Qualities of light have something in common with varieties of ice cream: Light can be thick or runny or velvety; light can taste sweet to our eyes, or gummy; light can be soft and smooth, or hard and cheap.
The long, leisurely train trip from Portland to Astoria is a Tillamook Cheese Factory sampler of different lights. The expensive gourmet flavors are concentrated on Astoria's half of the route.
Railroads usually begin and end in industrial zones, and last Saturday's inaugural trip showed the Lewis and Clark Explorer Train is no exception. Departing Union Station, a glowing artifact of the glory days of rail travel, the Explorer spends a certain amount of time swaying through seldom-seen parts of Portland and its western suburbs. Scenic is not a word that springs to mind.
The flavor of light: Licorice, maybe, or possibly artificial vanilla.
To St. Helens, it's a rocky road, flavor-wise, with scoops of bright green pistachio scattered around here and there. This isn't to imply the ride itself is bumpy, but rather that the train rolls through some alder groves and rural backyards where people have experienced economic bumps. There is a surprisingly Appalachian feel to some of it.
But then who among us would be truly comfortable having hundreds of strangers rumble through our backyards? I know my own mossy old pickup canopy isn't photogenic, nor my one-handled wheelbarrow I've never quite gotten around to repairing. With the return of passenger service, those who live along the tracks may have some tidying up to do.
Starting about Westport, the light begins to change from convenience-store quality to something much, much more interesting.
The tracks mostly trace the very southern edge of the river bank, occasionally swinging inland, as in Brownsmead, a slice of Northwest heaven by any definition.
Though remote, places like Clifton clearly have lives of their own, and there are a surprising number of people and points of access to the river along this lightly populated shore. For we who live in the vicinity, the Explorer really lives up to its name in the sense of revealing places worthy of exploration - a Sunday picnic or a long walk. It's an experience of "Wow, I didn't know this was out here!"
Any train trip necessarily is an unfolding series of snapshots, of people and places glimpsed for a moment, which then sail away forever. Sometimes there is a distinct sensation of being stationary as a movie unwinds on rollers around the train car, each scene existing only for the moment you observe it.
Having said this, there is a vast immortal timelessness about the waters of the Columbia estuary, a feeling the next bend in the tracks might reveal a Chinook trading party racing across Cathlamet Bay in cedar canoes.
At the river's broadest point, stretching some nine miles from bank to bank, the flavor of light is almost beyond words, a homemade honey-butter, but not too heavy, not too sweet. Is there such a thing as ambrosia ice cream? The boundless sweep of river through Lewis & Clark National Wildlife Refuge tells me there ought to be.
We VIPs - very inflated personalities - were served champagne as the little train pulled out of Portland as part of a genuinely gracious and fun trip that I will always recall with gratitude. A better time, however, for effervescence might have been in the miles just east of Tongue Point, where the air itself sparkles with life.
Capt. William Clark has come in for a certain amount of good-natured teasing for writing on Nov. 7, 1805 that he was "in View of the Ocian," when the explorers were in fact still 25 miles away from the sea.
On this train trip it occurred to me, however, that Clark was in essence correct. In many meaningful ways, our fantastic estuary is the ocean - none more so than in its luminosity. After spending close to two years crossing North America, these tired men were ready for soft and delicious ocean light. And here it is.
It'll be an awful shame if railroad turf battles or lack of funding spell the demise of the Explorer train, this rolling buffet of light. Support it climbing aboard. Ride it while it still runs.