First meal on Amtrak, brought to the room by Dan, the car attendant. With the exception of the sauce, I wolfed it, no pun intended. Train travel is hungry work, especially when you go REAL SLOW through these picturesque downtown areas of Central California coast and farm towns, and you see all of the cool eateries.
Note to self: always bring plenty of (healthy, protein-laden) foods on the train to supplement the meals. I did okay this time, but it never hurts, even on a trip as short as four hours.
Just north of San Luis Obispo we passed the California Men’s Institution. This is their Level II unit, a medium-security facility with open dorms.
Something I have long wondered about California prisons nestled in picturesque settings is the degree to which the setting itself is a form of punishment. To be incarcerated amid beauty that you can see but cannot enjoy makes me wonder if it is harsher to be here, or in a facility in the Mojave desert like USP Victorville.
As we pass by, entrained in comfort, I hear the Man in Black singing in my head.
I hear that train a comin’
Rolling round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine
Since I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison
And time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a-rollin’
On down to San Antone
I bet there’s rich folks eatin’
In a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee
And smokin’ big cigars
But I know I had it comin’
I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a-movin’
And that’s what tortures me
Songwriter: Johnny R. Cash
Folsom Prison Blues lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc
Superseded by advances in technology railroad management, the noble caboose no longer rides the rails in the United States. Southern Pacific 1886, shown here, has not only been saved from the scrappers by the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum, they have completely restored her inside and out to a like-new condition.
Riding past this, I added the museum onto my bucket list.
Just off of the Vandenberg Air Force Base reservation we turned inland and rode through this hidden valley of oaks and sycamores surrounded by rolling green hills. I’d never been through Casmalia, and it looked like a hidden gem.
But this beautiful place has a rough past. It had been a railroad boomtown when the Southern Pacific first came through, then an oil boomtown when the oilfields nearby were still producing. Finally, just over the hill in the background somebody opened a toxic waste dump in 1973 that wound up polluting the groundwater. The EPA shut the dump down and took it over in 1992 as a Superfund site, and the effort to remove some 4.6 billion pounds of toxic waste is still underway.
The town is starting to return to normal, but I can see a time in the future when, the ground water once again clean, more life will come to this beautiful little valley.
I have seen Point Conception from many angles, but this is the first time I have seen it from the landward. This is the Great Corner of California, where the coast changes direction and the climate alters accordingly. It also marks one of the toughest stretches of coast in California along which to navigate small craft.
This is a windy place, best suited for grazing and drilling, and of course for the lighthouse perched on a low promontory behind the rocky bluff at center. Today a winter storm threatens, but holds off the coast, waiting for more impetus to drop its moisture and wind upon this battered place.
Some climatologists suggest that this marks the dividing line between central California and Southern California. In some ways, they may be right, but I have always held that Southern California is a state of mind as much as it is a climate zone, and that the real dividing line is the Conejo Grade and Point Mugu.
Regardless, I found this vista moving, this place where land and sea and sky and history and weather and geology all merge, and the scudding clouds set the mood perfectly.
Standing on the platform of Oxnard Station on a cold January day, waiting for Amtrak’s Coast Starlight to carry me to Portland.
I look up at Topa Topa and there is snow even on our local mountaintops. The Amtrak stationmaster, following my gaze and knowing the course of my journey, nods. “You will see plenty of snow on this trip,” she said.
“I know,” I replied with a smile. “Especially between Portland and Chicago.”
I can look at snow all day long if I am seeing it from out of a window of my warm train.