Travel Update 3 – Day One, Evening

It’s night now, and everything is quiet. The first day of my adventure has been quite excellent – after spending an enjoyable few hours exploring downtown Seattle I boarded the Empire Builder and have been traveling east towards Chicago. I’ll be on this train all night, all tomorrow, all tomorrow night, and arrive in Chicago around 4 pm the day after tomorrow. The cars are double decker “Super Liner” cars, which can only run west of Chicago because the bridges in the east are too low. The car is not new or modern or terribly comfortable like the business class carriage on the Cascades, but because it is high it affords an excellent view of the scenery. Also, because it is not an empty business class carriage there are more interesting people on board to meet. One significant downside however, the car was last rebuilt in 1985 and does not have 110 volt outlets, so I’m a bit concerned my laptop will become drained – although perhaps tomorrow I can charge it in the restaurant car or lounge car, and since there is no internet I only have it on when I’m writing anyway. Immediately after boarding the train I met R, an interesting character from LaSkeegee (unsure of spelling) island, near Hornby. He lives there on a co-op with 25 people and 600 acres. He takes the Empire Builder quite regularly to visit his mother in Illinois, or to ski in Whitefish, Montana. He had many interesting stories about taking the train, including a time a dump truck unsuccessfully tried to race the train at a level crossing, and a time it was so cold that the washrooms froze up and the train had to stop at every little town so people could use washroom facilities. During the summer the Empire Builder participates in Amtrak’s “Rails and Trails” program, in which volunteers board the train for legs of the journey to talk about the country we’re traveling through, including details about the railways construction, the history of towns, and information about the forest, wildlife, and wilderness exploration possibilities. While having dinner with R we were put at a table with one of the volunteers, so I learned quite a bit about the program. (Incidentally, don’t get on the Empire Builder in Everett, because you won’t be able to get a dinner reservation for the dinning car). Over dinner we all ended up in a lively discussion about forestry, the environment, and eventually health care. Since R and I are from Canada, the volunteer and a hospital worker from South Dakota, G, got to asking about how the Canadian health care system works\ – and they were understandably envious and amazed that anyone would not want such a system. And just to show it’s not only the people riding the train that are left leaning, the waiter came over at one point to say our discussion makes him want to move to Canada. This shouldn’t be too surprising, however – “Stuff White People Like” clearly points out “threatening to move to Canada” as one of the top thing white americans enjoy doing. Canadians aren’t left out though – we can always threaten to move to Europe. (Zizek has a bit to say about this idea that “things are bad here but there is somewhere else where things are happening”, and how it functions to reproduce the status quo, but I’ll talk about that another time). The trip so far has been quite scenic. After coming back up Puget Sound to Everett we turned eastbound through Snohomish county, and climbed up through the North Cascades following Highway 2 (the North Cascades Highway). Highway 2 is one south from Highway 3 – the Crows nest Pass highway. Starting at the Skykomish rail yard, the old route over Steven’s Pass was electrified to enable pusher engines to be electric,. This means the everyday sight was big steam engines being pushed by trolleys! However, the hill was replaced in 1920 with an 8 mile tunnel. The really distinctive thing about the North Cascades is that within the space of 160km, you go from being right on the coast in a coastal wetland, to a forested desert with less than 8 inches of rainfall per year. Now, however, we’re in a proper desert with sagebrush and hardly any trees. It’s dark now, but the light of the moon shines on the sagebrush like in a painting of the old west.

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