Matt Potter 4:30 p.m., Dec. 6
As a boy, and then a young man, I rarely rode on real passenger trains.
Once, at three or four, I went with my parents from San Diego to Los Angeles. My mother still laughs about how, at the first stop – Del Mar – I announced that that was it, the ride was over, we were getting off now. They had to convince me that this was not like the little train-ride in Balboa Park outside the Zoo – real trains made many stops along the way. I believe that on that day we went onboard the self-contained “doodlebug” or RDC, a rail-car that contained its own motor. The damn thing wrecked in Los Angeles a couple years later, killing dozens, hurtling out of control after the engineer passed out, then hitting a radical curve, flipping on its side and throwing bodies out everywhere as it smashed and crumbled to a stop.
When I was nineteen or twenty, I rode the train once, from Los Angeles to San Diego, after a weekend visiting friends from the year before when I had lived there and studied filmmaking at UCLA. I remember thinking how old the passenger cars were, and how strange it felt that I was all alone in that coach with the old, worn-out seats. I was particularly impressed with how ridiculously slow we went, climbing up the twisting canyon hill from Sorrento Valley to Miramar. (That is now one of my favorite sections of the route, with its lazy view of canyon trees and hillsides.)
Other than those two trips, only one afternoon ride to Harpers Ferry and an evening jaunt to Baltimore, both taken when I was twenty-five and living in the nation’s capital, completed my youthful passenger ensemble.
Virtually no railroad travel whatsoever. Trains, like trolley cars, were things of the past, dying in nostalgia, fading into obscurity. Artifacts from a time gone by, fragments of some vanishing era in our history.
Throughout my childhood and teenage years, all our family vacations were by car or by airplane, never on the train. I especially remember how, throughout the 1950s, we would go to the old San Diego airport to greet my grandmother when she flew down from San Francisco to be with us during Christmas or Easter. When the passengers walked down the stair steps from the plane, and headed toward the gate in the chainlink fence, I would run out to hug her. Those were the days when gates really were gates. Again, when I was six and seven and eight, I flew north to spend a month each summer with my grandmother. A generation before, most everyone traveled between San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco by train or ship. But no longer.
Forty years later, in my late middle age, bending toward elderhood and seniority, I have rediscovered how much I love to travel by train – and by bus, too, truth be told (although I always knew that). Many times, just for the hell of it, I spend five dollars to ride the Coaster train fifty miles up and back from San Diego to Oceanside, reading and writing or just gazing out the window, and maybe, even, taking a delicious, nodding, nap.
In the past ten years I have been up the coast three times, taken the Texas Eagle to San Antonio and then to Arkansas, twice (and later this month the Sunset Limited to El Paso), ridden across the continent from Vancouver to Nova Scotia onboard the Canadian and the Ocean, taken the Surfliner to Los Angeles dozens of times, experienced (for a second time next month) the Copper Canyon train – el Chepe – that twists and turns over and through the Sierra Madre of Mexico, and even experienced travel onboard a private rail car with salon, dining room and bed-cabins with shower. In my senior years, I am getting to know trains far better than I had ever dared to dream or imagine I would.
For that small favor, with its scenic vision of the passing world, I am grateful.