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It's a beautiful way to get lost, all you need is a bottle and a few nagging thoughts...
News - Thanksgiving on The Cascades
Thursday 22/11/2012 23:26
It's fair to say that this site hasn't had much in the way of regular updates for a while. There are some valid, and happily very positive real life reasons for that - which are hinted at strongly in recent entries of course. But the simple truth is that a change in financial priorities has meant I've travelled far less in recent months. This leads me to consider why I've spent the last eight years on an obsessive mission to conquer the railways of the United Kingdom, and if this was really just diversionary activity? I'm thinking not - because, finding myself here on a surprisingly clear winters afternoon in the Pacific North West I'm almost childishly excited to be boarding Amtrak's Cascades service from Seattle to Portland. Again, it's also fair to say that there are lots of reasons aside from the rail trip to be enthusiastic about this journey. Not least its very impossibility just a few short weeks ago. Having crossed the Atlantic twice in quick succession, I find myself oddly, and almost disconcertingly comfortable here in Washington. The pace of city life in Seattle is a gentle ramping up from my norms rather than the dramatic shock which my early visits to the US entailed. Setting out yesterday morning on foot I didn't feel edged out of the city like non-vehicular traffic can so often be here, instead I took a tentative walk on the shining sidewalks of Pike Street, crossing the interstate and heading down into the city just emerging after a bout of rain. Puget Sound shimmered in the middle distance, beyond the landmark sign for the market. For a while I inhabited that wholly liminal position of being neither native nor tourist. I was here, unusually in my travels, with a purpose and an intent - but I was still exploring and discovering the city. On the corner near City Target, I encountered a yelling mob - which was no more than an over-enthusiastic conversation lifted direct from a Jerry Springer universe. But it demonstrated the tight zoning of the compact core of Seattle - this corner feels mildly menacing, a little edgier than the cross-streets which intersect. But it's at the heart of the retail area which bustles with European style energy. I press on to my target in the business district - the heights of an office tower which affords me unparalleled views over the cityscape. It's hard not to love this place for many reasons - and it's hard to leave for many more.

Seattle Skyline
Seattle Skyline

The train to Portland is a new experience - fusing the frustration of air travel with the familiarity of railways. We check in and get assigned a seat, then wait in the booking hall which only hints at the grand opulence of the under-reconstruction King Street Station. When called we shuffle out to the train - a strikingly modern Talgo set hauled by an EMD locomotive which yings just like their products do here in the UK. It's a comforting sound in some ways, and reminds me I'm about to hit the rails for the first time in this vast continent. Sure, I've done light rail systems all over the place, but this is my first intercity journey. It's a strange sensation at first to be travelling on the 'wrong' side of the formation - but I'm soon distracted by the novelty of double-height containers in stockyards, endlessly long trains of soy bean hoppers, and more immediately the luxury of settling into my seat in company - something which has almost never been a feature of my travels. Certainly, it's never been like this - and I don't want the journey to end. The route turns west to call at Tacoma, then hugs the coastline of the Sound under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge - veteran of science documentaries about harmonics, the iconic image of it swinging and bucking now replaced with a sense of awe at its fragile grace in the half-light. As we approach Olympia we retire to the Dining Car to sip beer and look at the water shimmering under the silver sky. Rakes of evergreens march up the hillsides away from the tracks, as we turn south again and head inland.

Inside Union Station, PDX
Inside Union Station, PDX

Between here and the Columbia river is something of a haze of warm, comfortable travel in rare company. It seems all too soon that we're clattering over the gridirons and bridges which dominate the northern flank of Portland, passing into previously uncharted Oregon in the process. It's early evening - a little before six - but it's dark and the city twinkles invitingly beyond the illuminated tower of Union Station. Crossing the tracks to enter the building, we're the last passengers to leave because we've been taking photographs. The grand hall of the station is a surprise - a marbled palace of generous proportions, with remarkable similarities to some of the stations back at home. We head out into the chilly, dark evening and line up for a cab to the almost painfully hip but cleverly decorated Ace Hotel - and what will be my first ever Thanksgiving. I can't help but think our way of celebrating, a long way from everything which is usually associated with this resolutely un-British occasion, will be far from traditional. As we shudder our stop-start progress through the traffic lights of Burnside and Stark, and catch the first sight of the exterior of the old hotel I recall reading that it was once The Clyde. I'm never far from Glasgow, even when I'm truly a long way off. I can't help but hope that we get to cross the other Clyde very, very soon indeed.

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