This trip has been absolutely magical so far. In southern Oregon, I had a wonderful conversation in the sightseer lounge car, with a woman from Corvallis. We looked out upon rain-soaked late-September trees in the fading golden light, then watched as our surroundings turned into misty dusk, punctuated by lightning strikes, and a crimson sunset behind the trees. The feeling was breathtaking, and despite my best efforts to capture it on camera, as always, it simply wasn’t possible to convey anywhere near the full sense of in-the-moment majesty.
My new friend and I discussed rail travel, and how much we enjoy it compared to air travel. However, she told me about her knowledge of the original rail barons of the United States, describing them as “despicable people” for a number of reasons, with obscenely concentrated wealth which, to their partial credit, some of them donated to create Stanford University and the amazing Huntington Library and gardens in Pasadena, the latter of which I thoroughly enjoyed visiting a few years ago. (Apparently one of these rail magnates married a woman 30 years his junior, and when he later died, she married his son, continuing the concentration of wealth within the family.)
The next morning, at breakfast in the dining car, I was seated with a couple from Louisville, Kentucky, taking the Coast Starlight for their first time. Somehow we got onto the topic of environmental destruction and deforestation, and the husband shared some disturbing information I had not known (and I have not verified this yet, but I do plan to look into it). He said that most of the eastern United States’ old growth forest was “ruthlessly deforested” largely by these people who built up the rail system. In order to lay all the track to build their new lines, they needed staggering amounts of board feet for rail ties. Rail ties (which are now sometimes made from concrete rather than wood) must be perfectly square, so they needed to be cut from the center of a tree trunk. Huge swaths of old-growth forest, from Maine to Florida, were destroyed, my dining companion told me, to build this infrastructure.
He also shared that the owners of these rail companies who were building the tracks grew to hold so much wealth and power that they began to print their own currency, and they would pay rail workers who were building the tracks—in then-remote-locations—with their own currency, so that the workers would have to purchase everything they needed to live from the “company store,” which of course further served to concentrate their employers’ wealth. Once the workers moved back to their home locations, they could choose to swap out the currency for US dollars, but the exchange rate was abysmal.
It gave me pause to realize, or perhaps I should say to be reminded, that the infrastructure for this form of transportation I love so much came at significant social and environmental costs. I had already been aware of the exploitation of Chinese laborers to build the railroads in the West, but I hadn’t been aware of these other aspects of the construction, and I am sure there are more of which I am still unaware. I am now curious to do some research about these particular four rail magnates who were responsible for building most of the initial infrastructure for freight and passenger train travel in the United States.
After I left the train, though, my magical trip continued. I took a Lyft to the Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, and walked among giants both evergreen and deciduous for about two hours, leaving my sandaled feet thoroughly dusty.
Then I headed up to Berkeley on the BART train to meet my old Portland friend Joanna (who, I remembered, also grew up in northern Virginia, near my old orthodontist’s office). We shared a delicious lunch at acclaimed vegan restaurant The Butcher’s Son, and then we explored the botanical garden on the UC Berkeley campus.
Afterward, I said goodbye to Joanna and headed west on the BART to San Francisco, where I met up with my childhood friend Kristin. Her mother had taught me to swim at age 6, and later her mother became my high school guidance counselor. I had spent childhood summer days at the local shady swimming pool with Kristin and both of our younger sisters. I hadn’t seen her for nearly 20 years, back when she had also been living in Portland and we surprised each other—in pre-Facebook days—by running into each other out and about.
She had a further surprise for me: another of our childhood neighbors, Jim—whom I had not seen since at least 1990, if not before—now lives a few blocks away from her in the midst of this metropolis. We all met up for a drink, and reminisced about Mrs. Johnson’s folk song instruction and ukulele lessons, among other things. I ended the evening by looking out from Kristin’s balcony over a beautiful night cityscape.
This morning I made my way via Lyft and BART to the Emeryville Amtrak station, and I am currently in my berth aboard the long-awaited Zephyr! I hope to catch a few winks on this train, since I haven’t slept properly in weeks… but I also want to make sure to catch the upcoming views. I’m sure I’ll find a way.
Onward to Denver!