Dispatch From 1973: West on the Train (Pt. 1)

I arrived in the Bay Area for the first time 50 years ago this month. I was 18 and had never been more than a few miles west of the Mississippi River. On summer evenings sometimes I’d see clouds building in the west and thought maybe that’s what the Rockies might look like on the horizon. After working for eight months at my first job — as a copyboy at Chicago Today — and saving most of what I earned, I bought a ticket from Chicago to Oakland on Amtrak.

I was moderately serious about keeping a journal, and I wrote a long entry about the train ride west. From the dates in my notebook, I can see I didn’t write the narrative until about three weeks after the fact. So while I think I believed everything happened just the way I related it, and I feel that I must have worked from notes of some kind — my notebook is remarkably free of scratch-outs and rewriting — some of the details about people and places may have become lost by the time I wrote it all down. Reading the account now, I can see a few mistakes. For instance, I put the town of Truckee on the wrong side of Donner Summit, and I seem to have been confused about Bay Area geography. What follows is the first partof the entry, complete with botched spelling and punctuation, embarrassing asides, vague semi-true historical details, and with notes where I feel the need to explain or correct something.

The date on the journal entry in my notebook is February 9, 1973, when I was visiting with a family friend up in Twain Harte, Tuolumne County. I believe the train I was taking, the California Zephyr, pulled out of Chicago’s Union Station at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, January 19 and arrived in Oakland almost exactly 48 hours later.

West on the Train

The train rolls out slow from Chicago’s center, and gathers its speed through the West Side. The afternoon is cloudy and is turning dark as you enter the Prairie, past the grey, dirty town of Aurora.

Familiar Illinois country: neon lamps scattered across the rich farmlands. Farms and their houses stand close by the lights, in the deep dusk you can see a few as the Burlington opens up. The farmers sit inside the houses and wait for the warmness of March and April to break the dormancy of the winter earth; or, impatient, they wait for the furrows to dry so their combines can take out last year’s corn and soybeans without sinking.

They might see the train running west beneath their big sky; red lights flash at rural crossings, cars wait for your thirty-second passing, and go on. The land is unchanged as you head west, pulling into Galesburg at 7 o’clock. The station is small and dimly lit, the town looks quiet, a few neon signs flashing down quiet main streets.

And you continue,. You’re coming to Iowa. The train stops at Knoxville; “I didn’t know we stopped here;” ah, well, Burlington next.1 Eating a turkey sandwich with a middle-aged couple from the Quad Cities, talking on the expense and extent of the Midwest night life. Out the window, the reflection of the broad Mississippi River. The “Father of Waters,” flowing to New Orleans, by Memphis, St. Louis, New Madrid, Vicksburg, river towns along the way. Picking up the Missouri and Ohio and smaller streams along the way. I’ve never been more than 30 miles past this in my life; it’s a real border.

I stop in the dome car after dinner, and sit. The sky is clearing now, there’s a full moon riding in the clear Iowa sky. I’m going. I really am. And the excitement is there, a good feeling from talking to the people in the diner. What a feeling. Iowa’s farmlands slide by under the moon. We stop in a town (Ottumwa? Osceola?) and people at a crossing wave. I wave back but they can’t see me.

Into Creston, Iowa, back in my coach. The Strand theater stands a block from the tracks, its marquee dark. Even this excites me: I remember Phillips and Robinson2 going to the Strand, maybe this is the same one? They saw “Change of Habit,” with Elvis Presley. What excitement.

The land along the tracks alternates between dry, rolling hills and long, flat stretches. The moon lights all: the water standing in the turned up fields, the tall hillside grasses; small creeks all through Iowa shine with the fullness of the moon.

It was late, and I was getting tired, so before we got to Omaha I tried to sleep. It was sort of uncomfortable, but I didn’t mind much. I tried sleeping “stretched” across two seats, but that didn’t make it, so I sat up and watched as we crossed another dark river, the Missouri, and moved towards Omaha. i think it was around one in the morning by this time, and about nine hours out of Chicago; I kept thinking we weren’t going too fast.

An old lady got on in Aurora, who looked like she was about eighty, and whose eyesight was failing her. Everytime she left the car, she’d come back and have a lot of trouble finding her seat. It seemed incredible that she was finding her car everytime (because by way most people looked when they walked through, it was obvious that they were sort of confused).

Her troubles were compounded after they turned off the lights for the night. There was a kid who was going to Omaha who helped her out a couple of times. She left her seat for a while after he got off though, and a middle-aged serviceman took it (someone had taken his old seat). She returned in the dark, and found him sitting in her seat. So she went to sit in another place, only to remember she left her shoes in her original seat.

Being awake, I saw she was having some kind of trouble, and got up and said to her, “Yes, that’s where you were sitting.” She replied that she knew, “but he’s sleeping over my shoes. I guess I’ll get them tomorrow.” All she said was in a hoarse, almost child-like whisper. That’s what she reminded me of in a way, a small child on a long trip without his parents. She walked away then, down the aisle, and went to sleep.

And I tried. I dozed off, and woke up in Lincoln, home of the University of Nebraska. A woman was changing seats on the downtown side of the train, trying to see something. It was the same woman I had asked the time of in Omaha.

“Is this Lincoln?” I asked, knowing already that it was. “Yes, I lived here, that’s why I’m trying to see out. I wonder if it’s changed any.” She was middle-aged; her hair was a greying shade; in the dim light I really wasn’t sure what color it was. She wore glasses, and her face had a set expression on it, I don’t know, a neutral half-smile. She was the kind of person you think looks older than they really are.

I didn’t think Lincoln looked very interesting, so I went to sleep again, and woke up several times during the night. I was able to tell it had turned cloudy; I woke up around dawn, in time to see the cloudy, blue light of Saturday morning covering the range country of the Nebraska Sand Hills. This is the country where half of the fleeing Cheyenne tribe got lost and surrendered in November, 1876. This is the country where they died two months later in the sub-zero January plains.3

I went up to the dome car again, and saw us pass the “Welcome to Colorado” sign on the highway parallel to us. Colorado! The snow started just as we crossed the state line (or so it seemed) and got worse all the way into Denver, where they had about five inches down, and the heavy snow still coming down.

I went to breakfast at the first call, right after we entered Colorado, and met a kid from Green River, Wyoming (he’d gotten on in Galesburg). He was letting me in on all the facts of life in a small Wyoming town (there isn’t any other kind).

Yes, there are only about two people per square mile in Wyoming. “There used to be three trains a day coming through town, now there’s only this one three times a week.”

“We had a motorcycle group once; we just rode around. One time we went to Salt Lake. The cops there don’t like you; they didn’t like us. We rode in, and just went around the city. After dark a cop came up to us and said, ‘If you’re looking for a place to sleep, you can go over to the park and I won’t arrest you. You may have your head smashed in with a rock after you’re asleep, or get stabbed or killed or something, but I won’t bother you.'”

He had been visiting with his sister , who lives in Rock Island [Illinois]. He was there for a couple of days, killing time, and hitting all the bars on the Iowa side of the river. Now he was going back to Wyoming, and he was pretty glad.

“It’s great up there. My brother had a party once, with drugs and everything. When the police tried to come and get them, they just took some dynamite and blew up the road in front of them. “

The Burlington Northern stretches across the almost endless American plains, along the North Platte River in Nebraska, sometimes crossing the route of the Pony Express. In the days of the railroad, when steam was king and unquestioned, there was the Burlington and the Great Northern. The former ran its crack passenger carriers down this line; the famous “Zephyr.”

But after World War II, and before I was born, the railroads started on a long down grade, losing their battle against air travel, resigning themselves to the category of anachronisms.

The steam days ended in the middle fifties, and new diesel powerhouses wound the trains down the steel rails. There was the Illinois Central: “City of New Orleans,” “Panama Limited,” and “Floridian”4; the Louisiana and Nashville5: the “Humming Bird”; the Burlington Northern: the “Zephyr.” And they ran on their rails to the line of the horizon and were gone, and the big skies in the middle of the continent were cut at sunset by long, silver vapor trails high above the rich farmlands; and in the red dusty summer dusks, the last shrill whistle echoed, before I was born.

Now there is Amtrak, and passenger service barely survives. But the lore at the railroad crossings, bright red lights flashing in the prairie darkness at midnight, made me take the train, and we were pulling into Denver now in the snow.

I got off for about five minutes there, and got a copy of the last issue of Life, and a Sports Illustrated. Pretty soon we were backing out of Denver and transferring to the Union Pacific line, which would carry us through northern Colorado to Cheyenne and across the southern range of Wyoming. Laramie, Rawlins, Rock Springs, Green River, and Evanston.

End of Part 1.

Notes

1. This is confused. We would have passed through Knoxville, Illinois, before Galesburg, not after. Did the train make an unscheduled stop at Knoxville? I don’t recall, but probably not. The next stop after Galesburg, for the record, was Monmouth, Illinois, not Burlington (Iowa).

2. High school friends and neighbors.

3. In fact: We were well south of the Sand Hills. We were even farther away from the area where half of the Northern Cheyenne band of Indians were captured during their flight from Oklahoma. And that event — the surrender I mention — happened in late October 1878, not November 1876. The “the sub-zero January plains” refers to the Cheyennes’ desperate attempt to escape from Fort Robinson, in northwestern Nebraska, in January 1879, and the massacre that followed. At the time, I think my reading on the topic consisted of the historical novel “The Last Frontier,” by Howard Fast.

4. “The Floridian” was not an Illinois Central train; it appears to have been a train invented by Amtrak to continue service between Chicago and Miami.

5. The L&N was actually the Louisville and Nashville.

‘I Bequeath Myself to the Dirt …’

Whitman tomb, Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, New Jersey, November 2012.

“Forum,” KQED’s daily discussion show, is doing reruns this holiday week. And today one of the topics covered was titled “Would You Consider Becoming Compost?” The subject was a new California law that allows people to choose to compost their remains instead of embalming and burying or cremating them. One of the guests was from Recompose, a Seattle company that does “ecological death care,” aka human composting. One of the facts she shared is that the company’s process renders a body into about one cubic yard of soil — enough to comfortably fit in the bed of a pickup truck. That sounds like a lot of “material”; she explained that the volume is due to soil used in the composting process.

Composting sounds all right to me. And the show topic reminded me of one of my favorite pieces of poetry, a section from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” It comes from the famous “I sound my barbaric yawp” passage:

I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

Ah — what an optimistic vision of how we might persist on this Earth we love and link ourselves to the future and future-kind. I am not looking for an epitaph just yet, but those last three lines certainly ring in my mind.

Whitman touched more than once on the process that would allow him to “bequeath myself to the dirt.” In “This Compost,” he mused on how the earth disposes of “those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations? Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?” He marvels at the “chemistry” that purifies these leavings and turns them into new growth and life so that “when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease, though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.”

Given his declared enthusiasm for the soil and leaving himself to future generations, it’s kind of ironic that Whitman wound up building a tomb in a Camden, New Jersey, cemetery for his final resting place (his brother George, a Union officer in the Civil War, and other family members are also interred there).

If you want to visit, the Harleigh Cemetery in Camden is pretty easy to find. Failing to fetch him at first, check your map apps. He’s stopped right there, waiting for you.

Road Blog: Utah Ghost Bike

Roadside memorial for Tyler Droeger, killed in September 2021 when a driver drifted off this stretch of U.S. 89 in central Utah.

Along U.S. 89 just north of Hatch, Utah.

Tyler Droeger was riding a 4,000-mile circuit of the West on a fund-raising mission in late September 2021 when he was hit from behind by someone who drifted across a rumble strip and the highway shoulder where the cyclist was riding. There are several news accounts of the incident. For instance: “Cyclist Who Was on a Mission to Help Navajo Nation Struck and Killed by Car in Utah.” Unfortunately, none of the stories I find identify the driver who struck Droeger or say whether there were any legal consequences for killing him. Neither can I find any sign in cases filed by the district attorney for Garfield County, where Droeger was killed, that the driver was charged.

The “ghost bike” memorial was apparently installed by Droeger’s family and is accompanied by an official-looking sign that says simply, “Start Seeing Bikes.”

Roadside memorial for Tyler Droeger, killed in September 2021 when a driver drifted off this stretch of U.S. 89 in central Utah.

More on Tyler Droeger: The GoFundMe page he set up for his fund-raising ride and the Instagram account where he detailed some of his trip.

His last GoFund Me update ended this way: “When I started this I thought I wanted to raise awareness in others to the vast levels of inequality that we have in this country, but I’m now realizing that I wasn’t even aware of the inequality we have here in our homeland. Be good to the strangers you meet. no matter their situation it could just as easily have been you In those shoes.’

Road Blog: Never Rip

Driving in search of an aspen grove I had read about — more accurately described as a “clone,” a stand of trees generated from a single seed and growing from a single root system — that is alleged to be the world’s most massive organism, I happened across the above, painted on the side of the general store in Koosharem, Utah. That’s about 150 miles south of Salt Lake City and not too awfully far from Interstate 70 (to the north) and Interstate 15 (to the west). Here’s a 2012 image of the same sign, which suggests strongly the piece has been “renewed “over the years.

John Scowcroft and Sons, the Ogden, Utah, firm that made Never Rip Overalls through about 1940, was founded by an English convert to Mormonism who emigrated to Utah in 1880. His commercial endeavors in his new home are reported to have started in the confectionery and bakery business and later expanded into clothing and dry goods.

It’s not clear exactly when Scowcroft and Sons began making “Never Rip Overalls.” ZCMI — Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, the Utah firm formed in the late 1860s to promote Mormon enterprises and entrepreneurs — marketed “never rip” overalls around the turn of the 20th century, as did a New York-based firm that made Keystone Never Rip Overalls. (And “never rip” was a popular sales claim in this era, as evidenced by the slogan for Ypsilanti Health Underwear: “Never rip and never tear — Ypsilanti Underwear.”)

But based on what you find in the newspaper archives it appears that Scowcroft probably started turning out overalls and started a big advertising push for Never Rip Overalls in 1913. The company’s ads touted the clothes’ durability, of course, but put more emphasis on the fact that its products were made in Ogden and that its workers’ salaries supported other local businesses. It claimed a weekly payroll of $1,200 to $1,500 for 150 “boys and girls” (the latter sometimes described as “Utah maids”) who made the goods. Scowcroft also advertised that it was a union shop — apparently organized by the United Garment Workers Union.

Ogden Standard, June 9, 1913.
Ogden Standard, July 9, 1913.

Based on those payroll numbers, workers were making an average of $8 to $10 a week. If you figure a 50-hour work week, that would put pay at 16 to 20 cents an hour. Since workers at the plant were paid a piece rate, getting compensated for each item they produced rather than for each hour worked, pay probably varied widely. Scowcroft said in a recruitment ad late in the decade that “girls” were started out at $7.50 a week during training but could earn much more — even $27 a week — once they picked up speed. (One government report from this era suggests a typical work week in the garment industry was more like 55 to 60 hours a week. Average wages ranged from 14 to 40 cents an hour depending on the skill involved in the position and workers’ gender — then as now, female workers were paid less than men working in the same positions.)

Loneliest Roads

U.S. 6, Nye County, Nevada.

At some point in the not so ancient past — July 1986 — Life magazine off-handedly dubbed U.S. 50 across Nevada “the loneliest road in America.” The picture caption that included that phrase also quoted an auto club official as saying of the highway: “It’s totally empty. There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”

The road already had a reputation as a sort of an outback adventure. Life’s portrait of the highway drew the curious and prompted Chamber of Commerce types to embrace the “loneliest” title and try to turn the highway into an attraction. Somewhere at home we have a passport booklet full of stamps we collected during a trip across Nevada in 2007 — part of a promotion for U.S. 50 travelers. It turns out there are plenty of attractions, including the experience of being out in the middle of shocking expanses of sky and sage and mountain ranges stretching out to forever.

Among the features that U.S. 50 shares with many highways in the back-of-beyond West are long, long stretches of perfectly straight road — stretches that run away across a limitless expanse of valley, then rise up a distant ridge and disappear. And one of the many highways that shares those attributes is U.S. 6, which starts east across Nevada a bit further south than U.S. 50, then makes a turn to the northeast and meets 50 in Ely.

There is a whole story about why roads go where they go, why they take the paths they take. I’m not telling that here. What I do want to relate is how remarkably empty Route 6 was Friday once I left Tonopah in west central Nevada. It started with the sign just outside town saying, “Next Gas: 163 miles.” And it continued, across mountains, road summits and long intervening valleys. I was carrying a camera with a long lens, and occasionally I’d pull over on the arrow-straight sections to try to capture a sense of the scene. Most of the time, no other vehicles were in sight, so I could stand on the center line and shoot away. On one piece of highway, I stopped at the top of the rise and looked back across the valley I had just crossed — the valley pictured above. I had been watching my odometer, and I was staring down the middle of at least 17 miles of pavement. There wasn’t a single vehicle in sight.

U.S. 6, near Tonopah, Nevada. There is a vehicle in sight in this iPhone photo.

Road Blog: Pack, Shop, Get Gas, Shave, Cut Hair, Straighten Up Office, Fill Bird Feeders …

Lake Don Pedro — the reservoir that captures the Tuolumne River downstream of Hetch Hetchy — along Highway 120.

Day One of an n-day trip to Salt Lake City and destinations still undetermined. I’m in Lee Vining now after driving from sea-leval Berkeley out of the Bay Area, across the Valley, through the foothills and Yosemite and up the Tioga Road to Tioga Pass, elevation 9,945 feet. It was dark when I got to the top. I stopped for a few minutes to take in the stars and planets — Jupiter scraping the top of Mount Dana as it rose — and spotted the International Space Station making a pass almost directly overhead. Then it was back in the car for the plunge down through canyon to Lee Vining, where I’m staying tonight. I walked up the road to the region’s most famous Mobil gas station to have dinner (well, the gas station is part of a roadside stop with a store and a better-than-you-could-possibly-have-expected-in-these-parts restaurant. Tonight they had carnitas tacos. Really good).

It does occur to me that sometime maybe I’d like to take a whole trip in daylight. My brother John was just telling me tonight from Montana that he just went over a stretch of road the two of us drove after dark last year and he was staggered at how beautiful it was. All I can tell you about that piece of highway is that it had all the standard lines and markings.

Today, driving after dark was pretty much inevitable because I didn’t leave home until a bit after 2 p.m. I think sunset was about 6:30. Why start after 2? See the headline above. It’s all the stuff the got compressed into a few hours before departure. One would think I’d learn at some point. But not yet.

County Courthouse

Going through some pictures I took on a quick drove around North Texas four years ago. This is the Foard County Courthouse — humble and lacking in the architectural fancies that characterize some of the other courthouses I’ve seen in the Lone Star State. The plainness appeals to me. It’s even more pronounced in the Google Streetview of the spot

The town of Crowell, 65 miles west of Wichita Falls, is the seat of the county, which according to the 2020 census had a population of 1,095 — a steep decline from the 1,336 reported in 2010.

I haven’t delved into the county’s history at all. It has one literary claim to fame, though. It’s home to Thalia, the name Texas novelist Larry McMurtry adopted for the setting of several novels, including “The Last Picture Show” and “Horseman, Pass By.”

‘George A. Wyman, 1st Across America’

George A. Wyman waypoint, Emigrant Gap, California, August 2017.

We happened across the sign above along Interstate 80 west of Donner Summit at the beginning of a road trip to see the August 2017 solar eclipse. 

It took me nearly five years and a chance encounter with this image to actually look up George A. Wyman and what the whole “1st Across America” thing is about.

In short: Back in 1903, he made what is said to have been the first trip across the United States via motorized vehicle — in his case, a motorized bicycle produced by a company in San Francisco. The trip began at Lotta’s Fountain, on Market Street in San Francisco. The fountain became famous several years after Wyman’s departure as a meeting place in the aftermath of the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake, a bit of history that’s commemorated with a pre-dawn ceremony every April 18, the date of the catastrophe. 

Naturally, you’ll want to read more about George A. Wyman and his machine.

If I’m write, you’ll want to check out the George A. Wyman Memorial Project, which has published a day-by-day account of the adventurer’s cross-country journey. The site includes a pretty good tale, too, about how the late publisher of the Los Angeles Times found and restored a 1902-vintage motor bicycle that he believed to be the one Wyman rode.  

The day-by-day account mentioned above is drawn from Wyman’s dispatches — including pictures — to a publication called Motorcycle Magazine, which sponsored the trip. The story that unfolds in those reports shows Wyman to have been unflinching in the face of often hostile conditions along his route and the frequent breakdowns of his 90-pound, 1.25-horsepower machine. Especially in the West, he regularly found the bone-rattling ride along railroad ties — yes, he was riding on the railroad— preferable to the deep sand or intractable mud that made it miserable to travel on what passed for roads. When the trip was over, he estimated he’d ridden 1,500 miles on the cross-ties; on several occasions, he had close calls with trains that overtook him when he was on the tracks.

Occasionally, Wyman turned in truly dramatic accounts of his travels. His June 4, 1903, entry, describing his trip through a mountain downpour between Laramie and Cheyenne, Wyoming, is a must-read.

But mostly, he was matter-of-fact about most of his difficulties. Here he is a few days later, mentioning a piece of equipment had broken:

One more cyclometer was sacrificed on the ride from Ogallala to Maxwell (Nebraska), snapped off when I had a fall on the road. I do not mention falls, as a rule, as it would make the story one long monotony of falling off and getting on again. Ruts, sand, sticks, stones and mud, all threw me dozens of times. Somewhere in Emerson I remember a passage about the strenuous soul who is indomitable and ‘the more falls he gets moves faster on.’ I would like to see me try that across the Rockies. I didn’t move faster after my falls. The stones out that way are hard.”

He frequently commented on the reception he got along the way — which was mostly amazement at both the length of his journey and the technology he was using. On June 24, he stopped for the night in Ligonier, Indiana, a town about halfway between Chicago and Toledo:

“I thought that when I got east of Chicago folks would know what a motor bicycle is, but it was not so. In every place through which I passed, I left behind a gaping lot of natives, who ran out into the street to stare after me. When I reached Ligonier I rode through the main street, and by mistake went past the hotel where I wanted to stop. When I turned and rode back the streets looked as though there was a circus in town. All the shopkeepers were out on the sidewalks to see the motor bicycle, and small boys were as thick as flies in a country restaurant. When I dismounted in front of the hotel the crowd became so big and the curiosity so great that I deemed it best to take the bicycle inside. The boys manifested a desire to pull it apart to see how it was made.

Wyman’s motor bicycle was a sort of hybrid, consisting of what looked like a conventional bicycle frame fitted with a small gas tank and motor. A leather drive belt — which broke and required mending constantly — ran between the motor’s crank shaft and a pulley on the rear wheel. The motor and transmission apparatus had given out as Wyman neared the end of his journey. Luckily, he could simply pedal the bike, and pedal he did, riding the last 150 miles from Albany to New York City without stopping overnight to sleep:

I made frequent stops to rest and I attracted more than a little attention but I was too tired to care. I can smile now as I recall the sight I was with my overalls on, my face and hands black as a mulatto’s, my coat torn and dirty, a big piece of wood tied on with rope where my handlebars should be, and the belt hanging loose from the crankshaft. I was told that I was ‘picturesque’ by a country reporter named ‘Josh,’ who captured me for an interview a little way up the Hudson, and who kept me talking while the photographer worked his camera, but to my ideal, I was too dirty to be picturesque. At any rate, I was too tired then to care. All I wanted was a hot bath and a bed. 

Wyman’s arrival in New York after his 50-day epic attracted little attention, it seems. A scattering of papers across the country carried a brief Associate Press story that hailed him as “the first man to cross the American continent on a power-propelled road vehicle.” Motorcycle Magazine suggests one reason the feat may not have gained wider attention: Wyman himself didn’t boast about it.

“Now that the narrative has been completed and a review of the whole trip can be taken, it stands out in its entirety as a supreme triumph for the motor bicycle,” the magazine said. “It was not only the most notable long distance record by a motorcycle, but also it was the greatest long trip made in this country by any sort of a motor vehicle.  This is a fact to which attention was not called by Wyman in his story and it is one that should be emphasized.  In fact, Wyman’s story was altogether too modest throughout.”

A BART Memory

Aboard BART, May 2012.

Back when San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit trains had fabric-covered uplholstery , the seating inspired a story: “On BART Trains, the Seats Are Taken (by Bacteria).” That piece was published in 2011 by The Bay Citizen, a short-lived regional news site that partnered with The New York Times, and it disclosed that the fabric seats were crawling with the nastiest-sounding of microbes. Soon thereafter, BART installed vinyl-covered upholstery— easier to clean, when you get around to cleaning it — on all trains.

Of course, the fabric seats, whose reported rampant filth I was blissfully unaware of and thus unconcerned about after 35 years riding the system, wasn’t why I took this shot back in 2012. Those origami flowers someone left behind were one of the nicest things I’ve ever seen on BART or any public transit. They also remind me of “Blade Runner.”

Road Blog: Going South

Highway 33, Kern County.

We’re down in Los Angeles for a few days. The quickest way of getting here, obviously, is to fly. It’s a one-hour flight. But we generally drive, and that’s mostly because we like seeing the country along the way.

However.

The main route between the Bay Area and L.A. is Interstate 5. And while a lot of the territory between metropolises is interesting and picturesque, and all of it is worth seeing and contemplating, that particular highway is a real drag. The volume of traffic can be intense, for one thing. For another, many, many, many, many drivers tend to camp out in what is known unironically in much of California as “the fast lane.” That’s especially true if a driver sees a truck somewhere up ahead — “up ahead” meaning “within sight.” The appearance of truck traffic, which in California has a 55 mph maximum speed limit, causes many drivers to get over into the left (a.k.a. “passing”) lane minutes before they will actually overtake the truck. Once past a truck, many drivers will sight another truck up ahead and figure they might as well just stay over there in that left lane until they pass that one, too. The result is long strings of vehicles lined up in the left lane, even when the right lane is empty. Not only are the lines of “fast lane” traffic long, they usually feature dramatic slowdowns and speed-ups as more cautious drivers brake to maintain some sort of minimum distance between them and the vehicle they’re following; sometimes the slowdowns occur because faster traffic has come up in the right lane and merges into the long line of left-lane traffic; sometimes the trucks get into the act when a slightly faster-moving truck moves to the left to pass a slow-poke semi.

That’s pretty much the way I-5 works most of the 275 or 300 miles or so down the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, and it’s kind of a drag. Yesterday, with less than half of that part of the drive done, I commented to Kate that I wished there was an alternative. Of course there are alternatives if you’re willing to take a much less direct (more time-consuming) route. But having voiced the thought of taking another way, we acted on it. I got off I-5 at Highway 41, the main route between Fresno and Paso Robles and the coast, took it west to Highway 33, then headed south through the Kern County oilfields, and across the Coast Ranges to Ojai and Ventura. I rode the same route on my bicycle years ago, and the memory of the trip across the mountains is vivid. The road did not disappoint yesterday, either.

We finished by taking 101 from Ventura into L.A., arriving early in the evening and well after the most excruciating hours of Friday afternoon traffic. We may have spent an extra couple of hours on the way than we would have if we had stayed on I-5, in part because we could stop as often as we wanted along the way and there was nothing pushing us (me) to go fast. We got where we were going, not necessarily soul-refreshed, but maybe a little less beat up from the tension of a long drive.

Highway 33, Ventura County.