Part II: Coast Starlight

4:15pm, Tuesday 11/30/04, aboard the Coast Starlight.

We’re just getting in to Paso Robles. We were scheduled to be here at 1:40; we’re about 2 hours and 40 minutes late. The train pulled into San Jose at about 12:15, when it was supposed to be in at 9:55, so at that point it was about two hours and 20 minutes behind schedule. Apparently, we’re falling further behind…

I guess that if it wasn’t for the fact that Ric is scheduled to pick me up and give me a place to sleep for the night, I’d not worry too much about it. I suspect that this may be the way of the trip: always late. But since I don’t really need to be anywhere at any particular time, this is the only time that being late is a bit of an issue; it’s an inconvenience for him. The fact that it was late getting to San Jose wasn’t all that bothersome; it gave me more time with Nancy. I presume that the rest of the trains on the trip—trains that I join only at their origins—will at least leave on time, since they aren’t coming from somewhere else…

Whatever. I at least am enjoying the trip, and I’m very, very glad that Nancy talked me into upgrading my San Jose-to-Los Angeles ticket to a first-class “roomette”; I get more privacy and am treated in a first-class fashion, all for only eighty bucks more.

First class on Amtrak means that you get free meals. That’s kinda nice. You also get access to the first-class parlor car, which is a lounge/bar upstairs and a theater downstairs. Yes, a real theater. Well, theater seats and a reasonably-sized TV showing videos. They were showing “Garfield” during our complimentary wine-tasting session. Although I saw some kids wander down there at the start of the wine tasting, there weren’t any there when the tasting was over. It’ll be interesting to see what movies they show as we travel across country. Just in case, I brought a couple of DVDs that I can watch on my computer.

The wine tasting was kinda fun. Like a cruise, I suppose (although I’ve never actually been on a cruise, so I can’t say for sure). But it was an organized activity, and free, for first-class passengers only. Three decent wines, with cheese and crackers to accompany them. The steward gave a pretty thorough lecture on tasting technique, talking about “legs” and “closure”. The latter topic was particularly important for this tasting since one of the wines we tasted, “Tin Roof”, is named for the steel screwtop that the vintner uses to seal the bottle. The wines are for sale, so after the tasting you could buy a bottle—or six, or ten—”no sales tax, cash, travelers checkes, and credit cards accepted” (this was repeated several times, in case you didn’t get the message the first couple of times he said it) with discounts if you bought at least six. Well, Amtrak does need the money, and the bottles seemed reasonably priced. Nevertheless, I didn’t buy any.

Lunch was pretty good. The food wasn’t bad, and the fact that it was “free” helped—although I didn’t take advantage of that fact and order the most expensive item on the menu or anything. I had a burger and chips, figuring that for my first meal I should be somewhat conservative. It was fine. I’ve had better, but I’ve definitely had worse. My lunch companions—Amtrak fills the four-tops, so I’m destined to have dining guests for every meal—were an elderly couple from Seattle and their granddaughter, on a trip to celebrate the grandfather’s birthday (I didn’t ask how old he was). They seemed to be having a very nice trip, even given that they were riding in coach. I found it interesting that the first class and the coach class passengers were completely intermixed for the meal; mine was included with my ticket and thus I didn’t have to pay for it, while they had to pay for theirs. Somewhat to my surprise, the meals seemed reasonably priced. Amtrak has a captive audience and could gouge their passengers, but they don’t. Thankfully.

I wonder where we are? We’re sitting behind some sort of factory—a cement plant or something—waiting for a train ahead of us to “clear.” Apparently, the freight lines own the tracks, and Amtrack just pays to use them. That payment doesn’t appear to get you much, since the freight seems to get priority. According to my lunch companions, that’s why the train was late getting to San Jose; the train had to stop a couple of times during the night in order to give priority to passing freight trains. Not a great way to run a railroad, if you ask me…

Go figure—the train we were waiting for just passed us, and it wasn’t a freight. It was the northbound Coast Starlight! At least those folks are on time…

Dinner was pretty nice. I had roasted eggplant ravioli with salad and vegetables. The vegetables were kinda tasteless and the salad wasn’t as crisp as it could have been, but they were fine. The ravioli was pretty good, and I got a lot if it. Along with my meal, I had a half bottle of a California Merlot. From a strictly financial point of view, I should have bought one of the bottles during the wine tasting—it would have been a better deal. Dinner was by reservation only, but the hostess walked the length of the train midday (2:00 or so) and took everyone’s reservations. The dining car wasn’t full when I arrived for my meal, unlike lunch. There is a “cafe” car on the train (I haven’t checked it out yet) and I think a lot of people bring food on board. In any case, it meant that I only had to share my table with one other gentleman, who looked at lot like the actor Brian Dennehey. He was, if anything, more introverted than I. We talked a bit, but I did the bulk of the talking. And there were long stretches of silence. I guess you meet all kinds on the train!

Afterwards, I retired to my compartment. For a while, I turned the lights off and closed the hallway curtains, to maximize my ability to see outside. It was mostly dark, since we were by then traveling down the Pacific coast. Occasionally you could see the lights from the offshore oil platforms. It was very peaceful; the gentle rocking of the train, and the occasional clusters of lights made for a very relaxing experience. Early on we stopped right next to what I believe was the California Men’s Colony. At night, all lit up, it was very pretty:

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I have no idea why we stopped here; it certainly wasn’t to pick up or drop off anyone! Also, no trains passed us as we stopped. But the image was striking and I figured I was meant to take a picture. As soon as I pressed the shutter, we started moving again.

By the time we hit Santa Barbara, it was clear that we were going to be very late. At least 3 hours late, from what I could tell. I took the opportunity—good cell coverage—to call home and I briefly talked to the kids. While I was doing that, Ric was trying to call me. He left a message assuring me that he knew that I was running late (on Amtrak’s website you can track the progress of any of their trains), and that he’d be there to pick me up. After regaining cell coverage (I got cut off while talking to Daniel; anyone have recommendations for a better carrier than Cingular?), I called Ric back. During the conversation I happened to mention that the stop after Oxnard was in Simi Valley, and that I hadn’t checked any luggage. Ric realized that not only was the Simi Valley station closer to his house than either the Glendale or downtown LA stations, but that I’d get into Simi Valley a full hour before I got to downtown LA. Once nice thing about trains is that you can sometimes change your plans as you go; I verified with the porter that there was no problem getting off early, so I called Ric from Oxnard and arranged to meet him at the Simi Valley station. And when we arrived, and I stepped from the train, Ric was standing right by the door to my train car! It couldn’t have worked out any better if we had arranged it that way. Twenty minutes later, I was settling in for the night at Ric’s.

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All in all, it was a very pleasant journey. I’m looking forward to the next leg of my trip, from Los Angeles to Orlando. That’s a three-day journey along the southern edge of the country. If I get in late, it doesn’t matter much to me, since I don’t have any time-sensitive plans. But traveling with Amtrak is a different way to travel. I find it ironic that time zones were created back in the late 1800’s because the train schedules were way too complex, and now, with our time zones, atomic clocks, and other bits of technology the trains don’t even come close to adhering to their published schedules. If you really need to be somewhere at a precise time, you don’t want to take the train. But if you can free yourself from a tight time schedule—something I find to be a bit difficult; I’m a little bit time obsessed—its a very nice way to go. Vacations are supposed to be relaxing, and the train is certainly that, at least for me.

Enough for today. it’s 5:30pm, and my train leaves at 10:30pm (hopefully!). I expect that I’ll get onboard and go straight to bed. Then I’ll have three days of train travel, experiencing the joys of showering while the train is moving, wandering the length of the train—both for excercise and as something to do—and so on. I expect I’ll have a lot more to say in my next dispatch, since I’ll have accumulated three days worth of experiences. And pictures.

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