From the surf to the snow: riding the Coast Starlight
Adrian rides the rails with Amtrak. Read about his rail journey – arguably the best way to cover America’s huge distances – exclusively on CD-Traveller
Just after midday, the Coast Starlight pulled of Los Angeles’ Union Street on its long journey to Seattle. The journey is nearly 1,400 miles long and most of it is on a single track. Some started on a connecting service from San Diego in the southern part of California at 6am.
As the train heads north on its almost two day journey, in my coach there are only three people – an elderly couple and a student – that are going all the way. You can travel in a two person compartment. The downside to travelling in one, apart from not knowing necessarily who the other person might be, is that the compartment is cosy. Well, what do I expect it’s a train! So some people book a compartment to themselves which works out rather expensive. My purpose on this trip was to see how comfortable – or not – it is for a person to travel for 24 hours just in an ordinary seat. I had previously travelled overnight from Richmond in Virginia to Boston in Massachusetts last year. Now, on what I’m told is one of the prettiest routes that Amtrak has, I’m seeing whether it is comfortable for a visitor to travel and see the sights from a long distance train.
Slowly we ploughed through one Los Angeles suburb after another. The train stops fairly frequently for the first hour as it picks up passengers. The first stop is Burbank at the Bob Hope Airport which is just a short walk from the terminal. Surrounding us now are distant hills while, closer, we still pass through industrial areas.
The Coast Starlight is a double decker train so, perched on the top deck, you can get a good view of all that’s around you. Except for one man who has already dropped off to sleep and is quietly snoring. Fortunately for him, he’s missing nothing of interest – the landscape is still an industrial one.
The industrial areas come and go but occasionally you get houses. And that gives an opportunity to see how people live. 50 minutes into my journey and every second house seems to have a swimming pool. The gardens – or yards as they call them in America – are on the large size but have desert plants and succulents instead of what we might see. Even though this is late January and winter, the temperature today borders twenty degrees. The landscape also begins to take on a drier look; the houses look more Spanish Mexican and I see the first clump of cacti by the side of the track. Then come rocks either side of us and we pass through some tunnels. You don’t think of trains in California having tunnels. This is a land of open spaces yet, while none of the tunnels are very long, it still comes as a surprise.
Then, just as quickly, we are through them and into Simi Valley. Now there are smaller houses and smaller gardens but with laden orange trees, sandy ground and large stones. Almost as quickly it changes to orange groves and cultivated land with flat, brown fields all of them with citrus trees or other crops. This is Camarillo but we don’t stop despite the fact that this is the largest place we have been through in a while. As we leave we pass strawberry fields and, in some waste land next to the railway lines, there are great piles of discarded fruit. Why? Are prices too low to make it worth harvesting them? Are they diseased? I’ll never know.
Acre after acre of polythene sheeted greenhouses confirms that this is agricultural country. Where no polythene exists, farmers are ploughing, or have completed ploughing, ready to plant new crops. But my attention is diverted. The snorer has shifted positions. How I’ll never know,but a foot has suddenly come between my laptop and the window. The guard (aka train conductor) walks past, pauses, confirms that he is still alive and walks on, unconcerned by the foot. Do I look to see how he has achieved this feat? Before I can grab the camera he moves and returns to his snoring! As we pull into Oxnard, the land changes again and in a culvert by the side of the track, the modern style of graffiti heralds a new town. The foot reappears. This time I’m ready with the camera. How can he get into such a position?
At last we see the coast. I was beginning to think that the train was misnamed. But there it is, shimmering in the afternoon sun as two islands come clearly into view. Cameras start flashing through the carriage windows. Now it’s just feet away as we curve around the bay and we hug it for the next few miles. There are camper vans galore enjoying the afternoon sunshine. A solitary surfer sits astride his board waiting, forlornly, for a decent wave. He’s going to be unlucky. The road curves across and behind us and we could almost stop the train and have a paddle. Even in winter, the water is green and inviting. But maybe it always is. Dogs – apart from the surfer – are the only other enjoyers of the water. There are beach houses that we go behind as they enjoy the few sandy sections I’ve seen so far.
We move further away from the ocean; we can see it but those houses, those damned houses, obscure the view. More of those huge RV’s. Do they come particularly for the view or do they live here for the winter? Owners are in chairs, legs crossed and with beers in their hands. The houses go and we are back to cossetting the beach and the ocean again. There are strawberry beds on the other side. Field after field of them. Some have already fallen off the plants and lie in gullies between beds.
The conductor comes. I can move seats if “the man with the foot” is annoying me. The strawberry fields go to be replaced by steep hillsides with deep ravines. Between those and the ocean there can’t be more than 50 feet. Then a pier comes into view linking a few beach houses, to a minute island dotted with palm trees. We go through a small town where avocados and strawberries are on sale from stalls. You feel you want to do, as they sometimes do in India: stop and buy some before continuing the journey. I have no idea where I am other than between Oxnard and Santa Barbara. If I do this again I must bring a map, so I can put names to these places. Someone thinks it could be Carpentaria. Passengers are now talking to each other as though we were on a cruise ship, all allies in a voyage to see Northern California. Out in the water there are small structures like oil drilling platforms. Can they be that?
‘The man with the foot’ wakes up, looks around watches the ocean. We are back next to the beach; sandy again and this time there are children playing. A host of Chinese visitors walk down the carriage. All wear tour badges, so I suppose this train journey is a part of their holiday. Across the aisle, the student is reading a thick novel. Maybe he has travelled this way before and the views mean nothing to him anymore. Maybe he is a Californian and is used to all of this.
An announcement comes through that the buffet car (called café car) is closing so the person manning it can take their rest break. Or lunch break as she called it. I can’t remember the Eurostar buffet closing, so the person could have a break? As we get to Santa Barbara, the train announcer tells smokers that this will be their first stop to get out and enjoy a cigarette or two. Do we stay so long just because there are smoko stops? We stay here for 10 minutes but as we pull in, the ocean is still appealingly close. I see the first yachts of the journey languishing in the water as there is little wind to spur them. As we stop there is an old Southern Pacific carriage by the car park; a reminder of days when train was the only way to travel. The station looks new but isn’t. More than 30 new passengers pour from its doors and queue up below my window to be met by the guard who allocatates them seats and takes the airline style boarding cards. The Chinese party get onto a coach for the next part of their journey. An Amtrak coach is parked outside, having brought connecting passengers in. The driver also has a smoke before he retraces his journey with those that got off here.
To read the second part of Adrian’s Amtrak adventure, don’t forget to log onto CD-Traveller tomorrow