It is 4 PM, and somehow the day has gone. Where? Jane and I went out. Then we came back. For two introverts this describes an exhausting sequence. We took a nap. Now it is 4 PM in this, the winter of our discontent, except that it is still autumn and I am not so much discontent as impatient. I have writing to do, or think I do. Unfortunately, on the way to writing was life. No, fortunately, and this has added up to a good life. Acknowledging some serious bumps in the road, a.k.a. chasms in the street. And here we are. And there is a ‘we,’ because of Jane. So it is time to take a deep autumnal breath, stare at the clouding sky and be thankful that it actually may rain. California may not desiccate. Life, even my life, will unfold.
Where was I? Staring up at Lincoln Center in the alfalfa fields. Yes, it’s something of an apparition in the agricultural flats of north-central California. It’s the Mondavi Center, a much ballyhooed concert hall at the University of California, Davis. It’s a soaring, very urban arts palace. Inside the space opens to a six-story auditorium, all priceless hardwood and warmth. Then there’s the sound. My friends Joe and Laurel had brought me there. An alto in the university chorus, Laurel had been sending me program announcements for years. So finally I made it to a concert. Vaughn Williams kicked things off with a lushness and, simply put, a completeness of sound that really gave me a sense of where I was. In one of California’s great performance halls. And why not? UC Davis is one of America’s great universities. The place has a big, well-established music department. It deserves a fine hall.
The trip was a fine haul. I had been fretting about the drive. It is probably 85 miles to Davis. Surely, my reasoning goes, I can do this. Alone. In uncertain weather. With holiday traffic heading for the malls. And just after a late drive home from San Francisco the night before. Something in me balked. Thing is, the train is slow. It’s the weekend, after all, and the journey involves a commuter run on Caltrain to San Jose where Amtrak California takes over.
As for the latter, the journey on the line toward Sacramento mirrors the drive in most ways. Most of ‘driving to Davis’ amounts to a final stretch of flatland, unbroken and straight, on Interstate 80. At least half of the journey is spent driving through the Bay Area, gradually untangling oneself from the suburban crush of motorways…until at the very edge of the bays and rivers, the towns give up, the croplands takeover, and you drive and drive, straight as an arrow.
The train has an even harder time of it. But that’s the thing, I recalled once on board, the passenger doesn’t. For anyone in a wheelchair, the three regional lines that add up to Amtrak California, are unusually comfortable. First, there is quiet. The cars are beautifully sealed. The wheelchair spaces are ample. Even at peak periods, I can tilt back, even find a way to elevate my foot.
All of this being a somewhat unfamiliar starting point, my physical comfort. Yet having taken up residence in an aging body, increasingly, this is the place to start. How does it feel? How do I feel? This subtly draining effects of physical discomfort are, for me, easy to overlook. But one pays a price. After many years, I am beginning to realize this. So why not prop one’s paralyzed foot against the edge of the Amtrak table, stare out the window and take in the marshlands at the southern end of San Francisco Bay? After all, there’s no other way to get here. The single railway track, running along a causeway, has bay waters on both sides. One could hike along the causeway, and some do. But it’s a hell of a schlep…and so much more comfortable aboard this train. At the remote end of what is actually a huge river estuary, San Francisco Bay is petering out into marshlands. Great white herons stride about in the mud. Egrets, seagulls, every imaginable kind of duck and seabird, waddle in the shallows. Huge cattails sway in the breeze. It’s only a few miles. The track quickly beaches itself in a sea salt factory, but it’s a glorious trains-only moment.
Oh, there’s substantially more. The train slows to a screeching, 15 mile-per-hour turn, dashes to and then, rumbles through, Oakland. Desperate to extricate itself from the urban crush, it heads for the very edge of the Bay, throwing a series of S turns in and out, as it follows the shore. At Martinez there is a slow rumble over a rusting hulk of a railroad bridge. Then, at last free, the tracks blast straight through a final marsh and into the dry center of this, our fair state.
The route has a funny way of repeating itself on the way home. Although one hardly notices, such are the pleasures of reading Lorrie Moore’s latest short stories. At the very end, of the trip, that is, not the book, there is a maddening moment. Our southbound train pulls into the penultimate stop, Santa Clara, just as a northbound Caltrain arrives. Close, and very tempting, for an able-bodied person could just leap off and be spirited home. In my case, that would save a full hour from this journey. But the situation is hopeless. The train staff would have to lower me to the platform on a wheelchair lift. It simply won’t work. Sadly, I watch the Caltrain heading north while journeying, unnecessarily, south. Meaning that I have an hour or so to wait at the San Jose Amtrak station. I haul out a book, prop my foot against an oak bench…am more than somewhat surprised when a glance at the clock reveals I only have a few minutes to catch the next northbound.
Is it wasted time or calming time? Am I getting old or getting focused, or both? I am getting home, that is the thing. On the way, I stop and buy some fish. Jane will cook it. Life doesn’t get any better.