Rocking and Rollin' on Amtrak
San Francisco - The purpose of the trip was the trip. With Amtrak under usual pressure, there is no telling how passenger trains as we know them will exist. Sure, the high- speed Acela on the Northeast Corridor is not going anywhere, except between Boston and Washington where it is always busy. You can get from New York to the nation's capital almost as fast as it takes to go to and from the major airports for those cities. And our own Brightline, moving with alarming speed through our congested Gold Coast corridor, has a future as bright as its name.
Rather, we speak of those historic long-distance trains on the routes that built the country, crossing the sprawling plains and majestic mountains and memorialized in such songs as "City of New Orleans," "Rock Island Line" and "Chattanooga Choo Choo.” They also resulted in toy Lionel trains in the flashy colors of the Sante Fe or Baltimore and Ohio railroads, circling Christmas trees in countless homes. Those were the days before airplanes began making journeys in hours that took trains days.
Our concept was to take Amtrak around the four corners of the republic, beginning in Florida heading west and ending in New England heading south. Alas, Amtrak service to the west no longer begins in Florida. A damaged bridge a few years back had stopped that service. You have to set forth from New Orleans, which we almost did. Until a vicious and highly contagious stomach virus, which also affected five members of the family back in Florida, struck this author in New Orleans. We were half dead in bed when Amtrak's Sunset Limited, bound for Los Angeles, left the station.
But two days later, healthy again, our party flew to Los Angeles and boarded the Coast Starlight for San Francisco. It is a long day's journey into night, but before the sun sets, the train runs for miles right along the Pacific (above), often with nothing but nature between the tracks and the surf. As requested, God provided sensational weather. It is considered one of the visual treats of the Amtrak system. In a sense, it is also the most confidential. There is a long, spectacular piece of coastline that is privately owned. No roads approach the beach, so unless you are a guest of the landowner, the only way to capture this memorable view is aboard a train.
More accessible to the working classes is a stretch of mountainous track that follows as the train moves inland at San Luis Obispo. This part of the trip is necessarily slow as the serpentine track rises high above adjacent highways. There are several horseshoe curves where passengers at the end of the train can see the engines in the front, and look back and down at the section of rail just passed. The slow speed is actually a benefit, providing travelers time to absorb the spectacular views. Those views and slow pace end as the Coastal Starlight enters the Salinas Valley, made famous in John Steinbeck's fiction. The train reaches its 79 miles-per-hour speed limit as it races toward Jack London Square in Oakland, California.
Our breaks on the trip were meant as just that—a chance to detrain and relax. But they also turned out to compete with the train in terms of fun and interest. This was especially the case in San Francisco, where my brother and his family live. Frank first went to California with the Navy (he was NROTC at Villanova) and wound up getting his Ph.D. in economics at the University of California at Berkley. After time in D.C. with the Federal Reserve, he returned to San Fran as an economist for Bank of America. He also taught economics in the University of California system.
His daughter, Erin, who also has a Ph.D. in economics, is married to Eric Godtland, who grew up in Montana and received a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master's degree in industrial engineering from Stanford. He had an interest in music and, living in San Francisco, he helped form the rock group Third Eye Blind. For 17 years he was their manager. More recently, he helped longtime friend Victor Willis revive his career with The Village People. Willis is famous for writing the lyrics to “Y.M.C.A.,” the song that has attained cult status and is often played at sporting events, notably at the New York Yankees games. Their ground crew joins in with the iconic dance gestures that have long been wedded to the music.
We spent a day with this interesting guy at the family's weekend home in the Sonoma Valley. The house narrowly escaped last year's disastrous wildfire, which left so many homes in the valley as blackened foundations. The house nearest to it burned down, but the fire was stopped by the valiant work of a prisoner group, who volunteered for the dangerous work. They are good men themselves, despite their current residence.
That night we were back on the rails, headed toward Seattle rocking and rollin' toward new adventures in this century of wondrous change.