Clutching my plastic green suitcase I climbed onto the train, pretending that I was a sophisticated lady as I placed my white-gloved hand into the porter’s.
“An’ where we travelin’ to today, miss?” he asked, reaching for my ticket.
“All the way to Stockton, sir,” I replied, straightening my ruffled dress and hitching my sagging white tights.
“My, my, my…today you be seein’ alla nay-chuh outta window!”
And indeed I did, settled into a big blue seat, watching the endless fields of alfalfa, grapes and cotton fly by. I was a seven year old sophisticated lady, traveling by myself from Hanford, to spend a few weeks with my cousins up in Lodi.
By the time I was ten, I had train travel down to a science. I knew all of the porters, I knew exactly where the Club Car could be found and exactly how much I could purchase with my allotted quarter. And I knew just how many stops there were before my arrival in Stockton, where my uncle would be waiting.
That was the sixties.
The days when kids could ride bikes across town, chase the ice cream truck, swim in canals, and…take the train alone.
But I grew up.
I forgot about purple stingrays with banana seats, the melodic song of an ice cream truck, that a canal was used for anything other than irrigation, or that cars and airplanes weren’t the only modes of transportation.
Then in Europe, I discovered that trains are a major source of travel. You can get from point A to point B very quickly, comfortably and inexpensively. And it’s a wonderful way to see the countryside. For me, the biggest problem is understanding the language in a given country…and knowing when they’ve announced your stop.
On a recent trip to Italy, however, as I was speeding through expanses of golden vineyards, azure lakes, cypress-studded roads and colorful hilltop towns, I realized that I could have a similar experience in my own backyard.
So some friends and I decided to meet at the San Luis Obispo train station at the crack of dawn, for a day-trip down to Santa Barbara.
This time, there was no plastic suitcase, no white gloves, and the ruffled dress and stockings had morphed into jeans and a blouse. The porter was nowhere to be seen until we were well on our way, and his pleasantries were probably hiding somewhere in his cup of coffee.
Backs of buildings soon expanded to the countryside and vineyards that rivaled those in Italy. After a few stops to let passengers on and off, we hit our stride and were soon coasting alongside the Pacific Ocean….for miles.
To the west the view was simply mesmerizing, as the ocean always is. Alert for whales (check) and dolphins (not this time), we saw surfers and campers and beachcombers out in the sunshine. We sailed through Vandenberg AFB, Jalama Beach, Gaviota, Goleta…all in the comfort of our reclining seats.
Out the eastern windows the view was an equally comforting tableau of rolling golden hills dotted with oak and cattle.
Arriving at the Santa Barbara train station in just a few hours, we strolled three blocks to the beach. Stearn’s Wharf was a perfect location for breakfast, the restaurant at the end of the pier offering us a spectacular view of the Santa Barbara harbor while enjoying cold screwdrivers and hot blueberry pancakes. From there we walked through the art vendors lined up along the beachwalk, with artisans selling all manner of paintings, jewelry, clothing and crafts.
A short walk on State Street and we were downtown, milling around all of the trendy shops and restaurants.
All of us were careful with our purchases, knowing that whatever we bought had to be carried with us, but thankfully, we were more into eating and drinking than shopping. We found a couple of craft beer venues, and settled in to see how our southern brewmasters compared to SLO’s (Figueroa had a fruity pilsner to die for).
We moseyed back to the train station for our 5:45 departure, and as with our outbound train, we had the car almost to ourselves. The return was even lovelier, as there were more surfers out enjoying the waves, and as we neared our destination the sun was descending in a riot of color over the Pacific.
Toasting each other with beer cans procured from the Club Car, we sat back and looked out the windows, agreeing that it was, indeed, a perfect way to see all of nature.