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What you learn on a train

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All images by ©IBIT/G. Gross. All rights reserved.

Rail travel has an emotional, spiritual element to it that flying just can’t match.

With every trip you take, you learn something. I just came off a day-long train trip down the California coast on the Amtrak Coast Starlight, from Oakland to Los Angeles, and it taught me a lot.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve made this run. I did it in childhood and have done it in adulthood, in Coach seats and First Class compartments. I’ve done it multiple times aboard the Coast Starlight and long before that, on Southern Pacific trains from LA to Oakland and San Francisco.

So when the train departed Oakland’s Jack London Square station, I was expecting the usual rail cruise — snail-slow by the standards of European and Asian trains, but nowhere near the relentless misery of air travel.

It met all the expectations, good and not so good. But it still managed to open my eyes to some things.

For all the ability to stretch out in a climate-controlled roomette with a bottle of Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider or even champagne (or soda, all provided by Amtrak at no charge to First Class passengers), I realized that I don’t sleep on trains.

I’m not saying I don’t sleep well on trains. I mean I don’t sleep at all. Not because I can’t, but because I’m trying to see everything along the route.

And I do mean everything. My attitude is, I paid for this view and I want it.

Of course, I had a very similar attitude when I was six, and wasn’t paying for anything.

Another thing I learned: Train travel can show you, in ways that air travel never could, the state of things on the ground.

Rails take you through a city’s industrial heart. If that heart is strong and healthy, withered in rusty abandon, or being reborn as something completely different, you’ll see it up close.

In your first five minutes out of Jack London Square station, northbound or south, you can see all of the above.

You pass all the fresh, modernistic condos of the square itself, just past the constantly busy Port of Oakland, whose row of giant container cranes defines the Oakland skyline even more than the iconic Bay Bridge.

You’ll also pass close by the old brick buildings that held many of Oakland’s once thriving canneries. Thousands of men and women used to work in these places, filling the air with the pungent aromas of ketchup, peaches, seafood.

Eventually, those operations moved overseas. Now, those canneries that haven’t been converted into lofts or studios stand empty, derelict, their walls marred by generational layers of graffiti.

The feeling you get seeing them now is not unlike standing before an open grave. You wonder if you should take off your hat.

As the Coast Starlight rolls first through the Salinas Valley and then the wine country of Paso Robles and Santa Barbara, you’ll see the impact of the current devastating drought. Dusty fields unplanted. Grapevines the color of rust.

Yet it’s that same drought that puts the gold in these “golden” hills. And all that dry ground makes the sight of a river, a lake, a salt marsh, all the more precious.

Even when it’s dying of thirst, California is still beautiful.

That’s when I realized that a train’s connection to the earth is not just physical, but emotional, spiritual.

In the countryside, it becomes part of the landscape, a neighbor to the scampering rabbit, the posturing deer, the grazing cattle. In the city, it sometimes passes close enough to people’s homes to let you peer through an open window and see what the family is having for dinner.

Cross beneath an overpass and you momentarily enter the otherwise hidden homes of the homeless, dark, grimy crevices filled with their carefully arranged grocery carts, trashbags, salvaged mattresses.

All of those moments, be they sad or sublime, connect you to worlds not your own.

You also can connect to the people traveling with you. Dining car seating may force you to break bread with strangers, but you can do so in comfort and quiet.

Aboard today’s airliners, packed like sardines into tight, uncomfortably narrow seats inside as jet engines roar and scream outside, you’re too busy suffering to chat with anybody.

Darkness brings yet another lesson: Trains move to a rhythm that changes as day turns to night. By day, a train rolls, bounces, rattles and squeaks. After dark, it dances. It glides. It rocks.

Night, mysterious, seductive night, becomes a dance partner to a train, and no more so than as it passes through the lights of a city. Always sliding away, just out of reach…but always coming back to continue the dance.

The only thing missing is music. And your old iPod or smartphone can take care of that.

Is it any wonder why trains have inspired songwriters for generations?

I’ve always said that travel is the world’s best continuing education. I’m looking forward to the next class session.

Especially if it comes on rails.

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