Thursday, November 22, 2007

Unseen California

NOTE: Though I'm posting this late on Thursday night, I wrote this at about 3 p.m. on Wednesday, when I was heading up north for Thanksgiving.

My train—the Pacific Starlight, or something to that effect—just passed another headed the opposite direction, resulting on one of those momentary seizures in which the background that has steadily rolled by for the last hour is suddenly replaced by screaming metal and glass. Not that I knew straight off that it was another train, mind you. The passing trains have stunned this railroad novice each and every time they passed. Once I realized what exactly that gray blur was, I then had to contend with being reminded that I was, in fact, riding on a train and not just somehow flying through the little-seen parts of California I'd been staring at — trees and beaches and all manner of backgrounds not visible from the 101.

Anyway, the passing seems as good a time as any to write about my first-ever cross-California train trip.

Most of those whom I've told of my Thanksgiving plans have shuddered. For them, train time is bad time, a means of making an already tedious commute even longer. "Six hours on a train?" they ask. "I'd rather just wait in traffic." For me, however, this railroad adventure has already paid for itself. First off, I love trains, even though I haven't ridden any with any frequency since the D.A.C.K. days. Not only do I get to escape the horror that is Thanksgiving traffic on the 101, but I also get valuable downtime to write whatever I please. (Technically, I'm supposed to be writing a feature for the Indy, but I'm currently deprived of both internet access and cell phone reception, and I'm far to starved for a distraction-free environment to let this opportunity pass by.) And as this Amtrak iron horse slowly chugs toward Salinas, I get a chance to reflect on the strangeness of having lived in California all my life, mostly, and yet never having seen what I'm seeing now. If it's not altogether new new, then I'm just now seeing it from the unique railway perspective — the backs of what faces the 101, for example, or the piles of gravel and debris that the state shoves away from the view of highway motorists. For every pile of rubble, however, there's also a pristine stretch of California coastline that's seemingly evaded being marred by human hands — an immaculate slope of sandy hillside with only the occasional deer or fox footprints to leave an indication that anything had ever been there. I'd never seen Vandenberg Village until today, and I'd only once ever seen the Hollister Ranch. (And even that time, it was through some savvy Veronica Marsing on Spencer's part.) I'm thrilled at the prospect of seeing how, exactly, the train manages the Cuesta Grade, but being a train newbie, I'm no less stoked on just hearing the train blare its whistle — I'm hearing it from the inside for the first time, don't forget — or the fact that I'm on my fourth gin and tonic but nonetheless working my way home for the holiday.

And seriously — this train couldn't have a more motley assortment of passengers. The very old, the very young, the driver's license-deprived, the poor, the college freshmen, the environmental, the just plain mental, and every other conceivable classification of public transportation user. I can't decide whether I'm more put off by my 300-pound seatmate, the guy whose rowing team t-shirt would seem to contradict any of the physical attributes people usually associate with the sport, or the high school-aged lesbian couple behind us, who refuses to come up for air for fear that stopping kissing might allow somebody to mistake them for not-lesbians. None of these strangers, however, can hold a candle to the two I sat with in the dining car for my fancy people lunch. Sitting beside each other, opposite me and my issue of Juxtapoz in the booth, were a guy who manages a construction company in Santa Barbara and who went to a Halloween party in Los Angeles held by his "adult industry" brother and then another guy who made Dwight Schrute look like the definition of cool. The former wanted to talk more about how the porn industry makes for easy money. The latter wanted to talk about nothing but missile launches at Vandenberg and why he didn't "know much about the adult industry." (I kept ordering drinks to go with my gardenburger.)

As I finish this, I'm now in San Luis Obispo, parked, so to speak, waiting for the train to chug toward Paso Robles and looking out at a lot full of the parked cars of Thanksgiving out-of-towners. I have three more hours ahead of me before April picks me up in Salinas. Lord knows what I will do until then.

1 comment:

  1. I had a similar experience this weekend. I flew up to see my sister stationed at Ft Lewis, WA. Both flights were at night, but it was still a wonder to me to see the cities and roads that I've traveled so often on and through from an entirely new perspective.

    I saw Los Angeles for the first time from above, too. I was born in this city, pulled from it against my will, and spent my every waking moment from age ten working my way towards getting back here. To see the place that was dominated my mind for over a decade laid out at once like that was breathtaking, for reasons I do not fully understand.