After several days of visiting with our children and their families in San Francisco, Susan and I finished our trip on the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles. Our son, Peter, drove us to San Jose through rush hour traffic. (Isn’t every hour rush hour on the 101?) We waited in the restored art deco station until the train pulled in – already about 15 minutes late.
For this leg of the trip, we booked a small roomette. We wouldn’t be using the sleeping bunks, but the extra space gave us some leg room, and the fare entitled us to lunch and dinner in the dining car as well as access to the comfortable chairs in the observation area of the parlor car.
As the train pulled out around 10 in the morning, two things became apparent. First, and I have observed this before, trains take you along the underbelly of American cities. We passed many hobo camps. Some of them were collections of cardboard boxes, old tires, a few blankets, and a fire ring. Others were more elaborate, with tents, tattered sofas, and grocery shopping carts filled with clothes and whatever. None of the sites was occupied, which made me wonder, “Where do these folks go during the day?”
The camps disappeared once we got out of the city, but it was then that I made my second observation: We think of California’s Central Valley as the garden of America. If you have travelled on Interstate Highway 5, you know that the Valley is rich with agriculture. But it is mostly fields of fruit and nut trees, dairies, and alfalfa fields. The real gardens line the 101 in the Santa Clara and Salinas Valleys between San Jose and Paso Robles. There are huge fields of strawberries with workers in long rows, bent over to harvest the fruits. There are artichokes, lettuce, onions, cabbages, broccoli, garlic, and many plants that cannot be identified from a moving train. Gilroy has been called “Garlic Capital of the World” (although that title probably now belongs to some place in China) and you can smell the garlic when you go through town.
Of course, there are grapes – in recent years all of California seems to have become one big vineyard – but there are also huge fields of ornamental houseplants. And most of the farms are filled with armies of harvesters with their beat-up old cars parked along the edge of the fields next to portable toilets mounted on little trailers.
We went to the dining car for lunch as the train headed into the mountains. W enjoyed the views, but the lunch choices were the same as they had been for our first day on the train. We passed on the sautéed panko-crusted chicken with mashed potatoes and instead opted for the “Chicken Caesar Salad” which was actually the regular salad mix with chicken, the same little hard croutons, and Newman’s Own salad dressing. I didn’t see any Parmesan. And there were certainly no anchovies. All told, though, it was pretty good and better than the panko chicken.
The highlight of the trip was just ahead. Shortly after a stop in San Luis Obispo (“SLO Town” to Californians) we headed onto the coast. The train hugged the cliffs as it made its way around Vandenberg Air Force Base where we could see several towers that are used to launch the military’s experimental rockets. Then it was beautiful beaches, surf, rocks, lighthouses, and steep cliffs.
We enjoyed the wine tasting again, and then it was time for dinner. We ate in the parlor car, and even though they were running out of things, we enjoyed the vegetarian lasagna rolls for Susan and the three-pepper braised short ribs for me. The sun playing on the waves turned out to be a magical background for a very nice meal.
Soon enough we got to Santa Barbara and then it became continuous freeways and people until we pulled in to the Los Angeles Union Station right on time. There was one last treat for a memorable trip, it was raining while we waited for our daughter, not enough to break the terrible West Coast drought, but enough to give some hope.