Da Train, Boss, Da Train

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

(Final part of the voyage, see also Part 1Part 2 , Part 3Part 4, and Part 5The early morning bus dropped me off in Salem, Oregon, where I find out that the Friday train is $60 cheaper than the Thursday train. Friday fits my schedule better, so I decide to spend the day in Salem. It’s the capital of Oregon, a pretty city with lots of trees.

The Capitol building is near the train station. I dumped my gear at a cheap motel and take a walk. I always enjoy seeing who the local folks build statues to. In Oregon, they seem to put great stock in the early missionaries, with statues of them all around the Capitol. I didn’t take any pictures of them, don’t want to be struck by lightning for my impiety …

I came up to the capital from the back, where they have a curious display. It’s the remnants of several columns from the second Capitol building, which was destroyed by fire in 1935. The second capitol building was finished in 1876, an elegant building with tall columns at the front, and at the time they wanted fluted limestone columns … but being practical Oregon farming folk, they didn’t want to waste expensive limestone if they didn’t have to … so this was the result.

train day columns

The Capitol is an impressive building, also made of gleaming white limestone. But after seeing the old columns, I had to wonder if that beauty is only skin deep …

train day indians

In front of the Capitol, they have a semicircle of the flags of the indian tribes of Oregon, including the one above for the Coquille tribe along with about a dozen others. A bit further away, they have all of the state flags. On top of the Capitol building there’s a giant refulgent statue covered in gold leaf, and representing the “Oregon Pioneer” … at least they passed on the missionaries for their main statue.

train day statue

The city is on the Willamette River, and has a most pleasant Riverside Park, complete with an old-school carousel for the kids.

train day carousel

And of course, as the name suggests, Riverside Park has the Willamette river itself, complete with bushes loaded with blackberries, which I left a bit less loaded with berries than when I found them …

train day willamette

I used the rest of the afternoon to wander the city, and then wrote up some of the trip back at the motel. The next day, it was time for one of my favorite modes of transportation, viz:

train day train

I rode this stretch of the railroad line once before, about forty years ago … but on a freight train, as I recounted here. It’s strange to see the same scenes from a much more comfortable, if less exciting, platform. First the train runs south along the valley floor, mostly following the Willamette River.

train day corn

It soon forsakes that prosaic world for a trip up into the foothills, past vistas of surpassing beauty.

train day lake

And from there up into the mountain wilderness, with the long light of evening slanting down.

train day wilderness

Up near the top, we get to Lake Odel, a large natural lake surrounded on all sides by miles of forest.

train day lake odel

Just beyond the lake we crest the pass, and the landscape changes quickly. It’s much drier on the east side of the range, and the forest is less dense and shorter overall. But about that time the sun sets, so I’m out of photos. I get a phone call from the Captain. After I signed off they had one final day’s run left to get to down the coast to their destination. He calls me once he’s back on land. He tells me that the wind kicked up on that day after I’d left. By dusk it was waves as high as the cabin top … turned out the Captain and I were right in knowing that the good weather couldn’t last, right in moving because we both felt that we were burning sunshine. Both of us have been at sea far too long, both of us have seen that coast be wild and wet and ugly, and neither of us wanted to tow a trimaran in that kind of weather. So we pushed the schedule hard, and we got there with zero days to spare … because on the final run south, they weren’t towing the tri, we had dropped it off the day before they left. So without a tow, it was just another run down the coast with Small Craft Advisories flying, and we’ve both done that more times than bear thinking. We laughed about that, how we’d dodged the bullet.

Of course, no trip is complete without curious happenstances, and on this trip it’s a three-hour unplanned delay in Klamath Falls to get a new train crew. At present, it’s 3:39 AM, and we’ve started moving again, so that’s good news. It remains to be seen how I’ll get home, the delay will make me miss my connections … ah, well, if I wanted lack of inconvenience I’d never leave home. I just figure it’s part of life’s rich pageant and keep rolling.

At 4 AM we’re passing Mt. Shasta, I can see it glowing pale in the moonlight … or maybe that’s just the Shasta Vortex I wrote about last week when I took this same trip by car. I’m gonna doze off if I can, but the light will likely wake me. Back in a bit …

Well, it’s now 6:15AM, and we’re working our way across Shasta Lake. It’s very low this year, due to the drought. You can make out the bare hillside above the water at the right of the picture, showing the normal winter lake level maybe a hundred feet (30m) above the current level.

train day lake shasta 2

So … it appears that I’ll be three hours delayed into Oakland, too late for my ride. Probably I’ll get a taxi to the airport and catch the Airporter bus up the coast to my home. Nothing is ever simple, I guess, that would be too boring. At least we’re rolling along at a good clip through the farmlands and ranchlands of California’s great Central Valley…

train day central valley

… and there are worse places to be. I should know, I’ve spent time in a good fraction of said worse places, and sitting in a warm dome car at dawn definitely isn’t one of them.

We spend the morning running alongside the Sacramento River, as we’ve been doing since before dawn. After going through the city of Sacramento, we continue following the river as it wends towards San Francisco Bay.


Anyhow, other than figuring out how I’ll make the last sixty miles (100 km) from the train station to my house, I guess that’s about it for my voyage And here near the end of these travels, thinking back on my time at sea, what do I remember the most?

What sticks out in my memory is the eye of the orca, when it rolled next to the boat and looked right at me. Six tonnes of athletic bone and muscle, with a most intelligent brain and a racy black-and-white exterior, peering in through the window of a fishing boat at the hundred and sixty pounds of strange creature within. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a bleeding heart Walt Disney kind of guy about nature. I’m not saying that the orca and I were meeting as equals … but I’m still having a hard time figuring out which of the two of us is the most unequal.

Anyhow, thanks for coming along on the sea voyage, and my wish for all of us is that we all have lives as exciting and full and satisfying as … well, as the life of the orca.

All the best to everyone, we now return you to your regularly scheduled scientific programming.


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Peter C
September 7, 2014 2:38 pm

Thanks Willis,
I enjoyed the trip (from the comfort of my lounge chair).

Mike Hebb
September 7, 2014 2:52 pm

Thanks Willis for the enjoyable climate reprieve.

September 7, 2014 2:57 pm


John Lomax
September 7, 2014 3:31 pm

I enjoyed every one of the episodes, accompanying you vicariously. Thank you.

September 7, 2014 3:41 pm

I met an Orca once.
Aged about 14 and on holiday in the North of Scotland, one beautiful sunny afternoon I was floating about a sea loch in a boat desultorily spinning for mackerel. I heard a sort of grunting wheezing noise behind me, looked over my shoulder and around four or five feet behind me sticking out of the water was this sea monster’s head. About the size of a 45 gallon drum, with a mouth comfortably big enough to swallow me whole, and with very big teeth, and the mouth was open was open.
I felt a surge of something like electricity over my whole body, now I understand how it is possible to actually die of fright. It then sank back into the water, and swam off at speed, jumping in and out of the sea like a dolphin in obvious glee. It knew exactly what sort of reaction it was going to get, and had just played a joke on the silly human.
Now, coming to the end of my seventh decade on Earth, I have had a number of scary experiences, been shot at, raced cars and motorcycles, climbed up stuff and fallen off it, got stuck upside down in overturned boats, generally indulged my adrenaline addiction with considerable frequency and success and on a fair number of occasions seriously considered I had definitely pushed my luck once too often, and I’ve got the scars to prove it too.
But nothing – absolutely nothing – has come even remotely close to thinking I was about to be swallowed whole by a sea monster.

Reply to  catweazle666
September 7, 2014 4:30 pm

I was sailing home in 1980, the end of a two week solo trip to the San Juan island. I was eager to get home,and as the sun set I was off the entrance to Seattle harbor, I made the decision to run home in the moonlight .
I was in my Blanchard 26 ft wooden sailboat and was enjoying a nice quartering wind, when two or three Orcas surfaced alongside. For an hour they escorted me south, rolling as you describe, Willis, to better see the boat and me. An added joy was the phosphorescent trail we were all making.
They left me when I made my tack into the harbor, but I will never forget that special time.

Reply to  latecommer2014
September 8, 2014 6:46 am

When dining at a Gold Beach Or. dock side restaurant wife and her friend were watching the dock
filled with California sea coyot, er, lions, a tourist family were taking pictures of the Sea Lions lolling on the dock , in boats, one had gotten into a fishing boat and was gorging itself on fresh caught salmon.
the children were in awe of the antics of the well fed creatures on the dock. in the nearby bar, the local fishermen weren’t as awed. A bull Sea Lion hung it’s tail over the dock edge. The Wham! in a cloud of
blood and blubber the Sea lion was gone. -Orca. the Children screamed and the parents were shocked. -from the bar came a chant from the fishermen-Orca! Orca! Orca!…

September 7, 2014 3:51 pm

By Amtrak, all the gorgeous scenery is best seen by moonlight on this route, so plan accordingly.
If you really want to enjoy it, go by car.
It’s really too bad, as the train route is actually much more interesting than the highway.
Just that the timing sucks.

September 7, 2014 3:57 pm

Your picture of Shasta Lake looks just like I remember it from my Spokane to various central California locations trip I took about 30 years ago with my two older brothers. We camped the night near that lake. I had the impression that the tourist guides at the info center thought that we were crazy for wanting to camp out around there. My recollection is that the water was even lower than what you saw. Perhaps different parts of the lake look different.

Physics Major
September 7, 2014 5:20 pm

As an avid sailor, I thoroughly enjoyed reading each episode. But why was that rather nondescript trimaran worth such an expensive delivery? Did I miss something?

Reply to  Physics Major
September 7, 2014 6:19 pm

My guess is the fishing boat was delivered south for the winter and the tri went along for the free ride.

Reply to  Physics Major
September 7, 2014 7:25 pm

An excuse, to get out on the ocean ?

Pamela Gray
September 7, 2014 9:11 pm

I have no tales of monsters, but I do have fond memories of being the riser choreographer for the Salem Boy’s Choir, an 80+ choir aged 6 through 18 who struggled to move and sing at the same time, that is before I found myself trying to impart some Hollywood/Broadway steps my grandmother taught me. By our third and my final season, we were selling two to three full nights of fund raising performances.
One of the most fun things to do around the capital buildings in Salem is to watch the antics of the large grey squirrels that inhabit the many trees about the grounds. Those things are dinner-sized animals with beautiful grey fur. Now don’t go ewwwww on me. Squirrel meat is delicious!

Matt Collins
September 7, 2014 11:50 pm

Thanks, Willis!
Always enjoy reading about your adventures.

September 8, 2014 5:07 am

Those Amtrak locomotive-sets (8400 Hp+) look pretty slick & are quiet as a mouse.

September 8, 2014 8:12 am

Ah, black berries – love ’em. Many (too many) years ago as a Boy Scout we did a camping/hiking trip through Maine. Back then they sold logging tracts that were about 200m wide and about 50-60km long so that the logging companies would cut fire breaks for them. Hiking across one of these, the break had filled with black berry bushes at least 3m high and groaning under the weight of all the black berries. The place of was full of bears gorging on them. They paid us no attention as we slithered through (filling every container we could as we went). Good times – but the mosquitoes are vicious as night!
Thanks for the tale!

Man Tran
September 8, 2014 8:33 am

Just below Odell Lake, I installed one of my detectors many years ago to help keep the old SP freights from jumping off the mountain.
Turns out that weather (climate?) has a rare, but devastating effect on wheels on empty freight cars coming down the hill. If the light braking action happens to get just the right amount of wet rail interacting with incipient wheel sliding, you get a complex melting/welding of rail onto the wheel tread until you get a doorstop wedge built up that, once the brakes are released, causes the wheel to jump the track.
Saved a lot of trains over the years, but one jumped before the detector and piled up like an accordion around it leaving about 10 ft of clearance around the bungalow.

Mike Bentley
September 8, 2014 8:48 am

I have many wonderful memories of the Coast Starlight – a great train. And just remember, it’s pronounced Willamette dammit not Will am et as some do – of course there is always Or ee gone rather than Or ee gun.
Thanks for the trip through familiar territory (Washingtonian – born and raised) Oh, It is Wash ing ton, not Warsh ing ton.

LKMiller (aka treegyn1)
September 8, 2014 12:39 pm

Very enjoyable series as always – thank you Willis!
A couple of observations:
*While the fruits of the blackberry you sampled are quite tasty, be advised that Himalayan blackberry is a noxious weed, and the bane of foresters through WA and OR west of the Cascade Crest. It is an aggressive weed with large, nasty thorns that can grow well up into the trees given enough light. It is a plant on which foresters are happy to test new herbicide formulations.
*I recently escaped the People’s Republic of Oregon and lived in Salem, moving (retiring) to the much more free and rational Montana. Oregon has been controlled by the progressive left since the early 1980’s, so there isn’t an anthropogenic CO2 driven global warming policy they haven’t thought of, and have tried many. A couple of the more egregious: forcing the early shutdown of the Boardman coal plant and not counting hydroelectric as renewable.

September 8, 2014 2:47 pm

My wife and I picked 3 1/2 gallons of blackberries and canned about 34 pints of jam and jelly. It took us less then an hour and a half to pick the berries. They are noxious weeds but delicious noxious weeds. My favorite is light and thin pancakes rolled up with a cream cheese filling and blackberry jam over the top. I still live in Oregon, it is indeed controlled by progressives but I do love it here

Brian H
September 9, 2014 1:15 am

Enquiring minds, and all that. How did you eventually get home?

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