The woman sitting on a wooden bench at the Everett Station train depot looked ready for adventure.
She wore a hat with a big, bright yellow daisy tacked on the side. By her side was a ukulele case plastered with stickers and a rolled-up blanket strapped to a satchel. A man sat a comfortable distance away, lost in his thoughts.
When the loudspeaker said the train to Portland was running 20 minutes late, he didn’t blink and she didn’t look up from her newspaper, a day-old edition of The Daily Herald.
On this riding the rails excursion in May, the Amtrak Cascades 517 train was en route from a 6:35 a.m. Vancouver, B.C., departure with a 9:57 a.m. Everett arrival. The ETA in Portland was 2:55 p.m., with quick station stops along the way on the five-hour ride from Everett.
Another direct train, Amtrak Cascades 518, goes the other way daily, from Portland to Canada. For riders on the entire route, it’s a nine-hour journey either way.
The popular Amtrak Cascades route, which had a pre-pandemic ridership of 750,000 a year, was fully restored in March.
That was great news to Sherri Campbell, the woman in the flower hat, who on this day was heading home to Portland with her husband of 55 years after visiting their son in Everett following a cruise to Alaska.
“We are big-time travelers, big honking train travelers,” she said.
Honking is a good word to describe riding the rails. The horn blows all the livelong day, but it’s not jarring, as when cars blow horns on the freeway. This is more part of the rail ambience. After a while you don’t really even hear it.
The seats gently vibrate as the world blurs by in ever-changing scenery out the window: Panoramic water views, clouds, graffiti, rivers, gravel quarries, hotels, farms, factories, mansions, homeless camps, shipyards, car lots, fields, gardens, freeway gridlock.
Close your eyes and forget what century you are in for a while.
The ease of train travel is part of the charm.
Parking is free at Everett Station, the city’s $47-million transportation hub built in 2002. The Amtrak waiting area, with benches and high ceilings, is reminiscent of old-time stations.
Pack all the giant bottles of shampoo you want. Keep your shoes on. There’s no security checkpoint. Dogs under 20 pounds are allowed, as are guns, as long as they are in cases. Carry on and check two bags at no cost. WiFi is free.
On the train, there are no seat belts or assigned seats or middle seats. Seats are grouped in twos, with pull-down trays, power outlets and wide windows.
Sit wherever in the car you want. Move if you want. Just give the conductor a heads up. They like to keep tabs on who is where, to help make sure you get off at your stop if you nod off.
“If you fall asleep, we just tap you on the shoulder to get you up,” said conductor A.J. Mastaw. “Some people have forgotten to get off the train. Usually they get caught up in a conversation. Usually they are so mad. We’re like, ‘I’ll take you to the next point and you can get the next train.’”
An intercom announcement advised passengers to use headphones on devices, talk quietly and to not make lengthy phone calls in the train cars. When a young woman across the aisle didn’t abide on my trip, the guy a few seats up approached her and politely asked her to please keep it down. She rolled her eyes at him and loudly denied being loud, but she eventually ended her call.
That was the only commotion, if you can call it that, on my Everett-Portland excursion, other than a brief stir caused by Wally. It was his first train trip.
Pam Hovland of Mount Vernon said Wally, a 3-year-old Papillon rescue dog, has traveled 5,000 miles by plane and bus. His train ticket cost $29.
“He goes everywhere with me,” she said.
He’s a lap dog, but when she went to the restroom she left him in his carrier and didn’t tightly close the zipper.
“He went looking for me,” she said.
After several runs down the aisle, Wally hid under a seat. Conductor Mastaw assisted in his capture and his return to Hovland’s lap.
Make new friends
Hovland had a lot of stories to tell about her life, and said she’s thankful for every day.
“I ran into Ted Bundy in Utah years ago,” she told me. “He got mad at me because I wouldn’t get in his car.”
Unlike a plane where you can spend five hours without as much as a hello to the person 2 inches away, there is something about train travel that lends itself to talking to strangers.
Marilyn Easterly introduced herself on the platform at Everett Station. The Whidbey Island woman was traveling to Portland to see her daughter.
“I have great conversations and meet all kinds of people,” she said. “Interesting characters and lovely people.”
The best place for chatter during the ride is the café car, which has tables and a bistro counter. That’s where I met the woman with the yellow flower who I’d seen in the train station.
“As you see, I’m a talker,” Sherri Campbell said.
Her husband was back in the coach car. So was mine, snoring. There was no announcement asking people not to snore.
Campbell’s friendliness drew others to fraternize. We were joined by Portland resident Patti Cordon on her way back from a vacation in Canada.
Cordon only flies if she can’t get there by train.
“Train stations are aesthetically beautiful and mellow. Compare that to the airport,” she said. “I love the train. You get to walk around as much as you want, see the scenery and meet fun people.”
What happens on the train, stays on the train.
“There’s something about travel where you’re seeing someone you never saw before, might never see again,” Cordon said. “There are no inhibitions, much less concerns about what they are going to think, who they are going to tell.”
Travel stickers cover Campbell’s ukulele case.
“That ukulele has been to Antarctica. It has been around the world, practically,” she said.
The instrument stayed in the case on the train from Everett to Portland. She is selective where she plays.
“I did at Christmas once on a train and it was fine. Little children came down and we had a little Christmas singalong,” she said. “I was told one year not to play because it disturbed the rest of the customers.”
Campbell’s travel toolkit includes a Swiss Army knife with little scissors and an all-important toothpick.
“I can’t think or function at all with a raspberry seed in my tooth,” she said.
Other essentials: “Reading glasses,” she said. “And my husband.”
Easterly brings snacks, a book and her knitting bag. Between Everett and Portland, she knitted a pair of house slippers with pom-pom balls.
She has brought grandkids on other trips.
“When they turn 9, they get to go on the train with me,” she said. “I used to teach school and I’d take the kids on a train ride every year from Everett to Edmonds.”
‘Walk like a duck’
Amtrak is the national passenger railroad company of the United States, with routes also in Canada.
The Amtrak Cascades route is funded primarily by ticket sales, with the balance of operating costs paid by the Washington and Oregon departments of transportation.
My round-trip coach ticket from Everett to Portland was about $100. Fares fluctuate depending on when you go and how far in advance you book. The 16 business class seats, behind a curtain in the café car, are double the cost of coach.
Coach class is surprisingly nice, with legroom for tall people like my husband, who can never sleep on a plane. He did just fine on a train.
The five hours to Portland went by quickly, even with starts, stops, rumbles, rolls and snores. About the time my stomach started rumbling, a man on the intercom invited riders to the bistro for hot dogs, hamburgers and turkey sandwiches.
“And any kind of candy you can possibly think of,” he said.
I was there lickety-split.
Candy bars are $3. A bowl of Ivar’s Clam Chowder is $5. For $7.50, have a can of Elysian Space Dust IPA. A deck of playing cards is $5.
“Starbucks coffee is popular. For the children, we have hot chocolate,” said service attendant Christopher Rutledge, who will mix up a mimosa or screwdriver upon request.
He once worked on the Las Vegas Strip. The train is a different beast.
“It’s a totally different dynamic, but it’s still hospitality,” he said. “With the railroad, no one day is the same. You cannot control what goes on. You have to go with the flow.”
Metal wheels on metal tracks are not like rubber on asphalt. Trains sway and shake.
How does Rutledge manage not to spill coffee and chowder?
“You walk like a duck,” he said. “It works.”
That’s handy information for riders as well, walking from car to car as the train rattles down the track. The train tops out at 79 mph, but typically goes much slower.
No pit stops
The return trip from Portland was where I met Nikolas Cook, sitting in front of me.
Cook, 24, of Shoreline, was returning from a visit with his sister and her new baby in Portland.
It was the first time he rode the rails and he said he’d do it again.
“The price of it and the painlessness,” he said. “There’s no TSA to go through. No B.S. lines to wait in. You just go to the terminal, get on the train. And you’re gone before you realize what’s going on.”
The cost of gas steered Cook, a financial adviser, to try the train. A bonus was time to prepare for coming certification exams.
“On the ride down I was doing my classes and studying, and trading on the stock market,” he said.
Too bad he can’t buy stock in Amtrak.
Looking out the window entertained him on the way back.
“Seeing all the trees, the dense rainforest, the Columbia River and the industrial big ships,” he said. “It’s way better than sitting in traffic. And there’s a bathroom included.”
Eat, Sleep, Play
Portland has a user-friendly transit system, with bus, light rail and streetcar options.
Downtown is also easy to navigate on foot. Food, lodging and beer is within a reasonable walking distance from Portland Union Station, with interesting and appropriately quirky sights along the way.
Popular attractions include countless food trucks, whimsical Voodoo Doughnuts, funky pubs (including seven McMenamins outposts downtown) and the Darcelle XV Showplace on Third Avenue, operational since 1967.
In 2018, founder and namesake Darcelle was named the world’s oldest working drag queen by Guinness World Records. Darcelle died in March 2023 at age 92, but the drag shows go on.
For about $120 per night, rooms at the McMenamins Crystal Hotel, built in 1911, have decor inspired by a song or performance from the neighboring Crystal Ballroom’s glorious past. Shared bathrooms are down the hall.
Prefer stylish, modern and simplistic? Try the Pearl District’s Hampton Inn and Suites, which has an indoor pool, rooftop patio and sleek bathrooms inside each room for about $150 a night.
Portland big and small
1. Shop the world’s largest independent bookstore. Powell’s Books has titles new and used, plus hundreds of must-have novelty items, such as decor, mugs and notebooks. The downtown store is open every day.
2. See the world’s smallest park. Mill Ends Park has one tree and is a small circle 2 feet across, with a total area of 452 square inches, in a median strip on SW Naito Parkway near the waterfront. The city park was founded in 1948 by a journalist who wrote columns about the tiny space seen from his newsroom window. A sign at the corner tells its story.
Sound & Summit
* * * * *
Plan your adventures throughout the West Coast at westcoasttraveller.com and follow us on Facebook and Instagram @thewestcoasttraveller. And for the top West Coast Travel stories of the week delivered right to your inbox, sign up for our weekly Armchair Traveller newsletter!