TRAINS: Writing on the Coast Starlight

My spouse loves trains, and he heard that one of the most scenic lines in the country is the Coast Starlight. This train runs between Los Angeles and Seattle, and much of its route is right along the coast, so: spectacular views. He wanted to try it, and I said sure.

Union Station Los Angeles History buffs will enjoy starting a trip at Union Station in Los Angeles. This beautiful old building has been featured in a lot of film projects, often masquerading as someplace else entirely. Spouse enjoys spotting it in various TV shows and movies. In fact, something was being filmed in the adjacent street the day we embarked—I don’t think we ever figured out what.

I refuse to try to sleep in a train coach car (been there, done that, wasn’t much fun) even though they are far more comfortable than the sardine-like accommodations of airplanes. Therefore my spouse sprang for a private sleeper compartment.

Sleeping compartmentHere he is sitting in our compartment. The facing seats make up into a single bed at night. Above is a bunk bed which was mine. A trifle cramped (don’t take the upper bunk if you’re claustrophobic), but tolerable.

We didn’t take the train all the way up to Seattle. Our destination was Portland, but we didn’t get to be on the train all the way there, either, because a big chunk of the track at the northern end was under maintenance. We weren’t too thrilled about this. For one thing, we hadn’t been notified in advance that we would be obliged to leave the train and be stuffed onto a bus for a chunk of the trip (not to mention a rather long wait in the company of many other disgruntled passengers for the arrival of said bus). This was several years ago, though, and I assume the track is now in better condition.

So the happiest part of our particular trip was from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo, which is mostly right along the coast. Magnificent ocean views. Dolphins playing in the water. Wine and cheese tasting in the Parlour Car. Complimentary wifi to entertain the spouse while I wrote.

DolphinAnd I did write. The privacy of the sleeping compartment was perfect, minimizing distractions. Spouse could entertain himself, or go explore the train if he got bored. A window to gaze out of, something that I personally love to have, though some writers find it too distracting. But when I’m trying to think of the right word, or picking at a knot in the plot that needs unraveling, window-gazing is helpful. And when the window looks out onto the Pacific Ocean, there’s a view that can’t be beat.

I could have written in the Parlor Car or an observation car, but I would have been less comfortable. I’m not the coffee-shop kind of writer. Having other people around makes me feel inhibited. So the private car and the ever-changing view were perfect for me.

Would I write on a train again? Sure, if I had private accommodations. If not, I’d be less likely to write, but the trip would be shorter (see above re: sleeping on trains) so there wouldn’t be a lot of time to write anyway.

The Coast Starlight is a fun trip whether or not you’re writing. I’ve done the Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo part again, as a day trip, when we visited Moro Bay with friends. Better than driving up the 1, because you don’t have to watch the road, so you can concentrate on enjoying the scenery.

If the Coast Starlight is out of your reach, and especially if you’ve never been on a train, check out the Amtrak Exhibit Train. It happened to be in our area recently and we paid it a visit.

The self-guided tour is free, and is a walk-through of several train cars with exhibits about Amtrak’s history (the 70’s uniforms are unreal), routes, equipment, and plans for the future. One of the fun features in the exhibit is a new version of the private sleeping compartment that we had on the Coast Starlight, with more headroom in the upper bunk, it looks like, and a small personal sink in the compartment (no going downstairs in your jammies to brush your teeth—yay!). Visit the link above to see a schedule of where the exhibit train will be in the coming months.

Copyright © 2014 Pati Nagle. All rights reserved.

A note about Amtrak’s writer residency program: yes, this has writers all over the country thinking about writing on trains. Ironically, because of the rights grab in the terms of the application, they are not getting this post as part of my application (yes, I’m applying). Just like Jeffrey Carver, I’m using a sample of my writing that is already available for free. They’d probably rather have the reflections I put into this post, but ah well—Amtrak, you missed out on this one. If you want to reprint it, I’d be happy to discuss terms.

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