Thursday, September 21, 2006

Coming Hone (on the Coast Starlight)

This is my simultaneous post with Pia's blog. Enjoy.

I’m seated in the dining car with a bubbly couple from Los Angeles. They’re coming back from a vacation to Seattle. I’m not much for talking and mostly stare out the window at the wet fields of garlic that surround Gilroy. Afterwards, as the tracks climb over Pajaro Gap, taking us through the grasslands of the Santa Cruz Mountains, we’re given a short reprieve from farmland. But soon we crest and with our descent come more fields of vegetables and fruit trees. We’re entering the Salinas Valley, the nation’s salad bowl. For the next couple hours, the train runs along the Salinas River. I finish up my sandwich, excuse myself and return to my seat. I don’t feel like reading or writing. I lay my head up against the window and watch beads of water run up the window on the outside. The weather looks as bleak as I feel and deepens my depression. I know I’ll never see her again.

It’d been over two years since I’d dumped her. At the time I couldn’t see us making it. But she had been so sure. She had moved across the country to be closer to me even though I was only planning on staying in Nevada for a year. Once it was up, I moved back East to finish grad school. But we were over by then and we didn’t talk for two years. I’d occasionally catch up on what she was doing from mutual friends. When I finished school, she learned through the same friends and dropped me a note. Maybe that was the reason a year later, on a whim, I called and told her my plans to travel west on the train. She said she’d like to see me again and pretty much invited herself along on my planned trip through the southern gold field of the Sierras.

It had been a magical trip. We explored old towns and museums and drank beer in western saloons. We hiked at night, through the sage along the Walker River. We camped another night at Markleeville Hot Springs, spending hours soaking in the pools before laying on the top of a picnic table watching the Perseid Meteor showers. I woke in the early morning hours shivering. She had nuzzled her body close to mine for warmth, but she too was shivering. I was our most intimate moment, broken only when I woke her up and we quickly scampered off to separate sleeping bags. The next day, I dropped her off at her house. She invited me in and fixed dinner as we talked. She confessed she was getting serious with a guy. Although we’d traveled as friends, and had not talk about getting back together, I had once again become enchanted with her. And now, right before I had to drive down to Oakland in order to be there in time to catch the morning southbound, she dropped the news. This time, I felt like I was the one being dumped.

It was a long drive back across the Sierras, and an even longer night spent in a non-descript motel. It was raining the next morning when I dropped the rental car off and caught a cab to the train station. Union Station in Oakland is grand, built in an era when train travel was more common and Oakland one of the busiest station on the West Coast. But the station was still boarded up after having been damaged two years earlier in the ’89 earthquake. No one was sure what was going to happen to the old building. Railroad personal operated out of trailers and the waiting room was crowded and musty. And the train was late. I couldn’t stand the makeshift waiting room, so I took refuge outside under the awning by the tracks, being sprayed whenever the wind blew. The train arrives two hours after it's scheduled time. I scampered on board and as soon as the conductor punched my ticket, headed to the dining car. Having not eaten since breakfast, I was hungry.

By mid-afternoon, the train leaves the Salinas Valley. The engine pulls us up the grass covered San Lucia Mountains and over the Cuesta Pass. Afterwards, the wheels squeal against the rail as the engineer brakes as we descend the Cuesta grade and its famous horseshoe curve. The train turns so tightly that from my window I’m able to see both the engine and the last car. A few minutes later, we’re in San Luis Obispo. This is a short stop. I get off with the smokers, who now that Amtrak has gone smoke free clamber out at every stop long enough to puff on a cigarette. We loiter around the platform for a few minutes until the conductor shouts, “All Aboard.” I step back on the train and spend the next hour or so standing on the downstairs landing by the door and between the bathrooms and handicap seating. The rain lets up a bit, but the dark clouds remain. The countryside is now shrouded with fog. Not long after we pull out of San Luis Obispo, I spot the ocean through tall stately Eucalyptus trees. Although can barely make out the surf, there is something hopeful in the knowing the expansiveness of the water. The fog also makes the rock and grass and trees more interesting.

I’m joined by the car attendant. Not to be stereotyping, but he’s what I expect in a railroad man. His uniform is crisp, his skin dark, and his laugh deep. He’s ridden these rails for many years, having started out with the Southern Pacific. He’s been with Amtrak for nearly twenty years and in all has gotten nearly forty years in total. He’ll retire soon. The rails now parallel the ocean, giving us great views of the surf and wet beach below. As I look out in awe, I proclaim the beauty to the attendant. He listens and nods and then speaks. “Man, he says, “you think this is beautiful? You ain’t seen nothin’.” Pointing to the beach below, he continues, “You should see these beaches on a sunny day. That beach down there, its just one of many along here that attracts nude bathers. On a sunny day everyone is looking at the beaches so that the train leans to the west. Some days it so bad that we have to make people take turns peeping, keeping part of the passengers on the other side of the car to help balance the train and keep us on the track.”

We both laugh. A little later I head down to the lounge car and spend the afternoon talking to fellow passengers and reading. The more miles of rail we cover, the more I forget about her. In LA, I board another train for a short run to Oceanside where I’m meeting a friend. In another day, I’ll be back in LA, boarding the Sunset Limited that’ll take me through the southwest desert to San Antonio, and then I’ll ride the Texas Eagle up through Dallas and St. Louis and on to Chicago where I’ll connect to a train that’ll take me back to my New York home. I should have enough days to forget her. But I won’t.


  1. Well my realistic little friend, much like Santiago in The Alchemist, perhaps she wasn't the one meant for you and you found the one that was later on. Now that I'm done with the book, I often wonder what the point of that first girl was. He forgot she existed when he spotted Fatima. What a typical guy. ;-)

    I've never ridden on a train. I need to.

  2. Wow! That was an excellent story, perhaps one of the best I've read from your blog. Perhaps it is because this story truly comes from the heart.

    I agree with Murf, I need to go train riding!

  3. I think I would have been heartbroken after that experience, too. Sometimes, it seems impossible to forget a love lost or rejected.

  4. That's the beauty of the internet, Tim. You can find them again and make their life miserable. Or so I've heard. :-)

  5. As a teenager I had romantic notions of a long voyage by way of train. I've been on long train rides in India, and found the trip a bit tougher than I'd have liked. That and being a decade removed from thinking like a teenager have changed my desire to travel by train. But, I must admit, I still think about it especially after reading this lovely post about your own train voyage through my great state.

    As usual Sage-man, a magnificent post. It is quite humorous and tragic that love and its precurors and afterburn usually strike in inopportune times.

    Tell me, Sage, did you write much during your train voyage? While I am no longer enchanted by the train voyage, I do dream about a luxury train voyage in a far away place in which I could spend most of my time catching the scenery and writing.

    Once again, wonderful post.

  6. What a wonderful story.

    I've never traveled long distance by train before, but, after reading your post, it makes me want to. I have an aunt that only travels that way & she insists it's good for your soul.

  7. Murf, I have heard of such things; but that's not my style of life. This world has enough misery in it that I don't need to add to it intentionally. And from a self-centered point of view, if I make other people miserable, I become miserable. Not much point in that.

    Friday, September 22, 2006 11:42:38 PM

  8. Ok, I'm back from my first backpacking trip. Let me clear up things here a bit. I've kept journals since college. Once I got a computer, I started keeping journals on the computer, printing them out, etc. But when I travel, like backpacking or back then (now I take a laptop on the train), I use a small bound book to write in.

    Now, about this story. Pia suggested I write something about a train trip. I remembered the attendant's comments and through that would be a good story to build upon. Then I went back to
    the journals--although I remember being with this person and being disappointed at the way we left things, it was only after reading the journals that the heartache came out--hence the story that you have here. Actually, by the fall of 1991, we were both committed to someone else.

  9. I already commented on your post on Pia's site, Sage. But I wanted to stop by here and say it, too.

    I really enjoyed it. Perfect ending. Well, writing-wise, anyway.

  10. You do move quickly, Sage, but I'm sure you had a bevy to choose from.

  11. WOW.....impressive piece of writing! You capture the territory so well it was evoking my own memories of the area

    As far as your old flame goes? Some times the embers are warm but there is just not enough there to fuel the fire. What hurts I think is the memory of the fire that was and the broken promise of the glowing embers that the fire can rise once more.

  12. Loved this! Gave me insights to a journey, both external and internal.

    Here via Michele's.

  13. What a beautiful writer you are. Your words invited the reader to take a brief journey with you, and to briefly feel your heartache.

    Thank you so very much for pointing me in the direction of this post. I am truly honoured to have taken a snippet of this journey with you.