant tug, perhaps like that a moth feels when circling a porch light. This sensation for me is the visceral pull of the wilderness, where we will soon be surrounded by trees, meadows, rivers, lakes, and rock of all sorts. John Muir’s famous “the mountains are calling, and I must go” is perhaps over-used, but only because he captured this feeling that so many of us share. As we near the start of our PCT journey I feel the call stronger than ever before.
For now we remain inside the train, straddling two worlds. Outside the train makes steady progress northward along the rails while inside we go about our days. Train travel feels vastly different than driving or taking an airplane. There is freedom to move around and between the cars, and occasionally we even step outside on the platform. Randomly, this morning we had a 2 hour break in the town of Klamath Falls OR as there was unscheduled track work ahead. Most businesses were closed for the 4th of July holiday but we wandered the streets and watched the residents prepare for a parade before re-boarding. Other than these small diversions, our minds are abuzz with last minute tasks, some that we are knocking out on the train and others that will have to wait until we reach Seattle. There is very limited WiFi & cellular service on the train, a mixed blessing that provides plenty of time to read magazines, do the crossword, and chat with fellow passengers. Once we arrive there will again be a whirlwind of activity as we distribute our resupply food and spare gear to my mum & siblings who have graciously offered to meet us at highway crossings across WA, go through our packs one final time, and catch up with all of my family during another ~36hr stay. Our moods have definitely shifted to pure excitement as the hike is starting to feel palpable.
We have learned that the road to Harts Pass just re-opened, but still plan to take the water taxi across Ross Lake to the Devil’s Junction Trailhead. We will follow the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) to its intersection with the PCT, then head north to the border before we turn around to start our official SOBO thru-hike. Although this means a few more “bonus miles” and potentially a less-maintained trail, this portion of the PNT is stunningly beautiful- views of Jack Mtn and stunning Nohokomeen glacier. We hiked it last year when the sky was choked with smoke from a record number of large wildfires. This time, we are looking forward to some stunning glacier views and hope that the snow and treefall won’t make the early days of hiking too difficult.