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The Long way Home

"It's how many hours?" my mother wants to know when I tell her we'll be taking the train home to California for Christmas.

"About thirty-six from Seattle—two days and one night. It'll be great! We'll get to see the entire Pacific Coast."

"Well, I hope you're not exhausted when you get here."

Of course, moms are always right. Last November, when my husband, Jeff, and I decided to take Amtrak's Coast Starlight, easing into Christmas seemed a spectacular idea. For just a little more money we could book a deluxe sleeper on a train to Los Angeles, then fly back.

I still have the notes from my conversation with the Amtrak reservationist: "Family Suite. Sleeps four really comfortably. Sofa. Love seat/table. Shower/tub. Includes all meals and beverages, $906 one way."

We'd been warned to pack strategically, since the compartments are small, but once on the train we're shocked nonetheless. They're lilliputian! The "sofa" turns out to be an upholstered bench running the width of the car; the love seat/table is actually a small seat and fold-down tray table beneath one window; the shower and bath (which we share with fellow passengers) is outside our compartment at the other end of the car.

While the boys settle in, I cruise the train, wondering whether we've made a mistake. There are 12 Superliner cars—including the coach cars, lounge car, dining car, parlor car, and first-class sleeping cars. We're traveling first-class, but our family compartment is on the lower level of the double-decker train; it's darker down there, and it lacks the big picture windows of the higher-end accommodations upstairs. The prospect of being a bottom-dweller for two days is so alarming that I ask an attendant if we can move into two adjoining compartments upstairs. The change would cost $550. Fortunately, the train is fully booked, so we're not tempted.

Prepared to make the best of the situation, I head back to our car, named Nebraska. But when I push open the door—surprise—the boys (my husband included) are buzzing happily. James (seven) has lowered an upper bunk and climbed onto it, Jeff (44) has already opened his laptop and checked his E-mail using a wireless modem, and Sam (nine) is now typing with fury, trying to record on the laptop everything he sees out the window.

Time to curl up on the tiny sofa and pretend not to sneak peeks at Sam's train diary:

"First we went to our room and it was small, but it was the biggest in the aisle. It was a deluxe family room. The first sight that we saw was Puget Sound. They told us to look for otters, seals, sea lions, and killer whales. Next we went to a place where new people got on the train. It looked like the snow was three feet deep. (It was probably 5 degrees outside!) Then we went through some open fields and we had a great view of Mount St. Helens. We went through a tiny town that was covered in snow like a frosted donut."

Our route follows the Columbia River south, crosses into Oregon, and swings through Portland before heading down into the wine country of the Willamette Valley. James announces that he's going to the parlor car, no doubt to help himself to the fruit platters we spied earlier, and to befriend Leonard, the parlor-car attendant (and bartender). I feel something like bliss: I picture the four of us reading for days, maybe even talking.

"Ladies and gentlemen, if you'll please make your way to the dining cars, our lunch service will now begin."

Over a meal of chicken pot pies, hamburgers, and grilled portobello mushroom sandwiches, we agree that we're relaxing already. For two weeks we've been caught up in endless rounds of shopping, wrapping, packing, mailing, and party-going. But now we're sitting leisurely in the Coast Starlight's festive dining car, at a table set with white linens and fresh flowers.

In the afternoon we play go fish in the parlor car while bands of merry passengers around us partake in a wine tasting. When the boys head back to Nebraska—by themselves—Jeff and I order up two glasses of Oregon Pinot Noir. We toast the fact that it's four in the afternoon, we're sipping wine, and we haven't a clue what our kids are doing. We're rolling toward the industrial town of Salem, Oregon, where a tangerine-and-lavender sunset is casting even the pulp heaps and paper mills in a warm glow.

Sam, meanwhile, is adding to his diary: "We saw a giant river that was frozen and covered in snow. Then we went over a bridge for trains only. And there was a destroyed dock near the shore and a destroyed ship too! Then we had lunch on the dining car, and I had a hamburger. It was really good! I had chocolate cake for dessert. A chocolate cake has chocolate frosting and cake!"

James gets his two cents in: "I am on a train, and it is fun. The doors are electronic, they open when you touch them, and they are cool. I got a Diet Pepsi in the parlor car. After that, I went to the caboose. I counted all the cars, and there are 12."

Jeff has been tracking our progress. He has stashed a timetable in his pocket, and, like Mussolini scoring a baseball game, he pulls it out at each station, checks his watch, and makes a notation. We're more or less on time the first day, but come nightfall the temperature outside drops and our luck turns. We're watching The Avengers (the movie) in the parlor car's wood-paneled screening room when the train screeches to a halt outside Klamath Falls.

There's a problem with the tracks, and by the time the credits roll we still haven't moved. When we turn in, the Coast Starlight is under way, but the weather is bad, so the conductor has reduced our speed to 40 mph instead of the usual 60.

At breakfast, the topic of discussion in the dining car is how far behind schedule we are. Nick, a New Yorker connecting to the Chicago-bound California Zephyr in Sacramento, estimates four hours. Greg, a percussionist from Costa Mesa, California, thinks it's more like three. Leonard, who has clearly accepted the fact that Amtrak doesn't always run on time (and that there's nothing you can do about it), is shrugging good-naturedly. It wouldn't matter, really, except that Nick needs to catch his train, Greg has a gig, and we're supposed to meet my father (who's driving an hour from Orange County to fetch us) in L.A.'s Union Station at 9:15 that evening.

In Sacramento, we jog around in the crisp morning air while we wait for what will be the first of several crew changes during the day. Union rules evidently specify that a train's operating crew can't work for more than a 12-hour shift. If the shift ends before the train reaches the location of the next crew, the train stops and everyone waits while the new crew drives out to meet it.

Late as we are, the train has an almost hypnotic effect. At lunch, we ask for the works: hamburgers, wine, the fruit-and-cheese plate, desserts. The boys commandeer the screening room (so much for reading) and request Armageddon. Jeff and I watch Gilroy and Castroville go by. We stare out at cows, strawberry fields, marshlands, estuaries full of birds.

By late afternoon, 30 hours (and counting) of riding the rails are taking their toll. Sam asks whether he can watch Armageddon again; I'm so worn out I nod yes—and join him. Jeff teaches James how to play poker.

By the time we near Santa Barbara it's pitch-black out: forget those gorgeous views of the Pacific that Amtrak raves about; we can't see a thing. Except, that is, for the freight train that has broken down just in front of us. Another hour.

Jeff logs on. "Hi Bart," he E-mails Dad. "SOS from somewhere north of Santa Barbara. Impossible to estimate time of arrival. Abort pickup. Repeat, ABORT PICKUP. Will try to make contact later via cell phone."

We hadn't planned to spend two nights on the train, but as the evening wears on, Jeff takes the boys to Nebraska and makes up the bunks. I hang out upstairs, having taken over the lovely upper-deck quarters of a couple who ditched the train in Oakland.

Nearly five hours later, bleary-eyed and numb with fatigue, I stumble down to rouse the boys. When I open the door, I find them already dressed—with shoes and backpacks, even—wearing the stunned expressions of small humans who've been awakened in the middle of the night.

As the train finally pulls into Union Station at 3:20 a.m. (six hours and five minutes late, by Jeff's calculations), the conductor apologizes again and makes one final announcement: "In the words of former race-car driver Richard Petty, 'Folks, it's just one of them deals.'"

The four of us, incredulous, burst out laughing.

We'll be home in time for Christmas all right, but you won't catch us waiting up for Santa.

The Facts
On Amtrak's Coast Starlight (800/872-7245), family-car compartments start at $420 each way for the two-day route, plus one-way train fares of $98 per adult and $49 per child. All meals are included.

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