riding the Coast Starlight.

On a grey October Wednesday, I catch the number 22 bus downtown, then walk through a light rain to the train station. Buy a ticket, and board the Coast Starlight southbound to Portland.

I find my seat and settle in as the train nudges out of Seattle’s King Street Station, swaying gently from side to side. Work on an editing project for a while, glancing up every now and again to watch the landscape unrolling alongside the tracks. Eat an apple, and a burrito I’d made that morning from leftover quinoa and black beans. We pass through marshland dotted with the golds and browns and reds of autumn.

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After a few hours, I wander to the observation car. Get a cup of dining car coffee and find a seat facing out the window. The train track angles, then runs parallel to the interstate 5 for a few minutes and I realize we must be going sixty or sixty-five, since we’re going just a little bit faster than the big semi-trucks.

Think about how how unusual it is to face east when traveling south across the landscape. I watch the traffic flying along beside us on the road and think (in a macabre sort of way) how strange it would be to watch a wreck from this perspective. How the wheels of some car, never attached to the pavement to begin with, could leave the road, taking someone’s life could flying thru the air to crash into someone else’s… Realize, as if it is a novel concept, that the train would keep moving steadily south thru these autumn trees and the tragedy would recede from view, because of course an amtrak wouldn’t stop to help at the scene of a crash. The scene would disappear but that sick unease would remain in the pit of your stomach, the knowing that the accustomed can break so easily and that the rest of the world will mostly just pass by when it does.

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The tracks angle away from the interstate. Pass thru towns that should have thrived, located as they are along the tracks, but which are now shrinking into rural obscurity, since the freeway has become the main blood vessel of the body of the nation. Old farmhouses filled with unspoken stories and fading wallpaper. A dock rotting in the woods by a lake that doesn’t exist anymore. Broken car parts and rusted out washing machines, filled with reeds.

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I sip my coffee and listen to bits and pieces of people’s lives. A man going to visit his son and watch him play football in Bakersfield. A young woman who is worried about money. Another young woman who flirts with the man going to Bakersfield, and talks about how she raised her siblings because her mother couldn’t. A middle-aged man who sits nearby and assembles a guitar from pieces, then plugs in headphones, props sheet music up by the window, and proceeds to play a song that no one but him can hear. Its poetic, somehow.

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Look at my reflection in the window of the train and realize that I am nearly 30. An adult, by some people’s reckoning. Decades of grade school spelling tests and family roadtrips and seminars at Evergreen and solo hikes on Rainier and flying kites in the potato fields behind our house when I was ten. Years of muddling through relationships and trying to figure out how i fit into the order of things, and coming to understand, on some level, how gender and society and body were constructed and also literal. All those days! All those hours and weeks and months trying to plan my life and doing yoga and trying to find healthcare and being a waitress and falling in love with mountains and recording people’s stories and sitting alone transcribing them and wondering what it all meant… watching the layers of reality pile up and peel away and getting a sense of how America is layers of sediment and story and violence and redemption and how my life is just one story, one bit of a river running thru all that landscape, tangled up in everything it passes thru.

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Get distracted from my stream of consciousness reverie by the backyards of Kelso. Kids’ toys abandoned on warmer days, now papered with wet leaves. 6 swallows flying together over the neighborhood. Fog clinging to the evergreen-autumn-gold-green foothills. Sunlight breaking through the grey here and there and I feel content, thinking about my home. My book. The man I love. My dog. My family. My friends. I have everything I need and so much beyond that.

The train chugs over a river.

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2 Comments

Filed under watching it all go by

2 responses to “riding the Coast Starlight.

  1. train and trees and poetic passengers. lovely post, Sarah. you always make me smile.

  2. Mary Kate

    Way to make a case for sitting on the east side of the train!

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