Two bell towers ascended the sides of the arched entrance of the Santa Fe depot in San Diego, the southernmost train station in California, US. Inside, oak benches sat under bronze chandeliers. Redwood beams lined the roof’s interior.
The Santa Fe depot’s architecture, like that of many train stations in California, commemorates the state’s colonization by Spanish missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries. I was at the Santa Fe Depot in San Diego to travel by train to San Francisco, by a 960km train route that follows a road constructed by Spanish missionaries in 1769.
At 4pm on a late December evening, I boarded the Pacific Surfliner train for the first leg of my journey, from San Diego to Los Angeles, by a route called the Surf Line.
But 30 minutes into the ride, there was no surf to be seen. I knew the ocean was nearby, but I could only see scrub-covered hills without the bright colours, rounded contours or clear spaces that can make a landscape beautiful. I waited impatiently. Slowly the mounds shrank—and the horizon opened up in the distance. Was this it?
The train inched closer to the open space ahead. In a moment, a vast sheet of water appeared, with a gash of orange smeared across its surface. I held my breath and stared out of the window. The flat ocean surface was aflame beneath the setting sun.
After some 15 minutes in the ocean’s company, the train darted inland at the seaside town of Leucadia. The town’s one-storey houses hid the ocean from the train, but they couldn’t hold it back for too long. In a moment, the Pacific Surfliner rushed seawards again.
The train played hide-and-seek with the shore—threading itself into and out of small coastal towns like Oceanside, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano before scooting inland for good, depositing me in Los Angeles late in the evening.
After a sleepover in Los Angeles, I boarded the north-bound Coast Starlight train that travels to San Francisco, and subsequently goes on to touch Seattle in the north. The Coast Starlight is a progeny of two of the US’ most historic trains—the Starlight and the Coast Daylight.
The Coast Daylight started plying from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 1937. With its red, orange and black exterior, it quickly became one of the US’ best-loved trains. It was the subject of the documentary, Daylight: The Most Beautiful Train in the World, and was featured on a 1999 postal stamp depicting five celebrated trains between the 1930s and 1940s.
The Starlight plied on the same route as the Coast Daylight, but it wasn’t in the same league. This was because the Starlight was a night train and didn’t offer the ocean views that made the Coast Daylight special. In 1971, when the Coast Daylight’s route was extended to Seattle, the resulting train was named the Coast Starlight.
As the Coast Starlight rolled out of Los Angeles Union Station shortly after 10am, a family of six settled in behind me—two parents, two teenage daughters and two teenage sons. “We fly to Seattle every year—it is a family tradition of sorts. But the airfares were so expensive this year, we decided to take the train,” said Mike, the father. “Yeah, the seats aren’t easy to sleep in, but it’s just for one night, so we should be okay.”
We were sitting in the reclining seats of the coach class—and would have to sleep sitting up. We had plenty of leg room—but it just wasn’t the same as lying down on a sleeper berth. The sleepers on the train were far too expensive for Mike—as they were for me.
This time, there was none of that scurrying away from the Pacific that the train had indulged in before. For close to 160km, the train stayed glued to the coast, hardly losing sight of the bright grey surface of the water.
In the Carpinteria state beach’s parking lot, a grid of some 20 parked motor homes stood still. On the beach, some eight people in beachwear had lain down in the honeyed winter sun, with miles of unoccupied sand stretching out on either side of them. Figures in black bobbed up and down in the water—these were surfers riding the incoming waves.
No boats riddled the water. No houses pockmarked the green mountains behind the train. No signboards of restaurants, resorts or shops broke the golden sand. The Coast Starlight zipped by the water, holding hands withThe Pacific Coast Highway-Route 1 that buzzed with sparse car traffic. The enormous green mountains on one side and the infinite ocean on the other dwarfed the track and the road.
As the train snaked its way around the mountains by the ocean, the sightseeing car filled up with people. The sightseeing car is a coach with panoramic windows. Seats face outwards, and more than 25% of the car’s roof-surface has a glass ceiling. Winter sunlight poured into the car. Cellphone cameras peered out of the windows. “This is the sunshine car!” a woman exclaimed from behind me.
The train turned inland at Santa Barbara. A spacious brown hall with oak benches housed the station. This looked like a chapel, like San Diego’s Santa Fe depot. This wasn’t uncommon, I was finding out. At Santa Ana, a 12-sided five-storey tower with a tent-like roof had overlooked the pink colonnades leading to the platform. San Luis Obispo later in the day would have a gabled white cottage with a red tiled roof.
In 1542, explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo had laid claim to territories across California for Spain. Without many Spanish people to occupy this territory, Spanish king Carlos III had decided that the best way to colonize California would be to convert the native Americans to Christianity.
Carlos, therefore, ordered a Franciscan priest, Father Junipero Serra, to set up missions across California to convert the natives. Serra set up 21 missions and four chapels across California, each built to be a day’s horseback ride away from its nearest neighbour. These missions would be bases from where Serra and his disciples would visit native Americans to convert them. Over time, as these missions grew, they became the hubs around which towns and cities sprouted and grew.
In the early 20th century, these missions inspired a style of architecture called the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Most of the train stations along my route were built in this style.
After Santa Barbara, the train sprinted back to the oceanside. It whizzed by the Lompoc Surf Beach train station on the edge of the ocean. Waves broke on the shore just metres away from my window. There wasn’t a vehicle or house in sight on the train’s surf-drenched route.
The train headed inland again near Pismo Beach, a town calling itself the “clam capital of the world”. Pismo Beach is home to an annual clam festival whose highlights include a clam digging event, a clam chowder cook-off and a clam-themed parade.
As the train tucked itself into Pismo Beach town away from the water, it left behind a row of motor homes parked next to surfers and sunbathers on the beach. That, it turned out, was the last I would see of the Pacific on this trip. I’d seen 160km of the waterfront since Los Angeles, yet I found myself aching for more.
Although there was no ocean out there now, it was still hard to stop looking out. Rolling hills with almost perfectly rounded contours looked like green pincushions. Cows grazing on knolls’ steep slopes looked like they would slide down the incline any moment.
At San Luis Obispo, next to its mission-style station building there stood a bronze statue of two labourers digging. This statue commemorated Chinese immigrants who carried building materials, dug tunnels and laid the tracks to build this railway route across central California in the 1880s.
The then new train route connected San Francisco to Los Angeles by mass transit for the first time. The closing of what was called the “coastal gap” opened up freight and passenger transport at scale in 1894, triggering an unprecedented wave of trade, travel and economic growth across California.
Just after San Luis Obispo, the train negotiated a horseshoe curve on the Cuesta Grade, twisting as it slithered across two near U-turns. The train’s rear coaches stretched out behind me as the train rounded the bend.
Up ahead, the train walked a tightrope across a frail-looking bridge 85ft above Stenner Creek. This 1893 viaduct leaped across Stenner Canyon’s 950ft-wide gap. The train then dived into the darkness of a series of five tunnels, climbing almost 300m into the Santa Margarita mountains.
In the late afternoon, the Mission San Miguel, Arcangel appeared to the left. The two-storey, 1797 adobe building’s arcade stood behind its clean courtyard garden. Next to it, on the US Route 101, distinctive bells were mounted upon poles that resembled a shepherd’s crook. These lights commemorated the El Camino Real (“the royal road”), also called the California Mission trail. The poles symbolized the Franciscan walking stick used by the missionaries.
As Father Serra set up missions and chapels across California in the 18th and 19th centuries, his followers built the El Camino Real to travel between the missions. The El Camino Real stretched from the mission in San Diego in the south to the one in Sonoma in the north, covering a distance of 960km.
In the days before mass transport, the El Camino Real formed a critical artery connecting the south of California to the north. When the railway was being built, it gave a nod to history—it followed the path of the El Camino Real for most of its route.
Late in the afternoon, the Coast Starlight entered the Salinas valley, coasting beside neat flat lines of green lettuce sprawled on the brown earth. The Salinas valley, called the “salad bowl” of the US, is one of the US’ most productive agricultural areas.
But I knew it best for being the setting for John Steinbeck’s works. Steinbeck set his classics East of Eden and Of Mice And Men in the Salinas valley. Indeed, he considered the title “The Salinas Valley” for the former before changing his mind. Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row were set in nearby Monterey. Steinbeck himself was from Salinas. Today, his house is a Steinbeck museum and restaurant.
At Salinas, a steam locomotive stood beside the small two-storeyed station building. The signboard in front announced the timings of the two trains that patronized it—the north-bound Coast Starlight and the southbound Coast Starlight.
In the late evening darkness, the train passed Castroville, which bills itself as the “artichoke capital of the world”. Castroville is home to an annual artichoke festival, complete with the crowning of an artichoke king and queen. Castroville’s first artichoke queen in 1948 was a certain Norma Jean Baker, who went on to become better known as Marilyn Monroe.
It was pitch dark now. The Coast Starlight passed by Gilroy, the “world’s garlic capital”, with, you guessed it, an annual garlic festival. “I was driving through this town during last year’s festival—and boy, there were garlic flakes in the air everywhere,” exclaimed Mike. At this garlic festival you can apparently buy every kind of food made of garlic. Garlic ice cream, garlic wine and garlic French fries are quite the rage. I was unable to ascertain whether garlic mouthwash was a part of Gilroy’s repertoire.
In the dark, we sped past the salt marshes of the Santa Clara valley, better known as the “Silicon Valley”. When we stopped at San Jose, I was shocked to find that it wasn’t the world capital of anything.
Thereafter, as the train approached San Francisco, the train sped by sheds, containers, cranes, chains and rolling shutters—all signs of an industrial neighbourhood on a big city’s outskirts. In the distance, the lights of San Francisco city glimmered across San Francisco Bay, but all I saw between the lights and the train was the dark emptiness of the bay’s water.
In quick succession the train stopped at the empty, dark platforms at Oakland and Emeryville, the two access stations to San Francisco city. The Coast Starlight then sped into the darkness towards Seattle, 1,450km further to the north.
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