Originally published in Uncle Weed’s Dossier at Vancouver Observer on Jan. 7, 2010. Republished here intact for posterity.
Usually when mentioning train travel in Canada you have to cue Gordon Lightfoot but as Canada has apparently forgotten that the iron road made the country and relegated train travel to a slim segment, I move my gaze to the south. While the rest of the civilized world may chuckle at the hype around the USA’s long overdue plan for high speed rail, I am just happy you can take a trip southwards on a train at all I don’t mind the slow rolling, but as Lou Reed explains, the waiting is a drag.With the impending Olympix invasion, February might be a good time to hop the rails and meet your Cascadian neighbours to the south. You may likely find you have more cultural similarities than our compatriots spread across 5-1/2 time zones. Get your passport ready cause I’ve got your route planned out for a proper visit – and each stop involves beer from Bellingham to Portand (or even Eugene).
Dual Train Action
The problem with the train isn’t speed – it’s timeliness and reliability – both of which hinder your ability for a successful and efficient diplomatic mission. Customs delays, mudslides derailments, waiting at sidings, labourious boarding check in, and a secondary immigration clearing mean you can’t rely on traveling by train for anything *important* but there is reason to hope and rejoice. The reason is there are now twotrains a day. Used to be one train with a bunch of “train buses” – which is Amtrak way of saying a fckin Trailways bus. I rode it many times with baffled tourists who dreamed of rolling the coast starlight gazing at the brilliant Puget Sound on, you know, a train – not a bus. Quite different indeed.
The second train was hard fought as the Canadian Customs held out for $10k for clearing each train. Seems at odds with encouraging a sustainable, tourism-based economy but I digress … Since about half of you are probably charting course to get outta town during this arts, sports culture consumer jamboree imminently approaching so I’ve plotted some ideas to where to go, and how to do it – you just hafta figure out how to get to Main St. station by 6 am, (which is of course, basically impossible if you live across a bridge or tunnel) so set your alarm for 5am and talk someone into driving you ~ a great way to start a trip indeed.
There are two trains and each has a different name and route, the Cascade goes from Vancouver to Eugene, Oregon but only once a day but twice if from Seattle (confusing i know) while the Coast Starlight ventures all the way to LA but starts in Seattle and offers sleeping compartments to help you feel like a Euro-rail backpacker.
Since you aren’t driving, and will be waiting a lot (and likely be annoyed that the thrill peace and magic of riding rails is replaced by unfounded paranoia and obtuse security), let’s get your pints lined up.
Used to be we Canadians could brag without hindrance about our superior brews … until the mostly west-coast microbrew revolution. Now the Cascadia region is dotted with excellent breweries laden with culture and tasty pints – and i’ve found the finest.
Bellingham is no longer Smelligham as we called it on trips southwards in the glory days of toxic pulp mills. Now there are ample opportunities to spend a few hours well away from Bellis Fair mall starting at Boundary Bay Brewery. With a handy location in the Fairhaven area (the old town), this popular hangout is close to the train station and the Alaska ferry if you wanna head into the wild. The pub is top shelf with outdoor beer gardens, award winning brews, guest taps and hearty grub.
A wee stretch further south on your train roll is the valley village of Mt Vernon and Skagit River Brewery. Stop in for a variety platter including 2 stouts (one on nitro) and a barleywine. Last visit, I left with a pint glass decorated with their award winning Skuller’s IPA insignia.
Enjoying some sample beers with Kris and Francis at Skajit River Brew Pub in Mt. Vernon, Washington en route to Gnomedex. We riff about various styles of beers (barleywine, stouts, porters, IPAs etc) and try to be pleasant.
Everett is worth stopping in to catch a hockey game at their new rink (home of the WHL Silvertips) but not oozing with culture (that i’ve found anyhow – please correct me as needed). Of course, Seattle is next but you’ve already visited there right? If you find yourself stranded in the Emerald city – step away from the train station and go to the crazy Experience Music Project – the weird looking building next door to the Space Needle for rock n’ roll history adventure (and a beer inside). It’s easy to find a solid pint but some maximum pleasure, head to the neighbourhood of Ballard, find a bar, tell them you are from Canada and let the wild rumpus begin as they treat you like a foreigner from somewhere exotic. (Hint: Find a Hale’s Cream Ale).
Washington’s capitol city (the town Time Magazine called the hippest in the west + High Times bestowed additional dubious accolades) is Olympia. The station is located way out of town (in Lacey) and not handy to get into downtown but worth the trip if you can hang for a while. With artesian acquifers wells producing perfect brew water, Oly is famous for beer. Now the tradition has migrated from mass production of swillable stubbies to organic Fishtale Ale. In their intrepid Fish Bowl pub, you’ll spot grey ponytails plotting Cascadian secession or just eating fish tacos or a ploughman’s platter.
Wander a couple blocks down to 4th and find the Eastside Club Tavern – a real life Mos Eisely cantina with 30+ micro handles and a sweet jukebox (say hi from Uncle Weed). Then step next door for frog leg lunch from Cajun chef Billy at A2 and wander down the street to browse the eclectic Last Word Books. Finish with live music at a handful of bars or an art house flick at Capitol theater for a perfect day out. Can’t stop? See the Go with the Flow movie instead.
The next wide spot south is Chehalis and Centralia, but which i can never figure out which is which – just check your map and make sure to stop at the new Dick’s Brewery. Sadly, Dick “Danger” Young rode his Harley to the big party in the sky in 2009 but leaves legacy of 20+ brews. My faves in order: 1) Belgain Double; 2) Danger Ale; 3) Irish Ale; 3) Cream Stout; 4) Workingman’s Brown. If you are feeling dangerous (which you are since you are riding the train), try ’em all to find your fave.
This old logging town is a fine place to end up your trip as there is a McMenamin’s old-timey hotel called the Olympic Club (wait! isn’t that name illegal somehow ;-)) where a bank robber holed up and you can too.
Continuing on? Good, just roll right past the older, but less shiny, (Fort) Vancouver as you’ll get confused and think you are home. Instead, cross the mighty Columbia and embark into fantasy land for beer aficionados (and enthusiasts of no sales tax), Portland.
Beside the neatest bar you’ve ever seen on every block, Portand has stellar street markets, great dim sum, more cool McMenamin’s retro-hotels (try the Kennedy School) and theaters (like the Baghdad). In fact, with great transit (light rail hurrah!), “exotic show lounges” and cannabis clubs, PDX feels more like Canada than Canada sometimes.
Not enough? The end of this line is Eugene – the spiritual home of hippies and athletes alike. I can’t talk about Eugene without a Grateful Dead concert flashback so I’ll spare us both before i begin rambling about that show with Little Feat and the blotter paper…
That’ll do ya – you’ve gone far enough. If not, repeat the visits on the way back up. Of course, you can’t get all of these into one trip so pick a few stations and make a long weekend (or play hooky while you “work from home”) to make the circuit count.
Load em up
While Amtrak soldiers on – buoyed by Obama’s fresh visions – Canada keeps doing it like they’ve done since the trains were new. I’ve rolled the fine style and liesurely pace of the Queen’s own VIA Rail in fancy “Silver and Blue” style with my sweetie through the Rocky Mountains – the views were stellar but my indoor observations do not bode well for the future as we musta been the only ones under 65 on the train (aside from a few young families).
All good though, there was a bar serving Caesars on-board (and we ended up partying with the train staff in a Jasper bar) – but for the cost of the ticket, seems like you could drive an RV to Newfoundland. How VIA ended up this expensive when most the trains were made in 1950s I don’t know. How do other countries manage? And not just Japan and Germany, Russia has trains too – I’ve seen them in Dr. Zhivago.
What’s missing from rail service on this continent isn’t speed, it’s the ability for spontaneous travel encouraging relaxation, reflection and conversation. Further, there is a public desire to reduce carbon emissions and contribute in some way to the greater good with a greener-ish footprint – but we all need a way to travel to see Grandma on the holidays without causing air-travel-like pollution (especially since we humans must self-regulate after Copenhagen’s implosion). I think more trains are part of the answer, but for now… I’m rolling on with what we got – even if the rest of the world chuckles. Are you coming along? Good, you can buy me a pint of Danger.
- Amtrak passes & schedules: Cascade, Coast Starlight, Amtrak Deals
- “Slow Train Coming” by Robert Alstead in Vancouver Courier, Oct. 22, 2008 + Excerpts and annotations at Ephemeral Feasthouse blog
- Choogle On with Uncle Weed podcast: Ranting on about Trains, Buses and Borders – Choogle on #10
- VIA Rail fares, trains and info
- Out n’ About with Uncle Weed vidcast of Skajit Valley beers sampler featuring Kris Krug
- Mcmenamin’s hotels, theaters, bars, etc.
- Stephen Rees’ Rail in North America photoset
PS If Amtrak or VIA feel I’ve missed something about their service, i’d be pleased to be their guest and document my journey comprehensively – get me via dave (at) uncleweed (dot) net