California By Rail – Los Angeles to Oakland

There is something utterly romantic about rail travel, isn’t there? It’s a window seat that allows you to travel where your eyes cannot if you are behind the wheel of an automobile.

So on a whim I packed up some train-worthy goodies, my unread copy of Jack Kerouac’s chronicle of Zen lunatic life, The Dharma Bums, and four days worth of clothes. I tossed all of this in my daypack and headed to San Francisco from Los Angeles by rail.

I was desperate for that feeling of independence of lone travelling. The infectious travel bug I acquired while backpacking through Europe last year has been waning lately as I’ve dug deeper into ‘real world’ responsibilities of signing leases for flats and putting down deposits for utility companies; ugh, cellular phone service contracts. While I’ve been wading in the mire of life I have been missing that smile that always tugged on the corners of my lips after a hard day of walking around a strange city, knowing that I’ve quite possibly discovered something no one will ever know besides me. And to collapse onto the train with no worries for a long distance ride…nothing quite like it.

So that leads us to a few days ago when I jumped on the Coast Starlight Scenic Train by Amtrak which winds up the coastline of California from San Diego and eventually ends up in Seattle. I was disembarking in Oakland, just across the bay from San Francisco, for a bit of R&R at my Grandparents’ home in the East Bay and a few day trips into the city.

The Coast Starlight is one of those super amenities trains. It comes complete with movies, lounge car, snack bar, dining car with reservation only dinner, observation decks and even a kiddy playroom. I imagine rail travel is more expensive in this country for the whole extras thing. In order to get people out of the sky and onto the rail, Amtrak feels the need to entice with First Class Wine and Cheese Parties and ‘Ocean’s 11’ playing in the observation deck. I took the train because it runs up the coast to San Luis Obispo and then inland through some of the most untamed and rugged mountainous landscape I would never see driving up the 1 or 101 freeways in my Toyota.

The Journey

Leaving LA was visually uneventful. The concrete hole of the LA River ran alongside the tracks until we cruised slowly through the pretty San Gabriel Mountains by way of the Santa Suzanna Pass which lines the northern rim of the San Fernando Valley. The landscape didn’t wrench my eyes from Kerouac’s Zen lunatic ramblings until just before Santa Barbara where the ocean made its debut.

The Pacific Ocean meets the land in dramatic cliffs which run up the entire coastline, peppered with pricey beach-side towns and National parkland. Along the rail line in the affluent old Spanish Mission town of Santa Barbara were homes with large decks and windows which must glimpse some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. A man waved at the train from his deck, his viewing platform, the romance of rail travel not beheld by those on the train.

We passed the popular surfing spot of Refugio State Beach where campers waved from their parked RVs in the private campgrounds. The ocean was populated with wet suited surfies and I watched them until we rounded the cliffs of Point Conception and passed through the pristine (and closed) beaches of the Vandenburg Air Force Base.

It was then that we turned inland. Part of me, the conspiracy theorist perhaps, thought it because of some dark, top secret military purpose. Reality is less fantastical: the combination of missile testing and the unsafe cliff faced shoreline unfit for rail travel. Simple as that. No worries, because as we left the ocean we entered some of the most fascinating and stirring landscape of all.

This was America. Farmlands tended by migrant workers. Cabbage, broccoli, grapes. The land has been destroyed by factories and oil derricks, the towns of the working class seemed rundown and sad next to such monstrosities. And just as sudden, up popped eucalyptus groves at Oceano where the Pismo Dunes Reserve lines the coast and gleamed in the sunlight. We were returning to the Pacific to San Luis Obispo, the halfway mark between the North and South.

Somewhere along the way I spotted a school with a big green playfield. On that field were two little girls who watched the train pass by, their little arms in the air raised in greeting. Despite the tinted windows I waved back.

The Observation Deck

After San Luis Obispo I hit the observation deck with the tea I brought with me and some hot water acquired from the snack bar. It was six hours into the trip and we were heading inland again. Behind me a man with a familiar accent spoke of his home, New Zealand. The woman next to me had to take the train to fly out from San Jose since San Luis Obispo’s airstrip is so small. The announcement overhead informed us we were about to complete the famous horseshoe switchback around a State Prison. Everyone gathered in the observation deck to watch the prisoners in their cage.

We slowly meandered through the multiple switchbacks around the prison and I realized there were people who had been in that place longer than I have been alive. I wonder what they thought when the looked up at the passenger trains chugging by.

Soon we were in cowboy country. Any moment I expected bandits in kerchiefs riding horses to fire their pistols in the air and round up all of our money and jewelry as if in an Old West picture. The land was green and lush as we wound through the Santa Lucia Range into the San Joaquin Valley and although this was a sight I was thankful to see I was sad that we would not see Big Sur by train. That privilege is held by drivers on Hwy 1.

The train mirrored the 101 from then on up the inland valley as we passed through western-esque towns like King City and Paso Robles. We passed by old Mission towns and eventually through the sweet smell of garlic from the Gilroy farms that even the train’s air filtration system could not dispel.

It was then we were informed that the train was delayed over an hour. By that point everyone in the car had become great friends with their neighbors and there were no complaints about our getting into Oakland late. For the San Francisco bound riders, there is no Amtrak service direct into the city. Amtrak provides a bus to the transportation hub over the bay. For me, well, I was getting picked up by my generous hosts, my Grandparents.

A little stiff but altogether happy from my day on the train I kissed the smooth cheeks of my chauffeurs and we headed east to Lafayette. Twenty minutes later I was set up in the guest room bed, my mind still alive with romantic rail adventures. Part of me couldn’t wait until Monday’s return trip. Of course, part of me never wants to leave the San Francisco Bay Area.