Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Coast Starlight

For Jim, Tom, Patty and Mom and their loving parents, Helen and Thomas.

Between Davis and Sacramento.
My maternal grandmother and grandfather lived in a two story ranch house in Stow, Ohio (a suburb of Akron) raising my mom, her two brothers and kid sister. When the children had all left and the work had been finished, the two spent the next few decades traveling - at one point even owning a mobile home.

Grandfather was an air-ship man by trade, but he loved to travel by boat, by car, by air and especially by train.

They remained in the ranch house in Stow until my grandmother passed away. My grandfather remarried (a fellow widow he befriended in church). He was in his 70s, and the two widowers moved in together, into a modest prefab, to take care of one another in their twilight years.

He had a few more good years before cancer got him too, but he died surrounded by loved ones and family.

The ranch house in Stow was sold to a young family. They would have their own stories, create their own memories.

Often we would travel to the house for holidays. Grandpa had endless kitschy memorabilia from his days at Goodyear, where he worked after the war in their dirigible division. Oak clusters on a Goodyear baseball cap commemorate his service in the US Navy.

We'd run ourselves, our parents, aunts and uncles ragged until we tired ourselves out playing with Goodyear toys. Pun intended.

Davis at dawn.
Full of carbs and turkey at the end of the night, we'd greet or be carried into the cold Stow air. Stow, Ohio smells of wood fires, wet leaves, snow and pine trees.

It sounded like silence.

I'd put my face in the window and watch as the trees disappeared behind me as we would make our way back into "civilization".

Ohio State Route 8 to Interstate 271 to the Chagrin exit and finally down tree-lined South Woodland (itself a state route) and up our snow covered driveway.

The air smelled different in Shaker, full of marshes and the smells of neighboring Cleveland: gasoline, fast food, lawn chemicals.

Sometimes I take the train between Portland or Seattle and the Bay Area.

Halfway through the journey the train enters the dead of night.

The southbound train stops for a last "fresh air" break in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Folks huddle in the night air and smoke cigarettes.

Afterward there is lots of nothing punctuated by brief stops: Dunsmuir, Redding, Chico and finally "civilization" again, Sacramento.

I cover my head with the curtain to black out the dim safety lights of the train, listening to quiet acoustic music on my headphones and pressing my face into the window as I watch solitary pine trees pass me by.

Ghosts of trees occupy the empty spaces. I wish I could smell the resin and feel the chill of the night. When the moon is full, the snow glows blue illuminating endless stretches of pristine forest.

This is how I mark off the hours.

Eugene, OR at dusk.

--

Amtrak connects to the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, connecting the East Bay with San Francisco all the way down to the San Francisco Airport in Milbrae). The connecting points are Oakland Coliseum, Jack London Square and Richmond, at the end of the Richmond line.

I left hours early to ride out to Richmond but was delayed over an hour due to the final, tragic act of a disturbed man. In the career of an average Caltrain conductor, he or she is expected to strike and kill an average of two human beings. Suicides by BART are less frequent.

In my duffel bag were a beer and a bit of whiskey, I would be on the train for 18 hours.

When I got to the Amtrak boarding area in Richmond the 14 Northbound Coast Starlight was running a little over an hour late. I cracked my beer on the platform and waited.

The 14 Northbound Coast Starlight leaves from Los Angeles Union Station every day at 10:25AM and heads up the coast through Simi Valley, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo (SLO as the locals call it), Paso Robles, Salinas, San Jose, Oakland, Emeryville, Richmond, Martinez, Davis, Sacramento, Chico, Redding, Mt. Shasta, Crater Lake, the Cascades, Eugene, Portland all the way up through Olympia and finally Seattle.

By the time the 14 rolled into Richmond I was hungry again. At 11:30PM your options are even more limited than usual and you have a window of time before the cafe car stops operations for the night.

Two breakfast sandwiches with eggs, cheese and sausage on English muffin was the order of the day, and a Dr Pepper to mix with my Jim Beam. The sandwiches were wrapped in cellophane and microwaved. The Dr Pepper was warm, served with a plastic glass and ice.

Probably a few cubes were lost in the jostle as I made my way through the coach car and back to my seat.

I settled into my seat, finished my food. I kept my Jim Beam out of sight from the young family traveling nearby, a tweenaged daughter, her younger brother and exhausted father.

When they settled into sleep, I finished my whiskey hoping I would join them in slumber.

Waiting for emergency crews to clear BART, the Saturday before Halloween.
--

14 Northbound

About halfway through watching the heartbreaking documentary "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" that follows the trajectory of a severely mentally ill singer-songwriter of improbable acclaim, somewhere deep in the Cascades and out of range of any phone signal, I realized that I hadn't eaten in about 8 hours.

MAX Light Rail, Hillsboro, OR.
Riding in coach, you can buy your way into dinner at the end of the night, supplies permitting, that is served to the sleeper car passengers as part of the cost of their ticket (at a premium - a basic sleeping car offers little in the way of amenities besides privacy and just enough room for a human much smaller than myself to sleep).

Whatever meals are left at the end of the night are sold first-come-first serve, and entrées generally cost between $15 for a dinner salad and $30 for steak dinner. The quality of either is somewhere between Denny's and Stouffers.

I take that back. I would much prefer Stouffers.

If you have a reserved sleeper car (and are paying up to 5 times the amount in coach), you are usually allowed to bring your own beer or wine to the dining car, and you are allowed to drink it up unabated while in your sleeper room.

No such luxury is afforded coach, at the mercy of the concessions folks on the train, forced to choose mediocre beer and wine at criminally inflated prices.

Maybe Vice President Biden can address this too in his second term, or his first term as president (it's never too late, Joe!).


Eastbound RTA Red-line out of Hopkins Int'l.

--

11 Southbound.

After Dunsmuir, I figured I could no longer keep dimming the screen to my laptop without inevitably waking someone. I knew I had a couple of hours until Redding.

Redding was always trouble.

Switchyard outside of JFK in Queens, NY.

Redding, California.

Turtle Bay on the Sacramento River features a charming museum and hiking trail featuring the area's riparian environment. Spanning the river is the stunning Sundial Bridge. Redding is the county seat of Shasta County and the fourth largest city in the Sacramento Valley. Summers are hot and vacationing Northern Californians like to dip into the river or nearby Whiskeytown Lake (best name ever?).

Redding also has it's share of bad press: an depressed area with high unemployment, high rates of methamphetamine and OxyContin addiction, high crime rate (especially regarding violence and sexual assault against women).

Dangerous contraband.
Redding passes by unseen at night, the last major whistle stop in the dead black of night before the 11 Southbound continues on toward dawn and civilization.

Oftentimes passengers embarking and departing in Redding are of the sort my hippy friends refer to as "shady."

Lucky for me my neighbor embarking at Redding, aside from nudging me half awake so I could adjust my legs (sprawled across the row that had been left empty since Klamath Falls), fell promptly into deep sleep.

A troublesome newly embarked passenger, a woman in her late 40s, could be heard chasing down a conductor with questions and complaints. The questioning and complaining drew closer and closer still until to my horror she settled in directly behind me. Close enough to smell the tequila on her breath.

I am not prone to violence but many murderous scenarios were entertained in the theatre of my now wide-awake mind's eye after she first tapped me awake (for the offense of snoring) and continued to complain at any movement throughout the cabin (it's a train, lady, they're noisy).

Even my previously asleep row mate was woken, and we exchanged pained glances. I eyed the call button, weighing out in my head the consequences of ratting out a fellow passenger and possibly worse, stranding this obnoxious woman in a drunk tank in a strange town along the route.

This time I resisted the "nuclear option." Eventually she trailed off, and when we pulled into Sacramento everyone around me was happy to help her off the train (quickly). An collective unvoiced sigh of relief was exchanged when we continued our roll down the coast in peace and quiet towards the Suisun Bay.

It was only a few days earlier that I myself had been relieved of a large format IPA bought in Portland for the purpose of drinking in the few hours trip to Eugene.

"Sir, what is that?"

Eugene, OR

"It's a beer what does it look like?"

"We're going to have to take that sir."

"What? Why?"

"You can't bring your own alcohol on board."

"What? Since when?" I had truly never heard of such madness. Not being allowed to drink on the train?

"Sir, we have already kicked off a few people for non-compliance."

"Okay," I said with a certain eye-rolling passive aggressiveness, "just take it."

Throughout the trip, the public address reminds me that Amtrak is a family-friendly service and that public intoxication is not allowed on board.

An onlooker comes up to me after having my Lagunitas taken. "Sorry, bro, but glad it was you and not me." He opens a can of Guinness.

Another passenger quietly cracks open Corona after Corona as I seethe.

Nearing Eugene, I reached for and defiantly slammed the PBR I had hidden in my bag. I smugly glared at the conductors down in the next car as I slipped the can into the recycling and disembarked.

The incident in Redding put this into perspective, however: drunks ruin the fun, and that's why we can't have nice things (or beer on the train).

I'll have to scratch Amtrak off my list of transportation methods with lax rules about casual drinking.

Southbound through the Cascades, Willamette Valley, OR.


Dawn, just south of Chico, CA.

--

SFO Terminal G.
Anyone who has flown lately knows to check the schedule prior to leaving for the airport. United, I am looking at you.

Of course I can't simply call out a single airline. While United has gone to shit for a variety of reasons that remain in their control, usually scheduling mix-ups are entirely out of the carrier's control. (FAA regulations about required pilot downtime, fueling conflicts, alternate emergency landing airport runway availability and other planes, like other people at breakfast, being Hell). United is not alone in the general decline in satisfaction in air travel, joined by American and Delta as well as the budget carriers like Southwest and JetBlue.

The exception seems to be Virgin America, and only time will tell if they continue to live up to the bar they have themselves raised.

Likewise, trains can fall victim of a number of realities that are largely unavoidable due to our 19th century train infrastructure (and 1950s trains).

Do you hear me Mr Vice President? Let's not waste time this second term. I want my high speed rail.

In the east, Amtrak and other public transportation agencies anticipating Superstorm Sandy shut down services prior to landfall and turned around service in record time.

Starting almost immediately after Halloween and throughout the weekend Amtrak's twitter feed came alive with announcements of restored service, bus bridges and status updates.

We may not have been delivered transparency in all areas of government as we had been promised when the current administration took over in 2009, but here was a stunning example, played out in real time, of functional government, public and private sector cooperation, bipartisanship, the planning and execution of government's raison d'etre.

It is that direction, east, that I look as I pull out of Sacramento.

Amtrak is far from perfect. I fear that in the wrong hands it will be cynically privatized into oblivion.

The men and women that keep these machines running, that clear the tracks and restore the power and allow average citizens, and the vice president himself, to freely explore this beautiful country deserve our appreciation.

I must be a tough job, and it requires a lot of love to do it. So, I'll keep my beer to myself next time.

Speeding past the Ewoks on Endor.
--

Post script:

7:20AM and the conductor is announcing Suisun Bay, the Martinez Mothball Fleet, a secret mission to retrieve an Üntersea-boot during World War II and to gather your belongings if your final destination on this train is Martinez.

In the booth next over, two Vietnam veterans talk about growing up in the Pacific Northwest, this year's college football teams, towns that no longer exist in Oregon and the war.

Entire families embarked on trips, some like my yearly trek to Stow, some leaving home forever; soldiers returning home; folks going to work, folks who have long been out of work; me, The Devil and Daniel Johnston; camaraderie and illicit beers; magical pre-historic forests, lakes, snow capped mountains and more California's gold that you can shake Huell Howser's awed ghost at.

When I left my mother's house last trip home I picked up Grandpa's hat off a bookshelf and discovered an old paperback edition of "California's Zephyr," now with color photos. Grandpa travelled all over the world. Sometimes my father wonders where I get my wanderlust.

Me and Grandpa, we know.

Old iron bridge overlooking Tremont, Cleveland, OH.

Suisun Bay

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Coast Starlight - www.amtrak.com