Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Off the beaten tracks

You see the world from a different perspective commuting by train. Commuter trains use tracks that were built for freight trains. They usually exist on the alleyways of cities, following the path of least resistance carved out a century or so ago by near slave labor. You slip in and out of the city via the back door.

My train enters and exits the city via a mile long tunnel dug at the turn of the century through the heart of Seattle. It is a time portal free of cell phone signals and light. Your only view is your own reflection in the window. You pass through it in silence wondering vaguely if you'll ever exit. But the squeal of brakes and dim light snap that morbid fantasy as you pop out the other side squeezed between garbage strewn embankments and the windowless walls of the backs of waterfront buildings.

I am lucky though in my commute. My train travels north of the city on tracks that follow the shoreline to avoid Seattle's many hills. It passes through train yards filled with acres of waiting freight cars tagged with faded graffiti. Strangely there are no people in the train yards, only ghosts of hobos and train tramps avoiding bulls or cinder dicks bent on busting heads.

The train passes through the yards and past an armory with army vehicles that look as though they've never moved in decades. And then the train passes through a valley sorts, lined by wilderness shielding the manicured suburbs from the tracks. The wilderness is broken by the occasional overpass. On some mornings you can see shapeless bundles of transients zipped into sleeping bags sleeping cave dweller like under the top edge of the overpass.

The train approaches the locks and passes over a bridge over the waterway that connects Lake Union with the Sound. Occasionally the train must stop and wait for the drawbridge to lower after letting an expensive sailboat pass through. The Iron Horse, especially one simply conveying freight that talks, is no match for rich men's toys.

After passing through a few more miles of wild terrain outside of Ballard, the tracks run past marina's, parks and then simply relatively untouched coastline to the west. To the east modest houses with expensive views perch shoulder to shoulder on cliffs. They have traded the security of a backyard for a water view that could turn into beach front given heavy enough rains and a strategic mudslide.

During cruise season, the train races Alaska bound ships sporting tourists from the East coast and Asia marveling at the scenery that I get to see every day (sans an expensive drink with a paper parasol stuck in a pineapple chunk hanging on the glass rim). Cranes standing on one leg, stare at the cruise ships, keeping their backs to the train. They seem more comfortable with strange things that live on the water than the noisy line of metal that passes by four times in the morning and four times in the evening.

At points you are so close to the shoreline that you can imagine that the train is gliding on the water barely inches from the tips of bald eagles patrolling the shores. During times of high winds the spray of the sound actually splashes against the window, adding to the illusion.

I know my commute is drawing to a close as we pass under a pedestrian overpass that bridges a parking lot and Saltwater Park. Then we pass a few houses that have migrated from the cliffs to the beach front on the west side of the tracks. Finally we pass an oil facility that has somehow managed to take ugly hold on a portion of the land just past the City of Shoreline and just before the City of Edmonds. Two minutes later we roll past a dog park, a marina and some waterfront restaurants and glide into the station.

I love this commute.


Pernicious Panda said...

We've parked the car at Tukwila a couple of times and taken the Link into Seattle. I LOVE trains. I took Amtrak to San Diego last summer and will do it again this year. Very much looking forward to the trip (without grumpy husband and whiny kids, it's a little piece of heaven).

Time said...

Kristy, In our business, we call people who love trains "foamers." It is an affection term, probably very similar to what law enforcement personnel call Ed Troyer groupies. :) But I am glad you use Link.