There was a time when I rode Amtrak’s Coast Starlight to Seattle. But it was another time. I was younger, my body more resilient and generally stronger. Not to mention my balance which was better too. It’s wonderful to have perspective. If one really has it. Mostly, I feign it.
The San Jose Amtrak station was my point of departure from 1997 on, when I began taking the overnight train north. In that era, the Union Pacific regularly messed with the Starlight, sending it into sidings for hours while UP boxcars rumbled past. I recall waiting in the San Jose station into the wee hours. The Amtrak train, due in at 8:30 PM, might actually materialize at 1:30 AM. The experience became a family joke. Still, making an overland trip on my own was downright thrilling. Exactly how I did it, negotiating stairs on the two-story train, crutching through a succession of sleeping cars to get to the diner…well, today the details elude me.
Of course, what really eludes me is youth. Or even the neuromuscular semblance of youth. I know this. And I don’t know it. Still, one takes heart from whatever evidence remains of robust independence. Such as my ability to balance a heavy suitcase on my lap, aluminum crutch atop that, while a commuter train deposits me on the platform at San Jose…and I make my way into the station. As for the Starlight, there it is, remarkably on time, considering the long journey from Seattle. I am heading south to Santa Barbara.
I know the beach town well. My mother lived there when I was a kid. Fond memories of riding my bike down Cliff Drive, a long steep expanse that led from Santa Barbara’s mesa to its downtown. The mild ocean climate contrasted pleasantly with the blast furnace heat of my desert home. Memory lane. The train. Its destination. With a practical consideration behind this rail trip. I don’t dare trust my power wheelchair to the likes of United Express. The planes, and their holds, are simply too small.
And we’re off. It’s all fairly familiar, this first part of the journey. I’m surprised to see marshland just north of Salinas, until I spot the twin stacks of the Moss Landing power plant. The estuary of the Salinas River. Might as well stretch out before lunch. Good thing I have a sleeping compartment with a cot. Which is comfy enough, and with relaxation comes that other thing, the eventual need to pee. I swing my legs to the floor, bend over to stand…and I can’t. I grab for the railing next to the bed. I still can’t get up. Surely this can’t be happening. Surely it can. How is it possible? Getting out of this bed, which I’ve done many a time, was the least of the problems in a 24-hour trip to Seattle.
Not now. Now it’s the essential problem, coupled with that essential need to urinate. I give up, press a button for the car attendant. Who helps me get to my feet…and back into my wheelchair where I remain for the balance of the journey.
Which is hard to accept. For years, sleeping car attendants had offered to bring me my meals…and I had always refused, crutching my way to the upper level and through the long lurching cars to the restaurant. Now, I have no choice. Traveling alone, makes this doubly impossible. But the bed. Surely I can get up from the bed. Maybe if I just tried harder and persisted longer. But no. Instead, there’s lunch on my lap. A veggie burger, still not bad aboard this train. Unfortunately, I can’t get my wheelchair close enough to the compartment’s fold-down table. Thus the lap. I don’t get that much ketchup on my sweater.
The pleasures of the California countryside are still there. Miraculous to see water in the Salinas River at the height of the worst drought in recorded history. Funny little town, Paso Robles. There is evidence of things going upscale around here. Wineries, housing, shops. The railway station seems largely forgotten, wedged as it is among derelict buildings and forgotten construction equipment. We get the hell out of town fast, then slow for the tunnels and horseshoe turns that lead to the coastal plain. Beyond San Luis Obispo, the hills roll and turn slightly green, a slight rain having fallen recently. The train leaves all highways and towns behind, taking its own route to the sea. Where it remains for the next hundred miles or so. It’s lovely bouncing along the high cliffs. The sun sets. The day ends. Santa Barbara.
An afternoon at the Santa Barbara Mission. A drive around the town’s center, then out to the beach. Arroyo Burro State Park, it is. Did my mother drive me here of a morning? Certainly she did at times. But at others, I think I rode my bike. I spent the days here on my own, or with my brother, slightly less on my own. Body surfing. Looking at sand crabs. Watching out for stingrays, which could be seen flapping in the shallows beneath breaking waves. I was a lonely kid. I never met anyone at the beach. Somehow, with my parents’ battles and divorce, I lost any sense of being a worthy or confident person. I was no one to know. And so I knew no one.
Still, the beach was the beach. And for summer after summer, this was my beach. The hamburger stand where I bought lunch no longer exists. Instead, there’s the restaurant where we eat this very night, ocean views. Sunset ocean views. After dinner, we watch the last of the day waning over the Pacific. It’s magnificently warm. Luminescent algae shimmer in the surf. And I am still alive, and more or less back to where I started.
I have to show Jane the theaters. It’s the next day, and we drive past them, one after the next. This seemed like a miracle to a kid from a small desert town. But Santa Barbara, lots of old money about, has three live theaters. All are still going strong. Music in particular. Britain’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played the Granada Theater last month. The Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields give a concert at the Arlington Theater last week. As for the Lobero Theater, it’s my favorite. I saw the Romero family play their guitars here…was it really 60 years ago? Almost. A great setting for Spanish classical guitarists, all faux colonial, with its whitewashed façade and dark oak beams. All these theaters, in fact this downtown, sprang to life after the 1925 earthquake. It’s good, things springing to life. I’m all for restoration.