Here’s a blog entry from my Starlight 2011 trip that I forgot to post. Enjoy.

Thursday, Feb. 10, Seattle

I awoke in Seattle on Feb. 10 to a spectacularly clear day. One of those where the locals run to the Space Needle for lunch, where I was headed. The waiter, before serving my entree of mac and cheese with Dungeous crab, told me the restaurant does about a third more business on days like this.

Beautiful it was. The restaurant, called Sky City, rotates about once every 45 minutes. While dining on the mac and cheese, I was treated to views of the Olympic Mountains and Mt. Rainier, plus Pugit Sound and the city itself. A very pretty place in the sun.

And here’s a tip: it costs about $15 to ride up the elevators to the top. If you eat in the restaurant, the trip is included. So my $25 bill for the mac and cheese and a soft drink was actually $10… a pretty good deal

Backtracking a bit… My day started with a walk up to the retail area of downtown Seattle, home to the flagship Nordstrom store, southern terminus of the yesterday’s-tomorrow monorail to Seattle Center, home of the 1962 Worlds Fair.

While the region has invested in a variety of transit options over the last few years, it’s just now getting around to doing some renovation work on the monorail. It only makes two stops, one downtown, one at the fair site. I’m sure somebody envisioned it being the beginning of a regional transit system back in the ‘60s, but today it’s just a curiosity. The ride was bumpy and creaky, something that’s being fixed on the other track. Of course we all wonder why monorails have never caught on, but after 50 years they wear out just like everything else.

After lunch at the Space Needle and another creeky ride on the monorail, I walked over to the Pike Place Market for a look and was frankly disappointed. Although major renovation work is under way, unless I missed something it’s really now just a tourist trap. Very few of the market stalls are left. In most cases, fresh salmon has been replaced by beaded purses, instant “collectables” and tacky t-shirts. Too bad. Anybody out there ready to say otherwise?

I walked down the long staircase to the waterfront, under Seattle’s waterfront freeway (the Alaska Way, and it might be coming down in the next few years), looking for the old trolley that runs to Pioneer Square, near my hotel. Found out later the trolley quit running in 2005; too bad.

Seems like it might have been a downer day, but I got in a good walk in some brisk but sunny weather.

Dinner was at a great place recommended by the desk clerk at the Marriott Courtyard where I stayed and was just the next block over. Luigi’s Italian Village on the maps is really Luigi’s Cafe Bengoti. A real hole in the wall, about a dozen tables and a kitchen, right on the corner. My gnochi amaricci was wonderful… potato dumplings and bacon in a rich tomato sauce. Where’s the recipe?

Since this is finishing my first round-trip up the West Coast and I’m not a weatherman, I don’t know how fast or big storms are.All I can say is that it started raining and snowing on Monday in Cle Elum, Wash., and here it is Thursday on the train in Paso Robles, Calif., and it’s still going.

This morning while we were stopped in Sacramento, I stepped out for a few minutes. Rain, wind, cold. Kinda nice.

Rain in Sacramento.

Snow in Cle Elum.

After the bus trip to Portland, it’s been a nice ride down the west coast.

My dinner last night was a fine piece of halibut in the dining car. Dining on a train is a great experience; watching the world go by and the waiters managing to work from a tiny prep area and never spill anything while the train tosses about.

Train custom seats strangers together (that and a $5 tip brought Eve Marie Saint and Cary Grant together on the 20th Century Limited in North By Northwest) so I was at a table with another single guy, headed to Reno, and a couple headed to vacation in the Bay Area.

Amtrak does a decent job with dining car meals — better here on the Starlight than on the Southwest Chief I took last year.

After dinner it was back to the compartment for eerie nighttime views of snow-covered trees and frozen lakes. The storm covering the west coast had dumped more white stuff than was here last week.

Every once in awhile, the near full moon would pop through the clouds. The snow was everywhere: hanging from trees, clinging to the old telegraph wires running besides the tracks, covering the ground as virgin powder that would delight skiers.

But no ski areas here, no roads, no people, because over much of this route, it is alone. Quite a view as this traveler dozed off for the night.

Who would guess that there’s rain in the Northwest. So a mudslide on the tracks between Kelso and Portland put all Portland-south passengers on buses. The train could get through, but they didn’t want passengers onboard through the mud.

Lunch (included for sleeper passengers like me) was a Subway box lunch.

With no stops (or mudslides) on the way, we made it to Portland an hour ahead of the train.

Now I’m in my roomette, downstairs, and hoping to move upstairs if possible. It’s a raw, rainy day in Portland; my compartment is nice and toasty.

I already have a 6:30 time in the diner.

There’s the whistle and off we go!

So a few things I learned about GPS on the train and when I got to Seattle. First, I left my trusty Garmin Nuvi at home, thinking I would rely on the GPS I expected to have in the car I would drive, plus the two (count ’em, two) GPS systems in my Android phone.

First the good news and bad news on the train. Here’s the good news: the Google Navigation system kept up with the moving train and the satellite image option let me see the terrain surrounding the rails — a neat feature. Sprint also kept up, but didn’t have the satellite photo feature. Google kept trying to put the train on a street, so the route jumped around a bit, but overall did a good job.

The bad news made me miss the Garmin unit, as it has a readout of the speed you’re traveling. When I took Amtrak over to Santa Fe, NM, last year, it was really cool to sit in my little roomette in the middle of the night, watching the stars go by, and having this little gizmo tell me the train was traveling at 90mph.

Arriving in Seattle at around 10 p.m. (the Starlight was right on time), I thought I’d walk from the King Street Station the couple of blocks to my hotel. I programmed in the address to Google Navigation (just selecting the address on Google Maps put it in the GPS) and followed the directions. Unfortunately, a three-block walk turned into a six block wander, as the direct way was on one-way streets going toward me. If I’d been in a car, it would have looped me around correctly, but there’s no “walking” selection, so I sort of found it on my own.

The next day was bright and clear, of course a rarity in Seattle. More on that next time.

After a decent night’s sleep, those of us on the Coast Starlight today awoke to blue skies as we looped around Mt. Shasta. The big rock is covered with snow and glistened in the morning sun. I popped into the dining car to enjoy an early breakfast (not one of Amtrak’s best) while we twisted through the forest. No snow on the ground where the train goes, but still a beautiful ride around the curves.

After negotiating the curves, the train’s next stop is in Klamath Falls, a dusty burg that’s one of hundreds of railroad towns around the country. Not much here, but it’s good to see that the old Southern Pacific depot is still functioning — positively a beehive when our train came in. Not only were folks leaving the Starlight, the ticket window was busy getting passengers their northbound seats for the day-long trip to Portland or beyond.

North of Klamath Falls the train heads up into the mountains again and the most spectacular part of the trip. Snow dusted trees, canyons with flowing streams, lots of curves where we could see the front and the back of the train at the same time.

There are several tunnels, some featuring snow sheds on either end.

Curving through the snow.
Curving through the snow.

Lakes… Crater Lake, Diamond Lake, all beautiful on this clear winter day.

Once the train descends, it’s the rolling farmland of agricultural Oregon. The train skirts the huge Diamond Lake, which framed snowcapped mountains. Towns along the way are small and smaller — Chemult, Eugene, Albany — before the capitol, Salem, and the big city, Portland.

One of those train things… we were stuck on a siding for about 40 minutes waiting for a freight train to pass (after all, they own the tracks) which put us behind schedule. But the engineer cranked up the two engines hauling us and the conductor cut the time we sat in Portland, so we arrived in Seattle 25 minutes early. That’s right… early.

Food in the diner was not gourmet, but was not bad. The breakfast was a bit cold, but lunch (a burger) and dinner (baked chicken) were today in the diner. I opted for the diner with its larger selection, rather than the Parlour Car that’s a bit fancier. A nice thing is that the fare is served on glassware (Corelle) rather than the high grade plastic that they used on the Southwest Chief last year.

The staff was motivated and friendly, making two of my three recent trips with decent folks; the bad was the trip back from Santa Fe last year.

My hotel was just a couple of blocks from Seattle’s King Street station; I ignored advice and walked over in the cold.

Overall, a great experience. Not for everybody but easier than driving and more interesting than on a plane. I’m looking forward to my trip back down the coast next week.