SAN LUIS OBISPO America remains steeped in train lore, kept vibrant lo these many years in books, films and blues songs, if not so much in current ridership. We long for train travel to bear a certain romance, a promise of intrigue and a whiff of the exotic. Things happen on trains, pop culture tells us, life-altering things.
Johnny Cash is forever hearing that lonesome whistle blowing. Kerouac, on the page, still is catching out in box cars. Bogie, rain-slick fedora at a raffish angle, is fixed in our memories amid a swirl of steam, searching for Ingrid Bergman amid the teeming train-station masses.
Riding the rails today, in actuality, can be a quotidian experience, something to be endured, a means to a destination's end and not always a quick means, either, if you ask veteran Amtrak riders. It can bear a certain irritancy, the promise of delays and a whiff of something, well, nasty.
Yet there is at least one train route Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner, running along the coast from San Luis Obispo to San Diego that can restore your love of this mode of travel. Airplane travel, being hermetically sealed in a steel tube hurtling 600 mph at 30,000 feet above ground, may be faster transport, but it's soulless and corrupts your sense of time and distance traveled.
The Surfliner keeps you fully engaged. It winds past ocean shores and ag fields, eucalyptus groves and oak-studded hillsides, cuts through struggling small towns and vibrant tourist resorts, past Vandenberg Air Force Base's Space Launch Complex Six and state beaches where surfers hang 10, and chugs past the metropolitan sprawl of greater Los Angeles and San Diego.
In short though, at 8 1/2 hours point-to-point, there's little short about it the Surfliner provides a visual postcard of a diverse California.
You don't need to commit to the full trip to experience it. That can be done just by traveling the 2 1/2-hour segment between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara two college towns-cum-tourist spots.
This slice of the Surfliner route, which costs $33 one way, arguably is the most scenic in the stretch. At times, the train hugs the cliffs so tightly that, when you look down, you can make out individual strands of kelp wafting on the waves. Views such as the jut of Point Conception south of Lompoc make the "picture-postcard" cliché inadequate to fully represent the sweep.
Travelers, of course, can make better time driving down Highway 101, which does afford periodic peeks at the sparkling ocean swells. But, on the train, it's a full immersion.
That's what prompted Terry Hatcher, a San Luis Obispo resident, to opt for the Surfliner over her car to head to Ventura to visit her brother.
"It really is lovely," she said. "You actually see a lot of deer. I just have to remember which side to sit on (to see) the ocean. This is my third time and I can never remember which way the train goes."
Views sometimes are limited on morning runs because a marine layer hovers off the coast. Even so, the sight of fog wrapping around eucalyptus groves shedding bark like snakes do their skins is nothing short of sublime.
The eye, again and again, is drawn back to the ocean, as well as the beaches, sandy or rocky or a little of both. The water, depending on time of day and cloud cover, is a kind of vivid blue running to aqua green, something off David Hockney's palette.
Look away, though, to the other side of the train, and you notice a different California. It's the wild, desert and mountainous side of the state of muted browns and sage greens, with dabs of yellow from that ubiquitous invasive weed, the star thistle.
Cows graze, horses canter, deer flit, coyotes skulk and jack rabbits scamper. And you'll see people, too. Yes, people live and work in the shadow of the railroad tracks, seemingly oblivious to the periodic rumble and roar or maybe just used to it.
The ag fields, which start as soon as Grover Beach and pop up periodically closer to Santa Barbara, give you pause. You see the workers already hunched over rows of strawberries at 7 a.m., and see them in a similar hunched stance two days later on your return trip at 3 p.m. Their cars, late-model sedans and even a few new pickup trucks, line the dirt road that served as a de facto employee parking lot.
Too, you cannot help but wonder about the lives of the people living in small, mostly ramshackle houses abutting the tracks. In one stretch near the town of Guadalupe, you notice a woman in a checked dress, back turned to the train, pinning laundry on a wind-swept clothes line. Edward Hopper could've painted that.
One thing about train travel, though: You don't dwell on a single scene too long. The train keeps churning, as fast as 60 mph or as slow as 10, but you never linger (well, OK, except during delays, but you get the point).
Soon, you're on to the next view a neatly maintained mobile home park, say, or an underpass with the gothic-graffiti message "Jesus Saves," or the collapsed remains of a tin shack in the middle of nothing south of Lompoc, or the equally incongruous bath tub perched on a cliff, as if a prop left over from a Cialis ad.
The ever-morphing views invite quiet contemplation, which most of your fellow passengers respect. There seems much less chit-chat between strangers on the train than on a flight, though an inebriated gentleman in a gray hoodie and leather jacket did chat you up.
"I'm sorry," he said, slurring only slightly, "I've been drinking all night. I couldn't think of a better thing to do with myself. My girlfriend died yesterday. I got a call from a lady. She tells me the news. Then she says, 'Have a nice day.' S-, have a nice day?"
He cracked open another Coors can, put it between his legs and started bellowing the tune from "Midnight Special," changing the lyrics to "Surfliner Special." A conductor dutifully hushed him.
There was no hushing the SLO student in the row behind, though. She had the habit of audibly sighing every 20 seconds as she tapped away on her laptop. After fearing she'd miss her connecting bus home, she replaced sighing with repetitive throat clearing for the remainder of the trip. (She ended up making her connection.)
Few business commuters take the San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara, so there's not a lot of cellphone chat. The fact that there's no service for vast stretches helps, too. So, no, it's mostly tourists and daytrippers, and the vibe is laid back.
Judith and Don (they declined to give last names, for reasons that will become obvious shortly) were making the trip clear to San Diego. They had settled in for a long enjoyable sojourn.
"It's fun and relaxing," Judith said. "Oh, and there's a bar car. Oh, it's only 6:30 (a.m.)? I could've sworn it was noon. I like the train. We can charge our phones, watch a movie."
More wholesome pursuits were planned by Dan Moberly, of Lincoln, who was traveling with his grandson to Simi Valley to show him where he grew up.
But also to perhaps pass along to the boy the enjoyment of train travel.
"I've experienced railroad travel my whole life. I once went from San Francisco to Alabama, four days in a sleeping car," he said. "1967. I'll never forget it. I'd hate to see railroads go away. It makes for a long journey, but you can stop and reflect. I've never had a problem with Amtrak. Now, Greyhound? I'll never take that. That's just scary."
Perhaps that could be Amtrak's new slogan "At least we're not Greyhound."
No, the Surfliner is much, much more.
Amtrak Pacific Surfliner
The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner runs twice daily, Monday through Friday from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara and back. On weekends, it runs once daily. Cost is $33, one way.
The entire route goes from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, with 29 stops along the way.
More information: www.amtrak.com.