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Superseded by advances in technology railroad management, the noble caboose no longer rides the rails in the United States.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

Point Conception

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.

Sabbatical Day 7: Waiting for the Starlight

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.

Sabbatical Day 2-5: Garage

The last four days have been spent building steel shelving, going to my local Home Depot often enough to get to know the staff, cleaning out five years of accumulated junk in the garage, putting away all of our camping and sports gear, and shelving 2,500 books.

The good news: no email, no conference calls, and I didn’t have to go to CES in Las Vegas.

So even though I managed to get only a couple of things on my list taken care of, on the balance I’d have to say it was a pretty good week.

Sabbatical Reading: Going to Joan’s Town

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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.