Today’s question: how did people travel before they could travel? When the journey from Lark Rise to Candleford…in the historical memoir of rural Oxfordshire…seemed epic, that is to say, seven or eight miles, how was life? I think that people need to travel, at least some people. But that this really means advancing. Which to an American suggests progress and betterment, but I really mean movement. The latter being one of the scientific definitions of a life form. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. And human beings do not stay put.
And yet they do, and for most of history they have. Which means that movement in their lives must have been either internal, if they were of the introvert cast. Or situational, the acquisition of another acre to farm, say. Particularly in an unchanging world the human urge to move must have taken on forms that we can barely imagine. Or can only imagine. If conditions were static, society forever one way, social station immutable, opportunities conceived of only as gifts from God…well, one thing was for certain, no one was itching for Travelocity. In fact, travel must have been so anomalous as to have no clear place in human experience. Perhaps it was a burden. Something wrenching that would be blasphemous were it not for occasional necessity.
Which brings me to this, the month of March, and the longest travel-free stretch in my recent memory…which naturally I’m trying to remedy. Yes, I have a niece, not to mention a friend or two, in Los Angeles. The biggest city in the Western United States. Where I go every decade or two, whether I need to or not. And even now I do not really need to, more want to. But the time has come, it seems, and the month might just be this one. And I am considering the oddest of technical means. The Coast Starlight, of course.
The trip is hardly essential. That is the first thing. I can do it another time. That is the second. Los Angeles isn’t going anywhere, unless one considers continental drift. Which would be the third thing, except that it is too stupid a thought to be anything at all. Actually, I believe it would be possible to quite handily fly into Burbank Airport and see the right people. I like this idea. And the fact that I like it gets me in the right spirit. The airport’s opponents have fought its expansion for years, and also blocked its improvement. Passengers still walk down stairs and across the apron to get into the (old) terminal. A hardship from one perspective, a homey atmosphere from another. I can do stairs. I can fly home from Burbank.
And precisely why I would spend 10 hours riding Amtrak to LA…the answer may lie deep in the spirit, but is still worth considering. I have taken the Coast Starlight many times, perhaps 15, north to Seattle. And although I journeyed to San Francisco on the old Southern Pacific with my mother and brother from Santa Barbara once in the 1960s, the southbound rail trip has eluded me. So what? It is not as though I do not know what lies between San Jose and Los Angeles. Salinas, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, they are all still there. And yet the prospect of a day rolling southward seems exciting. I would discover something. How California has changed, I have changed, and what hasn’t changed at all. The last I heard, Union Pacific’s coastal tracks still had mechanical, hand-thrown switches. Meaning that guys get in pickup trucks, drive down the tracks, get out and remove the padlock, then grab the lever…and send a freight train into a siding, if one is lucky – Amtrak into a siding, if one is not. This is California, 2012. An embarrassment, yet a hugely entertaining one. Long Day’s Journey into Union Station.
What would happen en route? I would stare out the window, of course. Oh, I would bring along books, intend to read, but more likely I would stare. And what would I see? The fields along the highway leading to Hollister, for one thing. I had a client there years ago and rumbled across the tracks looking south, where the Coast Starlight came from, then rumbling north in midmorning…and if I was to stick about until early evening, would actually glimpse half an hour south of San Jose. And aboard the train, I might even miss it if I wasn’t alert, this spot where I often parked and wistfully looked at the tracks. Wanting to be somewhere else, not realizing that my life was actually getting itself together. That this was my life, and I had one. And if I wanted movement, the conditions were mine — old, slow, mechanical travel.
Today, I would sail past the highway, look at the agricultural workers bending in the fields. And continue on. For the railroad canyon leading south from Gilroy intrigues me. Multiple tracks converge in a narrow sort of California wash. Is this the dry bed of the Pajaro River? Or some other river? Such a misnomer, and a familiar one here in dry California. Still, part of my world, as long as I am part of it. Then Salinas. Then the Salinas River Valley, a very broad and mostly waterless expanse, nonetheless scoured by recent years of floods. What is it like? Railroad buffs love the big horseshoe turn about Paso Robles. I guess it’s worthwhile seeing. I am more curious to imagine what it is like pulling out of Santa Barbara, the trip to Los Angeles being full of memories of divorced parents and weekend visitations. Of heartbreak and loss and…this is the newer and more unfamiliar bit…survival.
What happens to a person arriving at 8 PM in Los Angeles…rolling about the streets in an electric wheelchair? Is there a hotel near the station? Surely it is all doable. Even if the train is late. Which it has an excellent chance of being. Never mind. For that is the other thing about travel. I have adapted to life in my mostly accessible apartment. Which is both wonderfully practical and insidiously stultifying. Time to hit the road.