Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Awesome Amtrak Train Trek


June 20, 6:45 P.M. "Departure"
We departed Albuquerque a few minutes late, then dined the early meal at 5:15 P.M., seated with a nicely dressed couple of older ladies. The meal we ordered was the steak dinner with mashed taters and mixed veggies. Not bad, I'd say.

We then headed to the lounge car where Noah and I loaded up on snacks, soda and coffee. We're now back in our room, watching the late afternoon sun set in the west, passing decrepit little towns and settlements beyond our window, in the desert of western New Mexico and eastern Arizona.

The train, it doesn't thread its way through the finer areas of towns and cities. Amtrak uses the tracks of freight train companies like the BNSF; people who can afford to don't want to live next to freight trains. And so, as we made our way out of Albuquerque, we rode through industrial blight and rural towns, walls and parked train cars splattered with the indecipherable graffiti of gangs and future artists alike. From the train's vantage point one peers past the facade of suburbia, into the heart of the matter.

Noah was wishing we had TV to watch; I told him that whatever was out there on the other side of the train window is our TV.

June 21, 6:20 A.M. "California Morning"
We're just now leaving the San Bernardino station after a short stop, Noah's still asleep and I'm sipping coffee in my bunk. The sleeper cars have coffee stations at the end of each corridor, which the porter keeps refreshed. It's early morning, just at sunrise, the light is tangerine gray, the air thicker than the high, thin air of the mountain west that we're used to.

Palm trees, industrial shipping containers, commuter and freight trains on the adjoining tracks. The concrete ribbon of the L.A. river, snaking its way through the megalopolis.

My sleep was restless, never deep, the motion of the train and its sounds always in the background. Overnight we traveled through the Arizona and California deserts, past little outposts sparsely lit, past oil and gas refineries more brightly lit, into this orange-gray dull morning where it's hard to tell the difference between palm trees and oil derricks. Welcome to California.

June 21, 6:20 P.M. "Oceanside"
We're sitting in our hotel room, on the 2nd floor, window open to a cool, fresh ocean breeze, overlooking palm trees and park homes. The late afternoon is once again cloudy and cool, as it was this morning, before the sun broke through the haze. A gull is cawing in the distance.

We've just finished eating and then, once back in our room, we've showered and refreshed, after a busy day.

The morning's ride into downtown L.A. was poignant for the dichotomy between one's impression gained from T.V. and cinema versus the reality: L.A. is harsh, gritty and industrial. Mile after mile of enormous warehouses and football field-sized lots full of containers, many of them in disuse, signifying an economy that has seen better days. Nothing symbolizes this decay and decline more pointedly than the abandoned landscaping surrounding these enormous warehouses, once verdant palm trees now brown and shabby, broken and pot-holed lots, and fields filled with industrial debris.

Another shock to the newcomer are the oil wells dotting the landscape, interspersed between buildings and lots, even beside homes and other domestic settings, along with refineries and mazes of power transmission lines. The ritzy image of L.A. is reserved for the facade of select communities; the rest is like an exoskeleton, the internals of the megalopolis, rather than hidden away from plain sight, reside overtly, up front, an eyesore spanning dozens and dozens of miles. And throughout this seemingly endless industrial expanse (that reminds me of some ill-conceived sci-fi landscape) there is a sense that it has been burnt to a crisp in the immediate past, the hillsides brown and dry, the only greenery being purposefully cultivated.

We disembarked at Union Station in downtown L.A., a maze of seemingly endless parallel tracks and corridors that inevitably find their terminus at the high, vaulted hall that gives the station its name. We immediately noted hordes of people rushing from one track, down long hallways, toward some connecting train on another track elsewhere, like something you'd expect to see in N.Y.C.

We found our way to a ticket window and purchased our round-trip tickets to Oceanside, then made our way outside, in search of the fabled "Olvera Street." While we were expecting some Old Town-like tourist mecca, what we found was just another sprawling thoroughfare in the heart of L.A., the distances too vast to gain any sense of a particular ethnicity about.

We found our way, through asking a security guard for directions, to Philippes, a noted landmark eatery several blocks away, and satisfied our morning appetite. Breakfast on the train had been from 05:00-05:45, much too early for us late-sleepers, who stayed up late the evening prior in fun conversation with a group of kids in the lounge car, and which my Grandson immensely enjoyed. You can't soar with the eagles if you hoot with the owls, or so I've been told.

After breakfast we wandered through the Chinatown district before returning to Union Station and making our connection to Oceanside, a two-hour ride south with numerous stops on the way. Despite the many stops, I was very glad to be riding the rails rather than driving the roads of Southern California.

Upon stepping onto the platform at balmy Oceanside, we immediately felt like our vacation had at last finally started for good. We rolled our suitcases up the street for a mile or so, found our hotel, ate lunch and went to the boardwalk, where we walked and shot pictures and rode pedal cars, and Noah shopped.

June 22, 9:36 P.M. "A Busy Day"
We've just arrived back at our hotel, driven back from my sister-in-law's after having spent an afternoon with her and her grandson in the Mission Bay area of San Diego, then to her house for drinks and dinner.

The thing you notice from being on vacation for several days minus a car is, like many communities built up after WWII (like my home town of Albuquerque), how dependent the southern California culture is on the automobile. I noticed this when we were picked up at our hotel this afternoon, and driven through the choked freeways to San Diego, then out inland, through more choked freeways, through the hot, desert-like interior communities that have little in common with the more comfortable coastal climate.

June 24, 8:35 P.M. "Joe Turns Sick"
After a day's hiatus from writing, during which I acquired a painful, near crippling blister on my foot, and also came down with a sore throat and chills, we are on the eve of our return train trip. I had originally made the mistake of misreading my train tickets and thought we'd have to make an extremely early hike to the train station in Oceanside, but it turns out that we have more time, a much more relaxed schedule.

My sister-in-law picked up Noah today and took him to the San Diego Zoo. Yesterday, his great Uncle took him to play basketball, so he hasn't been totally bored with his old, half-crippled, sick Grandpa.

My general sense of southern California from this latest trip is of a culture that's barely, if at all, sustainable: a crumbling infrastructure, an eroding economy, an unfathomable burden of debt, choked with the automobile's influence, loaded down by a culture of welfare and entitlement. Yet, despite these challenges, all of that seems to melt away in the balmy ocean air of the beach, where idealized, sculpted bodies bask in the glow of the fantasy that has always been California.

"Go west, young man" is symbolized in no better way than the manner in which California has been idealized as some Eden-like end-state, the golden pot at the end of the rainbow, the manifestation of dreams realized. Having visited periodically over the years, I can say with certainty that if the people and economic conditions were transplanted into any other geography, minus the ideal coastal climate the state is known for, it would absolutely fail to impress in the manner that it in fact does.

"California Dreaming" isn't just a Beach Boys song, but a realization that the state is built around an unrealizable fantasy, which is slowly fading, a sign that a renewed awakening of sobriety is clearly needed.

June 25, 3:05 P.M. "Ready for Departure"
We're sitting in a side patio of Union Station, downtown L.A., on a hot, sunny Saturday.

We slept in late this morning, taking our sweet time getting packed and ready to go. We finally checked out of the hotel and sauntered down the Pacific Coast Highway, to the heart of downtown Oceanside, luggage in tow, in search of breakfast, where we gorged ourselves on portions much too large for mere healthy mortals to fathom. Dehydrated, I also took in plenty of cold liquids during our meal, foregoing the usual industrial-strength espresso.

Our train ride north to L.A. was unexpectedly soon, due to the earlier train, which we would have missed, being delayed from San Diego, and so we were soon on our way.

Noah discovered, through his insatiable preteen appetite, that the coastal Amtrak has a full cafe on board, and so he helped himself to some post-breakfast snacks. His chicken fried steak and three egg breakfast was obviously not enough. Ah, to be young again!

Today was hot and bright, unlike our cloudy, gloomy transit of L.A. several days earlier, which did nothing toward diminishing the ugliness and industrial grit of the place. I think Ridley Scott's future vision of L.A. in "Blade Runner" was spot on, minus the incessant rain and floating billboards in the sky of the movie's version. This afternoon's brief stroll from the station in search of refreshment brought us Asian, Hispanic and Afro-American cultures in close proximity, along with the usual commercialism of American anti-culture.

We have but two and one half hours before we board our train, enough time to savor our memories and reflect on our vacation.

June 25, 10:12 P.M. "Leaving California"
I'm sitting in our sleeper room, the movement of the train sufficient to make my normally poor handwriting even worse. Noah is in the lounge car with an eleven--year-old friend we met at dinner.

Our departure from Union Station was uneventful, the only uncertainty being which track the train would be on. The experience thus far has been better than coming out earlier in the week; our sleeping car porter has been very punctual, having already turned out our bunks for us, leaving our room cozy and inviting. He even informed us that there are showers downstairs.

Freight train after freight train roars past our window, interrupting the gentle roll, clatter and squeak of the train with an enormous, metallic rushing sound, Doppler-shifted, the sound of commerce, rolling steel. We've passed Barstow a few minutes ago, after a brief stop, and now we're headed into the cool desert night.

We watched warehouses and poorer neighborhoods (hence the phrase "wrong side of the tracks") flow past our window earlier, prior to dinner, as we sped through the "inland empire," and yet people in their yards would stop and wave to us in our expensive berths as if, just for a moment, class and economic distinctions ceased to exist, just some people on a train, speeding by, and other people nearby the tracks watching in earnest.

June 26, 10:23 A.M. "Back in New Mexico"
We're on the last leg of our return trip, where the track swings south of Interstate 40 and comes up into Albuquerque from the south. The land is dry and parched, drought-stricken and laced with fires, our home territory, the badlands from Marty Robbins' fabled song.

Noah stayed up till midnight last night with his friend, and is now sleeping in. We've both missed breakfast, a meal built into the price of our tickets, which we've squandered due to our night-owl schedules. I am glad Noah took the time to get to know a new friend, foregoing breakfast being the price paid, and am reminded that this is what getting away on vacation is all about, and what distinguishes childhood from adulthood. I need to be more childlike, I finally decide, as Noah gently sleeps in the top bunk and I watch the Sandia Mountains get closer and closer in the distance.

I'm hoping that Noah will end up with many good memories of his train vacation, for I have amassed many of my own. He may not have an opportunity to do this again for a long while.

Train travel is an anachronism in this day and age of quick and expedient satiation of our needs. It is slow and ponderous, one step removed from an overland stagecoach journey. One rides through the land, not over it. One feels every nuance and undulation in the land's topography through the steel track, whose course threads through the very heart of the land, the bad and the ugly just as evident as the good.

Outside the window, isolated clumps of lava rock, from long-extinct volcanoes, peek out from the yellow grassland, the Sandias in the distance. We're almost home.

(Written via Lamy Safari + Parker Quink blue/black ink into composition book, then transcribed onto AlphaSmart Neo.)


Blogger Clifton's Place said...

Excellent writing, Joe! I share your dark vision of California's future. You have given your grandson a possibly once in a lifetime journey. Thumbs up!

1:45 PM  
Blogger Richard P said...

Good for you for giving your grandson an experience he's going to remember. The photos are gorgeous.

6:07 PM  
Blogger Rob Bowker said...

Words and pictures - like being there. Thanks.

6:18 PM  

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