Saturday, January 23, 2010

Portland to Long Beach: 20 January, 30+ hours

After the Chicago-Seattle trip, 30 hours was nothing. Slipping on down south, I saw the countryside and enigmatic towns of Oregon and northern California before the sunset. This train takes us down California, at first through the middle of the state and then zipping along the shore of the Pacific Ocean. Oregon is a beautiful state, lush and green, with dark gray mountains and deep blue rivers framing bright hollows and pastures. Just outside of Portland, there were a few mooners to properly bless the trip. This train is crowded and just about everyone in coach has a seatmate. (My seatmate, Josh, has a sister who just moved to Bloomington. We exchanged information – hopefully I can meet up with her back home!)

As I was talking about taking public transportation from downtown LA to Long Beach, where my Aunt Pamela lives, other passengers started advising me to take a taxi and even offering rides rather than take any form of public transportation. I had heard about how atrocious LA’s PT was, but I didn’t think it was that dangerous. Pamela ended up deciding to come downtown to pick me up, but I did ride the metro back to Union Station.

While in Seattle, I’d picked up a compilation of interviews with Chomsky and a book by journalist Rick Bragg, expecting to finish The Wind Up Bird Chronicles before I reached LA.

On the train, I overheard one girl say “Yeah, we had to just go and buy a house up there” as though it were a chore. “When I get back to San Luís [de Obispo] I’m just going to toke up on my Grandma’s shit.”

I moved to the lounge car to read a few hours after sunset. A woman got on at one point, and sat right next to me in the mostly-empty car. She must be OCD, I thought, as she lined her seat with cardboard and changed her doctor’s gloves twice in the process. She muttered to herself about water and decided to risk leaving the train near departure time in order to fill her bottles in the station rather than on the train. She started talking to me after we made eye contact, telling me about her gangrene; her troubled relationship with her doctor daughter; her love for God and the mansion that waited for her Up There. She was a sound engineer for Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder. She talked to me for over 30 minutes; I silently counted my blessings.

I remember Mom saying that women civilize a society. I’ve noticed I feel safer, more at-ease, when a healthy mother and her young child are near. Alone, around men that don’t give me a familiar vibe, I feel compelled to be more alert.

Northern California was covered in thick, sticky snow at times; the train slowed and even stopped at a few points to allow the track to be checked and cleared as necessary. Evergreens with what seemed like a half-foot of snow on their boughs turned bright yellows and pinks in the sunlight; when only lamps along the tracks lit the scenery, I felt as though I was on the Christmas Express or something similarly mystical.

Sunrise over mid-California revealed mile upon square mile of farmland. I found myself wondering with increasing frequency what this land would have looked like without the Garlic Capital of the World and the Artichoke Capital of the World; the Happy Cows of California; the energy plants and the occasional rows of parked delivery trucks.

From these speckled green-and-brown hills, I see mountains in the distance.

As we rolled along, I saw the Chevron oil fields. The pumps, like see-saws with a hammerhead, looked alien and scary. I thought of H.G. Wells’ tripods from War of the Worlds. They were black with orange tips, two stories high, and located in and around a dry vineyard. There are acres of these machines.

Due to flash floods in this part of the state, we were put behind about an hour and a half. We entered the Santa María mountains, far from any farms and paved roads. Not many people see this enchanted view – it’s one to make you believe in a fairytale God, or maybe Pandora of Avatar. (I read in the NY Times that some people are becoming depressed when they learn that Pandora doesn’t really exist, by the way.) Dramatic, low-lying hills with steep ravines are lined with lush green trees. Small cities seem like they rolled down the mountain slope; wet dirt roads are occasionally carved into the hillside.

It’s 3:45; more people are starting to drink. The first-class passengers get wine and cheese tastings on this train, along with a movie (Julie and Julia). I toss around the idea of buying a sleeper car for one overnight – with such a lack of activity and cramped space, I rarely sleep for more than three hours at a time in coach class.

The scene looks like a child’s sandbox, left for years and grown-over with baby grass. Trees, low-lying and thickly-leaved, stick out at all angles from the mountainsides. The peaks pull fog to them and heavy rain clouds are hanging in the distance. Sun stabs through the clouds, Lion King-style.

In the first-floor lounge, a clean-cut Asian man with a nice watch and tattoos all over his hands buys a half-bottle of wine ($13) and sits across from me. We do not speak. I had not felt like talking to anybody that day; the scenery and my reading took my full attention.

Around 9:15 p.m., we pull into Union Station. Pamela and her friend Priscilla find me in the lobby and we drive for some time on ten- or four-lane highways until we reach her endearing home in Long Beach.

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