I wake ahead of my alarm – and breakfast – around 6:20, the quality of the light through the window suggesting we’re now well into California. Indeed, once I crack the curtains I find we’ve just pulled up at Sacramento.
There has been a dramatic change to the view from my window – the gloom of late night mountainous woodland replaced with sun-soaked plains and parched looking hills, punctuated by the artificial green of agriculture. This may be my favourite aspect of the slow travel experience – whilst airplanes can speed you between very different environments, you are buffered from them by the airport terminal at each end, and should you be lucky enough to manage to sleep in flight, the consistency of clouds and sky mean little contrast when you awake. Here the overnight shift feels more immediate, all the more noticeable for the gradual evolution that occurs whilst awake.
After a lazy hour enjoying the view – plus my fastest shower ever (50mph) – I make my way to the dining car for breakfast. No reservation needed for this, but community seating is still in effect. I’m joined by a retired couple who, in one of those small world phenomena, are from Reading, England – practically the next town over from where I live. Breakfast is the only meal you don’t repeat on the Coast Starlight, so some hard decisions had to be made regarding the menu. But the scrambled eggs and biscuit with a side helping of three applewood smoked bacon rashers seemed a good choice, even if it meant foregoing the French toast.
We work our way along the shores of a series of bays – Grizzly, Suisun, San Pablo, San Francisco – with a mix of scenery both natural and urban as we tick off additional stops: Davis, Martinez, Emeryville, Oakland. In the latter we seem to be literally driving down the street on approach to Jack London Square station. This is an experience I’ve had in Canada too, but, like track-level access, seems utterly foreign after years on carefully segregated British rails. Whilst we have a few tram systems that share their route with roads, they’re nothing like the scale of this train.
It’s somewhat overcast as we make our way through the wetlands of the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, but the clouds have lifted when we reach San Jose at 10:15. This is a service stop, which makes for a pleasant – it’s not yet overly hot – opportunity to stretch legs and get a few lungsful of fresh air (or deliberately unfresh air, for the smokers). It takes fifteen minutes to collect new passengers and supplies, so I’m also able to grab some pictures of the equipment in rather better light than Seattle or Portland.
Some of our new arrivals include a group with crying children, scattered across a trio of roomettes instead of a family room. So once our attendant has taken lunch reservations – still full from breakfast, I opt for a 1pm slot – I return to the Parlour car, for sun-soaked views of increasingly parched landscapes. I’m definitely a long way from the pine and firs of Vancouver now! There’s another call for a wine tasting session for sleeper car folks, plus announcement of an apparently new (and so far only on the Coast Starlight) feature for those in coach, a “just for you” menu that allows for at seat dining. Given the oversubscribed dining car last night, this will probably catch on.
Be it through industrial / freight use, or just the natural drift of urban centres of gravity, railroads don’t always travel through the most appealing parts of town, and our next stop, Salinas, is bordered by a large collection of tents and gear stashes of the presumably homeless. This is another fresh air stop, although a brief one to recover the five minutes we’ve slid off schedule. By now we’ve cleared a thousand miles, chewing through them at a leisurely 40 an hour.
For lunch I have just one companion, a Los Angelean civil servant from the libraries department, who booked a sleeper for the peace and space, despite only travelling from San Francisco (linked to the route by thruway bus to Emeryville). Like many I’ve met, she prefers the train to the plane, and is proud that an epic cross-country journey from Chicago once got her home faster, after a blizzard grounded flights for a few days. She also explains the six year drought that has afflicted this area, as we take bridges over rivers that no longer exist and pass strange parks which I realise are dried up lake beds. This makes the artificially green patches of farmed land all the more ridiculous!
I took few notes and many photos as we made our way the hundred or so miles along the valley of the Salinas river, a testament to the striking landscapes slowly rolling by. The experience only improved once past the next stop – Paso Robles – as we climbed into and wove our way through the Santa Margarita Mountains. Many of us congregate in the Parlour car at 3pm for Horseshoe Curve, where in addition to the spectacular scenery, it’s possible to see both ends of the train at once. This also adds an impressive squiggle to my map of the journey!
Santa Margarita Mountains
25 minutes later we’re in the Palm Tree’d oasis of San Luis Obispo station, for a fresh air stop and a blast of vitamin D – google claims it’s only 24C, but after a day in an air-conditioned bubble, it hits like an oven. The opening act of another small drama plays out on the PA before going to IC, as a flurry of messages are exchanged in confusion over an unaccompanied minor. With the next stop, Santa Barbara, over 2.5 hours down the line, you want to depart with the right passengers!
Tiny snapshots of other people’s lives are possible through the train windows: a child being lead across the car park of a paediatric dentist, crying; homelessness; a police stop; workers, wavers, waiters. I’ve seen everything from launchpads to film sets, dried up rivers to crashing surf – having finally joined the edge of the Pacific a little past Santa Maria (where my phone briefly dies, breaking my map).
Despite the name, the Coast Starlight spends relatively little time on the coast, although this small stretch is spectacular, deep ocean blues contrasting the yellows and oranges of the land. Better still, my car attendant sees me taking pictures, and makes the offer I’ve been waiting for – to open the window on the car door. After hours of working through dirty glass, this is perfect – sightlines along the train, easier focus, true colours. All that plus a coastal breeze to enjoy to – so of course I only grab a few frames before another attendant I’ve never seen before appears to ask that I stop. Alas, I can’t quibble with the rules printed right in front of me, and even sealed in again I get some shots I’m happy with.
We briefly veer inland for Santa Barbara, the last fresh air stop, but I also get my 17:45 dinner call, so don’t venture out. This time our table is made up of three groups – myself, an old chap on a seriously circuitous itinerary who’s been visiting his son, and a grandmother and granddaughter pair. Conversation stays a bit lighter than usual – this is the first time in years I’ve dined with a child, so I am suddenly extremely conscious of my language – but we nonetheless chat for almost an hour. I also kept things light on the food front with the Vegetarian Pasta, which turns out to be a little too little.
We leave the coast for the final time at Ventura, and although there should still be some natural views before the sprawl of LA engulfs us, we’re very much in the final stretch now. All of the remaining stops are for passenger drop-off only, so we can depart them ahead of the published time. Since we’re 15 minutes ahead of schedule arriving into Oxnard at 18:50 – nothing special – that’s precisely what happens. We also get the last call at both the Parlour Car bar and the café.
Still, we have rolling agricultural land framed by hills on either side, rendered somewhat hazy as the sun begins to sink. In the distance lie the Santa Susanna mountains, into which we head after our next stop. That’s Simi Valley, where we pull in at 19:24, now 24 minutes ahead of schedule. The Parlour car closes, and five minutes later so does the café, and the rest of the sightseer car with it.
The sun is behind both us and the mountains as we make our way into suburbia (after some promising looking bouldering territory). My guidebook wasn’t joking about this being the land of the swimming pool – I count eight for eight in the first few backyards I see. I also start to spot the iconic water channels that so often find their way into films or TV – although I didn’t reach America until my mid 20’s, some of it feels instantly familiar from all the media I’ve consumed.
19:50 puts us in Van Nuys – amongst others, this is a stop for the Pacific Surfliner, and we pass one of those just outside the station. I couldn’t quite stretch to adding it to this trip, tempting though it was to do practically all of the west coast by rail in one go. But seeing one at San Diego’s beautiful station a few years ago planted one of the first seeds that flourished into this adventure, so I’ll definitely get to it one day!
Our penultimate stop, just 7 or 8 minutes later, is Bob Hope airport – apparently you have to be ready to exit promptly at that one! For those of us sticking it out to the terminus, we’re requested to wait at our seats until arrival, rather than pre-emptively head for the exits or even downstairs.
We arrive well ahead of schedule, at 20:22. This ride, clearly, was about the journey rather than the destination – LA being somewhere I just can’t get excited about. But our final stopping point has one last surprise – the station hall is a masterpiece, more place of worship than transport hub in tone.
With that, thirty five hours of train travel – forty, if you include the Amtrak Cascade service the night before – came to an end. But rather than a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I hope these will simply be the first of many slow travel experiences!