Friday, February 27, 2009

Riding the Rails: Day 1 Stop'n'Go'n'Stay-Stopped

I had made sure I had almost everything packed the night before. I was hoping to use my smaller suitcase, and while everything would have fit going there, well, no room for yarn when I came back! So, bigger suitcase it was.

Union Station I did, of course, miss the 84 bus I had planned to take. I had wanted to get to the station about 45-60 minutes before the train left at 10:15, even though I had already bought my ticket online and wouldn't need to check bags. I just couldn't remember if the 84 still ran every 15 minutes or had started into the once every 30 minutes part of the day. Crap. I waited. It had definitely been at least 20 minutes. I got worried. I probably shouldn't have; even if it was going to be 30 minutes, as long as traffic wasn't awful, I would still get there in plenty of time. The 84 wasn't the fastest way to get there, necessarily, but it had the virtue of stopping several blocks from my home and then stopping right at Union Station, so I wouldn't have to worry about dragging my suitcase between connections. Still, I was beginning to consider calling a cab, or even just going back and getting my car and driving when the bus came. Yay! And even though on paper the trip is supposed to take close to an hour at that time of the morning, we were there in about 45 minutes, so I actually walked into Union Station just after 9:30.

Union Station -- Impressionist version!
Lobby of Union Station: Impressionist Version!
I had printed out the ticket reservation paper with the barcode on it, but I had a hard time finding the automated machines they told me to scan it on to get my actual tickets. I finally found them beyond the ticketing booths, all the way over next to the first-class entrance, completely hidden from casual view. That was kind of lame. The machines are pretty much the same ones airlines use. At least it read my barcode the first try, too. I have a problem with that sometimes, even though my printer has reasonable print quality. I got my tickets and then headed down the non-first-class entrance to the train platforms. Union Station may have a beautiful faux Art Deco-style lobby, but the tunnel is just ugly, painted concrete. I seem to recall several years ago it was even uglier unpainted concrete, though, so at least that's an improvement.

lucky13 The Coast Starlight originates at Union Station. Even though they made a PA for all the Coast Starlight passengers to head to the platform, when I got there they hadn't even opened the doors yet. The conductors for each passenger car had started giving out seat assignments, though, although they do it on the fly, so it's a little slow, but it's flexible. I got a window seat on what be the west side of the train, which meant I would get a good view when we were in sight of the ocean. They finally opened the doors and I somehow managed to haul my big-ass suitcase up the narrow staircase and squeeze it into the overhead bin. (I later realized there was a big bookcase-style luggage rack right next to the door, which I hadn't noticed somehow.)

I was in coach class, but man, those seats have serious leg room. More even than when I flew first class. They were about the same width as a first-class seat. I started looking around for a power outlet, which the Amtrak site had said were "limited" in the coach section. I interpreted "limited" to mean "one per several people." In practice it seemed to mean "zero per any number of people." I had plenty of time to look around and could not find a single one. My cheap-ish laptop was good for maybe 2 hours max of DVD watching. I was slightly annoyed.

A woman sitting directly behind me had for a duster-length semi-sheer black sweater over her outfit. The side seams didn't start until about a foot up from the bottom, which meant the side sections were very flowy. It was very attractive, but absolutely impractical for travel, as the panels kept flowing into the armrests of seats along the aisle. This would happen every time she got up to walk somewhere, until she remembered to gather the front together. As the thing was too sheer to provide a great deal of warmth, um, why the hell didn't she just take the thing off, at least when she wasn't in her seat? Behind her were two schoolteachers who talked non-stop. Thank some techno-deity for headphones.

Train view #1
The first view from my window
The train was scheduled to leave at 10:15. At 10:14, according to the platform clock, they closed the doors, and we were moving a minute later. The car I was in was actually very empty. No one had a seatmate unless they were traveling with someone, and most seat pairs were empty altogether. We went out of downtown, then along the Los Angeles Drainage Ditch, then through the Glendale Station (not a stop -- this train doesn't stop all that often, actually. Well, not as scheduled, but as we'll see...) It passed between the Burbank Fry's and the Bob Hope Airport, then a little ways later, it... stopped. For several minutes. Um, ok. This ended up becoming an all-too-familiar situation, at least until we hit San Luis Obispo, which is about the half-way point to San Jose. Sometimes we would be stopped for a really long time (15 minutes or more). Sometimes they would announce a reason (usually waiting for a freight train); sometimes not. sigh

Next stop was Van Nuys. Once we got near the western edge of Los Angeles County, you're in relative-Boonieland. There were even houses with donkeys or horses in the backyard. My lunch "reservation" in the dining car came right about the time we entered Ventura County. Since I consisted of a party of one, they seated me with a couple. They were nice people, but silly kind of in the way people who haven't been together a long time but are comfortable around each other get, but not in a gross, touchy-feely way. They were going up to Santa Barbara for the day. She went often, but he had never been before. "Are there good places to eat there?" "Oh, yes." I hadn't actually been in almost 15 years, although I had lived there almost a year. I don't think it could have lost its general atmosphere in that time.

It turns out the woman worked for Amtrak in some kind of public relations capacity. She said some of the eastern lines had even somehow started adding wi-fi to their cars, and when I remarked on the lack of power outlets in coach, she said that was the number one thing people were requesting. The man kept giving the dining car manager a good-naturedly hard time because we still hadn't been in sight of the ocean. "You said there would be an ocean! Where'd the ocean go?" "We'll start seeing it when we get past Oxnard."

Amtrak Ocean View #1 Fortunately we started seeing blue before the lunch was over. (Service was actually extremely slow, and the car was not crowded.) We could see the Channel Islands in the distance We could also see all the oil drilling platforms surrounding the Channel Islands (still a huge controversy, as the northern islands off Ventura and Santa Barbara counties are uninhabited nature preserves). After I got back to my seat, I started taking lovely, blurry pictures.

Amtrak Ocean View #2
Amtrak Ocean View #3 I was at lunch so I don't remember if Oxnard had been a cough "smoking-break stop." Van Nuys had not been, but Santa Barbara was. I can't say I have all that much sympathy for people on that nicotine leash. At any rate, we were stopped at Santa Barbara for several minutes, and even after they had loaded everyone up and closed the doors... we were still stopped. They announced that we were waiting for some train to move off our track or something. Ok. After we finally left, I spent about an hour looking and my window and reading my book. I decided I would take a nap. Insomnia has been bothering me lately, I think mainly because I lack a regular schedule and don't have regularly-draining days anymore, and I had only managed to fall asleep and stay asleep for about 4 hours the previous night. I put the half-reclining footrest up and slept across the two seats, flopping sides twice. I wouldn't call it deep sleep, but I did feel better. When I heard the conductor say the car would get a lot more crowded now that we were pulling into San Luis Obispo, I decided I might as well sit up.

to be continued...

No comments: