For a moment, looking up from my cappuccino and away from Steel Wheels, all seemed marvelously clear. In my mind, certain cosmic forces had coalesced near Yosemite National Park, and damned if I wasn’t going to forge them into change. Hovering over my mind’s scene in the lower Sierra was the former director of Caltrans, California’s Department of Transportation. Good thing all of these disparate bits were coming together, for not everyone had the ability to synthesize strains of thought this far-flung and unrelated…and thank God for me. Thank God for cappuccino. Think God for…leaving me alone for a few delusive moments of caffeine and a sun-heated table at Peet’s.
After which, of course, I bounced my wheelchair home down the Great Asphalt Way that leads to my apartment, Live Oak Ave. to others, Old Man River to me. Home being where a good citizen cranks up his word processor and launches into a seething op-ed about killing social amenities. Until there is a failure on the verbal launchpad. For whatever momentary high, caffeine and desperate hope had produced at Peet’s…was now over. None of it was really a thought, just a fancy. Something that defied words. Meaning, as any writer knows, a mental fragment that was too insubstantial to matter.
Which, it seems to me, has much to do with bypassing grief. I simply have no other response to reading in the newsletter of one of California’s rail advocacy groups – there are only two, by the way, with numbers totaling 15,000, max – that the Obama administration is targeting long-distance trains like the Coast Starlight for destruction. Oh, it’s not that simple, of course, but the writing is on the policy wall. And there’s no reason for it. The idea is a bad one. And it represents the erosion of civil society, as a matter of fact. And it makes me despair.
The leap into this fantasy involving Yosemite…well, there is more to it than fantasy…is not so unsound as it is premature. Things don’t work that way, not for me. Grief is the first step. Anger is the second. Action is, if I am lucky, the third. But only in this order. These days I simply feel so impotent so much of the time that I leap into action fantasy. Which is much like action heroes, the stuff of dreams and a substitute for grim truth.
As for Yosemite, well my conceit is simple. Scenic highways like the one leading to the great national park are roughly analogous to trains like the Coast Starlight, Amtrak’s 36-hour run between Los Angeles and Seattle. Scenic and slow, largely suited to tourism, although all sorts of travelers can be found there. The road to Yosemite also leads to Oakdale. Not to mention scores of other little towns. Just as the Starlight also conveys travelers from, say, Sacramento to Klamath Falls, Oregon…which might include someone who is too old to drive, doesn’t want to…or would rather not be on a bus. Not to mention college students…Davis, Eugene, Santa Barbara, Portland…the route is a sort of campus express. Except, of course, that is not an express. It is damned slow. But so is the highway to Yosemite. Which is not in danger of being closed, one notes, and is heavily subsidized by the taxpayer and has a much smaller percentage of its costs contributed by its users. Amtrak pulls in at least 40% of its expenses through fares.
As for the Caltrans director, he had the chutzpah years ago…around 2001, as I recall…to state the obvious. There is a tide in the affairs of men — when the graph line showing population density and urbanization intersects with another line showing property values. When people need transportation, yet land costs too much for roads. So you look to trains. We are there, California’s transportation director explained more than a decade ago.
And the Coast Starlight? Which creeps along cliff-hanging tracks above Eugene, Oregon, at all of about 25 mph…what does it have to do with rail travel for urban westerners? Trust me, a lot. The Coast Starlight kept rail travel alive in three Pacific states from 1972 until around 1990 when regional trains sprang up along parts of the route. One line connects urban Southern California cities with seaside towns as far north as San Luis Obispo. Another runs through Oregon and Washington to Vancouver, British Columbia.
And now? The Coast Starlight still keeps the rail dream alive for places like Redding and Chico, California. More important, it addresses an entirely different set of travelers: sightseers. The train is packed throughout the summers. Even now, in February, I wouldn’t guarantee a sleeping compartment for July or August. The train is enormously popular, known as one of the great rail journeys of the world, in fact, among Europeans…who somehow know what it is. A rail trip more or less out of the undeveloped world. Oddly staffed by Americans. With spectacular views and a bumpy day and a half ride through Western America.
So why preserve it? Tourism? Transportation for…the rest of us? I don’t know. And all these reasons sound abstruse. Hard to communicate. A better analogy would probably involve Penn Station. One of the world’s great rail terminals, the place was torn down because, well, it seemed embarrassing. So old. Out of date and no longer needed. Trains being a thing of the past, after all. No one could have imagined that Amtrak would be growing as fast as it is today and that a decent terminal in New York City would come in downright handy. Just as a future passenger rail network in America might target tourism – just like thousands of remote highways in Western America. All appealing arguments, but do they hold water?
Problem is that in today’s America, it doesn’t matter. It is the era of special interests. Clamor for what you want, and you may get it. Don’t justify anything. Short of snatch and grab, it’s yell and demand. Sobering, loss of innocence. And here we are.