Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Far West

A few hours after Matt and I arrived in Los Angeles, we found ourselves roaming the Santa Monica oceanfront, walking towards the kitschy Pier along a path with houses whose ocean views are blocked by the staircases they installed to get from deck to deck. I jokingly observed, after seeing a long board rider plug his board into a gun-like triggered motor take off down the pathway with his bulldog standing on with him, that we were indeed experiencing one of the most foreign cultures in the world. He laughed, as he always lovingly does, at my outrageous ability to exaggerate a simple oddity of west coast human existence.

But I do not relent on my observation that we are immersed in a foreign culture out here in the Far West. Los Angeles was one thing: With its hiking in gorgeous green parks that abut an urban sprawl cloaked with smog and haze, creating a wildly odd juxtaposition of rural against urban; the ever-creeping encroachment of the wealthy desire to live further and further up the slopes of delicate mountains; and its endless string of freeways and highways that rush cars from one superficial site to another. There is the bohemian delight of Venice Beach where the scent of weed looms in the cool breeze, the hipsters of Silver Lake where I enjoyed a proper martini, and the rather generic and banal surroundings on Hollywood Boulevard immediately neighboring the Grauman Chinese Theater. LA was, nonetheless, fabulous: a great Semester at Sea reunion and a visit with a friend who now lives in a different place than me for the first time in 24 years.

The highlight of our LA jaunt was by far J. Paul Getty’s museums: The Getty Center and the Getty Villa in Malibu. Both brilliant homes for renowned art collections, the Getty Center I found more apt to visit for its gardens and buildings as opposed to its collection; some might disagree. Towering and sharp modern sandstone edifices jumped out from the bright blue sky as undulating walls surrounded formal gardens. The verdant cliff below added to the grandiosity of the Richard Miere structure. Being the antiquities lover that I am, I was in heaven at the Villa, created after a Roman Villa in Herculaneum that was buried and therefore preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Colonnaded walkways and fresco paintings, herb gardens filled with pools and bronze sculptures, and pocket rooms of galleries filled with relics from one of our species greatest cultures. Both were locations of time well spent.

Now we are in another wild world of the Far West, traversing some of the most stunning vistas on the west coast, arguably the globe, on the Pacific Coast Starlight (PCS) train number 14. We have a lovely little roomette on the east side of the train, a delightful cabin steward named Lorna, and a fabulous waiter named James in the dining car. We departed at 12:15pm Pacific Standard Time from Los Angeles’ stunning Union Station. Built in 1939 in a mix of southwest and art deco styles, the station is a beacon of style refinement. Towering arched porticos flanked both sides of the station that looked out onto courtyards with adobe-colored tiles lining the grounds, subtle mosaics in burnt earth tones on the wall panels were complimented by the elaborate signs, lighting fixtures, exaggerated coffered ceilings, and sundry mix of design elements, all exuded a well-refined deco execution. It seems to be one of the last great Union Stations of the country, and its precision in design proves that the styles had been perfected during the nearly 20 years of building—and re-building—some of America’s greatest train stations.

The joy of long distance train travel comes from not being in a rush. We’ll get to Portland whenever we get there. In the mean time, this 27 hour ride is a vacation in and of itself—a moving hotel that provides entertainment and comfort, constantly changing views, and a relaxation that all other types of travel diminish rather than enhance. This is Matt’s first long-distance train trip in the US and he’s thrilled. I am too.

Yesterday we settled into our roomette, taking in the southern California coastline, watching as the landscape morphed from the gritty industrial side of LA and Burbank climbing south to a more pleasant Simi Valley, Santa Barbara, and onto San Luis Obispo as we horseshoe curved along the bluffs of the Pacific Coast. With oilrigs just off shore and the Channel Islands sheathed in a California fog, we toasted our complimentary bottle of champagne and then opened the full size bottle we packed with us. We had lunch and toured the train, with its Parlor Car, Dining Car, and Lounge Car all available whenever we wanted to stretch our legs more than the room permitted. The most exciting part of this train is the Parlor Car. The PCS is the only train left in the country where such a car exists. Great swivel lounge chairs line windows that arch almost all the way around the car and petite dining tables provide sleeping-car passengers with an alternative dining option as well as an afternoon wine tasting of local wines and cheeses. Tasteful train music also fills the air; Van Morrison is playing now, but jazz, classical, oldies, and big-band era tunes have played too.

This morning we awoke to a strikingly different landscape. Pine forests and steep snow-topped mountains encase the two-story train that hums and shakes along. Rivers and frozen swamps fill farmed valleys bespeckled with dilapidated houses and farm equipment; patches of snow dot the orange-brown ground caked in pine needles. A bald eagle flew by earlier. “Ladies and Gentleman, may I have your attention please! Next stop, Chemult, OR. Chemult, OR, coming up shortly.”

We’ll lunch shortly, and wine taste again this afternoon, read and play cards. And perhaps have a sip or two of whiskey before debarking in Portland this evening.

Why this country has forgotten about the joy of train travel is beyond me. The world is eclipsing the United States in rail transit—both generic and high-speed—development and has for decades already. I heard President Obama said this is our generations chance to have a “Sputnik moment” in his State of the Union address (which I also heard was a success). I have no idea what he was referring to, but I think those energies should be directed to investment and creation of transportation infrastructure, with a focus on railways, NOT highways. It seems part of the reason American’s disregard rail is because of a selfish desire to do whatever you want, no matter the cost or consequence. Buy big SUVs to drive one person to work; fly back and forth on short-leg flights that are served just as well by rail; and a forgotten notion that this country should strive to lead in everything—no matter that cost--and that includes rail development. But no. People would rather carry their guns to grocery stores and truly believe that taxes are for bad, when really they’re for public benefit.

I’ll stop there--Our seating time has been called for lunch.

[Writer’s note: Contrary to posted advertisements, the train did not have wireless. This is being posted from a couch in Portland.]