When an old friend let me know she would be visiting California and traveling by train for part of her trip, I was all aboard. After 25 years of friendship, we had both retired and left Santa Barbara at the same time, me to Portland, and she out of the country. Five years later, I was ready for some gal pal time with her and our mutual friends “back home.” From my cold, rainy vantage point, a train adventure with sunshine and beach time sounded like a great option. While retired life doesn’t exactly require a break, changing things up is always good for the soul and brain.
The Coast Starlight train trip from Oakland to Santa Barbara is nine hours long (and that’s without the not uncommon delays). Though I spent several months of my vagabonding young adulthood enjoying European trains, I never took an Amtrak trip before this. I had frequently traveled up and down the U.S. west coast from my later home to an earlier one, but the train was just never as cheap or quick or convenient as flying or driving.
But when all you have is time, the train is a great choice, comfortable and easy. Leaving our belongings at our assigned seats after people around us assure us they’re safe, we head for the club car on the second story of the train, where swiveling seats face out on the sun drenched scenery. With no steering wheel to clutch, no course to navigate, no traffic to negotiate, we move around at will, sharing a day-long picnic overlooking magnificent evolving views. The long ride gives us plenty of time to catch up on each other’s lives, and we fit five years of recent history into those nine hours. Our paths leaving Santa Barbara were quite divergent; perhaps some day she’ll write about her own exotic adventurous story, so different than my own.
The smorgasbord of sights out the train window are mostly familiar to me since much of the track lies alongside Highway 101, my frequently driven route. Now the train’s slow pace and high perch gives me a new vantage point, previously hidden from the freeway by fences, buildings and landscape features.
We start off inauspiciously in Oakland, lurching slowly past piles of debris lying between tracks and fences. Gritty city train track graffiti and homeless camps past or present, full of what looks like human detritus but could just as well be someone’s prized belongings. Structures of blue and brown tarps and corrugated metal lie amidst storm swollen puddles from recent rainfall, alongside industrial messes usually invisible from the surrounding neighborhoods. We will see variations of this urban underskirt on the boundaries of many larger towns along our route. Here in Oakland it’s intense and extensive, appalling and fascinating. These aren’t sights we seek out, but are nevertheless familiar. Homelessness is widespread and visible, and blank walls are palettes for graffiti artists everywhere.
Once outside Oakland we ride along the baylands on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. I perk up at a view across the bay to a skyline of familiar landmarks on the Peninsula, where I grew up: the uniquely shaped Moffett Field hangars, the spreading marshlands, and Shoreline Amphitheater, all laid out against a backdrop of the Santa Cruz mountains. Most of my youth, mis-spent and otherwise, lay before me, but no time to dwell on it. The train keeps rolling!
We pass through the Gilroy hills and fields (Garlic Capitol of the World!) and the tracks diverge from 101 for a while. We rumble slowly alongside the Elkhorn Slough Marine Preserve, which I’d never seen. A passing train staff tells us to be on the watch for sea otters. Luckily we spot one lolling in the water, as well as several egrets, geese and ducks, some beautiful waterways, and Monterey’s iconic Moss Landing smoke stacks on the distant horizon. It’s been a spring of famous superblooms in parts of California, and we’re happy to see some wildflowers here. These hills are as green as I’ve ever seen in California, usually more famed for its rolling golden hills. But California never looks so good as it does after a wet winter, freshly drenched by a long drink of water.
This is no high speed train. It meanders and slows and stops between stations for no apparent reason. Sometimes we’re on a side track waiting for another train to pass, but often we just slow down or sit for long inexplicable minutes. When we do get back up to speed it’s often not even as fast as the cars on the nearby highway. Cost overruns and delays caused California to postpone its plans for a high speed rail between San Francisco and Anaheim. Those in a hurry have to skip the tracks and opt for road or sky.
We pass through Castroville (Artichoke Heart of the World!) and the Salinas Valley, with miles of strawberries, green leafy crops, fields of veggies that feed us all, and vineyards, all lovely in their symmetry, parallel lines exactingly laid out in rich dark soil.
Oak tree covered slopes take over for a while in Atascadero, and a swath of green mesmerizes me until I realize I’ve been fooled by a golf course. Lulled by more fields as they spin by, I gaze over the occasional oil fields, ranches, barns, sheds, and rural backyards. We catch glimpses of the creature comforts and inner lives of people everywhere: lawn furniture, kiddie pools, chicken coops, gardens and equipment, and more piles of debris, the things we just can’t get rid of.
We leave the highway once again south of Atascadero until San Luis Obispo. I always wanted to see the view from the railroad’s high alternate path while driving 101’s Cuesta Grade below, a beautiful mountainous road in its own right. What sights lay along the tracks that wind through coast range hills toward the coast? As it turns out, it’s much the same, but more hilly, more isolated, covered in flowers, cows and horses. It passes near a state prison and near the small town of Chorro, and then sidles up to Highway 1 until we once again meet 101 at San Luis Obispo. I can hear my father calling it “San Looey.” This seems to be the nature of slow travel, with reminiscences randomly popping up, even as the train moves inexorably along.
We’re surrounded by youth, wearing school branded clothing. The railroad traverses a university corridor, connecting college towns up and down the coast. Students travel in groups or alone, sleeping, plugged into something, typing away on devices, talking on phones. A few have actual books. But like the few older folks and young families, everyone at least occasionally gazes out the big windows wrapping around the club car, each thinking their own private thoughts.
After San Luis we diverge from the highway again, this time toward the ocean, and I get the same thrill I feel every time I get my first glimpse of ocean from the highway. The coastal landscape is familiar territory, beaches I’ve walked and camped on for over thirty years, and I have a sense of homecoming, though it’s no longer home. Iceplant and coreopsis bloom mightily, and the sun sinks low as we near our destination.
As we pass above Refugio Beach we reminisce over the scores of long ago magical multi-family campouts where we created lifelong friendships for kids and parents. We shared music and campfires, pancakes and cobblers, boogie boarding and kayaking, and rites of passage. We waved to passing trains above us and worried about the kids charging up the hill to put pennies on the tracks. Now we wave to those below creating their own memories.
Finally the small Santa Barbara train station, surrounded by palm trees, rolls into view. As I lay in bed that night the world undulates, the rolling train still rocking me to and fro.
After a few days catching up with friends, I hop on a plane, arriving home in just two hours. The views from above are beautiful, but there’s barely enough time to drink my complimentary orange juice and finish a crossword puzzle in silence.