Choo Choo Interlude

Amtrak Train in Station


Sometimes an artist just needs to go wandering. It’s good for refreshment, perspective, inspiration. Good for body, mind, spirit. In college I took the train back to school in Santa Barbara a couple of times. It was better by far than a rideshare car, the Greyhound or a small plane. For one thing, the train is smooth and level, and for another, one can walk around. Plus that particular section of Amtrak’s Coast Starlight – San Jose to Santa Barbara – passes by always-interesting and at times spectacular, world-class countryside. So, while I have been away from the studio and exhibits this week, I have not been without a fascinating and poignant trip to stir up the juices. Here are some highlights from the journey South.

One thing that’s changed on the train since forever ago: the coaches are now set up like airplane cabins and not the glorified trolleys I rode. A center aisle is flanked with very comfortable reclining seats with full head support.  Overhead carry-on storage. Pull-down trays. And Way Better than Flying: there’s a couple of FEET of legroom with a swing out angled leg rest. There’s an Observation Lounge, a Cafe Car, and a Dining Car.  Everything is on the upper deck for better viewing. The funky vending machine car of my youth is gone. No seatbelts, which is kind of odd at first. No TSA agents! And the onboard staff was upbeat, personable and real. You felt they liked their jobs and their crewmates. As one said to me, “Pretty great office window I got, no?”

Despite those comfortable coach seats, I spent nearly the whole trip in the Observation Lounge with its huge windows and seats facing the view. What follows are some of the best shots of that day.



Salinas Valley Green Fields


Having recently read East of Eden with my book club, I looked forward to the 105 miles of the Salinas Valley: Steinbeck Country! The first chapter of that book played in my mind as I could actually experience his description of the land. The Santa Lucia Mountains – the range of light with decorator clouds seen here – the rich river bottom agricultural land, (The Valley calls itself the Salad Bowl of the West,) and behind me, not in this shot, the Diablo Range, which the train tracks and the old two-lane I once traveled sidle up against. Fabulous pageant of greens, reds and browns, punctuated by equipment, harvesters and irrigation.



San Ardo Oil Field from Coast Starlight


Further south in the Salinas Valley, it starts to get drier and hillier. More ranch than farm. And then there’s a surprise.  The San Ardo Oil Field is unexpected and sort of creepy. The oil well pumps seem vaguely alien and insect-like. And there are so many of them! Never saw any humans, either, which is unsettling. After all that agricultural richness, the barren machine-like array does not feel like the land is giving, but rather is being taken.



View at Horseshoe Curves on the Coast Starlight from the Observation Lounge


After the Salinas Valley, the train treks through several tunnels high above the dramatic 7% Cuesta Grade for cars and trucks on the other side of the canyon. It gradually snakes its way in a 1.5% grade to San Luis Obispo. This takes over 11 miles and affords views of the front and back of the line in several hairpins called the Horseshoe Curves. Here’s a view of the front from the Observation Lounge. It was amazing to see the Lounge folks look up from their phones and laptops, fall silent and take it all in.




Pacific Ocean from Coast Starlight.


And after winding around more agriculture, inland sand dunes and tiny communities, the Coast Starlight begins its 100 mile exclusive jaunt down the coastline where the cars don’t go. Through scrub-brush barren Vandenberg AFB, with its launch pads. Past exclusive Hollister Ranch. Jalama Beach. Gaviota Pier. The tracks, still following the ocean, once again align with the freeway and I can see Storke Tower on the UCSB campus. We pull into Santa Barbara’s classic station around sunset – which is the photo up top. What a day!


–Liz Crain, who wants you to know she took her own advice from last week’s Studio Journal post to take a breather and step away from the trauma/drama.  You lovely subscribers out there did not receive that post due to distracted operator-error. (Hey, she only missed clicking ONE tiny box!!!!) It may or may not show up in this week’s subscription and if it does not, here’s the link to “Defectology and PTCS.” Don’t miss it!

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8 thoughts on “Choo Choo Interlude

  1. Thanks so much for the vicarious trip on the rails! Gotta’ put the real deal trip on my to do list.

    1. Yes. Yes you do! That is why it happened for me: ON the list. CHECKED! Plus you meet some real characters – which I did not write about. YOUR characters on YOUR trip will be similar but absolutely unique.

  2. I write a column for the Salinas Californian newspaper that runs on Fridays. It is called We Could Car Less., and I encourage using buses and trains for travel between cities, and walking or bicycles for in town travel. I have written articles about the Coast Starlight. I would like permission to quote your article in my column.
    My sister, Carol Eddy, saw this and alerted me.
    your MacGregor Eddy of Salinas

    1. Oh GREAT! Permission granted! (And thanks Carol!)

  3. wow, Liz, I needed a train ride, how refreshing first thing in the morning to catch these vistas, and travel through your eyes and words

    1. Yay Kathleen!
      I loved my days on the train. The return trip was different, of course. Different time of day, for one. Different views because we were not in the Observation Car, but utterly fascinating inside and out. Glad to help you take a trip as well! We are thinking of riding the rails to family in Portland OR next year because it is such unique way to travel and still keep one’s body and psyche at peace.

      1. Love that trip to Santa Barbara, such great and varied landscape. Also, took the Coast train to Salem, Or, years ago in winter. Wonderful going through Klamath Falls and snow covered passes.

        1. We are seriously planning another trip north to Portland next late March to see family and the NCECA Conference. Might be snow, might not, but the train will go through!!!

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