The Coast Starlight train leaves Emeryville (San Francisco) just after 10 p.m. Much like Ben Franklin, I’m an “early to bed, early to rise” person. Embarking on anything at 10 p.m. is detrimental to my body clock. I got to the train station early, because it’s a bit of a drive and I wasn’t sure how quickly I’d get an Uber or if there’d be traffic. Also, I’d checked out of my hotel at noon and spent the whole day walking around San Francisco. It’s a city I love, but it was 80 degrees and I walked more miles uphill than I care to calculate. From Fisherman’s Wharf to North Beach to Chinatown to the Financial district, I spent hours toting a heavy backpack and seeing the sights. I stopped for coffee. I stopped for lunch. I stopped for wine. Finally, I spent an hour at the North Beach branch of the San Francisco Public Library. I was hoping for air conditioning, but there was none. At least I could escape the sun. I am not accustomed to being sunburned in October.
By the time I got to the train station, I was exhausted. At least I’ll sleep well, I figured. I’d slept poorly the night before. At 2 a.m., I woke in a panic because I heard music in my room. I fumbled with the clock radio, thinking some past guest must have set an alarm. It took me a solid five minutes to realize what I was hearing was coming from the street below. My room was on the fourth floor, but the street noise was so clear I might as well have been sleeping on the sidewalk. At 3 a.m., the city garbage trucks came through. Or maybe it was a concrete mixer. Either way, I was wide awake. Bad sleep plus an aggressive morning run to shake out my legs plus a day of walking in the hot sun left me feeling wrung out. By the time I got to the train station in Emeryville, I was desperate for a good night’s sleep.
I know some people love to sleep on trains. They like the rhythmic sound the train makes as it rolls down the tracks. I get it. But here are some other sounds you might hear on the train: the sound of other sleeping car passengers getting up to use the restroom or clomp down the hallway for no reason, the sound of the train whistle as it passes another train, the sound of your book hitting the floor as you rumble through a particularly rough section of track. Also, it gets cold in the middle of the night and I wake up shivering and grasping for my sweater. The blankets are very thin. Friday morning, as I pour my first cup of coffee (and kudos to Amtrak for providing ample coffee), I realize I haven’t slept through the night since I left Denver on Tuesday.
Thank goodness for Portland. As I write this, I’m comfortably situated in a quiet room in a large comfortable bed after getting a solid seven hours of sleep. Bliss.
But sleep was never the goal of this trip. The goal was to write and to watch the scenery pass by and to see things I hadn’t seen before. I’ve been writing. There is not much else to do on the train but read and write and talk to strangers and eat. I’ve discovered that trains are full of engineers. Practically every time I sit down for a meal, I find myself seated across the table from some retired engineer. I’ve started playing a game with myself called “spot the engineer.” I’m remarkably good at it. The odds are in my favor.
Today, I’ll board the Empire Builder and head off toward Chicago. But first, I am going to invest in some ear plugs and maybe a warm fleece. There is very little extra space in my luggage, but I’ll make room. And I’ll keep writing.