From a railfan's perspective, my return trip was slightly less interesting. I woke up Tuesday morning to a text message on my phone from fellow Amtrak Unlimited forum member chuljin, who would be returning home to L.A. from his four-day railfan journey up to Northern California. His message said that, unfortunately, a second standard Sightseer Lounge had been substituted for the Pacific Parlour Car--a Loungestitution(tm), he called it.
Amtrak.com said the train would be approximately five minutes late, and as I was traveling light and already had my ticket printed, I arrived at the station at approximately 1:35--three minutes before normal departure and eight minutes before estimated departure. Only on Amtrak can you do that! (Normally, I would have arrived a bit earlier, but we were in the downtown area near the station--buying chocolate at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory--and saw that the train hadn't even passed through town yet.) Of course, the estimate wasn't perfect, and the train ended up being about ten minutes late--not too bad for the Coast Starlight! Despite all of the bad talk about the Union Pacific, all three rides I've taken over UP trackage in the last month have been more or less perfectly on time--we didn't meet any freight trains on the Starlight on this Memorial Day weekend, but my trip on the California Zephyr from Denver to Salt Lake the previous week had us speeding past no less than 20 stopped UP and BNSF freights and arriving into SLC five minutes early! But I digress.
I boarded at my sleeper and my attendant took my ticket and gave quick directions to my room. I deposited my rollaboard on the lower-level luggage rack and my backpack in my room. As we started to pull away, I checked chuljin's text message again to see which room he was in. He was in room four in the next car forward (I had to run downstairs to the display opposite the luggage rack to verify the car number), so I knocked on his door and asked if he was, indeed, chuljin (I'm always a little nervous to ask people if they're fellow forum members for fear of being seen as geeky in case they're not!). He responded in the affirmative and invited me in--an offer I would have immediately accepted, except that I wanted to run up to the dining car and see if they were still serving lunch (might as well get a free meal out of my sleeper fare if I could!).
Unfortunately, the dining car had already done its last seating, but I scheduled my dinner reservation for the earliest slot they had open--4:30. I wandered back to chuljin's room and continued our previous conversation as we passed my old house next to the tracks in Templeton. Just then, chuljin's new friend Richard--a contributor to Trainweb--knocked on the door. Chuljin introduced me, and we decided to move to the loungestituted(tm) Parlour Car so Richard could show us his photos from his trip to Seattle. Chuljin reminded me that I was to be his guest at that afternoon's wine tasting (a hearty thanks goes to him for that!), which would be taking place at 3:30. It occurred to me that I should move my dinner reservation back a bit so as not to interfere with the tasting (especially if some dining car attendants call reservations early!), so I ran up to the dining car to move my seating back to 4:45 p.m.
Richard opened his laptop and showed us some great pictures of his rides on some special private varnish cars and his chance encounter with Amtrak's Beech Grove executive car and Amtrak Vice President Emmett Fremaux at the Seattle King Street station. Richard is a good conversationalist, and he has the guts to ask for things I'd be too embarrassed to ask for, and so after chatting the VP up for a bit, he asked if he could hitch a ride on Beech Grove for just a single stop (up to Everett), and he received an answer in the affirmative! Chuljin and I were thus treated to some great pictures from the open-air platform at the back of the car--including some pictures done Alaska Railroad-style (taking shots of the train while leaning out from the platform).
In the middle of Richard's slideshow, the pseudo-Parlour Car attendant made an announcement that the wine tasting would begin shortly. We moved from our chairs to a table occupied by a single young traveler (who didn't say a word the entire time we sat there--he probably thought we were nerds or something!) while our attendant set up a small MP3 player and speaker system that played some light jazz and classical music.
Our attendant passed out the cheese plates (this time including a strong bleu cheese, which was not featured on the northbound) and cracker packages and then called the noisy group to order (with more tables than a Parlour Car, the Sightseer Lounge was able to accommodate more people for the wine tasting, including a few people I would later find out were sitting in coach!). She passed out cards to each table with the day's wines listed. I was slightly disappointed to discover that the wines were the same ones that had been featured on Sunday's northbound--I had been expecting a different collection, as one of the Parlour Car attendants on that train had indicated that there were a total of sixteen wines featured on the train. (I asked this attendant, and she said there were eight, which would explain why the same wines were featured--four for each day of the train's journey, but the same for the northbound and southbound.)
Interestingly, while I had enjoyed the third wine (the Greg Norman Petite Sirah) on the northbound better than the Estancia Pinot Noir, I found my tastes reversed on this southbound trip. Truthfully, my wine-appreciating tastes aren't as developed as some people's (I suppose I am only a "wanna-be oenophile"), and I found them more similar than different but both quite excellent.
With the wine tasting over at around 4:30, we sat for a few more minutes and talked about (what else?) trains. Almost exactly at 4:45, my dinner reservation was called.
I was seated with a mother and son traveling to Los Angeles for an audiobook publishers' conference, and we struck up a conversation about Alaska (that always seems to happen with me...). The conversation turned, interestingly, into a discussion about the oil industry in Alaska--interesting because these two folks were taking the train because they were environmentalists! Their political perspective was about 180 degrees opposite of mine (yes, they were vegetarians and wore Birkenstocks, too ;)), but our conversation remained civil and engaging. (I explained that literally 98% of Alaskans, both liberal and conservative, support drilling for oil in ANWR and attempted to correct the myths that oil development is harmful to the region's flora and fauna--on the contrary, the caribou population has actually increased ten times in areas such as Prudhoe Bay, where companies like BP and ConocoPhillips have worked to support and increase endangered wildlife populations.) It also proved that train travel appeals to people who are about as different as can possibly be.
After dinner, I rejoined chuljin and Richard in the loungestituted(tm) Parlour Car. Chuljin mentioned to Richard that I had worked on the Alaska Railroad, and Richard surprised me by name-dropping one of the old-time conductors that he had become good friends with. While I never worked with this conductor, I had met him when I was a paying passenger before I had gone to work there. We talked at length about Alaska, the Alaska Railroad, and all of the things both of us have seen and done. I was treated to some gorgeous pictures of his hikes and train trips in the state (including a stunning picture of Resurrection Bay from the top of Mount Marathon in Seward).
As we approached the Oxnard area, we exchanged contact information (chuljin and I invited Richard to join the discussion on Amtrak Unlimited, and he enthusiastically asked me to email him the link). I retreated to my room to re-pack my backpack and ensure I hadn't left anything (although I only spent a total of perhaps thirty minutes in my roomette on this leg). We paused for a bit at the western end of Simi Valley to meet an evening northbound Metrolink. A few minutes later, I alighted the train at the Simi Valley station, which shortly took off from the platform running only about twenty minutes late (an excellent statistic in comparison to the Starlight's formerly abysmal on-time record).
In all, this was an excellent trip. I'm glad I chose to do it by train rather than rent a car, even though the car would have gotten me there sooner and offered more flexibility in stopping at some of my usual haunts on the drive up. I'm almost sold on traveling in sleepers from here on out, but I'm still pretty budget-minded when it comes to transportation. The ability to retreat to a comfortable room and to take advantage of some extra sleeper passenger-only benefits is a strong pull, though. The service I've received on Amtrak in the west over the last three trips has been outstanding (especially my northbound Starlight trip--every single person on the OBS staff and train crew was exceptional). I look forward to the next time I can hop aboard the train, see this grand country roll by, and meet interesting people and make future friends. Thanks for reading!