Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Mindful on a Train

I recently had the occasion to ride the Altamont Commuter Express (A.C.E.) train from Santa Clara to Manteca/Lathrop. It was an incredibly enriching experience. I rode with my mom, who had packed us a lunch of ham sandwiches, apples, and bottled water. My Aunt Laura Jean assisted in the lunch packing, it should be noted.

Anyway, we spent the trip sharing thoughts, and me in hypo-chatty mode (it feels like a conversation, but I'm predominantly doing most of the talking...), noticing the things so easily taken for granted. We left the driving to the engineer and were free to notice the scenery as we leisurely sauntered across the rails, snaking through the "back country" of the Bay Area. We started off going through Alviso and the desalinization plants along the bay/delta that flows into San Francisco Bay. We noted large white mounds, guessed and hypothesized as to what they were and what sort of manufacturing was occurring there, and then we saw a water tower with "Leslie Salt" painted on it. We snaked along with a river through the towns (cities?) of Newark, Union City, Sunol, and Pleasanton-- all the while noticing things that outdated much of what we see in our everyday lives in the bustle of urban living. Somewhere between Newark and Livermore, I noticed an old railroad engine-- possibly a steam engine-- that had been sitting dormant for many years. It is now a decomposing heap of hazardous waste; rusting metal entwined with weeds and vines and surely other wildlife. Noticing it made my mind reel with possibility. And oh, the questions! How long had it been parked there? How old was it? When did it make its last run? Were there any plans of renovation? How many people, places, and things had this engine assisted with its service?

I talked and talked with my mom, inspired by our surroundings and the unique perspective with which the train rider is provided. With no distraction from other drivers, safety concerns, controlling a vehicle, etc., one is allowed to pay more attention and notice more about the scenery, and more time is allowed for undistracted reflection. We rode the train for about an hour and forty-five minutes. It took me almost that long to eat my lunch, I was so embedded in the experience.

So I was inspired to drive the backroads, in order that I might find some subjects for my photography and writing. Suzy and I embarked on a little jaunt that attempted to recreate the experience I had on the train. We drove on paths less taken than the freeways and highways, my intention being to find that steam engine and take some photos.

We drove through Niles Canyon, but stuck to the "main" roads due to time constraints (and because we needed gas...), so I didn't locate my steam engine. But we did see many a wildflower, including countless California Poppies, and found gas in a side of Pleasanton that we had never realized existed-- it felt so small town friendly, we almost couldn't believe it was Pleasanton. But then, when you take Interstate 580 through it most of the time, that's what you miss. You see the big ticket, fast this-and-that, cookie cutter stuff that has homogenized the American sense of place. Mass corporate culture masks reality, placing products and brand names in front of the soul of small town America, all in the name of "progress." But I think I've typed about that before (see last entry. I know I'll be going back to re-read).

What I did get to see instead of the good ol' steam engine, was some good old-fashioned train crossing signals. We pulled off the road so I could snap a few quick shots of poppies and the guardrails and signals. (Suzy sat quite patiently in the car while I indulged my muse. She even took a couple photos. But that's for her blog, not this one...) I'm reminded of the importance of trains in general-- from my experiences in Grinnell, to childhood memories of trains on Lake Shasta and in Escalon, to my mom's memories of the train ride that brought her and her mom and sister from a small town in Georgia to California when she was five years old.

But that's for mom's blog.


Deb said...

Interesting...I have recently started looking at trains too. All the years of sitting at railway crossings I had never really realized the different cars before. I knew there were different kinds of cars, and could even identify them, but until recently, I hadn't taken the time to notice how they work together.

Perhaps you are rubbing off on me, big bro...

Miclaundry said...

If I am, I only hope and pray that you're getting the good stuff and none of the "cuckoo," so to speak...

Gerri said...

The train ride was a wonderful experience...I am glad I got to share it with you.

Recently I was able to share the reverse ride with Michael Megenney. He, too, was chatty, but he did not talk about what he saw out the windows. He was more interested in people getting water from the dispenser outside the bathroom! Because his only other experience on a train was the Polar Express, he was expecting hot chocolate and cookies...he had to settle for brownie bites and a juice pouch, but he was happy. I enjoy riding the train as it is very relaxing.

David said...

Good rite n, son. I like to read. Remember when we was up in the Cascades with Grandpa Joe? We was lookin at some property that was by a creek and there was railroad tracks on the other side of the creek. Then, as we stood there, a station wagon car came rollen down the tracks. Wow, that surprised all of us.