Stranded: My 46hr Adventure on Amtrak Train 11
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, this is the conductor speaking. Some of you may have noticed the quick stop a few minutes ago. It, uh, looks like we hit a downed tree alongside the tracks. Our engineers are out checking for damage. We’ll keep you updated on any new developments, but it’s looking like we’ll be stopped here for a while until we learn what happened.”
None of us knew, but that was the beginning of the end for Amtrak Coastal Starlight Train 11.
For the next 40 hours, 183 passengers – with destinations ranging from Klamath Falls, OR (four hours away), to Los Angeles, CA (30 hours away) – would sit inside a double-decker steel box, wondering if and when we’d ever get out.
What you’re about to read is a harrowing eye-witness account of survival, camaraderie, and cannibalism…okay, cannibalism is a stretch. No one was eaten (although many jokes were made about who would go first).
What you will find, though, is a story of how a bunch of strangers made the most of being on a stranded train in the middle of the woods. And while I’m not itching to have a repeat of this particular adventure, it’s definitely a story I’m looking forward to recounting to the next person who asks me, “Ever taken a train?”
Why yes, Carl, I have. Let me tell you about it...
Just My Luck
I’m no stranger to long train travel. I’ve subjected myself to multiple 60+ hour rides across the country, and I can’t think of a single time where there wasn’t some sort of delay. On one occasion, a freight train derailed and left us waiting for seven hours in the Nevada desert; on another occasion, a poor soul at the end of his rope threw himself in front of our train just outside of Lincoln, NE and we had to wait three hours for the clean up. Delays are just part of the journey.
Normally, though, a delay is just a delay – eventually, you get to where you want to go. The last two trips (or, attempted trips I should say) I’ve taken on Amtrak, however, don’t even fall into the delay category. They fall under the “Sam-has-extremely-bad-luck-on-trains” category.
Last July I took my seat on the northbound Amtrak Coastal Starlight train from Salinas, CA to Albany, OR. I fell asleep during a delay in Sacramento and woke up at 2am to a couple nudges from the guy sitting next to me. “The train’s gonna turn around, bro. It’s heading back towards LA.” The train hadn’t moved an inch; we were still sitting at the depot in Sacramento. Apparently the Carr Fire in Redding, CA had jumped the tracks and Amtrak decided it wasn’t going to send the train through.
As other passengers panicked, I hopped off the train at 3am, Uber'd to the Sacramento airport, waited for the rental car agency to open at 5am, then drove 7.5 hours to complete the trip. Not the end of the world, but definitely not convenient either.
This time around, there’d be no “hopping off the train.” Even if I could, I’d freeze to death in the middle of a record-breaking storm that dumped so much snow even the trees couldn’t stay standing under the weight. No one was getting off the train, and the train wasn’t going anywhere.
Bad luck is an understatement.
Where’s a Repairman When You Need One?
My mind usually thinks in terms of Hollywood cut scenes – the kind that would interpret a train hitting a tree as this massive jumble of metal, airborne passengers, and an extreme version of “shifted” luggage that airline stewardesses warn you about after your plane has landed. So when the conductor came on the intercom to announce we had hit a tree, everyone was a little confused. There was no jolt, everyone was still seated, and my suitcase remained upright in the luggage compartment.
It couldn’t have been that bad, right?
From my understanding, the tree in question had fallen alongside the tracks and sideswiped an airbrake hose, rendering one of the train engines brake-less without a major repair.
Brakes are important; they’re what make you stop. And when you’re about to go up into the Cascade mountains, you really want to make sure that your brakes are at 110%. If they’re not, then the news the next day would read “183 Passengers Plunge to Their Deaths down Treacherous Mountainside” instead of “183 Passengers Stranded on Tracks."
I’ve already got bad luck on trains. I’ll take “stranded” over “dead” for $200, please.
When the engineers aboard the train couldn’t MacGyver a permanent solution, the head conductor put out a call for a repair team to make the hour long trek to get us up and running.
The only problem was the southern half of Oregon was caught in the middle of snowmaggedon.
One hour turned to two, two hours turned to three, and as we approached midnight Sunday night, the conductor came back on the intercom:
“Hello again, ladies and gentlemen, this is the conductor speaking. We just got off the phone with the repair forces and it looks like the snow has shut down the nearby highway. They won’t be able to get to us this evening. So we’re just going to sit tight as we try to figure out other options. We’ve got fuel to keep the train running on idle for three days, so no need to worry about heaters or power or anything like that. With the highways shut down, the only way out of here is by rail. We’ll keep you informed of any developments and we thank you for your patience.”
When the Panic Kicks In...
It’s stressful hearing that you’re literally stranded in the woods on a train in the middle of a snowstorm…even if the train does have enough fuel to last for three days.
As the minutes ticked by, a growing sense of confusion and panic began to settle in. Even with it being pitch black outside, you could see the onslaught of fat snow flakes slowly falling to the ground. The longer we sat there, the harder it would be for anyone to get to us.
A college student a few rows up broke out in a claustrophobic panic attack not too long after the conductor’s announcement. Add having a huge final the next day, and she was down and out for the count. Her friends sat with her, rubbing her back and reminding her to breathe, They were sure her professor would understand. (They’d later all get giggly drunk and stagger up and down the aisle in the lounge car. Given the circumstances, no one was going to stop them).
Everyone adapts differently to stress: for some it’s a steady stream of mini liquor bottles; for others, pacing the aisles; and for most, sleeping.
Hard part about sleeping, though, is when the train’s not moving, there’s nothing to mask the chaotic symphony of sliding doors, clicking recliners, heavy footfalls, and Aunt Susie snoring two rows back.
Sleep was impossible…and I recorded a snippet of the noise to remind myself that it could always be worse. Listen HERE.
...Just be Nice
How in the world she was comfortable was beyond me. Curled up in the fetal position, facedown into the chair, and windbreaker cinched tight across her face – there was no possible way she was comfortable, or even warm for that matter. I awkwardly sat across from her in the lounge car at 12am, wondering if I should be that guy and offer the blanket that I wasn’t using. You know the feeling right? the awkward tension between wanting to help while also not wanting your help to paint you as a creeper?
The Good Samaritan side of me won out. If we were all going to be stuck on a train we may as well be nice to each other – regardless of how it looks. In reality, that’s the only way we all survived the ordeal. From chocolate and stories, to diapers and hygiene items, if there’s one thing I learned through the whole ordeal it’s that little acts of kindness keep people from losing their minds.
I quietly walked back to my seat in coach, grabbed the obnoxious-caution-yellow Mexican blanket I had bought from a grocery store last summer, then set it down next to me once I got back to the lounge car. Eventually, as she rolled out of her chair, we caught eyes and I made a gesture to the blanket.
“You want a blanket? It looks like you’re freezing” I half mumbled.
“Really? That’d be great, thanks,” she said with a sleepy smile.
“Go for it.” I handed the blanket to her then went back to working on my laptop, trying to make it clear that I was just trying to be a nice person. Her name is Alissa, and her trip was only supposed to take 4 hours but would ultimately take 10x longer than she had planned. Even though it was already 1am, no one was sleeping, so we just kept talking — where we’re from, where we’re going, what we’re doing with our lives, anxiety over being stuck on a train, why pasta is such a versatile dish, why school isn’t for everyone, and why relationships always turn out more complicated than they need to be.
Five hours later, as we both struggled to keep our eyes open, we laughed at ourselves.
“You know what’s crazy is I’m actually a super introvert,” she told me.
“What? No you’re not. We’ve been talking for what…five hours now?"
“I’m serious. If you hadn’t offered me a blanket, I probably never would have talked to you or anything. I would have sat here alone on the train, freaking out with no cell service or anything.”
“Well, that would have sucked, and now we’re officially six-hour friends, so that’s a win.”
We laughed a bit at how ridiculous we sounded, and then, as the sky started glowing with a snowy shade of gray, we both passed out.
Keep on the Sunny Side…Even in a Snow Storm
For as free-spirited as I can be, I also crave being in control – in control of my environment, my actions, and my circumstances. When that control is threatened my anxiety starts kicking in. My brain goes into the infinite abyss of “what if…?” and quickly begins a downward spiral that leaves me in a bleary haze of confusion and panic.
Waking up the next morning, the optimist inside me banked on there being a nugget of hope to latch on to. Maybe the engineers had figured something out, or a rescue train had pulled up alongside us while I was sleeping.
I wasn’t that lucky. We were still in the same spot, snow was still falling at a record pace, and the conductors hadn’t heard any updates on when we would be getting out. If anything, the situation seemed to be deteriorating. A rescue/replacement engine had been sent out of Eugene, but soon needed its own rescue after being hit by a falling tree. At the same time, a relief crew had been sent up from Sacramento riding a freight train, but had gotten stranded 15 miles south of us on impassable track.
Rescue was nowhere in sight.
As I sat there in the lounge car, my brain on the brink of a debilitating spiral, I realized that I had to let it go. It’s the same mind game I play when I’m sitting on a plane as it rushes down the runway for takeoff. As the front tire comes up, I smile and accept that there’s nothing I can do to make the plane go faster, fly smoother, or land safer. I give up, and the anxiety and stress seemingly melts off my shoulders.
At its core, this situation was no different; nothing I could do could fix the train or make the rescue go quicker. Once I accepted the reality, the anxiety and longing for control took a back seat.
To speed up that healthy feeling, I started taking stock of all the good things that were happening on the train.
First, our situation could have been infinitely worse. For as terrible as our circumstances were, we still had power, heat, water, toilets, and shotty cell service – which was more than the nearby town of Oakridge had with their power outage.
Second, Amtrak gave everyone onboard free breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which meant I was eating more than I usually do an any given day. In fact, I was pretty full after each meal, and on more than one occasion the strangers I had been seated with in the dining car let me scrape their plates for leftovers. (Man’s gotta eat!).
Third, people were being good people. Even with the stress of being stuck on a train, the passengers and staff were extremely friendly to one another. When the families with children aboard ran out of diapers, a “safety-pin drive” was conducted in order to make makeshift diapers. One woman had a ukulele and held a concert for the kiddos down in the snack car. And my favorite act of kindness happened when one of the college girls brought out a huge bag of Hershey’s chocolate bars and spread them out all over the table for anyone who wanted one (or five in my case). Chocolate makes everything better. Laughter was almost a constant in the lounge car – goofy jokes, incredible stories, card games, and free-style rap helped us pass the time.
There were so many things to be thankful for. In my blind grasping for control, I would never have seen them.
The entirety of Monday was spent sitting in suspense over when and how we would be rescued. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon when the snow finally let up, and by that time there had been a solid buildup of two to three feet in an area of Oregon that doesn’t see more than a couple of inches of snow every year. Even with Eugene a mere 38 miles away, it had taken rescue crews armed with chainsaws and snow plows nearly 16 hours to clear 30 miles of fallen trees and snow banks off the track.
As the sun set Monday night, we heard estimates that they wouldn’t make it to us until 6am the following morning. Apparently, the last stretch of track was worse than they had anticipated.
You could hear the groans of passengers when they realized they would be spending another night on the motionless train.
Alissa asked the conductor if she could walk off the train if her boyfriend managed to drive to the nearby town to get her. No one had been allowed off the train except for two passengers who had service dogs with them. The snow was too deep and there were rails you had to navigate over before making the 1/4 mile trek to the nearest road.
“If he can swear to me that he can make it up here on the highway, then I will personally walk you to the road,” he replied. “From what I’ve heard, though, no one has been able to travel on the highway for the last two days.”
We scoured every single map we could find, hoping against hope that one would prove all the others wrong. It proved pointless. Dotted red lines traced every road leading into and out of the tiny town of Oakridge.
Monday night would be spent on the train.
6:45am Tuesday morning, the train jolted enough to wake me up from the fetal position I had taken on the floor next to the heaters. I propped myself up on an elbow, looked up at Alissa, and then around to the other passengers searching for assurance that I wasn’t the only one feeling the vibrations through the floor. As other lounge car residents rubbed the sleep from their eyes, a slow look of excitement crept across their faces. It was comical and refreshing at the same time. We were moving.
There was no cheering or applause as the train trudged through the snow covered forest – just smiles and lighthearted conversation. A feeling of relief swept through and the air itself felt lighter…despite the fact that none of us had showered or had a proper sleep since at least Sunday morning. Even the sun was out to warm our spirits.
As the train moved north, we stared in disbelief at the carnage alongside the tracks. Some of us had joked that we’d better see at least 100 downed trees to justify the past 40 hours of abandonment. We weren’t disappointed. Thick, splintered tree branches littered either side of the track, and huge tree trunks that had been chewed through by an army of chainsaws were piled every couple hundred feet. It was like a war zone.
Next came the highway – the one that Alissa’s boyfriend would have had to navigate had he tried to make it to us in Oakridge. It was completely gone. What had once been a four lane highway was now a continuous 30 mile meadow of fresh, two-feet-deep snow, complete with fallen trees and small hillside avalanches. Two cars had been abandoned on what we assumed was the side of the road, each with a healthy amount of snow packed on top of them.
The conductor hadn’t been lying: the rails were literally the only way anyone was going anywhere.
The snow was so deep that the engineers had to jump off the train at every track junction and dig out the rail switches to ensure we stayed heading in the right direction. Other stops included passing by the exhausted crews and equipment that had dug us out. My favorite stop by far, however, was the one in the middle of the road. Sitting between the flashing crossing guards, we watched out the windows as a smiling policeman unloaded boxes and boxes of pastries from the back of his squad car and passed them through the downstairs windows of the snack car. Needless to say, they were the best free pastries I’ve ever had in my life.
Pulling into the station at Eugene was a surreal experience. Camera crews and news reporters lined the platform like piranhas, waiting to get interviews with the “survivors” of Amtrak Train 11. Inside the station a group of Red Cross volunteers had set up shop with tables of (more) pastries, fruit, and coffee. It seemed a little overkill, but apparently the news made it sound like we were all dying and having to eat each other on the train. I didn’t complain as I loaded up on Starbucks under the sympathetic eyes of the volunteers.
The media was relentless – interviewing everyone and their dog…literally. At one point, they even filmed one of the service dogs pooping on the floor of the station. It was weird, and I wondered how they would title that one.
I got pulled aside for a few interviews myself, and you could tell they were looking for a bit of a more dramatic story than I was giving them. When one reporter asked how it felt to be disconnected from civilization for so long, I told them that I had had service on the train and was able to keep myself entertained the entire time. “That’s nice, thank you for your time” was pretty much her response as she whisked away with her notepad to the next passenger coming off the train. In other interviews, it sounded like I was the only person who had anything good and encouraging to say about the whole experience. Sure it was unfortunate and a huge waste of time, but everyone made it out alive and we had a pretty good time doing it. I guess that kind of story doesn’t have as much selling power behind it as, “I had to bring myself to eat my seat-mate.” Next time I think I’ll lie and see how far I can get before the ridiculousness catches up with me.
We stood outside in the cold and snow, savoring the fresh air for as long as we could before the train whistle signaled those who were continuing north to return to the train. I had already said goodbye to Alissa and a couple of other new friends who got off in Eugene, so I sat down in my coach seat and waited for another hour before getting back to Albany.
You could tell the adventure was coming to an end. Having cell service again meant everyone slowly disappeared back into their phones to catch up on everything they had missed the last two days; the rambunctious conversations that had once rattled the stalled train windows were now small whispers at near empty tables; and the train rattled on without a hitch the rest of the way home.
My buddies picked me up from the station and we slid along the snow-covered roads back up toward camp. The storm hadn’t been any kinder up there, either. Ironically, while living up at camp I’ve made an untold number of “more snow!” jokes that have fallen on tired, more experienced ears. Still, even though the snow had thwarted my California plans, we made it work for us up at camp. We spent the rest of that afternoon strapping into snowboards and getting pulled behind an ATV, then eating pizza to our heart’s content and playing with the camp kiddos.
Life kept going forward, and it was almost like nothing had happened.
The Point of the Story Is…?
It’s been three weeks since I got off that train, and my brain’s thought through a number of lessons I could pull from the experience. Some of them include:
Give up on trains.
Always bring a blanket.
Eat a large meal before traveling.
Most of these make sense.
Given my luck on trains I should probably avoid them in the future (but we know that’ll never happen. In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m sitting on the same train heading towards California…secretly hoping this one doesn’t get stuck). Bringing a blanket guarantees you’ll at least be warm wherever you go. And by eating a large meal before you travel, not only do you avoid spending too much money on overpriced snack food, but you can postpone converting to cannibalism (if it ever comes down to that).
I could rattle off a couple more, but the one I keep coming back to is about finding joy and acceptance in the journey rather than just the destination. It’s a theme that obnoxiously permeates my writing, and it’s obnoxious because I’m terrible at practicing what I preach.
I've spent most of my life dreaming about and trying to get to the next destination – a dream job, a smoking hot wife, a beach house, a padded bank account, a new adventure, whatever – you name it and I’ve probably dreamt it. But It’s easy to get so caught up dreaming about the future destination that you turn on auto-pilot and miss the opportunity to engage in the journey.
Sure, the present might not be pretty or comfortable. Sitting on that train definitely wasn’t, and I would have loved it if there had been a “get-unstuck” button somewhere onboard. But the train wasn’t going anywhere. Likewise, you might not be where you want to be in life. Maybe you’re stuck in a dead-end job, passionless marriage, crappy family situation, or crushing debt and there’s no end in sight. You’d give an arm and a leg to be somewhere else, doing something else with someone else. But you can’t get the train to budge.
The only thing you can do is laugh at yourself and make the most of present moment.
183 passengers were stuck on that train, but the ones who made it out better for worse were the ones who decided to accept their reality and work to make it better: be it through sharing food and blankets, offering to watch someone’s kids for a spell, or striking up conversations with the person sitting alone. They were the ones who believed that the train would eventually move in one direction or the other, and they made it their mission to find and create every bit of joy they could while sitting on it right then and there.
It took sitting on a stalled train for 46 hours to remind me to live my life right now where I’m at, and to that end, I’m glad I got stuck.
…but please don’t ask me to do it again.
There are a number of people I could mention down here...
Alissa, my now 50-hour friend (fun fact, she’s on THIS train right now as we head south. We’re both praying us being on the same train doesn’t bring bad luck on everyone else). Thanks for your stories, insight, card playing skills, and friendship on an otherwise out-of-this-world boring train ride. Here’s to hoping we never run into each other on the train again…although now we’re two for two so we’ll see what happens.
Garrey, my seat-mate and amateur radio extraordinaire. Can’t wait to eventually grab that coffee with you and check out the souped up Airstream you’ve got.
Bradnon (yes, that’s spelled right), the tattoo artist who has done work on every human body part…and I mean EVERY. You’re insane, and if I ever need some art done, I’ll find you. Thanks for the laughs and all the cannibalism jokes.
Nadia, the girl who shared her chocolates and has a mad free-style rap. Sorry not sorry for taking the insane amount of chocolate I did. It was great.
Yen, the girl who always smiles. You’re one of the friendliest people I have EVER met and your joy in contagious. The only words I can use to describe you are warmth and sunflowers. Thanks for making the train that much happier just by being there.
And last but DEFINITELY not least, James, the Amtrak snack car guy. If it weren’t for James, the train would have exploded. In all reality, he was the glue that kept everyone sane. He made diapers for babies, coordinated a women's hygiene items drive and distributed to those in need, poured an insane amount of coffee for anyone who asked, sat with us in the lounge car and told his own stories, and, had any vehicles been able to get up to the train, promised to walk us across the tracks himself. This guy deserves a FAT promotion, and I already called Amtrak and told them about it. Thank you James for your kindness to everyone onboard, your radio-perfect intercom skills, and your dedication to make sure we were all as comfortable as possible.
Thus ends the wrapup of my train adventure. It was real, it was fun, but it wasn't real fun. Despite all the craziness that the train can sometimes cause, I still highly highly recommend everyone do a cross country trek at least once. You'll see the country in ways you've never seen before and meet people who, were they on a plane, you'd probably never have talked to them.
So go and book a ticket.
And then pray you don't get stuck.