Beginning at the old San Jose Southern Pacific Station – now re-christened the Diridon Station in the mania to honor retiring politicians, thus adding immeasurably to the confusion of travelers (where the heck is Diridon? And what happened to San Jose, where I need to get off?)
In front of the station, a horde of middle-schoolers, with half a dozen smiling chaperones (will they still be smiling at the end of this trip?) They are training to Los Angeles. Some are dressed for the 45-degree chill in the San Jose air; some are dressed in T-shirts anticipating LA weather – or maybe its just that the pre-teen metabolism is indifferent to cold.
We queue up to get an overnight parking pass, and are greeted by a smiling “San Jose volunteer host” who asks us if she can answer any questions, and is elated to learn that we are embarking on the Coast Starlight to San Luis Obispo. “It is on time, so just wait here, and I will come to escort you to Platform One when it is time.” Wow – this is a welcome improvement, and certainly beats the airport.
The train is, in fact, a few minutes early – a first for my Amtrak experience. Onto the train – the uniformed conductor assigns us seats in the coach car (not, thank hevvin, the one in which the pre-teens are traveling), and lets us know that we can pick any available seat in the adjoining dome car. We stash our suitcases and immediately go to the dome car, where we find seats nicely angled for looking out at approaching scenery and windows that have been freshly cleaned. Fellow passengers include a large family of Amish, men and boys in dark trousers and suspenders, girls and women in white caps, busily occupied with their embroidery hoops.
We coast out of the station and past the back yards and graffiti-coated underpasses of central and south San Jose. The sun is bright, the sky is blue, and even the graffiti looks vaguely festive. We have had recent rain, followed by a cold snap, so we take off down a valley coated in electric green new growth, below snow-dusted hills. We travel alongside the freeweay for awhile, easily keeping pace with the southbound traffic, while pitying the jammed northbound lanes.
We ease our way through Morgan Hill and Gilroy, postcard pretty in spring green, past the newly planted strawberry field in their plastic coats,past artichoke fields in various stages of maturity, through Elkhorn Slough with egrets and avocets strolling under the towers of the power plant at Moss Landing, making our first stop at Salinas. I imagine John Steinbeck leaving from this charmless station to explore Cannery Row or start his Travels with Charley – it seems like a good place to be from rather than at.
Our turn in the dining car comes soon after Salinas. The “table cloth” is white paper and the “china” is plastic coated cardboard, but there are flowers on the table and ample cloth napkins. We are seated with two young men, one vaguely Hispanic-looking in a sweatshirt and knit cap, the other fairskinned and preppily attired. The first was on his way to El Paso, taking time off to back up his little brother, a boxer with a fight scheduled who needed “someone in his corner. He’s my little brother – what else could I do?” He took his cap off, revealing a shaven skull. “My dad was a boxer, my uncle too; I’m kind of the black sheep, going to college.”
The second was French, on an exchange year at the University of Vancouver. He had been in Canada since September and would be returning to Paris in April; meanwhile he had been doing his best to see as much of the exotic west coast as he could – Banff, the Yukon, Seattle, San Francisco, and points south. He had visited New York several years earlier, and “this is a different world.” His English escaped him and gestures took over as he tried to explain his meaning.
By the time we had finished lunch, we were through Paso Robles and climbing up the Cuesta Grade, through tunnels, looping around 180 degree curves, with the Coast Highway at first far below, then finally paralleling the track as we eased into San Luis Obispo.
Why are we in SLO? Because I craved a few days when I did not have to drive. By train we arrived, by foot we traveled about 7 up and down blocks to our bed-and-breakfast, trailing our wheeled suitcases behind us like balky pets. (Number of curbs without cut-outs for wheeling – 5. Number of steps up to the door of our B&B – 9. Number of steps up to our second-floor bedroom and parlor – 22.)
One look at the cozy sitting space at the Garden Streeet Inn, with light filtering in through stained class windows and comfy chairs inviting a good curl-up with one of the books from the library wall, and I was ready to nest. But it was still afternoon, with plenty of daylight hours to go, so we stashed our stuff and stretched our limbs and set out to explore.
Next: Higueroa Street by night and by day.