Chug, chug, toot, toot, off we go by train to Los Angeles to celebrate some significant birthdays. Doug is 75 this month – three-quarters of a century – and our youngest grandchild moves up to double-digits, age ten. Mansions and slums, chauffeured limousine and not-so-rapid public transit, Fruit Loops and frijoles: what contrasts we experienced along the USA’s Left Coast!
Clickety-clack, clickety-clack went the wheels of our suitcases as we rolled them down the street to the Victoria Clipper passenger ferry on Valentine’s Day. The boarding process was a free-for-all, but three hours later we arrived safely in Seattle to spend the night at the adorable Arctic Club Hotel, built in 1914 with an explorers’ club motif. In the morning we walked through a gritty urban area to Seattle’s King Street Station (tip: if you are timid, take a taxi in this part of town).
Lorna welcomed us aboard the Coast Starlight, the Amtrak train that runs 1,337 miles from Seattle, Washington to Los Angeles, California. (Map) The trip takes thirty-six hours, so we opted for first class: a one-bedroom compartment in the sleeping car. The private lavatory and shower require some agility, but if you have ever lived in a truck-camper like we did, you will feel right at home here.
The Dining Car has tables for four, providing an opportunity to meet fellow passengers as scenery glides by the window. Our tablemates included couples celebrating anniversaries or visiting children, a 1960s rock band member (he once played in Doug’s home town), a London, UK resident who tells us cycling is booming downtown (maybe we’ll try cycling there in April), a Chinese philosopher travelling to a swim meet, and a seven-year-old boy and his mother who travelled from Denmark to visit Universal Studios.
More than one thousand train songs are listed on Wikipedia. We aren’t train buffs, but we recognize most of the song titles. Do you have a favourite train song? Doug is partial to the Arlo Guthrie version of the nostalgic City of New Orleans, while Cathy likes Chattanooga Choo Choo and This Train is Bound for Glory. To our grandchildren: did you know that Grandpa’s first job was on the railroad? For one summer during high school he tamped gravel under ties in the railway trackbed. This is what he learned from that job: manual labour is not easy.
A chauffeur named Joe collected us at Union Station in Los Angeles, whisking us away in his black Lincoln Town Car. La Habra Heights, on the border of LA and Orange Counties, was our destination. This classy canyon community is where our son (who sent the chauffeur) lives with his wife and three children.
The children make noise, but the neighbourhood is dignified, rural, and whisper-quiet, except for coyotes and owls at night and gardeners who trim palm trees, buzz-cut flowering vines, and mow lawns on appointed days.
During our week in La Habra Heights we hiked in Powder Canyon and celebrated Robin’s tenth birthday. What does a ten-year-old girl like? Taylor Swift, Nancy Drew, and Lego Friends (pink and purple boxes of Lego “for girls and their world”). Doug resuscitated a moribund computer, fixed speakers, hooked up a new television, and helped build the Lego. We learned new card games called Egyptian War and Trash. As always, we enjoyed Angie’s cooking, which included birria (a slow-cooked Mexican spicy stew), posole (a tradition hominy stew), and avocados from a tree in the back yard.
Disneyland? Who needs it? The Los Angeles transit system provides our California Adventure, and it costs just 35 cents (senior rate). Green Line, Blue Line, Red Line: three trains and almost two hours to travel from Norwalk (where Angie dropped us) to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. This is not a user-friendly transit system, but fellow passengers helped us through it. A team of pistol-packing security guards boarded the train in Watts, site of the 1965 Watts Riots. Yikes, it was scary, because we didn’t know what prompted the invasion. Perhaps it was routine, because we hadn’t noted any suspicious activity – just a panhandler or two and someone selling soft drinks. After verifying everyone’s tickets and searching parcels, the guards moved on to the next car.
Fruit Loops at the breakfast bar, paper-thin walls, and a bail bondsman on-site. It doesn’t sound attractive, but our hotel was actually clean, friendly, and convenient – across the street from the train station and on the edge of Chinatown, a three-block-square area. Chinatown is rather lacking in curb appeal, although this improves at night, while Union Station is glamorous. Opened in 1939, it was the last of the great American rail stations to be built.
Lorna, our sleeping car attendant, remembered us when we boarded Coast Starlight for the return trip to Seattle. Old hands now, we know what to do, such as reserve early meal times (some menu items sell out) and use internet if and when it works. Pacific Ocean beaches, sand dunes, artichoke farms and vineyards, gentle valleys, snowy mountain ranges: the scenery and conversation are just as pleasant as the train travels northbound.