TRAVEL ESSAY: It was that year it rained. In Southern California, we say things like that because rain is so noteworthy it tags our time—a rarity, a treat—though at rush hour, we may beg to differ. Rain held double meanings that year—for the storms that clobbered the region out of a decade-long drought, for the storms of emotion rampant in my left-leaning Los Angeles reeling from the election of a despot we’d dismissed as unelectable.
It was that year it rained that I needed time away from the (out)rage of that, the anxieties it stoked and from the daily rigmarole of life among 12 million—pounding the pavement, fighting the masses, dealing with the onslaught of eyes and attitudes—to break free of the concrete, to witness a wilderness. What better way to do that than by train.
At the appointed time, I arrived by Metro at Los Angeles Union Station and trudged the long corridor lined with platform entrances. I couldn’t help imagining them as portals to distant and strange lands, ala Hogwarts or Narnia. My train was scheduled to board at Platform 12. The Pacific Surfliner runs north from the city of San Diego through Los Angeles to its final stop in the tiny college town of San Luis Obispo, 371 total miles, including a miles-long stretch that hugs the coastline, my reason for choosing that route. I splurged the extra 21 bucks each way for business class, a first that added to my excitement—better snacks, less people, more peace—the closest I’d ever gotten to first-class anything. I’d snagged a hotel room for the weekend at a decent rate via a travel site’s last-minute deals. As I stood waiting on the platform, a moist breeze whisked around the railyard floor writhing with train tracks. A few other passengers stood nearby. It smelled like traffic.
A tad behind schedule, the train wheezed to a stop and belched out a steady stream of rowdy passengers, mostly women, mostly in pink hats, who quickly clumped into cliques with apparent leaders, holding up signs as guideposts. I stepped out of their way and next to a uniformed Amtrak employee to keep from being trampled.
“They must be here for the Women’s March,” he said.
“Oh. Yeah.” I had forgotten the march was that weekend but beamed at the marchers, their enthusiasm. A flash of guilt for not joining them. But I had quieter plans. I boarded the train, settled into my seat, and prepared to be carried somewhere away, somewhere different.
I do not enjoy flying but I enjoy traveling, the literal moving to a place, observing things along the way, more than the destination. I do not enjoy that go-to-sleep-in-one-place-and-wake-up-in-another feeling of airplane travel. I do not enjoy TSA.
A number of years had passed since I’d last traveled by train from Washington DC to North Carolina for a cousin’s wedding at which I was the only single man and lone West Coast heathen in pit a deep-fried Baptists. I would not call that trip pleasurable. I looked forward to breaking its association. In all, I guess I had weariness that needed undoing.
The moment the train lurched forward, pulling itself along a channel the city seemed to turn its back on, a relief washed over me like my skin loosening its grip, my heartbeat building with the train’s momentum. The click and clank of metal wheels on metal tracks and the muffled whooooomp whoooomp of the train whistling as it worked sang a constant lullaby. As graffiti gave way to the living world outside it, saturated from the recent rains, awash with its own color, its own splendor, I noted some things I saw:
Ice-capped peaks jutting up behind lush rolling hills
Clusters of flat-padded cacti
A horizon of clear blue peppered with clouds like musket smoke
A grove of lemon trees
Strawberry patches of low-lying greens dotted with red bulbs like Christmas ornaments
An elderly couple seated in a cemetery in lawn chairs facing one other with books in their laps as if taking turns reading to the dead
A marsh attended by a white crane standing one-legged guard as a family of ducks paddled by
A man holding a little girl and standing in a field waving at our train as it passed
A group of sunglassed hillbillies, ZZ top doppelgangers, beers all around, signaling the universal sign for the conductor to blow the horn
A scoop of pelicans shooting a straight line through a rain shower
A grizzled old timer who should’ve known better mooning us with a mischievous smile.
Carpinteria. Santa Barbara. Goleta. Surf. Guadalupe. Grover Beach. The train spent a few moments at the back doors of each of these mostly blink-and-they’re-gone towns where F-150s outnumbered Priuses, picking up more passengers, most of whom had not splurged on business class. While the rest of the train filled, my respite went undisturbed.
Outside the city, life wore a different face, kept a different rhythm: slower, less pinched, with room enough to breath, air enough to think. By the time the Surfliner pulled into San Luis Obispo, my pursed lips had relaxed, my tensions had somewhat eased. A thirty-minute walk from the train station to my hotel, through the city center, to the outskirts of town, met me with misty skies and more deliciously plush hills, a postcard-perfect antidote for a weary city dweller running away from home. That weekend the rain continued in fits and spurts, giving me good excuse to hole up in my room, which I obliged myself to do. I binged on mindless TV. I peered out my ground floor balcony at the intermittent raindrops pebbling the pool just beyond it. I avoided the news cycle’s churn of discontent and resistance. I’d have plenty opportunity to play my part in that, to plug myself in. But first, for quieter plans.
BIO: DeLon Howell lives and writes in Los Angeles, where he works in communications, occasionally participates in readings, and workshops regularly with a trusted crew of talented writers. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in snapdragon: a journal of art & healing, Stonecoast Review, and Tahoma Literary Review.