Tracking Down Starlight
Amtrak Coast Starlight
Choo Choo! All aboard! Usually that would be the signal to play with grandpa's old Lionel train set or Santa's Christmas Express. This time, it beckoned a new kind of play - a train trip between Fullerton and Oakland, California on the Coast Starlight. Even the name conjures up visions of gazing into a motion picture of starlit beaches. What an adventure! Chuck and I were like two little children in anticipation as we raced down the freeway to the train station. "Are we there yet?" would have been the echo from past kid trips. The sluggish traffic made us grateful that our excitement had gotten us out the door early that morning.
We arrived at the Fullerton Train Station in plenty of time to take photos, read the plaques proudly displayed around the station, do some people watching and forage for a parking space in the nearby parking structure. After capturing the obvious photos, I searched for the less obvious ones and ran up the stairs of the pedestrian overpass for a bird's eye view of the incoming trains. When I turned around to catch the opposite view I saw a man frantically flailing his arms in my direction. Upon closer examination, I perceived the frantic man to be my husband and traveling companion. Yikes! He was boarding the train. I knew that it couldn't be the right train but made an instant decision that I'd rather be on the wrong train with the right man than on the right train with the wrong man.
The train's sound system rang in Chuck's ear: "Step in, sir. Do not hold the door open. This is not an elevator." I felt like a stunt double for a train scene. I grabbed the long handle by the open door and jumped inside with my camera in tow. Chuck directed me to the only available seat and I flopped down. The sprint from the pedestrian overpass could have qualified me for a marathon. Even though exhausted and out of breath, I mustered a smile in the direction of the woman sitting next to me. She glumly looked away muttering something about people like me making the train late. No wonder she was grumpy. I learned through annoyed looks and muffled complaints that she commuted four hours, five days a week on AMTRAK. If that weren't enough, she worked as an inner-city attorney. Surely, she would have to admit that riding on a fast train is better than driving in slow traffic.
Union Station in Los Angeles was a welcome sight. Because we had mistakenly taken an earlier train, we had more than ample time to acquaint ourselves with the historical building that houses the train station. There was a TV commercial being filmed there so we were not allowed to wander through certain areas of the station. "People watching" is often a coveted hobby of photographers and I am no exception. I chatted with an Amish couple on a buying trip for their store in Pennsylvania and with a couple from London on a honeymoon "holiday." The last time I was a train passenger at Union Station was when I was a child and traveled solo between Salt Lake City, Utah and Los Angeles. Obviously, I am a throwback from another generation that was a safer, bygone era. Nevertheless it, too, was a great adventure and another story to write.
Finally train number 14 arrived and the familiar "All Aboard" beckoned us to enter a new dimension of life onboard what seemed like a humongous "toy" train. Our steward, Donald, showed us to our room and brought us some chilled, refreshing cranberry juice. Boy did that hit the spot! We explored our new home-for-the-day and settled in. As the hours passed, the scenery became more breathtaking. Ocean scenes with swooping birds and sunlight dancing on the water were mesmerizing. For a few hours the foreground went racing by and the background kept our eyes at half-mast as we soaked in the tranquilizing effect of a long-awaited day of rest, punctuated with inter-active adventures. The Pacific Parlour Car and Sightseer Lounge were favorites on our jostled walk through the train. We enjoyed taking in the view from both sides of the train rather than from the one sided views of our neat little "sleepette" room. We chatted and nibbled cheese and crackers and devoured yummy sandwiches for lunch and enjoyed a sumptuous dinner. The train staff was helpful and pleasant.
Meal times meant being seated directly across the table, toe to toe, with complete strangers. Some of those strangers were very strange. All were interesting. We mingled with a love-sick tanned laborer who gazed silently out the window, a cynical school teacher, a Native American college student and a friendly younger couple enjoying an "Alaska Airlines Rewards" trip. In every case, we were the ones to extend greetings and attempt to engage these "forced on friends" in conversation. We always try to leave people happier than we find them, if they will allow it. We met a camera shy conductor that had to be tricked into being photographed. How could such a handsome fellow be so fearful of the camera?
Some train workers confided that this was one of the roughest rides they had ever experienced. Truly, the image stabilizer on my camera lens had trouble capturing still shots on a moving target! It was rocking and rolling all the way, not too unlike amusement park train rides meant to be somewhat frightening. There were many furrowed eyebrows as the train came to a stop at several unscheduled locations for "track repairs" or to let another train pass by. After the "repair" stops, we proceeded at "walking speed" for long periods of time. Such occasions no doubt contributed to the train being hours late arriving in Oakland.
Instead of a suitable arrival time, those unexpected stops delayed our arrival at the Jack London Station in Oakland until after midnight. The short walk apparent on the Internet map stretched ahead of us like a spook show runway. Gangs of guys hung around dark corners and talked noisily outside a local tavern. Although we arrived on the same side of the street as our hotel, we briskly walked over the tracks and across to the other side of the dimly lit street to avoid any confrontation as we passed through the maze of semi-inebriated men. Walking with false confidence past their domain, we returned to the right side of the street and anxiously headed into the Jack London Inn. We were grateful not to have to sleep on the street like a homeless man we saw hunkered down for the night next to the Inn.
Our room was adequate with an inner-city view of an old brick structure within "spittin" distance. We had to keep the curtains closed to avoid feeling like we could be the subject of conversation for the workers whose reflections could bounce off our windows.
After some shut eye, we welcomed a new day and headed to a nondescript room stocked with complimentary breakfast selections. We reached for a crumpled newspaper that had been left on a table, prayed over our breakfast flakes and dived into what we felt may be our only sustenance for the next few hours. After haggling over transportation issues, we finally found a willing chauffeur to drive us to the most beautiful spot in the area - the Oakland LDS Temple site.
The Temple is situated on a lush hill overlooking the entire San Francisco Bay area. It has a breathtaking view. Kind hostesses at the Visitor's Center invited us in and allowed us to wander through the displays at our own pace. It was fascinating to see the Family History display tracing the ancestry of President Bush and other prominent people all celebrating common kinship. Jesus Christ was the center of the entire celebration of Christianity. A large replica of the Christus dominated the lobby. The panoramic view through every window was filled with color and beauty from the surrounding hills and landscape. We felt peaceful and were slow to have any desire to bid adieu to this magnificent hilltop retreat. Gorgeous pink tulips were in full bloom and were difficult to be matched by any other creations around. Finally, a kindly elderly couple exiting the Mormon Temple offered us a ride back to the Jack London Inn and we gladly accepted. They were such pleasant and interesting people as well as the vehicle by which we were able to save the $18 cab fare. We parted company after those few minutes together as if we were long-time friends.
We spent the rest of the day on a walking tour through the Jack London Square area and photographed it more thoroughly than anyone would ever care to see. We asked some passersby where we could find the most scrumptious food in town and were directed to a "hole in the wall" eatery a short distance into town. Passing portable people pushing shopping carts full of prized possessions we began to feel somewhat apprehensive about taking a stranger's advice. There were several other choices with spectacular views of the bay that were put on the back burner for this culinary quest.
What a pleasant surprise we had when we located the recommended café! We opened the door of La Furia Chalaca and walked into a cultural time warp of pre- Columbian artifacts combined with friendly Peruvian purveyors of discriminating taste in both décor and cuisine. A beautiful American woman and her Peruvian husband warmly welcomed us and gave us a tour of the kitchen and it's delightful, native chefs. The ambiance of the tiny dining room lured you into tasting the native food whether or not you had an affinity for foreign fare. It was delicious to experience and truly tickled our taste buds. Unusual tastes and smells invited lingering so as not to be deprived of all that could be mustered from a morsel. I especially enjoyed the "Papa Rellena."
From there, we headed back to the marina to do a little California dreaming, dining and dating. We leaned over the rails marking the edge of the water and watched the boats. We witnessed the sun sliding gradually into the bay and our glance followed the reflections of colors as they spilled into the waterways and danced along the outlines of buoys and boats. We walked on the boardwalk and took in the historic contributions and documentation of the displays that immortalize Jack London, a famous writer.
Tired and foot-weary we cuddled into our coats and headed for Tony Roman's for a tummy-warming bowl of potato- cheese-broccoli soup and some fresh, hot bread. It had been a memorable day. We took those lovely thoughts back to the Inn and prepared for an early train departure the next morning.
Rising before dawn cracked, we rushed through our freebee breakfast and hurried off through the rain to catch the Coast Starlight back to LA. It was ultimately six hours late! Oh the lazy morning we could have enjoyed instead of choking down our stale donut and lukewarm milk! Instead, we were stuck with our luggage, surrounded by storm clouds. Refusing to let them rain on our parade, we stashed our bag behind the counter at the station and took off to explore the unturned stones of the neighboring block to the southeast. The only place within walking distance that we had not already perused was a plumbing showroom nearby. Were we hard up for a tourist attraction, or what? Yes! We browsed through a plumbing store and much to our delight enjoyed a wide array of beautifully designed fixtures and bathroom accessories. We decided to redo every bathroom in our home until we began to have prices quoted to us. It was definitely high-end, meticulously manufactured stuff with the look of "out of our price range."
We moseyed back and forth to the train station several times getting updates on the Coast Starlight's so-called schedule. We missed our first-class meals because there was no train there to eat them in. Finally, near starvation, we spied a colorfully painted food place through the window of the station and walked over for a closer look and possible taste. My husband enjoyed his teriyaki plate but I opted to starve until dinner. I was being optimistic about the train actually coming down the track soon.
After Train Number 11 charged through the rain and glided into view, we had further delays while a private car was attached to the end of the train. It looked intriguing and we wished for an opportunity to explore it. But the dark clouds had gathered and the rain pressed down upon us as we hurried to our appointed spot near the rails, and then boarded the train with a new steward. We enjoyed a deluxe room on the return trip. How grateful we were for that as our delayed trip home necessitated all-night travel! Since the storm seemed to conspire with the train's tardiness to steal all hopes of lingering sunlight we had a small window of opportunity to enjoy the homebound scenery. We missed the favored coastal views entirely.
Not being wine-bibbers of even the least degree we opted to skip the wine-tasting invitation on the northbound trip. However, we determined that from a journalistic point of view we should witness what the ritual was all about and "look but not touch." The comedic presentation was entertaining and we met a lovely couple from Idaho in the process. The woman was Jewish and had been transplanted into a Mormon community in the potato state. She had plenty of fun stories to tell.
Looking through the windows into the black of night, the only view we saw was our own reflections. Since that was the best view available, we decided to call it a night. We settled into our little cabin on wheels and were rocked to sleep by the sway of the train.
Upon arriving at Union Station we thanked our steward and said goodbye to a wonderful "choo choo" experience. The station was abandoned and bore no resemblance to the hustle and bustle we had been immersed in there two days before. No trains were coming anytime soon so a bus was waiting to take us on the last leg of our trip to the Fullerton Station. The drowsy drive went quickly and we were soon back to square one. No matter how fun the trip is, it's always good to come home. Maybe some day we can get back on track again and capture a new adventure in the world of rail travel. Until then, we'll chug along and try and keep our caboose moving forward. Hmm, I think we'll call the grandkids and see if they want to come over and play trains. Where's that old train whistle, Chuck. "Choo, choo, "Al...........laboard."
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