Oakland to L.A. on the Coast Starlight
This summer on my quasi-annual return trip to the United States I decided that I wanted to travel by train, rather than flying. This decision was partially to do with the fact that flying is one of the most carbon-unfriendly activities around, but equally due to the fact that I’ve come to despise air travel for a variety of reasons. As I wrote in another post,
I ended up flying a lot during my trip back to the States [in 2006]. Since I have family members all over the country, and friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time as well, I ended up flying from LA to Portland, from Portland to Oakland, from Oakland to Boulder, and then finally back to LA. I used to love flying when I was a kid, but flying has lost practically all its glamor, as far as I’m concerned — especially with the length of time one has to spend in security lines these days.
In fact, I seriously thought of using the train to get from destination to destination while I was back in the States, even after taking my abysmal Amtrak Coast Starlight experience into account. I like the idea of slow traveling, of letting the process of travel play itself out across time so that there is actually an experience of distance and difference. I also much prefer trains to planes because you can get up and walk around on a train, and people tend to be more social as well. (Airplane seating is the apotheosis of cramped isolation.) A boat trip might even be better — allowing you time to read and watch waves and weather patterns, and realize that there is a vastness between places.
My first experience of taking Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train really was a disaster and I vowed never to use Amtrak again. On the Oakland to L.A. leg there was an accident on the tracks and we had to deboard the train at Oxnard, wait for an hour in the freezing cold, and then take a bus (which subsequently got lost in Glendale) the rest of the way. The delay was caused when an L.A. commuter train that used the same rails as the Coast Starlight ended up running through a delivery truck that had gotten stuck on the tracks. Strangely, about ten years after this event, I found myself lying on my sofa in Japan watching that very accident played back on video in slow motion on the Discovery Channel. It was, to be sure, deeply uncanny. The return trip wasn’t nearly as traumatic, but the train was still delayed when part of the electrical system stopped working just outside of L.A. and we had to suffer with no air conditioning (trains get hot in the summer sun, you know) and no lights in the bathrooms (no windows in those bathrooms, you know) until we reached Santa Barbara several hours later.
But time heals all wounds, as they say, and I decided to give the Starlight another try.
The image at the top of this entry looks like an advertisement for a cruise on some sort of luxury liner, though that’s really mostly an illusion caused by nice lighting and a good exposure. Probably one of the main reasons that so many people are disappointed with long-distance trips on Amtrak trains is that they board the train carrying the misapprehension that their trip is going to resemble the kind of high-class sophistication that’s so often associated with the Romantically-tinged glory days of passenger rail travel, a type of experience that’s probably never really existed anywhere except on film. The real beauty of riding Amtrak isn’t the possibility of a nostalgic return to ersatz classiness, but rather the fact that most of the rails used by Amtrak west of the Mississippi follow routes that precede the rise of the Interstate Highway System. As Momus has said, “The penny finally drops: people who drive cars just end up seeing a lot of roads.” The best thing about Amtrak is that it bypasses the roads — and the ugly infrastructure of sameness that has been built up to service those roads — simply by taking you to places where the roads aren’t. Some of this, of course, involves gorgeously stunning scenery of the sort that you might expect to see in an Amtrak commercial.
But more often than not the most exciting things that you get to see are exactly those things that have been excised from the everyday — sites of industrial production, homeless encampments, prisons hidden away in the most painterly landscapes, launch pads for U.S. military missile tests, and small towns that have been largely forgotten now that the interstate has passed them by.
The Cargill salt ponds have got to be one of my favorite parts of the San Francisco Bay area, and they’re a perfect example of the kind of forgotten or vanishing sites of industrial production that used to be central to American identity but which are becoming more and more peripheral as all that is solid continues to melt into air. The salt ponds, which have been bought by the state of California and are slowly being transformed into wetland habitat, look absolutely incredible from the air. I’m not sure whether or not the industrial salt production pictured in the photo above is a part of the Cargill empire that’s still producing a limited amount of salt, or whether it’s part of a complex run by a smaller company that hasn’t yet been slated for wetlands conversion. In any case, the train rolls right by it, as you can see from this satellite image of the area. Make sure to zoom out for a proper view of the salt ponds in all of their technicolor glory.
One of the most beautiful portions of the trip is the stretch of track that passes directly through the middle of the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Moss Landing Wildlife Area, both located in Monterey County. The vista of wetland islets that you can see from the train is fantastic — almost like some kind of abstract modernist painting — and there are often seals lounging in the water as well. On this particular trip the fog crept in like a cat, cupping the estuary in its paws.
Here’s a scrap from the notebook that I took along with me on this trip:
The most impressive site in the Bay Area is the old Cargill salt ponds. The white sense of mineral richness is intense here, and the color that has seeped up from the earth is as lush as paint.
Then down through the Salinas and Monterey areas. Here the landscape becomes golden California hills, but also the fields begin and you can see the campesinos picking strawberries or harvesting lettuce, working hard in the hot summer sun. When you pass the areas where the campesinos live it becomes clear how little money they ultimately make, these people who are the backbone of California’s agricultural economy.
Strawberries are too delicate to be picked by machine. The perfectly ripe ones even bruise at too heavy a human touch. It hit her then that every strawberry she had ever eaten — every piece of fruit — had been picked by calloused human hands. Every piece of toast with jelly represented someone’s knees, someone’s aching back and hips, someone with a bandanna on her wrist to wipe away the sweat.
Grapes are one of the most famous of California’s crops, of course, and the Coast Starlight travels through plenty of vineyard acreage. The UFW grape boycott was probably one of the most effective boycott actions in history, though unfortunately the early successes of the boycott strategy were rolled back as the forces of reaction decided that high profits were more important than the rights and living standards of the very workers who make that profit possible.
In any case, grapes are inextricably associated with California (and Oregon as well), so it’s not surprising that there’s a wine tasting available as part of the Starlight tour. The wine tasting takes place in the lounge car, and it’s great fun to sit with a few people that you’ve just met with a few good bottles of wine in front of you and watch the countryside go by while you drink.
Here’s more from the notebook:
In the dining car I end up meeting J. and D., a couple who are both Bikram Yoga instructors. They want to start their own studio in Hawaii, but in the meantime J. is studying language acquisition and D. is an EMT. She reveals, at one point, that CPR actually has an incredibly low success rate — something like 20% or less — and that of the seven people she’s tried to revive only one person ended up making it. Defibrillators are apparently just as unreliable and are basically a last-ditch attempt at recovery with something like a 3% success rate. She also tells a really horrible story about showing up at a house where a baby had been slit open with a knife, but the mother had waited until the baby started turning blue before calling 911.
Later we end up in the lounge car for the wine tasting. Vali, who has a thick Indian accent, introduces the wines by reading descriptions off of an instruction sheet. We end up buying a bottle of Columbia Crest. Valli makes jokes while he introduces the wines, and he especially pokes fun at a guy who’s brought in his can of Bud Light and just wants to hang around during the tasting without actually drinking any wine.
Near Lompoc, the train circles around a state penitentiary, all white and clean and committed to razor wire. We also pass through the Air Force missile testing range, moving right past the giant launch pads and towers. I remember the stories that my friend Geoff — who lived in Lompoc for a while — used to tell me about the missile launches gone wrong and the fires that would sometimes end up burning up and down the beaches.
One of the final stretches of the trip takes you right along the coast as the train moves along toward Santa Barbara. It’s a really beautiful stretch of the trip, and you can look straight out to the horizon, while closer to shore you can see the tops of California’s kelp forests moving back and forth with the waves. In the far distance is the occasional oil rig (beautiful to see at night, when they’re all lit up), but these don’t really distract from the view, as long as you’re expecting them. On this particular trip there was a band of fog forming an almost perfect horizontal layer just above the surface of the ocean. And then, above it, the open blue sky.
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Tags: Amtrak, California, Cargill salt ponds, coast, Coast Starlight, CPR, defibrillation, Elkhorn Slough, EMT, farming, farmworkers, fruit picking, grapes, hidden landscapes, industry, insterstate highway system, landscape, Lompoc penitentiary, missile tests, ocean, salt ponds, train travel, trains, travel, U.S. military, view, wildlife preserves, wine, wine tasting