I'm Gonna Take a Ride

Today is the day I take my virgin Link Light Rail trip to SeaTac Airport. That's where I'm hoping to end up, anyway; the train actually ends one stop short of the airport, due to a compromise struck in the final stages of light rail development in order to meet some semblance of a deadline. Rumor has it there's a shuttle at the end of the line that will take you the last mile or so that the rail, in all its heavily-anticipated glory, has as of yet not been able to conquer. Since the car I'm scheduled to retrieve is parked at a lot a distance away from the terminals, the shuttle will be a welcome aid but not entirely necessary should it turn out to indeed not exist.

Upon boarding at the Westlake stop in the transit tunnel, I take my seat in the empty train. We slowly wind under the streets of downtown Seattle, picking up passengers along the way. Besides the uncommonly smooth ride, there is little to diffferentiate this leg of the trip from a regular bus ride through the tunnel. My first indication that I get that this trip might be different occurs at the last stop in the Ride Free Zone, the International District station. Two Sound Transit officials in clearly-marked obvious uniforms board the train. They wait for the train to start pulling out of the station before very politely announcing that they would please like to check your ticket, thank you so much. This is a pleasant departure from my experience riding public transit in Germany, where the undercover (but still fairly obvious) ticket checkers give themselves away almost before the doors close with a hastily-barked "tickets, please!" ("hastily-barked" is the manner of speech for many German speakers, regardless of content.) The man approaches my seat and I dig into my wallet for my Orca card, which five minutes earlier had made contact with the card reader on route to the platform. Having used this new pass of mine a few times on the city bus, I had tapped it on the reader with all the confidence of a lifelong train commuter; most of this confidence dissipates, however, as I extend the pass to the official. Maybe I was supposed to wait until later? Could I have perhaps used the wrong reader? Thankfully my worries are unfounded, I learn from the way the man smiles, nods, and thanks me for flashing my newest best friend Orca. Puzzled, I ask him how he knew I paid. With a disarming wave of his hand, he explains that most ticket enforcers have a handheld device to read the status of your trip from your card. He is gone before I can ask him why he is the exception, or if it is true that I need to "tap out" at my destination. I assume that there will be more people to ask if these things become truly relevant. I also wonder if I'll always be able to get away with a simple Orca flashing, and if the attendants will always only enforce the bit of rail between the International District and Stadium stations.

Settling into my seat, I note the names of the passing stations. Names! They have names. In Germany, each bus stop is given a name, which is usually announced over the PA before that stop is reached. This happens on the light rail, too, I note joyously. I recall that just yesterday, bussing through an unknown part 0f Beacon Hill, my boyfriend and I did a fair bit of neck-straining to find street names in an effort to pull the stop cord in a timely manner, and still managed to miss our desired stop due to an unforeseen detour to the medical center, at whose threshhold we sheepishly deboarded, fearing the guilt that ensues when one pulls the stop cord and does not get off the bus. Riding the Link, you simply read the sign or listen for your stop to be called, at which point you just stand up and get out. No pulling of cords, no pushing of doors, no craning of neck. You just go!

In today's adventure, this part is even easier, since I'm riding to the end of the line. It is a beautiful August day outside, sunny and warm. Parts of Seattle fly by my window, streets and restaurants that I had only ever heard mentioned in my trusty NFT or on Yelp, respectively. (Both of which are now available as apps on your iPhone!) Speaking of iPhones, mine is busy looking up maps of Tukwila, to perhaps get an idea of where this thing is going to drop me off. Am I going to be within walking distance of my destination? I forget about this pursuit the moment we turn the final corner and Mt. Rainier appears in all her splendor and glory. Not much can overshadow the fascination that is the iPhone, but Mt. Rainier is one of them. Basking in the sunlight on this cloudless day, she looked radiant, majestic. I mouth a wordless prayer of thanks to the gods of light rail, who have allowed me this moment to turn my undivided attention to this dormant volcano, and pity the drivers of the cars far below on the interstate, who must pay attention to the road and can only steal an occasional glimpse of the mountain. I save a small slice of the pity pie for future Killah to eat, knowing that I'll be one of those drivers before the hour is out.

The Tukwila Transit Center

We pull into Tukwila station, our final destination, and all passengers must exit the train. I grab my purse and jump out the door, trying simultaneously to get Google Maps to present me with something I can work with. (Does anyone know a better way to pull up a map than using Safari, which takes way too long? Is there a good app for this purpose that I don't know about?) Messing around with my phone causes me to almost miss the tap-out reader. Luckily a dude with an Orca card (and a bike! We were both very Seattle at that moment) tapped out in front of me, reminding me to do the same. Looking out onto nearby International Boulevard, I ascertain from the street numbers that I am 45 blocks away from my destination. Not exactly walking distance. My transfer is still valid, which means I could take a bus up the street, or I could go with the shuttle option. I choose the latter, if only to get the full experience. The bus driver waves me on, smiling at my Orca pass and letting me know that they are not equipped to take those yet. I get the impression that this Orca-as-VIP-card-by-default thing is happening a lot all over the city, which does not upset me. Automatic gold. In my hand.

I love you, Orca!

Once I'm at the terminal, I decide to go ahead and take the bus that goes south towards the park-and-fly where my father's car is parked; after all, my transfer is still valid! Orca has been keeping close track for me. It's now been two hours since I boarded my first bus in Ballard. Not all of that can be counted as travel time, because I did stop in at Pike Place to walk around and buy a few local gifts for some international friends. All in all, not too bad! And I had time to listen to some Thom Yorke, answer a bunch of messages and emails on my phone, and see some new sights.

Driving home: definitely less pleasant than Link Light Rail.

The trip home, now as a single-occupancy vehicle, is much more mundane and does not provide the euphoric feelings that Orca and Link worked in tandem to bring to me. One thought that does bring me a small bit of joy is the fact that today might be the last time I drive over the crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct. It's a pretty view, and I agree there needs to be some sort of link there to help out congestion on I-5, but this ratty old concrete eyesore isn't going to cut it for much longer. Not that I fully support the tunnel option, since it's not condusive to public transit use, nor will there be any hopping on and off in the downtown corridor, but that's another post. Suffice it to say, my Link light rail experience was fantastic for the first time out, and I highly recommend you try it!

The road home might never be the same again.


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