Southern Pacific Caboose

Superseded by advances in technology railroad management, the noble caboose no longer rides the rails in the United States.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.

Casmalia, a healing beauty

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.

Sabbatical Reading: Going to Joan’s Town

SlouchingTowardsBethlehem.jpg

This was my first book of Didion, and probably just as well that I started with Slouching. I am drawn to Didion’s work primarily because I see her as one of a chorus of Californian voices who have influenced American letters, and arguably for the better.

I find Didion has a permanent second-person detachment, the ability to be in a milieu without allowing herself – or being able – to be of it. She is the chameleon with the clear eye, who is able to blend in enough to get close to her subjects, but at the sme time never loses the detachment.

At some point, I almost wanted to shake her and ask “okay Joan, who are you and what do you care about?” Because, Lord knows, I looked, and all I found was the detachment, the curiosity, the wonder that borders on perpetually asking why? This makes for a damned good observer and a journalist. But Didion herself remains a cipher, at least here.

Perhaps this is why her later works, especially Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking, are such important parts of her oeuvre. Maybe that’s where we find out if there is something more to Joan than her observations. There must be: the subtlety of her filter and the gentle way in which she chivvies us to her conclusions are hints at greater storms unseen.

Sabbatical: D-Minus 12 – Reading List

This looks like the final stack, with a few more in the Kindle:

  • Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke
  • The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
  • Death by Pastrami by Leonard Bernstein
  • God in Search of Man: A Philosophy  of Judaism by Abraham Joshua Heschel
  • Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Can’t wait to begin.

Asphalt Ladder

Stopped atop Donner Summit on my way from a meeting in Reno to a meeting in San Jose, I could not help thinking about the engineering that went into piercing this steepest of North American mountain ranges with a transportation artery that links the nation with coastal California.

The story of the construction of the transcontinental railroad is a treasured piece of American lore, and the project’s great historians tell us that effort to cross the Sierras with iron rails was the most arduous part of that undertaking. Building the Lincoln Highway through the Sierras, and later Interstate 80, have been almost ignored. What of the engineering, of the careful balance between the needs of the automobile and the need to care for the land, of the value unleashed by eliminating the need to veer northwards to the Columbia River or southwards to Tehachapi?

The pioneers would have not dared to conceive of traveling from Truckee Meadows to the San Francisco Bay in a week, much less in an afternoon. And yet, here I am, and with time enough to stop in Dixon for lunch.

My historian’s nose tells me there is more to be learned and a bigger story to be told, and I file it away for future thought. Sitting back down in my car, I say a silent “thank you” to the trailblazers who found this pass, to the surveyors who chose the path, to the engineers who designed it, and to the legions of men who hewed it out of the granite.