A train trip is not a great idea right now, but I hope this piece provides you with a little escape. Writing it certainly gave me the respite I needed.
Every once in a while, when my to-do list is becoming lengthy, and I am feeling a little overwhelmed, I toss my paperwork, laptop, a bunch of pens, and a couple of post-it pads into my canvas messenger bag. I don my favorite comfy sweater, some snazzy jeans, sneakers with thick cushy socks, a light jacket, and a pashmina, pulling me together. I tap out a first-class Amtrak ticket on my cell, grab a cappuccino and catch the 7:30 northbound train from San Juan Capistrano to San Luis Obispo, about 250 miles away.
A seat on the upper level with a panoramic unobstructed view is where I land. I pull down the tray, set up my laptop, organize my office supplies, and refresh my coffee. (First class benefits!) This will be my office for the next 6 hours. I plan how I am going to use this valuable time in a detailed to-do list, prioritizing items, and assigning time allotments to tasks. Sometimes I create a comprehensive bucket system for my finances, or I plot out clothes for an upcoming trip. Responding to emails with thoughtfully worded responses is usually on my list, and I might send a cute online card or write a couple of thank you notes. Often, I am making big decisions with long pros and cons lists. I have a first-class ticket, coffee and pastries down the aisle, and a bathroom downstairs. The proverbial "corner office" has nothing on my workspace.
The rhythmic hum of the train paces my work as I concentrate, periodically looking up. Every train station has its distinct character, and I take a few seconds to appreciate them. Santa Ana is a lovely combination of wrought iron, white stucco angles, Spanish tile, and large arching paneled glass windows accented with palm trees. In stark contrast, the Anaheim station or ARTIC (Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center) is a massive, modern bowing structure with glass quilting, housing shops and eateries. It is the entrance to the Honda Center for concerts and events. On the way home, if I am lucky, bright colors will dance on its surface, presenting a light show for me and all the neighboring areas to enjoy.
The world rushes by fueling my diligence, and I happily work until I see the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles: the cylindrical U.S. Bank Tower, mirrored Wilshire Grand Center, and gleaming iconic City Hall. (Its architecture is based on the Mausoleum of Mausolus, one of the Wonders of the Ancient World.) An hour and a half has passed, and we are entering Union Station. I have no layover and feel a little sad because Union Station is such a treat. There is the Streamliner Lounge reminding one of a speakeasy from the 20s, the massive, cathedral-like waiting area with Spanish style chandeliers dangling from the paneled ceiling, art deco font message boards relaying one's possible destinations, and heavy wood-framed leather chairs. It is the crossroads to Santa Monica, Olvera Street, the Rose Bowl, Hollywood, the Mission Inn, and so many other guidebook hotspots. But I have work to do and no stopover.
Photo by Mary Minerman
At this point, I always double-check with the conductor to make sure I have a westward looking window. I want an unobstructed view of the mighty Pacific.
Departing Union Station, I happily return to my paperwork, but my concentration is more patchy. I do not want to miss Chatsworth, north of L.A. in the San Fernando Valley. Its rock formations sweep the landscape appearing oddly familiar. During Hollywood's Golden Age, Chatsworth was a popular setting for movies. John Wayne rode his horse in "Stagecoach" here, and the area became China in the Academy Award-winning movie "The Good Earth." Lex Barker also swang from the trees as Tarzan and Shirley Temple starred in Rudyard Kipling's "Wee Willie Winkie." There is magic in its familiarity, and I find myself spellbound, but the reverie is suddenly broken when the train goes black. We are entering the Chatsworth Tunnel running 1.2 miles long, completed in 1904, and one of California's longest.
I should be halfway done with my To-Do list by this point. If I'm ahead, I loosen up and start enjoying the scenery a little more, but if I'm behind, I redouble my efforts to get things done.
With my first peek at the ocean, I become a little giddy, take a couple of minutes to soak it in, and marvel at my good fortune. I get to sip a cup of coffee and luxuriate in a multitude of $10,000,000 plus unobstructed views of the largest ocean on the planet. I see people camping, riding bikes, and living their lives. ( I really need to take up camping.) The old-fashioned Santa Barbara station greets us with its massive banyan tree, and the downtown area, within walking distance, but I have no layover and work to do.
Beyond Santa Barbara, we enter the desolate Bixby Ranch area, where few people travel unless they are on the train. Miles of unsullied coastline and mountains stretch before and behind us. I become a little more distracted. In another life, due to a series of complicated connections, I stayed at the Bixby Ranch. I watched a sea lion rolling in the surf, and spied strewn abalone shells on the virgin sands. I toured the Point Conception lighthouse and keeper's house with its peeling wallpaper. I witnessed the crashing waves and the cove where sharks find their prey. We four-wheeled to the World War II gunneries and partied at the ranch. I have been here and know its mysteries. So perhaps this place means more to me.
At this point, I always need to discipline myself. I took this trip to get work done. If I don't, I can't do this again. I get back to it but still periodically peek at the coast. I've seen a massive beached whale, dolphins playing, and lone sailboats in its vast waters.
The train glides past Vandenberg Airforce Base, and I always look for a rocket but never see one. Inland we head to Guadalupe through bucolic valleys full of little ranchitos stuffed with chickens, goats, cattle, and horses in the hilly Old California landscape. My friend Patty lives here, but there will be no adventuring with her today.
Sweeping valleys with pointed peaks swathed in clover greens and wheat yellows greet us. We are entering charming San Luis Obispo with its Spanish style casitas.
After over 6 hours, I have arrived. I check my to-do list and make a couple of notes. I pack up my office, give my seat a nostalgic glance, and exit the train. There are tons of little eateries within walking distance, and I choose one with exceptionally healthy food. After a delicious bowl of couscous, quinoa, fish, and microgreens, I throw my bag over my shoulder and head up the Terrace Hill Trail. The word terrace is somewhat misleading as the trail heads straight up with no switchbacks, and I quickly become winded. Knowing my train is leaving in an hour, I push forward. The slog is rewarded with panoramic views, some much-needed exercise, and peak bragging rights. I hustle back down.
Photo by Mary Minerman
After grabbing some snacks, I jump on the train heading home, sitting next to another westward viewing window. The conductor serves wine, and I appreciate the long shadows coursing green valleys, closing out the day. As we trundle down the track, the sun sets on the Pacific in a panorama of pinks and violets, and I make a silent toast. The world is not leaving me behind, working at my desk. I am moving with it, soaking up its beauty, and getting stuff done.
A day truly well-spent and part of a Life Well-Lived.
Watching this pandemic play out, one witnesses humanity at its worst:
With the world going rogue, we still get to decide who we want to be in this new reality. I choose being a good human, and many others are doing the same:
We are truly “in this together” and get to choose how we want to handle it. Being a good human is and will always be part of a Life Well-Lived.
I met Pam almost 50 years ago in eighth grade. I sat next to her on the bus to Joe Walker Junior High. She was petite, beautiful, and terrified. Her family had just moved to the area, and she did not know anyone.
We became fast friends, sharing favorite music, talking about our pasts, and laughing at the absurdities of life. We walked to the country store or sat on the swings at the elementary school, and our friendship bloomed. As I got to know her better, I learned one of life’s certainties: Boys loved Pam and went to ridiculous adolescent lengths to get her attention. Being an awkward, too tall tweener, I had never witnessed such a fuss and was confused, annoyed, and a little envious. But there was more to Pam than adoring teenage boys. She was smart. She aced her classes, took more challenging subjects, and earned special academic awards. She also had an incredible artistic sense. I still remember a beautifully rendered rose she drew, and this was over four decades ago.
After two years, my family moved away. Pam and I wrote letters and talked on the phone. I saw her through marriage and her children. She saw me through marriage, a daughter, and divorce. With young families, our phone calls became fewer and farther between, but when the busyness lifted, we reconnected as if we’d never been apart. She visited me in South Orange County, and we caught up over the crashing waves of the San Clemente Pier. I went to her home in Las Vegas for the Fourth of July. (Her husband, Tony, kindly turned up the air conditioning knowing the 110 plus temperatures would probably kill me!) We sat in her pool, fully clothed drinking champagne. Her family joined us, and we stayed up until 4 in the morning, not wanting to sleep but finally collapsing into our beds. They took a trip to Cambria, and I visited them. We went wine tasting, me sitting in the back seat with her 25-year-old boys yelling, like little kids, “He’s looking at me!” Her son Jessie joked about crushing on me with hilarious flirty comments. “Hey, Maaarrrryyyy….” For Mother’s Day, her son Jason got us special tickets on the High Roller. We danced, marveled at the city below, and felt so lucky to be alive. When I had my book launch at Laguna Beach Books, Pam used her gambling winnings to make a surprise appearance along with Jason, her sister, Carolyn, and niece, Katie. I was so honored.
Through children, husbands, highs, and lows, we usually talk at least once a week knowing each other’s stories. She knew me when I was the gawky junior high kid, and I knew her when she was never that.
Being friends with Pam is definitely part of a life well-lived.
Happy Birthday, Pam!
M.J. Minerman writes for spinsters around the world who have "not found their lids and are pursuing lives well-lived."