Starlight Left Santa Barbara on time, noon November 20, for the scenic
ride up the coastal bluffs overlooking the Pacific
and the Channel Islands, and a few offshore platforms,
boats, surfers. High surf promised and delivered! Very impressive waves.
The route takes us through Lompoc and Vandenberg Air Force Base, where the long line of missile-launch sites was idle this day; a fellow passenger mentioned the large areas where the gorse and heather were punctuated by sandy dune-like areas. Said these were left over from missile explosions during test firings. Some were right next to the tracks...
Amtrak's food service has improved in the days since the changeover from the old Santa Fe and other lines to Amtrak. (Actually, the Santa Fe refused to let Amtrak use the "Super Chief" name for the Chicago-to-Los Angeles train because Amtrak's food service was considered not good enough. They were right - we sampled both.) Good variety, jolly dining-car crew, and too-large portions! Prime rib, red snapper, other nice dishes available. The dining car host was particularly entertaining, with his banter injected into announcements of meal seatings and dining-car schedules.
Once leaving the familiar coastal flatlands, this trip is pretty slow for a while; winding through foothills and then higher terrain. Sunset occurred about San Luis Obispo, with the train already two hours behind schedule due to rough track and obstruction by Union Pacific freight trains (after all, Union Pacific owns the rails...).
Dinner with two new acquaintances; one mature lady who had just lost her husband, and a college student from Univ. of California at Santa Barbara, traveling to San Jose for Thanksgiving. Good conversation all around. A good night's sleep after the intricate and sometimes downright funny process of remaking the tiny compartment into sleeping quarters and worrying oneself into sleeping togs. Superman at least had the relatively luxurious space of a telephone booth for changing!
During the night, through somewhat familiar places like Salinas, San Jose, Oakland, and then places not yet visited like Davis, Sacramento, Chico, Redding.
Awoke Wednesday to mountain scenery -- the Sacramento River snaking down its rocky bed amid huge pines and huge rock formations. No animals in view, but it feels one should see mountain lions and bears, at least. Then a view of 14,000-foot snow-capped Mt. Shasta partly shrouded in clouds, and large open spaces with the low-growing alpine plants.
A train announcement about this time informed that we were about two hours late, but that if we had been on time, we would not have seen this scenery because it would have been dark! Interesting spin on schedule unreliability!
Another announcement called out Grass Lake, only partly filled with water this time of year, and still very grassy indeed. This is the highest elevation on the trip, about a mile above sea level. In the slow descent to cross the Oregon border and into Klamath Falls, the high-country farms become more numerous, with large herds of cattle and the mountain peaks in the background. What might be a timber processing facility is the first industrial site, and the high-tension electrical wires and smokestacks are a reminder that the train is out of the mountains and back toward "civilization."
Some standing water around Klamath Falls; perhaps former canals where log rafts were brought in for processing? Some ducks have also moved in. The scenery on approach to Klamath Falls is once again a reminder that the railroad typically runs through everyone's "back yard," whether residential or industrial. Many warehouses and work areas. Lots of formerly-used sites now either being made-over or abandoned; it is interesting to speculate on just how these half-remaining facilities were once used. The frequent railroad work areas, special work-trains and huge special-purpose machines indicate that maintaining the lines through the rugged country is difficult and dangerous.
One of the crew members said Klamath Falls is a dying town. All farming at this point, and that is failing because of water problems, apparently. The state is buying water... However, around the town there was much standing water, and lots of irrigation infrastructure. What has changed? Drought? Don't know. Maybe the crew member had bad data. Passing Upper Klamath Lake (a lot of water!), saw a pair of Bald Eagles eyeing the water for a meal, no doubt. Ducks, Canada Geese, Herons. Later a lunch acquaintance said the lake itself is dying -- environmental problems...
Weather this morning has been generally gloomy, but with no wind or rain. The Klamath stop allowed for a short time off the train, and it was brisk, but not overly cold -- something like Athens, Ohio, in November.
On north, passing to the east of Crater Lake; stopped at Chemult, OR (for some reason, people got off the train...did not seem to be much there). It was raining a bit; first rain so far. Expected, because of a large weather system hitting on the Northwest.
Lunch with a couple from Santa Barbara, and again good conversation, this time about llamas, miniature horses and ostriches. All three of these critters are farmed near Santa Barbara, and previous visits there resulted in wonderful experiences seeing the tiny horses chasing each other about like cats, apparently having a great time. It is strange for Midwesterners to see fields full of llamas (pack animals and wool) and ostriches (taste like chicken?).
Drizzle turned to snow as altitude increased again. Evergreens covered in the familiar white patterns from the "fourth season" back in Ohio. Beautiful waterfalls down the high-side of the tracks; the train moves in and out of tunnels and along high shelves cut into the mountains. There are rock-fences, fitted with alarms to alert trains of rockslides. (Most of the time, that is. This train on the previous day hit a boulder on the tracks...) Snow shelters protect the tracks from avalanches, in the really high country.
Then descending back into mixed deciduous and evergreen forests with steady light rain, leaving the snow behind in the higher regions, and returning to ferns and broadleaf foliage, but still with those lovely streams winding through it all. Now and then an actual paved road with crossing gates and all, a reminder that surrounding the forests are towns and people...
Railroad stuff again: There are frequent "wye" constructs, used by the railroad for turning things around (a sort of railroad "3-point turn"). However, the stem of the "Y" is very short. Seems to be a way to turn the locomotive around, perhaps in case of a line blockage by snow or rockfall? Maybe for use mostly by maintenance crews and their equipment? Along the way, also saw an old railroad water tower; seems these must be rare now, and this one was modified (no spout to pull down to fill the steam-engine tender with water).
And at a rainy Thanksgiving with daughter and husband and two loyal dogs in their new Seattle location, all the home--cooked goodies are here, the turkey so done it's just falling apart, and being thankful for good fortune and good family and special friends, a luxury not shared by all in this difficult year. Rain stopped in the early evening, so a neighborhood walk with the dogs in the lead... Several long-distance phone calls to involve the rest of the far-flung family.
Friday dawned sunny and bright. So, it's off to downtown Seattle for Thanksgiving parade [Photos 1, 2, 3, 4], Pike's Fish Market (yes, they do throw fish!) [Photos 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6], the first Starbuck's store, and other adventures. Then, driving tour of the Seattle area; art in lobby of building in which we parked, many newer buildings, restorations; still lots of unique stores interspersed with the chain outlets. There are troubles, of course, due to the hi-tech meltdown in the past couple of years, but generally the town seems vibrant and alive. Lot of water everywhere, of course, with the attendant fleets for pleasure and work, and the necessary land-side facilities. Everything seems nicely kept and clean.
Then home and a long walk with the dogs in the Magnolia neighborhood and in Discovery Park, which is reminiscent of Pipestem or Bluestone trails. Beautiful waterfront homes on the bluffs, all different and very nicely landscaped. Wonderful view of Seattle downtown, Space Needle, and distant Mt. Rainier.
Lunch next to Puget Sound at Alki beach, at Duke's Chowder House. Wonderful lobster chowder and a good Pinot, with whitecaps and the snowcapped Olympic Mountains the scenery beyond the Sound. Nice.
Back to Amtrak on Sunday morning for the return trip south. The Coast Starlight train is an Amtrak composite of three former lines including the old Coast Daylight and two others which served portions of the west coast north-south route. In 1971 Amtrak formed the Starlight, and equipped it with parlour, sightseeing and dining cars; wine tasting, movies, and short presentations about interesting areas along the route are all featured. Breakfast and lunch are open-seating, but dinner is reserved seats, time-scheduled.
The parlour cars have come and gone over the years, and they are back now, some of them recovered from scrap yards and refurbished. When your own accommodation is tiny, it's nice to be able to stretch out a little, see out of both sides of the train, and have a glass (or two...) of wine in big comfy chairs.
Movies enroute: Saw one, an old Castle Films documentary/commercial for the Coast Daylight train, probably shown as a short subject in theaters in the 1930s. Interesting views of the earlier California coastline. Equally interesting dress and attitude. For example, a coastal area covered with sea lions was described as "a million dollars worth of fur coats just having fun."
Another high-morale crew on Amtrak. Sample announcements: "...Now, we have a full train today. If that bag you have on the seat beside you is to stay there, you'll have to buy it a ticket. Suggest you put it in those baggage racks we paid so much to have designed for the purpose. Your bag will meet others and make friends. They may vacation together (perhaps without you)."
"...if I were paying what you paid for those sleeper rooms, which include meals, I'd eat everything in sight to get my money's worth. This isn't a seven-day cruise; you may gain a few ounces, and you can work that off. Eat!
From Seattle, south along Puget Sound toward Tacoma, traveling between the Coastal Range (created by uplift) and the seismic/volcanic Cascades (both invisible today due to fog...story of the trip so far, sadly). We will follow the Coast range clear down to Vandenberg Air Force Base just north of Santa Barbara, but the Cascades leave off a little further north (near Redding, CA).
Union Station in Tacoma was built in 1911 and is now a courthouse, but it has a history, as Tacoma was once the western terminus for the northern branch of the Transcontinental Railroad. Its architect was the same person who designed New York's Grand Central Station. Nice picture here.
Volcanoes: From the north, there's 14,000-foot Mt. Rainier, truly huge, with two steam vents at the top and the nation's largest glaciers on its slopes. There's some current concern about warming at Rainier, causing lahars (ice/mudslides). Then 11,000-foot Mt. Hood at the Washington/Oregon border just south of the Columbia River, and Mt. St Helens, truncated to 8,000 feet or so by its 1980 explosive eruption.
Just after Mt. St. Helens erupted, flew Portland to Seattle in a small aircraft just slightly higher than the remaining summit. The destruction to the north was absolute, and even past the first ridge line, wherever there was a low spot in that terrain, the gray ash and fallen trees could be seen on ridges further north, exactly in the projected shape of the "low spot" closer in. Awesome power.
Others we hoped to see moving south were Mt. Washington and Mount Jefferson, followed by Mount Shasta once back in California. To underscore the fact that we're traveling on the geologic "ring of fire", lava domes near Black Butte and San Luis Obispo were mentioned as targets for tomorrow.
Unfortunately, the cloudy weather obscured the volcanoes completely on this trip.
There are islands in this part of the Sound, one of which, MacNeil, is host to the oldest existing (1850) Federal prison, and one with a cruel past history. The entire island was once deforested to provide a visible zone around the prison proper, to foil escapees. Still operating, the prison is supported by ferry from the small town of Steilacoon, on the mainland.
All engineering students must have been exposed to the story and film of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, built in 1940 and destroyed by harmonic oscillations in a windstorm only four months later. One fatality, a dog; his master was going back out on the bridge to retrieve the dog from his car when the bridge collapsed, after "galloping" wildly in the wind. The film is truly riveting. Bob remembers being shown this film at Illinois during freshman engineering orientation, with the message "...engineers can make mistakes too ... be careful." Continuing after his move to Ohio University, electrical seemed to him a little safer than civil engineering. Took several pictures of the bridge built on the pilings of the original; nice-looking structure, resembling the Golden Gate. The old bridge structures are still in the water, forming an artificial reef frequented by huge numbers of octopi.
An excellent wine-tasting event on the train, with a nice Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, and a White Zinfandel. Very knowledgeable parlour car host made the event most interesting, starting out with the story of the European switch to wine as the water quality went bad. The wines he served are blends (no date on the bottle), made for Amtrak. The Chardonnay was very well balanced between sugars and acids, with a very even effect on the tongue. Dry whites - good with appetizers, salad course. Reds - main course, sweet wines, dessert. Note the cabernet he served goes well with chocolate! The only one that does, apparently.
Reds have increased tannins from the skins, which can be softened either by aerating (let it breathe an hour before drinking, or at least swirl it a little before drinking), or by aging.
Now headed for the mountain trek through the Cascades. Understand there was a storm after we passed through last week, and indeed more snow was in evidence this evening. Problem sleeping because of unpredictable room temperature. It is cruel to include a temperature control in the control panel that does not work!
In the morning, lower and flatter lands; and, sunny! Too bad weather obscured the high peaks, yesterday, but maybe next time.
Passing to the south and east of San Francisco Bay, saw the salt ponds that were made out of the wetlands in the shallow clay-bottomed south end of the Bay (a mistake, of course, since the wetlands are more valuable than the salt, we now know; restoration is evident in places). Salt being harvested once the ponds are evaporated; large piles of raw salt visible, along with the "portable railroad" unit which lays down a short section of track using a weird sort of fork lift, for a scooper to use in gathering the salt. Then scoop and track are moved and the harvesting repeated without leaving permanent track in place (the salt would soon eat the steel track). Huge flocks of birds line the banks of some ponds (in particular stages of evaporation?), eating the brine shrimp that hatch out (at specific levels of salinity? In the past, fed brine shrimp to the tropical fish at home, and they required a specific mix of water and salt.)
Across the south tip of the Bay, Moffett Field and its huge airship hangars are visible. The largest (with massive movable clamshell-doors at each end) is now a museum, large enough to hold airliners on display, and said to be able to support its own weather systems inside. Over the years, Bob has spent time at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett working on navigation systems and has toured the hangar facilities. Illgen Simulation, where he's VP Operations, has a large contract through Ames, so the visits continue.
Then along the tracks, a true ghost town, "Drawbridge," deserted not because of a gold vein that gave out, but because of pollution. Today just a group of skeletons of homes and buildings, the town held its last resident (called "Shotgun Annie) in 1976. The town was on the south shore of San Francisco Bay, and originally, the tidal motion took the town's sewage away. As the Bay was filled in for agricultural land or diked for salt ponds, the tidal effect was reduced, and the town's sewage got into its drinking water wells, and that was that.
The stop at San Jose was lengthened considerably because the police took off the train a non-U.S. citizen who had no passport or other identification and who was making "strange" comments to train crew members...
Then south into the Santa Clara Valley, still along the Coast Range, which has now divided into the Diablo Range (San Joaquin Valley to the East) and the Santa Cruz Mountains on the Coast.
Crossed the San Andreas Fault near Gilroy - visible in the Santa Cruz range as a small canyon.
Seals and herons on the mud flats at Elkhorn Slough, a protected wetland.
Gilroy - Garlic capital of the world. Went to the Garlic Festival here a couple years ago. Like a county fair, but with garlic everything -- ice cream, candy, you name it. Also a lot of trinkets and "fair" stuff. Fun. The whole town smells like garlic.
Salinas - Lettuce capital of the world.
Castroville - Artichoke capital of the world.
A scheduled stop at Salinas was lengthened while many announcements and a search was made for "Mr. Johnson" whose stop this is, but who has gone missing. More mystery! Finally, we continued south, and later the sleeping car porter said Mr. Johnson had indeed been found, in another car, rather oblivious to the problem. He did get off the train at Salinas after all...
Stopped at the Mission San Miguel Arcangel on a previous auto trip on U.S. 101. This time, passed it on the rails. This self-contained mission was completed 1797, and is the only one of California's 21 missions not restored. Frescoes and masonry all original. Still operating. Reminder of the Kingston Trio's song about adventures involving Mission San Miguel and La Doña Maria Elena Cantrell.
Another wine tasting:
Domaine St. Michelle Champagne: Champagne was invented by Dom Perignon, and patented internationally. U.S. was in the middle of Prohibition at the time, and so did not sign the patent. We now produce and sell Champagne domestically, legally ignoring the patent. We can't sell US "champagne" overseas due to that international patent. So to avoid costs of keeping separate stocks, vintners now call it "sparkling wine" or just "cuvée brut" ("best dry") or cuvée "extra dry" (which means sweet when applied to champagne.) Ignore the word "cuvée' -- it just means "our best". Understand?
Dom Perignon also invented the familiar champagne cork. Three layers, for protection of the carbonation. Increase in wine sales have put pressure on the cork industry. Cork is not grown in the US, and it's getting expensive to import it. Wineries are going to screw-tops or plastic corks, but traditionalists resist (even though the new methods are better, functionally).
Tip: To preserve carbonation in champagne for about 72 hours after it is opened: put the handle of a spoon in the bottle! The cold spoon will cause the colder (heavier) carbon dioxide to remain in the bottle neck, making a gas seal to prevent release of the CO2. Neat!
All wines -- check the cork! No cracks, moist on one end, and not dried out or moldy.
Fume Blanc - is Sauvignon Blanc aged in oak barrels. Little more body, buttery or toasty taste, etc.
Balance: Important here as with Chardonnay. Locally, the long hot days bring up the sugar level, and the long cool nights raise the acidity level.
Riesling - Does well in the
cool coastal climate - Mirassou Monterey riesling, very new. Very nice
wine - excellent finish. Riesling can vary from dry to sweet; this is very
slightly dry and just excellent tasting.
The Coast Line stage route parallels the railroad; it originally served the missions (21 of these in California). The stages were the first public transport. Despite what we see in western movies, they were not romantic at all. Stages were built to hold about 9 people, but were run with 15-29 people. No bathroom... Some stops were at hotels, some at holes in the ground -- bathroom stops (sound familiar given today's highway rest stops?). We saw one stagecoach stop on the north side of the Cuesta Grade -- just some shacks now. Several original stagecoaches are preserved at Santa Barbara's museum. We've decorated these with floral arrangements each year for the Festival of the Horse. Great fun after a round of margaritas.
The Coast Line escaped being gobbled up by Wells Fargo, and it ran until 1901, when the coastal rail line was completed. Trains were much more comfortable, and replaced the stagecoach lines almost immediately. (They had a habit of doing that. Back in Ohio, the story was that the railroads blew away the canals as transportation for people and goods, but earlier, more like 1850..
At the Cuesta Grade, rail, highway and stagecoach all are at the same place (for the same reason - the low point through the mountains). The Grade gets the train over the mountain range, and we arrive at the ocean once again.
Volcanic domes (7 sisters) starting at San Luis Obispo -- note the "big rock" in Morro Bay is a lava dome, not a rock in the uplift geologic sense. Rare, in the Coast Range. Horseshoe curve near the sisters gave a photo op of sun, mountains and train (through dirty windows, unfortunately). Deer in the fields nearby. Another memorable sunset as we stopped in San Luis Obispo. Then to Pismo Beach where the horizon colors just got better and better, and to points further along the coast .
And back to Santa Barbara more or less on time, November 25. Nice trip. Next Amtrak cruise is to San Diego in January 2002.