Thursday, January 4, 2018

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Road Trippin’
with Steve McCarthy

It’s been a busy few months, what with the holidays and my Mom’s health issues. She needed a lower ball joint replaced and then a valve job. Both went exceedingly well, and coupled with her 90th birthday (!!!) we took three trips to the Pacific Northwest in December! WHEW! 

Happy 90th! 

Well, to be honest, Marianne took one on her own, flying. We drove up and back, then took the Amtrak for another. So, a side by side comparison is inevitable. Here goes.
Who? Me? Nah, I wouldn't...

Planes: Constant reader will know of my detestation of modern commercial aviation. It has nothing to do with a fear of flying. I understand(more or less) and have faith in the basic physics involved. It’s the total lack of comfort and customer service, added to the delights of the TSA making us safe from Evil Personified at the expense of all personal privacy that bugs me. Still, Jet Blue is a decent airline. Marianne’s trip was uneventful going up, but coming back? SeaTac, the only airport of any size up there, is a nightmare. 

Getting to and from Olympia involves, on a good day, a one hour drive each way. Note, “ON A GOOD DAY.” When there is ONLY one freeway, ANY screw up (like the train wreck that closed it for 2 days) or bad weather (which is the norm), things easily get tied into knots. Then there’s the inconvenience if someone is picking you up. An hour up, an hour back, then on the return, another hour up and hour back. Hell, LAX isn’t that much trouble. And the fares for a Super Shuttle are far cheaper. Plus, we have the luxury of FOUR choices. LAX, Ontario, Burbank, and Long Beach. All but LAX are 30-45 minutes from our house. 

But it’s only a 2 hour flight. Remember, that doesn’t include time to and from the airport, AND the amount of time you have to be in the airport waiting to be groped by the TSA. So, it’s closer to 6 hours for everyone involved. Unless it’s snowing at SeaTac and they have to dig out the deicing equipment, and wake up the only guy who knows how to use it. Yeah, coming home, Marianne’s departure was delayed FIVE HOURS! Now, I DO have to say, SeaTac is a more pleasant airport than LAX (hell, I bet East Overshoe, Montana International is nicer) but you’re still at the mercy of price gouging food and beverage vendors for the sustenance you won’t get on a plane. So, her “two hour flight” was more like 15 hours up and back. 
Dunsmuir, CA
So, let’s compare it to the Road Trip we took the next week when we found out Mom would need a heart valve replaced. We took three days to get up and three to get back, Stopped in Gilroy (because of COURSE we took 101, why not if you’re gonna take three days?), then Medford, OR, then Oly on the way up. We saw great scenery, ate lunch at Bob’s Well Bread Bakery in Los Alamos, and dinner at the Old City Hall Restaurant in Gilroy (GARLIC on everything, of course), and slept in a nice EconoLodge there. Day Two, we hit the I-5 north from Sacramento (nowhere near as dreary as the section south to LA) and ate a great meal in Dunsmuir at the  Wheelhouse next to the rail yard (excellent home made chicken pot pie), shopped in a great antiques store, the Brown Trout which was next door (an added weird feature is a clear panel in the floorboard that allows you to see the rushing water of Dunsmuir’s famous underground springs. Allegedly the Best Water in California). We stopped at the America’s Best Value in Medford (a decent enough place) and found the Four Daughters’ Irish Pub for good food and Guinness! Breakfast the next morning was in Canyonville,OR at Pappy Morgan’s. One of the largest pancakes on the planet. 

The trip home meant a stop in Grant’s Pass, OR at the Knight’s Inn right in the old town area. A very nice older motel. Dinner was at the Laughing Clam. Really good oysters, fish, and chips, good Guinness and entertainment (the singer even hit on Marianne!). This place is really cool. It was at one time a cigar factory and the back bar had been shipped ‘round the horn in the 1850s. A stroll through the shops in the old town is also a nice diversion. A neat side trip is to Oakland, OR. Great antiques shops. 

From there we cut over to the 101 via the 199, and breakfast in Hiouchi, OR. A true “wide spot in the road” with a family run cafe dating to the 1930s. The pancake options were “Platter Size” and “Sissy Size.” Go ahead, wimp out. The Sissy is still flopping over the edge of the plate. It was the OTHER largest pancakes on Earth. I can’t imagine the Platter Size. 

Fully fortified, we pressed on through the gorgeous redwoods to Willits, and Romi’s BBQ for decent tri-tip and pulled pork. Bill Morgan, his son Casey, and girlfriend Danni met us, having driven over from Clearlake. It was good to see them. 

Things then went a bit sideways. We debated staying in Willits but realized that the next day would involve a drive through the Bay Area at morning rush hour. No, not a good idea. So, we pressed on and of course hit serious traffic through Oakland. At 8PM! They have it worse than we do down here in SoCal. Tired, we found a Motel 6 in San Jose. BIG MISTAKE.We checked in, watched some TV and snacked on stuff for dinner. Then Marianne saw the cockroaches. Several of them. I pulled down the covers to be greeted by a BROWN SKiD MARK ON THE SHEET! We packed up, demanded our money back and were greeted by a staff who weren’t at all surprised at what we found! In contacting Motel 6, their customer “service” person didn’t seem all that surprised, worried, or even contrite! I also found out the the San Jose health department doesn’t oversee motel infestations! So, Motel 6? You are dead to me. San Jose has been dead to me since the Sharks joined the NHL. We made our way to Gilroy, stopped at the same EconoLodge and had a nice restful night. 
The Thomas Fire Aftermath.

Then, there’s the train. At least Il Duce made the trains in Italy run on time. Our little tin pot hasn’t even managed that. I doubt the even know there are still trains. Anyway, Amtrak is a different world. It takes an entirely different mind set. It is NOT about speed or timeliness. The schedule is a mere suggestion. That being said, IF you can switch of your inner clock, sit back and relax, it is a most pleasant and comfortable trip with scenery you can only see by train. 

We took the Gold Line light rail to Union Station and about train time (allegedly 10:10am) we found there was a mechanical problem with the train. Four hours later, we boarded. At least it wasn’t as long a delay as the deicing Marianne had to wait through at SeaTac. And, LAUPT is a spectacular building. Add in the Salvation Army Brass Quintet playing carols and the Free For Anyone To Use Piano, the entertainment was great. We settled into our comfy seats, putting down the foot rest, and raising the thigh support (yasee, trains have this thing called LEG ROOM) and watched the world slide by in quiet comfort. No constant drone of the jet, just a lulling clickity-clack and mostly gentle swaying of the car. 
Sunset on the Coast

The secret is to take along a book (preferably a long one), plug in your sounds from your phone, read, doze, look at the scenery, repeat. Dinner in the dining car is quite good and cooked on board, not just nuke and puke airline “food”. There is an observation car with tables or chairs that face the windows for more scenery staring, dozing, and conversation. That is the biggest difference on the train. Strangers talk with each other. Dinner for two becomes a shared table for four. Conversation usually revolves around “where are you from, what do you do” and most are smart enough to avoid the two biggest conversation sins, politics and religion. In Road Trippin’ the Isles, I wrote about sharing tables, the train reinforces the idea. 

For sleeping, there is  a choice. There are sleeper cars which cost a lot, or you can sit up in the coach or “business class” (which for the extra $100 only really gets you access to the world’s slowest wifi) and for one night, it’s not bad. The seats are FAR more comfortable than an airplane’s. 

The one thing that makes the entire train experience worth it is the scenery. The Coast Starlight (or StarLATE) has stretches of the most amazing scenery there is, and it can only be seen from the train. The route north from Oxnard hugs the coast (quite literally) and north of Gaviota, winds along a shear drop to the water around Point Conception. All that land is either the massive Hollister Ranch or Vandenberg AFB. None of it is open to the public. Because of our late departure, we saw it at sunset. It was spectacular. We’d also gone past the horror of the recent Thomas Fire. MAN was that nasty. As an aside, it's also depressing to see the HUGE number of homeless encampments along the tracks. The richest country in history should NOT have homeless people, and certainly not in these numbers. 

Further north, past Guadelupe, the train turns inland through the rolling hills of the Central Coast. The climb up and down the Cuesta Grade north of San Luis Obispo is another magical sight. The last amazing part is through the Cascades mountains. Because of our delay, we were lucky to pass through in the daylight. It was snowing, the trees were bent heavy with the white stuff, and we cruised through  in our nice warm rail car, sipping hot cocoa. Really, what could be better? 
We weren't dreaming Bing! 

So, pick your poison. All three cost close to the same, the only difference is time and comfort. Cars give you the freedom to stop and explore, the train gives you total relaxation, and the plane? Well, you know what I think about that!. 

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