c o a s t s t a r l i g h t

[ 17:16 thursday 2nd november 2017 – amtrak coast starlight, oakland to los angeles ]

like a gigantic migratory creature this train left seattle at 9am yesterday morning on its southward journey. 24 hours later at 9am this morning, heralded by a mournful tritone whistle and clanging bell, the huge double-decker tube of shining corrugated steel snaked alongside the platform at oakland jack london square beneath a crisp blue autumn sky and i climbed aboard. the journey will reach its conclusion when the train pulls into the art deco splendour of los angeles union station at 9pm tonight. i’ll have been on board for 12 hours of its 36 hour journey.

for all america’s supposed abandonment of the train for its devotion to the automobile, this service is a true inheritor of the nineteenth century trans-continental trains that have all but disappeared from europe. as well as seating carriages equipped with deep reclining armchairs there are sleeper cabins with en-suite bathrooms, an observation car with full-height windows and swivel-chairs, a dining car with linen tablecloths and napkins, even a cinema car.

the train crew is like a troupe of actors assigned slightly over-written parts. the earth-mother cafe attendant who had to deal with an armed war veteran’s post-traumatic meltdown as the sun rose. the irascible dining car host whose announcements mimic a television game show and whose timings for meal sittings seem to be entirely arbitrary. the senior conductor whose messages elaborate an evolving narrative of her grudge towards one of the junior conductors regarding some money she loaned them which has yet to be returned.

meanwhile the mix of passengers is almost unfathomable. on european trains one finds a fairly representative cross-section of society, rich and poor alike. on this train it feels like 99% of american society is absent and instead the train is populated with just a handful of narrow niches. people on low incomes with too much luggage to carry by greyhound bus (the only travel option that’s cheaper); wealthier people who don’t like flying and can’t be bothered to drive; hardcore railway buffs; folks like me who are doing it for the sheer adventure.

for most of the journey i’ve been camped in the observation car with a couple of dozen people scattered around the banquettes and swivel chairs. leaving oakland we passed through the decayed industrial residue and salt pans of the east bay to the bland techno-architecture of san jose. this gave way to the hyper-fertile agriculture of the salinas valley followed by baroque twists and curls through hill country where the grass gradually paled from lush green to dry yellow. in san luis obispo the train stopped for 40 minutes so i took the opportunity to run into the centre of town, buy myself a mango smoothie and run back; pressed on by the thrilling fear the train might continue on its way without me.

after san luis obispo the track joined the pacific coast for a spectacular sequence of dunes, wild beaches and rocky promontories. i couldn’t help being reminded of the stretch of brunel’s great western railway where the track runs beside the atlantic coast along the red sandstone cliffs of teignmouth and dawlish. but of course this is california and everything is a thousand times larger.

as the track reached the coast the atmosphere in the car shifted perceptibly. conversation became muted and everyone turned to gaze at the ocean, as if drawn by the same primal urge towards the sea. a lady with steel-grey hair hanging to her waist and a sequence of trembling chins struck up a running commentary on the passing coastline, uniting the rest of us as her audience.

for half an hour either side of vandenburgh air force base the coastal scenery was punctuated by rocket launch towers and radar installations. california has the power to make even such surreal intrusions seem as much part of its landscape as a rock outcrop or river. shortly after point conception i watched a pair of whales breach the surface close inshore and send twin fountains of steam rising from their blowholes.

almost a decade ago i performed one of the canonical american journeys driving down highway 1 along the coast from san francisco to san diego (photographs here). it was a magnifient experience, particularly the stretch down the big sur coast. ever since then i’ve been yearning to travel the same route by train.

in los angeles i’m looking forward to visiting my friends paul and sarah who moved there a couple of years ago. i’ve always felt slightly afraid of the city. the prospect of traffic-infused suburbs stretching to an infinite horizon and a perma-tanned culture of insincerity have been enough to keep me away. but it’s high time i brushed off these prejudices and explored for myself.

these have been happy months. the trampery is doing great things, i feel in harmony with myself and a new romantic focus has appeared in my life. the only note of sadness has been learning of the death of robin murray, a remarkable economist and human. i met him at an event on democratic innovation hosted at the very first trampery building in 2010 and we became friends. his childlike curiosity, brilliance and compassion reminded me of michael young. now he is gone i realise how much i will miss his advice.

my journey continues.

: c :

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