Who rides Amtrak’s Coast Starlight?

With communal seating at meal time and little to do but eat, drink, read, and pass the time in the observation car, there’s ample opportunity to meet people on a 24-hour train ride. Here’s a sample of some of the interesting and not-so-interesting people I met between Seattle and San Francisco.


I think Sally talked to every single person who ventured into the observation car. This sixty-ish Bay Area woman recently retired after 25 years at a bank where she wore her hair blonde in a very professional cut. “Shades of Hilary Clinton,” she said. Since retiring she has shaved the sides, let the top grow, and it’s now a shade of red that would be very close to a stop sign or firetruck. She also wore skin tight white jeans and could pass for 25 from about three Rum & Cokes away.


This twenty-eight year-old BMX rider had just found a place to live in Portland, Oregon and was headed back to Sacramento to pack. He works for a company that picks up, refurbishes and recycles the wheel and axle assemblies that are used to transport mobile homes. Who knew such a job existed? He explained that every mobile home comes with wheels but most people return them to the manufacturer – and his company acts as the middle-man, among other services.

Gordon Murchison

Farmer from Altoona, Iowa. He wanted to talk about pesticides. I did not.

Chris, Henry and Moses Burkholder

These three Amish brothers from Wisconsin wore traditional Amish clothing of black pants, suspenders, blue shirts and black vests. We chatted for several hours. Henry breaks quarter horses for non-Amish people in Tennessee and Moses is employed at a family business but wants to do more custom farrier work (blacksmithing). They like the Sierra Kosmos line of trotters and had many questions about harness racing. I had many questions about life in their community. We got along great. When I started chatting with the oldest brother, Chris, he mentioned their surname. I opened my laptop, showed him the Burkholders in my family tree, and we quickly determined that we are 9th cousins. Nine generations back in my family tree is Swiss-born Ulrich Burkholder (1685-1755). He is the oldest recorded ancestor in their lineage. Chris made meticulous notes when I showed him another 2 generations before Ulrich, going back to Joseph Burkholder (b. 1627). We exchanged contact info. If I dig up any more info, I’ll send it to him by post. He knows someone that could send me an email on his behalf. I’m sure we’ll be in touch.


I couldn’t tell what he said his name was but it sounded like T-Boy. He was Asian, about 18, and had been in Vancouver for a week. I got that from the airline tag on his backpack. We were assigned seats beside each other and we spoke for about 45 seconds over the course of 23 hours. I doubt that he understood a word I said as he replied yes or no to every question and mostly gave seemingly inappropriate responses.

Q: Have you done this trip before?

A: Yes (yet he didn’t know you could buy food on the train).

Q: Can you please open the curtain?

A: No.

Q: Would you like to see my photos from the Rocky Mountains?

A: No.

He may have understood perfectly and simply didn’t want to talk to a 50-year-old seat mate who looks like he could snore. Instead T-Boy spent the entire trip sleeping, eating Ramen noodles, and reading a Chinese translation of Alan Greenspan’s The Map and the Territory: Risk, Human Nature, and the Future of Forecasting. I assume that his mother slipped a surprise into his backpack as he squealed with delight when he found a whole bag of Strawberry Milkshake Oreos in the bottom compartment. They lasted 9 minutes.

Jamie & Kevin (Or was it Kevie and James?)

This guppie couple with identical haircuts were from Seattle and travelling to San Francisco to pick up a puppy. They “keep a car there” and will drive “the roadster” home. I got the impression they have at least two homes and many, many cars. I asked if they had been on any Atlantis cruises. “We don’t do cruises,” was the last thing they said to me before swiveling their chairs and turning to look out the opposite window. “Hope the puppy pisses in your bed,” I said under my breath. Sally snorted loudly.

Helen & Mike

On Monday I had breakfast with a lovely couple who would likely be in their 80s. Helen and Mike live in Los Angeles and were returning from a very long trip. They flew from LA to Toronto several weeks ago, met friends in Ayr, then took VIA from Toronto to Jasper, the Rocky Mountaineer from Jasper to Vancouver, and now Amtrak’s Coast Starlight to LA. They were blown away by the service and meals on both VIA and the Rocky Mountaineer and mentioned that Amtrak could really learn a few lessons about customer service from VIA. I had to agree. These two world travellers have previously driven from LA to Newfoundland, have been all over Canada, including polar bear watching at Churchill, Manitoba. They have driven their motor home to every state in the US and all but two states in Mexico. They first visited Mexico in 1950. Against her parents direct orders, Helen quit college in 1948 and backpacked around Europe with 3 girlfriends for 6 months. Single American girls simply did not do that at the time, she said.


We met in the observation car. I thought he said his name was Andy but when I called him that, he corrected me. “Name’s Randy, brother.” A woman sat down near us and introduced herself as Rose. He very clearly told her his name was Blair. I got up and went to the bar car.


Blonde woman, late 40s, likely of Scandinavian heritage. She introduced herself as “Inga, rhymes with single”. That’s about as far as we got. And actually, Inga, your name doesn’t rhyme with single any more than it rhymes with ‘cougar’.


Ken was born in Barbados, lived briefly in the US, but recently retired after 25 years at Carleton University in Ottawa. He talked at length about the Tuskegee Airmen from Alabama. I understand they were America‘s first black military airmen but I’m not sure what Ken’s connection was.

Robertson Family

A very nice couple from Needles, California. They engaged their three kids with puzzles and arts & crafts projects in the lounge car. Four hours into the trip and they had completed about 80% of a large jigsaw depicting a Swiss mountain scene. The kids were getting bored and wanted to start their ‘Cars’ puzzle but dad made them finish the mountain puzzle first. He too lost interest soon after Heidi’s bosom was revealed.

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