I was up at dark to catch the Amtrak #500 from Portland to Seattle, where after a one hour layover, I would transfer to a bus for the rest of the long trip home to Vancouver. As in the Vancouver to Portland direction, there is only one train that takes you all the way with no need to change vehicles.
Without exception, when I tell Vancouverites that I am from Portland, I get fond looks and an exclamation that usually goes like this: “I love Portland!” And vice versa. Yes, there is mutual admiration between the two cities. I am lucky to be able to enjoy both.
From my friend’s house the taxi took me past those Portland signposts with which I have grown familiar. We pass the Rasmussen building with its neon sign over its pre-war entryway, the iconic Voodoo Donuts shop (no waiting line at this hour), a smattering of artisanal breweries, the Norse Hall solidly referencing the city’s early settlers. Over the Burnside Bridge and under the White Stag sign we pass the homeless gathering at soup kitchens, a few lost souls standing in the rain, and whizz past the gaudy Chinatown gate and continue along the comedy clubs, music halls and strip clubs of Old Town before arriving at Union Station. Which, at 7:10am, is closed for a few more minutes. It’s not cold this morning and I don’t mind the air.
Rarely do I stand in the middle of the city and feel all alone. It’s a nice feeling from time to time, a reminder of the solitary nature of being, and the power of self-reliance, especially when you are about to embark on a more-than-metaphorical passage through space and time.
The Union Station brown and pink brick clock tower reminds me of Tuscan hill town battle stations or churches, but once inside the dimly lit and empty waiting lounge I’m reminded of trains as a enduring symbol of American mobility and escape. The getaway sequence in Terence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” runs through my mind.
The idea of train travel conjures up so many facets of existence and it’s no wonder it features prominently as a backdrop to so many stories: “The Lady Vanishes,” “El Secreto en Sus Ojos,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Jewel in the Crown,” and, one of my iconic favorites, “Go West.”
The restoration of the station is tasteful, and devoid of passengers or not the lounge is spit-and-polish attractive, as in a living diorama, or a movie set. You could say the effect is a little “twee.” It is easy to imagine oneself in one of the archival photos displayed. I get a strange comfort from knowing a jazz club is housed at one end of the building. All this station needs is a B&B and this is as far as I’d get on my trips to Portland.
I settle into one of original rows of high-backed seats and I am taken to the train station scene in Peter Weir’s “Witness.”
It turns out due to mudslides the train track won’t be operative today, so a bus will stand in.
And we’re off.
Like Johnny Cash, I long for the train. I console myself with a mental medley of some my favorite train songs. There’s “500 Miles,” “There’s a train a’comin‘”, “Love Train,” “Peace Train,” “Midnight Train to Georgia” and of course “City of New Orleans” as a partial list.
In Seattle, some of us connect with other buses to complete our trips. My bus to Vancouver, B.C. leaves in 1.5 hours so I enter the King Street station to wait. What a let down. The station is of the same era as Portland’s, and is currently being restored. For now the the overall look is derelict.
Dozens of short wires hang ominously from the coffered ceiling, like so many swords of Damocles, a hideous effect.
The rest room doors have chains and bars on them, and a homeland security video blares out in a continuous loop assuring travelers of Amtrak safety. “Amtrak bomb detectors train every day.” Imagine if we had these videos in every airport lounge. We wouldn’t have airports.
There’s a cheesy sequence reenacting a scenario where passengers spot and report suspicious activity in the station, like a skinny male in hoodie twitching nervously in a corner. “If you see something, say something!” Suddenly I wonder if someone will turn me in for taking photos around the station.
I’m excited, however, to think that the next time I pass through this station the restoration will be nearly complete. The place will be transformed, with a cafe and patio, and a shop or two to while away the waiting time. There will probably be wifi like there is in Portland, and the gorgeous Beaux Arts decorative details will stand out as proudly as they should given their provenance.
Is this interest in reviving historic train stations a sign of better train travel in the future? I hope so. I hope we get a few European or Japanese bullet trains on the Cascadia corridor. We can use a little slow time, and the train station beats getting the TSA grope.