I recently took an Amtrak train to San Francisco with a good buddy a month or so ago. We were going to a SF Giants game at AT&T Park where they were also celebrating 50 years of the Grateful Dead. Yeah, it's kinda nice that our home town baseball team happens to be from a city that also has an outrageous rock scene that dates back to the 1960's. We're fairly blessed too when it comes to local rock luminaries hanging out and sometimes singing the national anthem.
I've seen Jerry, Bob and Vince all sing together (which goes back a ways since two of them are now truly gratefully dead), Huey Lewis and the News, the two guitarists of Metallica doing a stunning instrumental version, and Santana, also doing an instrumental, to name a few. We also routinely get Steve Perry, the former lead singer of Journey, directing the crowd while they sing his song, "Don't Stop Believing."
This 50 year Grateful Dead Anniversary was a little different national anthem wise. One of Jerry's daughters, Annabelle Garcia, was going to sing a duet with Bill Walton, former NBA superstar and long time Dead Head. Only the powers that be I think shut Bill's mike down after the first few warbled words left his mouth. Either that or he shut it down himself and lip synced when he figured out he was really just a retired athlete and had no business trying to sing the national anthem. Anytime. Anywhere. Even in the shower. He couldn't hold a candle to Annabelle, who did an exceptional job, making those high notes soar.
They also gave away free anniversary t-shirts, which we were going to forego except we ran into a chum who was like 20th in a line of about 25,000. So we hung with him and his wrecking crew for a while, but it was still an unbelievable fiasco. The shirts didn't arrive until about the 2nd inning. Some folks waited in line the entire game, we fortunately only had to wait about an hour.
I bring up the shirt because I wore it on the train ride back the next day. A youngster in his early twenties saw it and then excitedly exclaimed he just saw the Dead when they recently played in Chicago. He asked if I was there.
"Nah," I said, "I saw them quite a few times back in the 70's at Winterland."
"Ah," he responded, "The real Dead. With Jerry and everything."
"Yep," I smiled, "Weren't nothing like it."
My lovely wife and I also took the train to the Bay Area another few weeks back for our youngest Grandson's first birthday. It was the third weekend in a row we were traveling to the bay for family obligations and I just didn't want to drive the Daytona 500 speedway one more time.
The train offers a lovely diversion from all the non-signalling tail gating speed freaks that have now become rampant and the norm on California's highways. Which brings me to my road way pet peeves.
This one kills me. Every time. The folks that turn on their signal as they begin their turn. Like, why bother? We already know, NOW. It would have been nice to know about ten seconds ago though, when you first began your speed descent and dropped me down to 10 MPH..
I love most of the folks out here in the country on two lane roads. If someone is behind them, and they know because they actually use their rear view mirrors, they'll flip their blinker on about a quarter mile ahead of their upcoming turn. I'm not quite that insane, but if someone is behind me, and I know because I actually look in my rear view mirror too, I'll give them a good hundred yard heads up. If I'm dropping someone behind me almost down to zero mph I think they have a right to know why.
Like, is there a hazard in the road up ahead? A lost child? A vagrant dog? A goat? A clown with a kazoo?
Folks, use your mirrors and give the person behind you some advance notice if you're turning. Please. Especially if it's me.
Speaking of the person behind you, what's up with the prevalence of tailgaters these days? I mean, it seems like everybody in this state is now driving like they're from Southern California. All the time. You used to have to go down there to experience that wide open assault. Now it's everywhere. Ever wonder why when there's a highway accident these days it usually involves a motorcycle, a semi and 57 cars?
And then when you do leave a reasonable space between you and the car in front of you someone comes along and pushes their booty right in. I remember one time we were traveling north up the middle of the state on Interstate 5, returning from a Thanksgiving feast at our son's in San Diego.
Traffic was fierce, and if you left an inch of space between you and the car in front some butthole pushed their way right on in. I remember honking at one fervently crazy bitch that almost clipped our front bumper. She backed off but then gave me a dirty look like I was the bad guy. I mean, W.T.F. What's wrong with people anymore? Whatever happened to safety and respect?
People, be safe. Leave at least four seconds of space between you and the car in front of you. If you're tailgating anywhere above thirty mph you cannot react in time to avoid hitting something. Like the idiot in front of you that just hit his brakes because he's turning. Had he used his signal properly maybe he saves both your sorry asses.
Then there's the vapidly vacuous pathetically unaware moron blithely cruising along on the two lane highway just below the speed limit. Then, when a passing lane appears, he speeds up, making passing him more difficult than it should have been.
It happened to me so often when I was on the road for a few years that I began to think these really were mean people. Passive aggressive BS. But when I looked at their faces as I passed I became aware that these people had not a clue. They had no idea another vehicle was within a hemisphere of them, let alone behind them. They were just mindlessly ambling along in their own little world. When a passing lane comes along the asphalt expands. So they feel safer or something and speed up. Or maybe they feel they have to obey the speed limit signs which bumped up the limit by 10. But then they ignore the ones that say "Slower traffic use right lane."
I dunno. I'm baffled.
And then more than half the time you end up having to pass them in the right lane, you know, the lane slower vehicles are supposed to move over to.
I don't know about you, but I hate it when someone is on my rear. I pull over as soon as it's safe. Or, if we come to a passing lane I maintain my same speed and pull into the right lane. Pretty simple, really. It's just a matter of, um, paying attention when you're behind the wheel of a couple ton, steel angel of potential death.
Then there's that same oblivious chimpanzee behind the wheel on a three lane freeway, passing the car next to him at the same speed. Only, you know, if he's going the same speed he's not really passing anything. So then you get a snarling pack of Daytona drivers stacking up behind the chimp and the asleep at the wheel next to him.
In the meantime, the right lane is completely open for miles sometimes. Which is where you'll find me, zipping along in the lane less traveled.
My daughter and I have developed a couple alternative routes as far as getting from here to there is concerned. Several routes designed to completely avoid Interstate 80.
Nope. I'm not sharing. Otherwise, well, you know, they won't be alternate routes anymore.
In the meantime, we, as a family, have discovered Amtrak. From our locale here in the Sierra Nevada Foothills we can pick up the train at three fairly close locations.
We can do the Capitol Corridor, which is the commuter train that runs mainly from Sacramento to ultimately San Jose, a couple of ways. We can drive to Sacramento, an hour away, and pick it up almost any time. They run just about hourly out of there westward as they do eastward.
If we don't want to drive to Sacramento, we can pick up the Capitol Corridor in Auburn, a scant thirty minutes away. But they only have two times of the day that the train runs all the way to Auburn. An early morning commute leaves westbound around 6:30 and arrives from it's Eastbound run around that same time in the evening. You can still park at the Auburn station at any time of the day and then take an Amtrak bus down to Sacramento. That, also, runs almost hourly.
Another option, the one I most recently took, is the Zephyr, which you can pick up out of Colfax, Ca, a scant twenty-five minutes away. The Zephyr runs from Emeryville in the West to Chicago in the East, with a zillion stops in between. There's a few stops between here and Emeryville too, but they typically only last a couple minutes.
Before I forget, an absolute must watch hilarious train adventure movie is the 1976 Silver Streak. This flick is the first of several combining the genius comedy buddy team talents of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. It also stars a rather gorgeously steamy Jill Clayburgh. If you haven't seen it, check it out.
I went on this last train adventure all by myself. I was ultimately heading down to AT&T Park for a father daughter date to see the Giants and Dodgers. It was her idea. She'd never seen the Dodgers and bought the tickets for us as a Father's Day present. As a matter of fact, I got three pairs of Giants tickets for Father's Day this year. Like, someone must think I'm a fan or something.
The morning of my departure my world was frantic as usual. The train was passing eastbound through Colfax around 11:50 AM, so I did have time to get most of my chores and obligations done. I came up here to the office about an hour and a half before my train departure time, about an hour before I was planning on leaving for the station.
I opened up all my usual half dozen windows, and on one of those intuitive hunches I thought I'd better check my train status. They've been known to run late. I might have a little more time.
Or not. Holy cow, the Zephyr was running 45 minutes early! I had no time. I had to fly. Good thing I'm OCD. Or ACDC. Or whatever I am. I had pretty much been ready to go four days prior. Checked and re-checked.
It's two lane country highway all the way to Colfax from here, and I made pretty good time cruising at 45-50 MPH with minimal resistance. You know, other cars. It was all going great until I hit the part that had a flagman and about fifteen stopped vehicles in front of me. Aaaargh! I looked at my watch. I was still five minutes away.
"I can still make it," I thought.
"Or not," I thought again.
Somehow I managed to breathe throughout the five minute delay and then resumed the eight minute, 25 MPH, fifteen vehicle parade ride into Colfax.
Fortunately it's a very small town and the train station is right in the middle. Once I arrived I breathlessly discovered something that every train traveling novice should be aware of. Your train will NEVER be ahead of schedule, they will never leave before your station's scheduled departure time. They may be late, but they will never be ahead of schedule.
Whew! So then I had an extra forty-five minutes of time to kill. So I bought a Powerball ticket and discovered the little town of Colfax is named after Schuyler Colfax, who was a US Representative and Vice President under Ulysses Grant. Apparently he was somewhat instrumental in getting the railroad over the Sierras. Or something like that. The old dude is also remarkably popular. No less than eight towns across the country are named after him. So is a county or two. Go figure.
The train was right on time and the conductor met me at the bottom steps. I was the only one hopping aboard from that one horse country stop. He scanned my ticket and within a minute we were rolling down the tracks. I ambled up to the top deck and easily found a double window seat on the side I wanted. The train was not crowded at all.
The Zephyr is different than the Capitol Corridor in a couple ways. First of all, there's no Wifi. No interstellar surfing, better enjoy the scenery. The Cap Corridor does have Wifi, probably because it is primarily a commuter train.
The seats are different too. Although spacious and graced with a number of tables, the leg room on the Cap Corridor has nothing on the Zephyr. Basketball players can lounge in comfort on the Zephyr. There's almost enough room to play a basketball game between you and the seat in front. It's quite expansive, with reason, of course.
That would be because many folks, those traveling economically and who don't want to pay for a sleep car, can actually set up camp and sleep in the seats. The back tilts waay back and there's a number of inventive leg rests and pull outs to make what I will surmise is a decent enough sleep space. If you're into public slumber.
The actual train ride is ultra fabulous. It's like riding in a 1973 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, only better. The only thing really missing was a sub woofer, which, to be effective on this sized vehicle would need to be about the size of Canada. Then we'd a been really happening.
The scenery coming down from the Sierras is lovely. I guess that's why I live here. It looked tinder box dry, but still lovely. We passed right by Auburn and picked up speed as we came out of the hills, blazing right into the Roseville station. A quick stop there and we were off to Sacramento.
There's a big difference in train stations in all these towns by the way. Colfax and Auburn are quite small as you might imagine. Auburn's almost non-existent as a matter of fact. If you need to you can buy a ticket from a machine. There's no human interface. Colfax, on the other hand, has a lovely little station with marginally attractive humans. The station includes a wonderful little museum, hearkening back the days of railroad yore and lore.
Roseville also serves as a freight train station and hence has about 147 tracks compared to the 2 at Auburn and Colfax. The human station at Roseville looks small but nice, although I've never been off the train there. I have no idea if they have a machine or humans, marginally attractive or not.
The Sacramento station is obviously the largest of all four, an old brick anthem to the industry's glory days. The interior is currently undergoing a face lift with tarps and scaffolding everywhere. There are a number of humans at the Sacramento station.
It's also a few hundred yard hike from the actual Sacramento station over to the railroad tracks. Plug that into your equation if you're running behind. You'll really be running, trust me.
Access at the other three stations is easy. They all sit about twenty feet from the tracks. Parking is also free at Colfax and Auburn, not sure about Roseville. It costs $10.00 a day to park at the Sacramento station.
Parking at Colfax or Auburn and taking the Amtrak bus to Sacramento ends up being a bit cheaper, but it also takes a little longer than if you drove your own vehicle to the Sacramento station. The bus has stops in Roseville and Rocklin on the way to Auburn. Plus, if you have a lovely wife like I do that is traveling with you, it's doubtful you'll be taking the bus. Anywhere.
Every town you pass through, whether little or big, offers it's own kind of railroad track ambiance. Typically commercial and industrial areas of a town or municipality surround the railroad tracks. And usually all the crap of those business get stacked in the back near the track. Cause you can bank this: there ain't no front yards facing the track, it's all back.
You also get an invasive look into many decrepit residential back yards. It
seems like most of the homes sitting on the railroad tracks are rentals. Or are owned
by individuals whose potential interest in landscape or home improvement is
usually obliterated by the first beer of the morning. Their sole mission of the day will be to go down to the corner liquor store for more beer and a pack of cigarettes.
There's also a lot of homelessness along the tracks, which is where the previous homeowner is going to eventually end up if he doesn't stop smoking cigarettes. Those things are expensive. Ramshackle tarps, tents and plastic shanty's dot the train track landscape, as did a lot of surrounding litter and many tell tale blackened remnants of spot fires. It appears many of our homeless population are a bit derelict when it comes to flames.
Once you're a mile or so out of a town the homeless camps cease and unabashed glorious scenery comes back into view. The train flew over the Yolo Bypass, keeping abreast of the many Datona drivers jockeying along the interstate. There's a quick stop in Davis and then out to the bad land flats behind Vacaville and Fairfield.
Initially we cruised by tidy crops and orchards, with many classic old farm houses dating back to the 1920's. Some of them probably in the same family since that time. Then we pushed into quite fertile delta land, with water filled canals winding around and through. This terrain was mostly uninhabited except for a number of well maintained duck hunting clubs situated here and there.
We crossed over the Carquinez Bridge, which is the largest railroad bridge West of the Mississippi. The bridge was not as nicely painted as, say, the Golden Gate Bridge or a Norman Rockwell painting though. As a matter of fact, most of the massive steel beams seemed to be sporting an inordinate amount of rust.
I guess since each one is about sixteen feet thick there's a little room for decay.
I like the right or north side of the west bound train because it offers extraordinary views of the Carquinez straight and shoreline. Although the south side of the train affords a better view when passing through the flat lands and delta. The good news is that I've yet been on a train where I couldn't move around to catch the best view. There's always been a ton of room. Which is why maybe the bridge is rusting. They need more passengers.
Once you cross the bridge you cruise along the south shore of the straight along the Carquinez Straight Regional Shoreline, an East Bay Park comprising of 1415 acres of bluffs and shoreline between the towns of Crockett and Martinez. Both town have rich histories dating back to the late 1800's. You can still see the remnants of many old rotting piers, a throwback to an almost forgotten commercial fishing industry.
That side also offers a great glimpse of the still functioning wonka land looking five story C&H Sugar plant, which sits right between the tracks and the shore. C&H moved in to what was originally the Old Star Mill in 1906, the brick building dates all the way back to 1880. That refinery still processes over 700 thousand tons of cane sugar
annually. You barely get a glimpse of the C&H sign when you're traveling the highway, you get a great view of the entire facility when cruising Amtrak.
The train also passes through a huge oil refinery mega palooza land near the town of Martinez. Massive, towering tanks of flammable ooze are everywhere. A maze of all sorts and sizes of pipes connect these to smaller, steam emitting orbs that are interconnected to another maze of pipes and fantastic things. It's endless. A million miles of metal connecting everything to nothing. It's a petroleum matrix.
Apparently there are two refineries in this vast lola palooza land of crude, noxious vapor. Shell owns one, and it's been in operation since 1915. It sits on about 1,000 acres and converts 165,000 barrels of crude oil a day into automotive gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, petroleum coke,
industrial fuel oils, liquefied petroleum gas, asphalt, and sulfur.
The other refinery is owned by Tesoro. It sits on 2,200 acres and converts 166,000 barrels of crude oil a day into cleaner-burning California Air Resources Board (CARB) gasoline and CARB
diesel fuel, as well as conventional gasoline and diesel fuel. The
refinery also produces heavy fuel oils, liquefied petroleum gas and
petroleum coke. What ever that is.
Martinez is also a train stop, and from there it's a scant thirty minutes into Emeryville, our usual point of debarkation. Both the Cap Corridor and Zephyr stop there, with the Cap continuing on all the way south to San Jose. But it's the end of the line for the Zephyr, which turns around for its return trip to Chicago the following day.
If you're going to San Francisco this is also your stop. From Emeryville you take an Amtrak bus over the Bay Bridge into the city, where there are a couple different bus stops. It's actually a pretty darn efficient system.
Our kids live in Oakland, about ten minutes from the Emeryville station. Our son in law works about thirty seconds from the Emeryville station. He's taken the late Cap Corridor numerous times up to Auburn. It's a family affair.
I had to wait a few minutes for my daughter to pick me up, my train actually arrived in Emeryville about forty minutes early. So I
guess it can arrive early when there are no more passengers to pick up. She'd had a pretty hectic day, dialing in three kids and their separate after school activities. All that fun stuff. We hit her house, met the babysitter and then were off on our date.
It was a quick ten minute drive down to Jack London Square, where we parked the car. Then we ambled over to Heinhold's First and Last Chance Saloon, which has been open in its current location since 1883, making it the oldest bar in the San Francisco Bay Area. It definitely has a lot of charm and history, and looks a little out of place amid all the newer finery that Jack London Square has now become. It's a little quirky, but definitely worth a stop and a sip if you're in the area.
From Heinhold's we ambled over to the ferry terminal. There we boarded a boat with a couple hundred other Giants fans, it would drop us off right outside the ball park. It's actually cheaper to take the ferry than it is to park at the stadium. By the way. Plus the ferry folks validate your parking ticket so that becomes free. That's ferry by the way, not fairy. Which, by the way, I have no problem with. Depending on what we're talking about.
The only negative for me is the ferry arrives about ten minutes before the first pitch. I breathe baseball, so I don't mind sipping some stadium air for a while before a game begins. Ten minutes ain't a lot of time, we had to hustle. I got the brats, she got the drinks. We found our seats. We also lost the game.
We were still in the playoff hunt going into that game, but we couldn't afford one more loss. Which happened. We had to walk out at the beginning of the ninth. We were behind 8-0 at that point, Kershaw was cruising and there was NO WAY I was going to sit there and watch LA celebrate their division clinch on our field. No way.
So we listened to the crowd instead as we waited to board the ferry for the return trip. There's also a ferry that runs up to Vallejo, so there ended up being a couple of lines forming for the ferries. When folks wearing LA gear asked specific line location questions I sent them in the wrong direction. It was the least I could do.
Although the game was terrible, I cannot say how wonderful it was spending some time with my darling daughter. Alone. It was simply marvelous. The last time we did it was a couple years back when we went to see "The Sound of Music" at the Julia Morgan Playhouse in Berkeley. We used to date all the time when she was a little girl.
We didn't have to do anything specific back then. Just go somewhere. Anywhere. Down the block. Just spend some time alone with that curious, innocent little mind.
Sigh. That's enough right there to make a grown man cry.
I spent the night on the living room sofa and was greeted in the morning with the warmest of hugs by another little girl who has also captured my heart. Then I got to be a part of that amazing pre-school week day/work day morning when chaos and pandemonium abound. I saw the grand kids off to school and then was dropped off at the train station for the 9:00 AM departure of the east bound Zephyr. A kiss and a hug and I was on my way.
There were about fifty people waiting to board the train, which wasn't that many considering the size of the beast. Some were going all the way to Chicago, many, like me, stopping somewhere in between. Your destination predicated which car would be your "home" base. Once you were "ticketed" at your seat you were free to roam where ever.
There was, however, a crew car which was off limits. Also, if you weren't sporting a sleeping car ticket that neck of the train was also off limits. Still, there was ample room to roam. They have a restaurant car on the Zephyr for sit down meals and they have a snack type cafeteria bar on both the Zephyr and the Cap Corridor. You can get sandwiches, snacks, sodas, beers and cocktails. Besides the dining car, the Zephyr also has an observation car, with floor to ceiling windows. All aboard!
The bathrooms are quite spacious as compared to air travel, although I didn't notice any showers for those long haul over nighters that are riding economically in coach status. Without ample perfume that stretch could become onerously odorous. There are, however, showers in the sleeping cars.
It turned out to be the same train crew that I had the day before. They're on for the entire fifty-one hour haul, with Chicago being their home base. They get about five hours of sleep a night according to the cafeteria and bartender guy. They stay pretty busy too, there's quite a few folks getting on and off the train as it moseys along.
For the most part I have not had a problem as far as the trains running on time. Unless you consider the old, frail guy in a wheel chair that died somewhere between Emeryville and Sacramento a problem. That'll slow you down by a couple hours while they wait for the coroner to come. Trust me. Where's Angela Lansbury when you need her?
I think I'm going to begin a love affair with the train. It's a nice, comfortable and roomy ride, and a lot more scenic than a plane. I mean, how many cloud formations does it take before they all look alike?
It's not much more expensive than driving, especially if it's just one person traveling. I think I paid about $20.00 more for the convenience of train travel for my round trips to the Bay Area.
I think there is probably enough train travel around this country for a book. Just traveling the states. I could be the guy to do it. I just need to find an editor willing to pay me to do it. In the meantime, I think I would like to take the Zephyr to Chicago. For a steak. And maybe a deep dish pizza.
That would be a great start.