Father’s Day Travel

Discovering the world through Starlight

Southern Oregon/California's Border Zone.

Southern Oregon/California's Border Zone.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

With Father’s Day round the corner, a look at a father-son duo that travels the globe on rails

My son, Ishaan, and I both are lovers of rail travel, content to spend hours gazing out of the window, watching the landscape flash by.

Air travel is instantaneous; you can enter the airplane in one country and exit in another. Road trips are unfair to the person driving (especially, if like me, one dislikes driving). However, train journeys are an immersive experience, enabling travellers to sample the land that they are travelling along.

Trains offer you the time and space to talk about many things — Ishaan and I discuss the flora and fauna of different places, geographical landforms, and even local cultures and politics. We make it a point to eat at small stations, and to interact with fellow travellers. Each of these experiences enriches us. And, we have been doing one ‘great’ train ride a year, for the last five years.

Ishaan is nine years old now and we’ve already travelled The Indian Pacific, a four-day-three-night journey from Sydney to Perth. We’ve been on the Tamil Nadu Express for two days and two nights from Chennai to Delhi. On the TranzAlpine, a six-hour journey from Christchurch to Greymouth. And the Trans-Siberian, a nine-day-eight-night journey from Vladivostok to Moscow.

This year, we chose the Coast Starlight, said to be one of the seminal train experiences in North America. The train runs up the rocky backbone of the continent, from Los Angeles in southern California, to Seattle in northern Washington.

Discovering the world through Starlight

And so it was that on a chilly May morning, we found ourselves outside Los Angeles Union Station. The station is low-slung and unassuming. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for, in character. The high-domed interior houses many fast-food joints and an Amtrak ticketing section, which is surprisingly difficult to find.

Unfortunately, as we stood in the queue for this premier rail journey, it was evident that the person at the ticketing counter displayed no enthusiasm for her job. Nevertheless, after some perfunctory American pleasantries, we found ourselves on the platform with our tickets.

The locomotive is a massive diesel, double engine beast. The carriages are all double-deckers. We had booked first-class, and therefore had an exclusive room to ourselves with an attached rudimentary toilet. Very comfortable, but clearly, American Railways have at some point, lost gravitas — that indefinable sense of moment, that the Indian Railways and the Russian Railways have managed to retain. The locomotive pulls nine coaches behind it; one coach is first class, two coaches are business class. There is a pantry car, followed by an observation car, with two more ordinary class coaches. The last two coaches carry luggage.

Follow the map

At precisely 10.10 in the morning, we left Los Angeles. The train travels surprisingly fast and after a few short stops, we reached Santa Barbara by lunch time. All meals are served in the pantry car. All day long, we travelled by the side of the Pacific, with dry wine-country to our right.

However, America never fails to surprise. While you have the stereotypical ugly American at one end of the spectrum, the other end presents to you the opposite, the free-thinker, the American who is curious and interested in others. We met an army veteran from Florida, who now does art for DC Comics. We met the Englishman who had travelled by train all over the world, who now lives in Boston. We met an elderly lady from Minnesota who was a geologist and told us how the Great Missoula Flood had affected the lands we were now racing through. Chance encounters; fleeting glimpses of other lives. (The veteran gave Ishaan a signed copy of the latest Superman comic.)

Amtrak train and (below) the writer with his son, Ishaan

Amtrak train and (below) the writer with his son, Ishaan   | Photo Credit: ISTOCK/Getty Images

By dinner, we were in San Jose. The train ride is smooth, and there is no difficulty in falling asleep. The dinner on the Coast Starlight is quite good with burgers that are definitely above average. At San Jose, the Starlight turns inland, and rushes to meet the rising crags of the Rockies. The train rises and twists through the mountains; the screech of metal wheels trying to turn against an unyielding track is a constant reminder that we are climbing in the darkness. By midnight, we were in Sacramento.

One of the reasons I decided to do this is because the Coast Starlight is said to offer unparalleled views of Mount Shasta, at dawn. The Klamath Indians considered Mount Shasta a holy place, where the Skell, ‘the Great Spirit of the Overworld’ first ascended to heaven from, and now dwelt. When we look at a map of the area, it is easy to see why. All around the ground is flat, barring tiny hillocks and minor mountains. And then, we have Mount Shasta climbing to over 4,000 metres.

By 5 in the morning, I was in the observation car, and the train was slowing down to the town of Dunsmuir. The ground all around was flat, and there was no sign of Mount Shasta. Had I missed it ?

We left Dunsmuir and travelled for a while. Suddenly in the distance, we could see Shasta. Massive, solitary and snow-capped. For the next 30 minutes, the train rocketed towards this mighty mountain, until we were running past it. Shasta is grand. There are photos, but they tell you nothing of the sense of awe that it imbues in you. Soon we passed winding river valleys, into pastoral Oregon, and reached Portland in the late afternoon. This is the place where skyjacker DB Cooper mysteriously jumped out of a plane with $200,000 more than 40 years ago, and was never seen again.

Portland gave us a chance to get out of the train and stretch our legs. After that, the train starts racing westward towards the Pacific. By early evening, we slowed down as we headed into the neighbourhood of Seattle. Seattle station reminds you of its loyalties; with the Starbucks logo painted atop it.

Thus, after 36 hours, and 1,500 kilometres, having travelled the length of the United States, we stepped out of the station, into a pleasant spring evening.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 12:01:10 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/with-fathers-day-round-the-corner-a-look-at-a-father-son-duo-that-travels-the-globe-on-rails/article24151541.ece

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