July 10, 2009

Traveling to Black Sheep Gathering, part 1

According to the AAA TripTik Travel Planner, one can drive from my hometown in north coastal San Diego County to Eugene, Oregon, site of the Black Sheep Gathering, in under 14 hours. Of course that's non-stop driving, no potty breaks, food stops, gas fill ups or sleeping. And averaging about 65 miles an hour. Its around 950 miles. Well, I wouldn't normally travel like that anyway, that's just silly. I'd stop someplace like Redding to stay the night and then finish the trip in the morning. That's alot of sitting on my fanny not knitting. And going up California's Central Valley where the scenery is rather repetative for most of the drive. Sigh.

So I decided to do something different, and I took the train. It cost maybe a little less than gas and 2 nights in a hotel (one night each way). It took longer, but maybe not so much longer. A total of 30 hours including layover time in Los Angeles's Union Station. I slept in a large reclining seat (ok, I sorta slept) surrounded by people I didn't know. I couldv'e gone with a Superliner Roomette, but for the price increase for just one person, it would've been cheaper to fly. I sat in the observation lounge and knit and talked to other travelers. I ate in the dining car and talked to more travelers. I saw scenery that can't be seen from the highway. I did alot of knitting.

The dining car food is a little better than coach airplane food. The cafe car food is a notch above vending machine, but you can get alcoholic beverages and fresh made coffee. The other travelers area an interesting slice of life. Some don't care for airplane travel, some are retired and enjoy the scenery, some live far from airports and some enjoy the fact that every so often, the train stops long enough that they can get off and have a cigarette. Maybe its the type of people who choose train travel, or maybe its the fact that were not so crammed together, but the folks I saw traveling seemed more relaxed and interested in talking to their fellow travelers.

My trip started on the Pacific Surfliner, more of a commuter train. The seats are closer together, and at least the morning I was traveling, people weren't very talkative. But it was early on a weekday morning. I couldn't find a window seat with a west (ocean) view and so took an eastside seat. The Surfliner travels right along the beach in the San Clemente area, but after that it's residental, light industrial and retail scenery.

Camp Pendelton in the Morning
In Los Angeles
Historic Union Station in Los Angeles - the ramps to the trains are down the tunnel at the other end.
Ticket Counter - Only for movie sets now
Across a courtyard is the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District Building

At Union Station I waited to change trains and board the Coast Starlight, the train that would take me to Eugene. Traveling by train is full of paradox. For instance, I booked and paid for my trip online, but the boarding pass and seat assignment I received at Union Station was a hand printed strip of paper pulled from a stack of similar strips. There are no bar code readers; a crew member comes by and uses a paper punch on your ticket. At smaller stations the crews use clipboards and hand drawn seating charts to determine where newly boarded passengers might sit.

There isn't much scenery to speak of leaving Union Station, one of the crew members did use a public address system to talk about points of interest in the area. Things get more scenic once the train enters the Semi Valley area, goes through Camarillo and Oxnard and then finally the train runs along the coast again.

Somewhat south of Santa Barbara

Shortly after we left the Santa Barbara station the train stopped, right around El Capitan Beach State Park. It didn't feel like a hard stop, but I could smell the hot metal smell of overworked brakes. Maybe twenty minutes after that, a crew memeber came by and mentioned that we'd hit an animal and the train would continue after an inspection was completed. Five minutes after that, a passenger came by saying the train had hit a person. Everytime someone mentioned it, the story changed; it was a man - it was a woman, a surfer - a hobo, they died - they made it to the hospital alive and were expected to recover. I never did confirm what happened, but we sat there for over an hour and a half.

Things felt a bit surreal after that. No reliable way to confirm what happened. The train was off schedule and no way to change that. My stop was still hours and hours away and there was nothing I personally could do to change that. Couldn't try a differnt route, skip stops, none of the things I would consider trying if I were driving instead of riding. I had access to food, bathrooms and a place to sleep, so I just stopped paying attention to time for a while, worked on my knitting and chatted with the people sitting nearby.

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