Cambrian: Slice of Life

Train of thoughts

We went on a splendid 12-day Oregon vacation last month, seeing beautiful scenery, visiting family and eating much too well. The highlight was grandson Dylan’s astounding four-day wedding festivities. Amtrak trips consumed another four days, including getting to, onto and off the trains. The rest of the time, we toured the Portland area and Columbia Gorge, photographed huge waterfalls and played peek-a-boo with snow-capped mountains, including Portland’s patron peak, Mount Hood.

Riding a train provided many benefits, including stunning views you won’t see from a car, and I got to see them, too! (A chauffeur mustn’t sightsee and drive at the same time.) And what a joy to be able to take a nap. From our sleeper room, we saw large lakes, high mountains (“Helloooo, Shasta!”), crop-filled fields and dense forests of tall, lush trees.

Yes, that “bedroom” had some faults, but it also gave us our own big picture window and welcome, cozy privacy. Sharing mealtimes with other passengers was fun; spending 24 nonstop hours with them could have been something else entirely. Northbound, we also were blessed with the world’s best train attendant. Cyndi Garcia pampered us, chatted, laughed and just about adopted us. Now, let’s see I was 5 years old the last time I had a train sleepover. Husband Richard worked for Southern Pacific for 16 years, but hadn’t done an overnighter in decades. Here’s some of what we discovered:

Sleeping on a train is right out of a screwball 1930s comedy, and not especially restful, even in the private room that added $1,760 to the cost of our trip.

It had been forever since I slept in any upper bunk, let alone one that was moving. Guess what? I didn’t this time, either. Motion-sickness triggers are stronger way up there.

Restless sleeper? There’s so little room between the upper bunk’s mattress and the room’s ceiling that in order to turn over, you must first slither out onto a wobbling ladder and then clamber back into the cave. By then, you’re awake.

Abandoning the upper bunk left me with nowhere to sleep. We tried fashioning a mini-bunk by wedging a suitcase between the room’s chair and the foot end of the lower bunk but the padding and I kept sliding off.

Sharing a twin-sized bed may be romantic for two young, skinny newlyweds, but by 2 a.m., we substantial senior citizens had sprouted extra elbows, knees and bruises.

In a rocking train car, it’s better if your resting body rocks with it from side to side. Unfortunately, our bunk was oriented to rock head-to-toe, which was like lying on a perpetual-motion teeter-totter.

Going north, Amtrak stops at nine stations between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Walking in a moving train can be tricky, even risky, especially in older cars. We were human ping-pong balls in a 24-hour game.

It takes Cirque du Soleil-type skills for two people to maneuver within a room that’s shorter than our couch at home and narrower than our bathroom, especially with three suitcases, a camera backpack and a large briefcase in there, too.

The bedroom’s small, but its private bathroom is microscopic. You don’t really walk into it as much as you put it on, rather like a chilly structural girdle. And showering while sitting on the toilet is a peculiar concept at best.

Packing ultra-lightly is crucial, but it’s a skill I haven’t mastered. Next time, we’d take half as much luggage but then, we always say that.

Sadly, most of the hot meals were like upscale TV dinners, not the legendary dining-car cuisine we remembered. I suspect today’s saltier versions are frozen entrees, microwaved. That’s probably why the bowl warped underneath the high-fat macaroni and cheese.

Yes, we’d take short-hop train trips in the future. Santa Barbara or Ventura? Absolutely. San Jose, San Francisco or Davis? We’re not sure. Arrival times are the key.

We’d have to make some changes before venturing on another overnighter, but we haven’t yet figured out what those changes would be.

And the last lesson? There’s never enough time to do what we wanted to do, so we’ll just have to go back. By train? The jury’s still out.