The plums are just ripe in the garden at the back of the house, and they hang low on the trees. We pull shut our backpacks and close the door behind us when we go. At the North Berkeley BART station there’s tape over the money slots and all the trains are free. There are posters with a self-congratulatory message about public transportation and keeping the earth clean. We are ready to leave California.
12th St/Oakland City Center is as close as BART gets to the entrance of the Port of Oakland. Bring sensible shoes. Head towards the water from Oakland City Center where everyone is Chinese for four blocks, and then everyone is black, and then there isn’t anyone. Walk down Adeline Street until it splits in two, one half spitting gravel for half a block until it runs into a fence and the other half rising into the air. Walk up.
The road is empty. On the left are the cranes and containers stacked four high and eight deep. On the right is the railroad, the tracks, engines and stacks of containers. The road slopes back to the ground and then turns right, staying parallel with the line of giant cranes. The sidewalk comes and goes. Now the left of the road is fences with truck entrances and six feet of rocks and gravel between the fences and the road. Every ten minutes there’s another leaning Portajohn, some with doors closed and others with doors open and stuffed full of brown paper towels. It’s only two miles from the BART station but the monotony of the gravel and the silence makes the walking last forever.
We reach the Hanjin terminal fence with relief, but it’s fifteen more minutes of walking between the endless fence and endless road before we reach the gate and can enter. We follow the sedans and compacts into the Hanjin parking lot where people greet each other as they change into or out of orange safety vests. In this parking lot between containers and the railroad and the cranes even the cars are vulnerable and small.
BAY AREA RAPID TRANSIT
ONE WAY TICKET $1.45 (USUALLY) FREE (OUR PRICE)
DEPARTS NORTH BERKELEY ABOUT EVERY FIFTEEN MINUTES
ARRIVES 12TH ST. OAKLAND CITY CENTER THIRTEEN MINUTES LATER
SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Oakland’s Jack London Square has last-ditch public bathrooms and a big chain bookstore for last-ditch travel planning and very little else. Pick up a spare meal or two from one of the Chinatown restaurants south and east of the Oakland City Center BART stop.
It’s a five minute drive from McKinleyville to Arcata, and James drops us off across the street from a shelter. This is the bus station. In New York homelessness seemed binary – you are either homeless or you are not. In California homelessness is a rainbow, and every color travels with us on the Greyhound bus to San Francisco.
At lunchtime the bus stops at a McDonalds across from a Taco Bell, down the street from the Chinese Buffet. We sit on the grass dividing the street from the parking lot and eat McChicken sandwiches from the dollar menu. The rest of the way to San Francisco the bus smells like cigarette smoke, and our mouths are coated with mayonnaise.
ONE WAY TICKET $37.50
DEPARTS ARCATA, CA DAILY 9:50AM
ARRIVES SAN FRANCISCO, CA 5:20PM (SCHEDULED) OR 6:20PM (OUR ARRIVAL TIME)
SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: A slow, sinking feeling.
I have never traveled by freight train but it must be faster than the Coast Starlight. On the Coast Starlight hours are spent waiting for the freight trains to pass, then rolling forward, gently creaking, before rolling slowly backwards for ten or fifteen minutes more. Inside the train it is like the Empire Builder but older, decorated in dark earth tones that say we weren’t thinking about how hard this might be to keep clean. In the lounge car they show two movies, starting The Pink Panther an hour before the sun sets. By 10pm the train is hopelessly delayed, and the smokers gather in the stairwell to complain. In the lounge car on two small television sets a college basketball team fights racism.
Our mistake was asking to be picked up at the time the train was scheduled to stop in Dunsmuir. It is 5am when we arrive. Desperate passengers crowd the exit stairwell until the door opens, and then stand still while the woman in front of the line has trouble squeezing her luggage out of the train’s refrigerator-sized doorway. Collin and Leanne are in the parking lot, where they have spent the last four and a half hours. We get in Leanne’s car and head toward McKinleyville. It is a four hour drive.
We stop for coffee.
AMTRAK’S COAST STARLIGHT
ONE WAY TICKET COACH CLASS $42
DEPARTS PORTLAND, OR DAILY 2:25PM
ARRIVES DUNSMUIR, CA NEXT DAY 12:35AM (SCHEDULED) OR 5:00AM (OUR ARRIVAL TIME)
SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Traveling very slowly through large expanses of night, and of nothing.
The Empire Builder takes two days to reach Portland, stopping along the way at every small town in Wisconsin with a hot coffee vending machine. The Empire Builder is a real train, with special cars for eating and for looking out the window and torso-sized metal boxes that dispense lukewarm water for absolutely free. The Empire Builder has exactly one available electrical socket. It is in the lounge car, and someone will be using it.
The train cars are two stories high. The bathrooms and the elderly and infirm are on the bottom level, and everyone else sits above them. Each coach car has three bathrooms, a men’s changing room and a ladies’ lounge, preserving the polite fiction that we will not all be wearing the same clothes and underwear for the next three days. Casual awful overpriced food is available for purchase in the Lounge Car, while those of a more formal bent may wish to make reservations at the Dining Car for formal awful overpriced food.
Sleeping was uncomfortable the first night, but by the second night we are masters. This is because we are now so tired we could sleep anywhere. And we nap. Napping is the secret of sleeping on trains. Sleep whenever you are the slightest bit tired. Bored? Try closing your eyes! The constant unstructured drift between sleeping and wakefulness unmoors you from time as you have known it, leaving you wondering just how many weeks have I been sitting here, again?
The acknowledged sightseeing highlight of the journey is Glacier National Park, where the train curves through mountains and sits in the East Glacier station while a horse walks the length of the town. Throughout North Dakota the squat station buildings are surrounded by groups of people waiting for friends or relatives leaving or arriving. A woman greets a kid in a Harry Potter costume. A man in a blue tee shirt that says “Groom’s Father” in iron-on letters stands by a woman whose pink shirt says “Groom’s Mother.” They are waving to someone, but the train moves slowly, and by the time we pull out of the station they are walking away from us, back to the parking lot.
AMTRAK’S EMPIRE BUILDER
ONE WAY TICKET COACH CLASS $134
DEPARTS CHICAGO, IL DAILY AT 2:15PM
ARRIVES PORTLAND, OR TWO DAYS LATER 10:25AM
SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES: Becoming unmoored from traditional concepts of space and time.
Penn Station. Pennsylvania station. The half-renovated basement rec room of New York City transportation. All Amtrak trains leave from this dim warren. There isn’t a choice. Thread your way underground to the Amtrak departures board and wait there for the track announcement. New York to Chicago, Lakeshore Limited. Yes, there are lounges with seating, but you are about to sit down for eighteen hours, and the auxilary departure displays are sometimes delayed. Did you buy food before you got here? It’s a long trip. You should have. If you haven’t, buy food now.
It gets dark in upstate New York, and the porters walk the aisles dispensing pillows in disposable sleeves. Pillows don’t mean a night’s sleep, and don’t expect one. Nap, jerking awake long enough to stare at Cleveland in the dark. When you get tired enough to sleep again you will.
AMTRAK’S LAKESHORE LIMITED
ONE WAY TICKET COACH CLASS $75
DEPARTS NEW YORK, NY DAILY 3:20PM
ARRIVES CHICAGO, IL NEXT DAY 9:05AM (SCHEDULED) OR 11:30AM (OUR ARRIVAL TIME)
SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Feeling morally superior to people with more luggage than you.