Pulling out of San Jose, on the upper deck of a near-empty “Capitol Express” to Sacramento, I find myself getting romantic No, not like that – about the train ride itself. I could’ve hitched a ride up with one of my flying buddies, and Devon offered to drive me, keeping Jem suitably sedated with a backseat movie for the two-hour drive, but there’s just something about a train.
Each culture has its own transportation archetypes – the only thing I remember from my childhood reading of Frederick Pohl’s “Beyond the Blue Event Horizon” was how each nationality on the expedition had their own name for the mysterious singularity that sucked travelers away to parts unknown. The Americans called it “The Highway”; for the French it was “Le Metro”. But trains, somehow, are universal.
The rhythm of the rails, rolling past the houses, farms and fields. Must be more songs about trains than any other form of transportation ever invented. Well, no – I guess boats win there, but it’s due to an unfair advantage: boats have been around a lot longer, and it seems like months of tedium, confined to a small, unstable platform in the middle of a featureless ocean (punctuated by moments of storm/battle/pirate-induced terror) would be just the thing to get your creative juices flowing. Assuming you made it back to shore.
We’re in the salt-marsh now, rolling through Drawbridge, one of my favorite ghost towns. Right in the middle of Silicon Valley, marooned out on a train levee in the marsh. Last turn of the century, it was a wild place – a railroad saloon town that the law knew better than to mess with. It’s still there, a dozen decrepit woodframe buildings along the track, sinking into the salt. It’s still on the map, but there’s no way to get to it. The pelicans, herons and egrets that run the town now give us the look: “Just keep moving, folks, just keep moving on through”. And we do.
An hour later, we’re rolling along the shore at Richmond, blue water dotted with white sails, stretching off to the north. We pass a ramshackle corrugated building at waterfront, a large faded sign on the roof proudly proclaiming “Joe’s Fishing Resort”, and in smaller letters “Bait Shop”. Thirty seconds around the bend, we find ourselves threading the enormous flare stacks, borg-like maze of steel tubes and ponderous holding tanks of Richmond’s Chevron refinery. Next thought: if you actually caught a fish at Joe’s, would it contain enough petrochemicals that you could actually cook it by simply setting it on fire?
No, I actually expect that the water around the refineries is pretty clean these days; California State EPA is comfortingly aggressive about watching these things.
Later yet, rolling through farmland. The train is more crowded now. Three five-year olds share cupcakes and sing “Happy Birthday” in the seats behind me while parents snack on healthier fare. Across the aisle, a shutterbug mom watches the world go by while her railroad-capped son narrates – “Sprinklers! Look mommy – spinning sprinklers!” A far better show than anything on TV.
But we’re getting close to SAC; time to get started on my paperwork for the afternoon.