LA Train Sandwich

Part 9 of Across America, 12 Jan 2012

Coast Starlight Superliner.

Thursday 5th January marked a milestone on my journey to old age. I was a third of a century old: 33 ⅓ (like an LP). I celebrated by getting up early to catch the train to Los Angeles. On the metro the automated announcements said “T inbound” at every stop. Mmmm tea: I’d not had time for a cup before leaving. As San Francisco doesn’t have an Amtrak station, my journey continued with a bus to Oakland. Approaching the Bay Bridge a sign announced that tanks weren’t permitted. One wonders what happens if you’ve driven your Abrams onto the slip road and encounter this notice.

At Oakland the Coast Starlight pulled in on time and I climbed the stairs to my seat on the upper level. Having settled in, I went to the cafe to pick up something to eat. I wasn’t wearing any shoes and this drew a mild rebuke from the guy serving me. As I left the cafe, he made an announcement to the whole train about the need to wear shoes. I didn’t meet the eyes of my fellow passengers as I made the perp walk back to my seat.

The seats were surprisingly generous: so there was plenty of space to relax and enjoy the scenery. Once we’d left the city, we alternated between fields with waving agricultural workers and wetlands alive with waterfowl. As we climbed higher the landscape turned to oak woodland that could almost have been England. Every so often there would be a little heavy industry or a small town, but most of the journey was through fields and wilderness.

After a scenic hour in the California Coast Ranges, we descended into San Luis Obispo. As we were running twenty minutes early, we made an extended stop and I got off the train to stretch my legs in the warm sunshine (pictured, above). The smokers puffed away industriously: it would be several hours before our next stop. One of San Luis’s claims to fame is being home to the first motel: Milestone Mo-Tel, built in 1925.

Union Station.

I moved to the lounge car as we reached the Pacific. On our left was Vandenberg Air Force Base, a vast area used for space launches and missile testing. On our right, the Pacific treated us to dramatic wind-blown surf, backlit by the setting Sun. Surfers in wet suits rode the waves beyond sunset and we were soon in darkness. With no scenery for entertainment the remaining few hours dragged. Twelve hours after boarding at Oakland, the train pulled into Union Station, the last of America’s great stations. It opened in 1939, fourteen years after the first motel. The journey had given me a privileged view behind the curtain of America. I’d seen gardens and mines, military installations and beekeeping, art deco stations and oil wells, birds of prey and kelp forests, rolling hills and the power of the ocean.

I was in LA, somewhere I’d not planned on visiting. I’d thrown out my original plan to travel to the Grand Canyon via Bakersfield because it didn’t seem particularly interesting or fast. Instead I’d decided to take two trains with LA sandwiched in between. I left Union Station to attempt the impossible: a journey on foot in Los Angeles. With the assistance of Google Maps and the imposing tower of City Hall, it wasn’t difficult to navigate. I was almost alone on the street as I made my way past City Hall: there was barely a car, let alone pedestrian in sight. Even McDonald’s was closed. Without the cicadas and noise of air-con it would have been silent. It was nine-thirty on a week night. Where was everybody?

There were pavements and pedestrian crossings aplenty and I reached my hotel without difficulty. The hotel was one of those plush corporate affairs I always feel rather out of place in. The receptionist was friendly and helpful and I stopped feeling so awkward in my foxed hiker garb. I’d opted for the cheapest category of room, but it was still vast. The bed could have accommodated at least six travellers on the Tortoise. I gratefully stepped into the shower before settling into its acre-sized embrace.

Friday morning I’d planned to have a lie-in. Alas, I’d forgotten to cancel the alarm on my watch and I was woken at six-thirty. I mostly failed to doze before getting up and going in search of breakfast. With a bit of help from the interwebs I settled on Nickel Diner. The apple and cinnamon oatmeal set me up to for the day.

LA City Hall.

I returned to Grand Union to buy the ticket for the next leg of my journey. There was a long queue at the ticket desk, many of the people confused train neophytes. When my turn came, I asked the women behind the counter for a ticket to the Grand Canyon. Her response “why?”. This caught me off balance. Did she mean, why would anyone go to the Grand Canyon or why would anyone choose to go by train that arrived at 4am? Before I had a chance to really consider the matter, she’d looked up the details on the reservation system and asked for ID and payment.

My tickets in hand I had the rest of the afternoon to wander LA. The area of corporate and government offices was almost as dead as the night before. Was it normally like this, or was this enduring effect of New Year? A few blocks further on I entered the Jewellery District, which was much more lively, if rather run down in places. Downtown LA was a weird place. I got a sense that it had gone off the boil long ago, the centre of energy migrating elsewhere.

With new surf shorts in hand (the previous pair were torn in Baja), I returned to the hotel. It was early evening and I decided to check out the hotel’s outdoor pool. It was pretty cool outside by this point, but the water was warm and I had the pool to myself. There’s something special about being alone in a pool, the water so still and quiet.

Airplane Parts by Nancy Rubins.

Saturday morning I woke at 6am, despite the lack of an alarm. I guess it had become habit. Getting up at ten, I squeezed everything back into my pack and checked out. I spent the afternoon at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I won’t attempt to comment on the art, but a few pieces did stand out for me. There was a large room of Rothko, one of my favourite painters. A painting by Jasper Johns entitled Map also caught my attention: perhaps because I was journeying across it. At their second site, in Little Tokyo, there was an exhibition entitled Under the Big Black Sun covering 70s and 80s Californian art. For me the most interesting work was The Reason for the Neutron Bomb.

I hadn’t even scuffed the surface of LA, but with no car and little time I had to move on. Saturday evening I was back at Grand Union in the queue to check in. The women at the desk was the antithesis of the women at the ticket office. On taking my ticket she smiled and asked if I was excited about visiting the Grand Canyon. I was.

The train was very similar to the one that had brought me to LA. The freight yards stretched out for miles as we left LA, then it was dark and there was nothing to see. I went for dinner in the dining car and was seated next to a guy returning to Iowa. We discussed the joys of train travel and the sad fact so few Americans got to experience it. Back at my seat the Moon had risen, and the sandy landscape glowed as if under a covering of snow. I managed to drift off to sleep while listening to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is…”

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Tags: AcrossAmerica, Amtrak, Art, California, LosAngeles, Pacific, Train, Travel, USA