Posted by: GeekHiker | December 26, 2007

Old School Travel

I’m watching the world pass by outside my window, and I’m finding it hard to pull my attention away to type. No doubt this post will be short, and most likely poorly written as a result.

When I was a poor college student, I traveled this way more often, and while I technically now have far more freedom of movement now, it’s not nearly so relaxing as this.

Care to guess where I am?

In college I never owned a car. Most of my friends and classmates in high school were given cars by their parents, either during school or after graduation. They weren’t rich by any means: most of the cars were used old hand-me-downs, but still better than my parents could do by me at the time.

This wasn’t a problem in college, though, as I lived in San Francisco, which is blessed by a great public transit system called MUNI. Don’t ask the residents, though, as they’ll tell you horror stories.

But trust me, it’s a great system.

It didn’t hurt at the time that the monthly pass was only $32, and since I had a job that fronted $30 of that, my total net transit cost for the month (in the city, at least) was two bucks. I’ll never have it that good again, that’s for damn sure.

Getting back up to see my parents in Sacramento was a bit of an issue, though, one which could usually only be resolved by them driving down and picking me up and then doing the same to drop me off a couple of days later. Not an easy thing given how bad traffic between the two cities was, even then.

Not too long into my freshman year of college Amtrak started the Capitol Corridor. And they started with a hell of a deal: $14 each way, but with a starting deal of one dollar return.

One hundred eighty miles round trip for $15? What poor, Top-Ramen eating college student could refuse?

The ticket is more expensive now, but here I am, all these years later, sitting on the train between the two cities again.

At the time the Capitols started, the system used whatever equipment it could pull: older passenger cars, whatever dining car they could find, an old engine to yank it all along.

Today I’m sitting in a new double-decker car, with room for passengers on both floors and places to lock up bikes and additional luggage down on the first floor, all pulled by brand new, very powerful engines. One of the cars even has a special dining section, with curved tables that face the windows so you can look out the windows while sipping your hot chocolate.

At the moment I write this, I’m traveling westward, the sun rising over my left shoulder as the train crosses the Yolo Causeway. The car is swaying gently back and forth, and that wonderfully comforting clickity-clack sound can be heard and felt beneath me. The conductors still punch the tickets, and they still call out “All Abooooard!” before closing the doors.

Hell, they even give out complimentary papers.

Off to my left cars are streaming along I-80, and the train is matching their speed.

Sadly, the trains can’t go any faster. At the moment, they share rail with slower-traveling freight traffic, so the passenger trains are limited to the slower freight traffic speed. That’s okay with me, though; I’m in no hurry, and I’m not doing much work besides.

As much as I love my little blue truck, it’s hard to believe we ever gave up this form of travel in favor of the car. I’m sitting here, enjoying a cup of hot chocolate, typing on my laptop, and watching central valley farmland pass by outside my window. Five cars ahead, I hear the train whistle blow as we cross roads, patient cars yielding to the massive engine.

I’ve watched a cute girl get on with her bike and wished that she had sat near me (she didn’t). Some of my fellow passengers are sleeping, or reading the paper, typing on their laptops, or talking or reading novels. Four college girls are sitting at one of the tables, playing cards, checking their makeup, talking, laughing.

Outside my window, neat little rows of farmland stream by. A golf course. New (*sigh*) housing. Sheep. Grasslands dotted with oak trees. Lumber yards. A pond in the middle of a grassland with about a thousand little baby ducks swimming around. Little old shacks that look like they’ve been around since the railroads were first built.

Up ahead, I know already we’ll pass the fleet of old mothballed ships the Navy parks in Suisun Bay. Cross over the Carquinez Straight. See the old C&H sugar plant and rows of thousands of new cars just off-loaded from Japan.

The coast range, grass covered hills with oak trees lining the little canyons, is rapidly approaching on the right. As I write, the sun is rising higher in a bright blue sky, and more of the landscape reveals itself. Off in the distance, Mt. Diablo dominates the land.

It all reminds me a bit of the evening at the Oregon Caves Chateau: things are more relaxed, moving at a slower pace. The old days weren’t as idyllic as we all would want to believe, but some things were pretty good. We’re all still getting where we need to go, but we’re doing it in style.

On the balance, it’s a whole lot better than sitting in my car, wondering why the hell that asshole in the Hummer behind me won’t stop tailgating and just pass me already.

In an hour or so, I’ll get off this train, walk across a platform, buy a ticket and board a BART train into San Francisco to see The Best Friend & her boyfriend. I even have a Christmas present for them, and I look forward to sharing their company and perhaps a beer. With a little luck, I’ll have what I’ve written over the last 80 miles or so posted via their internet connection tonight.

Happy Holidays, indeed.



  1. Sounds like an absolutely lovely trip, and it makes me miss traveling in Europe!

  2. Glad to hear that your Holidays are indeed Happy.

    Sounds wonderfully peaceful. I’ve only ridden the train once from Oxnard To White Fish, Montana and back. It is a very relaxing way to travel. I read and slept most of the two day trip.

  3. I suppose if I traveled by train daily it would lose the thrill but since I do it so infrequently I tend to just stare out the window and get lost in the landscapes.

    And how did the gift go over?

  4. That sounds like a really nice, relaxing trip!

  5. i lurve amtrak! the only reason i don’t do it more is… to travel to vermont (not exactly an express train) would take longer than all my airport wait time and flight time combined, and the price is not at all better than airfare these days. hope christmas was great!

  6. lea – Yeah, wouldn’t it be nice if we had better rail travel here?

    Homer-Dog – You really must try it. You and the wife should do the Coast Starlight before you leave the west.

    just a girl – The give was very well received indeed.

    Ruby – it was, but far too short!

    charlotte harris – You should do it at least once. Hope your Christmas was good too!

  7. Over here, you can find trains everywhere. It’s convenient but not a thrill anymore. I would like to try one of yours though. Especially because of the greater distances I would have to make sure to bring some books to read, otherwise I would probably die of boredom.

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