TRAVEL: US west coast.

Trav­el­ling north from Cal­i­for­nia to Ore­gon on the Coast Starlight rail line, Andy Hazel ob­serves the fade of Los An­ge­les’ press­ing pop­u­la­tion un­til the forests part for a mo­ment’s glimpse of small­town USA.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - Andy Hazel

Train travel is usu­ally ad­ver­tised as a com­fort­able and re­lax­ing way to get from A to B. In Amer­ica, rail­road mono­lith Am­trak in­vites pas­sen­gers to “en­joy has­sle­free travel” along­side stock pic­tures of happy cou­ples gaz­ing out clean win­dows at sparkling vis­tas. Like a real es­tate ad­ver­tise­ment for an apart­ment that fea­tures a pic­ture of a nearby park rather than its cramped in­te­rior, Cal­i­for­nian train travel is sold with pic­tures of na­tional parks you’ll pass at 4am, rather than the views you’ll re­ally see. For­tu­nately, what you be­hold is a dif­fer­ent kind of beauty.

The Coast Starlight is Am­trak’s most suc­cess­ful line and it runs daily be­tween Los An­ge­les and Seat­tle, but my jour­ney will end in Ore­gon. The dawdling train leav­ing Los An­ge­les Union Sta­tion spends its first hours try­ing to shake off the city’s ex­panse or, to para­phrase a one-time vis­i­tor, its ripped back­sides.

Miles of ware­houses, of­fice build­ings and squat rail-side out­houses sprawl and rise to the edge of the scrubby hills from which you’re never far in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

Big cars ease across empty land­scapes on wide roads. Oth­ers gather amid dusty sun­shine in vast shop­ping mall car parks that re­turn a gaze with a rip­pling flash of wind­screens and the shad­ows of spindly flood­lights. Over and over, the gleam­ing of­fice build­ing or low win­dow­less ware­house gives way to the car park, the con­crete wa­ter­way, the high fence and new build­ing sites, the un­zoned ur­ban wilds of the most­seen city on earth.

Mov­ing north through Simi Val­ley, seem­ingly empty apart­ment blocks, iden­ti­cal ex­cept for the fivedigit num­ber stamped on their walls, re­place the used-car lots and strip malls with cheap signs read­ing “E-Cig and Vape”. Cur­tains drawn, blinds closed, win­dows tinted. Faded signs in­vite new ten­ants. Only Chinese res­tau­rants show any sign of life. Bar­ren hills grow steeper be­fore fields and horse ranches be­come more com­mon.

Ox­nard, Ox­nard, next stop Ox­nard. If this is your stop, please alight here. Wal­greens, IHOP, 7-Eleven, Tuff Shed, Ac­tion Tro­phy, Bar­ber RV. Wa­ter re­stric­tions are a re­cur­ring topic of con­ver­sa­tion in Cal­i­for­nia and through­out the train, pas­sen­gers com­ment on the st­ing of res­i­den­tial wa­ter re­stric­tions amid the sight of dozens of flick­er­ing in­dus­trial sprin­klers and miles of lush or­chards.

North of Ox­nard we get our first view of the Pa­cific Ocean and the famed coast along which High­way1 trav­els. A fel­low pas­sen­ger tells me, “It’s al­most as beau­ti­ful as your Great Ocean Road”. It’s hard to ar­gue; the sim­i­lar­i­ties are strik­ing. Glimpsed be­tween tall trees and slop­ing houses, the turquoise wa­ters spread out from a long flag-lined pier.

Santa Bar­bara, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles and Sali­nas are strung out along the coast show­cas­ing vine­yards, farm­land and forested ranches. From a clear­ing be­low the tracks, a woman on horse­back gal­lops to­wards us, rid­ing her horse hard for a mile or so along­side our car­riage be­fore laugh­ing and wav­ing farewell and dis­ap­pear­ing into thick woods.

The last RV beach camp, the first al­mond plan­ta­tion, the an­nounce­ment of a well-timed wine­tast­ing in the par­lour car. Sam­ple the wines from the vine­yard you’re pass­ing through, an­nounces a cheer­ful voice over the speaker. We swing away from the sea and into the hin­ter­land. As the ex­urbs of the San Jose/San Fran­cisco/Oak­land sprawl grow nearer, the land­scape shifts back to a spread of light in­dus­try, lit up like dy­ing can­dles. The sky re­veals early stars.

Oak­land Jack London, Oak­land Jack London. Dusk has turned to night as the es­tates turn to suburbs and the apart­ment build­ings grow nar­rower. As we ease north and away from the me­trop­o­lis, we jour­ney into the small hours; 1am Davis, 2am Chico, 3am Red­ding. All is black out­side. The oc­ca­sional lights of a re­gional city, petrol sta­tions, con­ve­nience stores, the drab back of a mall. Noth­ing to dis­tract from sleep.

Trees. Sun­light. I wake as we reach the Ore­gon border. Dou­glas firs and conifers spring tall and gan­gly from high hills and dis­tant slopes. We’re higher and it’s colder. The land­scape shifts again as we ap­proach the town of Kla­math Falls. Track works ahead will keep the train here for two hours. I aban­don it for the cool thin air out­side.

Kla­math Falls is home to a cu­ri­ous range of ar­chi­tec­ture. A gi­ant Art Deco the­atre, a Mod­ernist as­sem­bly hall of cor­ru­gated iron and square glass pan­els, red brick ten­e­ment build­ings with evenly spaced win­dows and ex­ter­nal fire es­capes, more a film set than a street.

Bloom­ing pots of flow­ers spill from the curlicues of wrought iron be­neath Vic­to­rian-style street lights.

It’s the sort of town you for­get still ex­ists in 2018. Main Street is home to a Bed­ford Falls-like range of fam­ily busi­nesses, an­tique shops and re­gional banks. Posters for the Kla­math Falls Gems base­ball team re­cur in shop win­dows and there’s a wil­ful dis­re­gard for fash­ion that is like a balm af­ter the des­per­ate cool of Los An­ge­les. A man sit­ting out the front of a closed pizze­ria nods hello to me. A pass­ing jog­ger does the same.

Back on the train, we soon pass Up­per Kla­math Lake, a long, still, swampy shal­low body shad­owed by dis­tant forested hills. Birds bother its fringes and the oc­ca­sional pel­i­can flaps over reed beds that poke above sil­very wa­ter. At first it seems like a river, long and thin, but soon it be­comes closer to a sea, with the other side barely vis­i­ble from the train line as it rounds the shore.

The trees close in around us, oc­ca­sion­ally break­ing for a ravine or peek­ing high­way. Towns ap­pear as low wooden houses, tall si­los and rust­ing car yards, stak­ing out their space. They re­cede quickly and only a few roads and the oc­ca­sional wind­ing river mark the ter­ri­tory as con­nected to the rest of the world. Un­in­cor­po­rated com­mu­ni­ties may barely rate a dot on a map, but sev­eral of them con­sti­tute an Am­trak stop. Che­mult is a truck stop that seems to have more petrol sta­tions and mo­tels than res­i­dents. Bro­ken-down din­ers mark the edge of the high­way that bar­rels down its broad cen­tre. Ev­ery­thing is for sale or rent. Faded pas­tel con­crete and dusty wooden walls prop up the low-roofed mo­tels that seem un­touched since Norman Bates went to jail. Six­teen-wheel­ers roar by, briefly drown­ing out the sound of ring­ing tills as shop­keep­ers try to keep up with the sud­den in­flux of pas­sen­gers mak­ing the most of the hour they’ve been given to spend here as Am­trak ne­go­ti­ates fur­ther track works. The high­way is still home to a bright blue church, a cin­der-block post of­fice and a diner with a bro­ken win­dow and dusty booths and ta­bles. Out­side, an old sign prom­ises burg­ers and malts.

Chil­o­quin, Kirk and half-a-dozen other stops flash by as we pass through the forests, the af­ter­noon light lend­ing the hills a golden glow. Dou­glas firs jut from the moun­tain­side like over­lapped seis­mo­graphic read­ings. Ap­proach­ing the col­lege town of Eu­gene, we fol­low a slow shal­low rocky river, then a yel­low-lined road with signs promis­ing “Elk”, “Rocks” and “Dan­ger”. Oc­ca­sion­ally, grassy flood­plains, crys­tal blue lakes or val­leys open out be­low us, tem­po­rar­ily of­fer­ing a glimpse at the shape of the land be­fore be­ing snapped shut by dark green sun­lit for­est.

Af­ter miles of ivy-clad houses rid­den with mould, cars on cin­der blocks and aban­doned ware­houses, Eu­gene ar­rives like a bright out­post of Sil­i­con Val­ley. I ig­nore the train stew­ard’s ad­vice – This is only a short stop and pas­sen­gers should not leave the train – and make a lunge to­wards a nearby sec­ond-hand record store. The city smells of re­fried beans and wet trees. Min­utes later, I’m back in my seat, hold­ing a clutch of seven-inches bought from a hip­pie star­tled by my whirl­wind raid.

I pull the cur­tain against the bright an­gled sun­light com­ing in over the tim­ber yards that ring the edge of Ore­gon’s cap­i­tal, Port­land, known as the Rose City. We’ve left the forests be­hind, and now we fol­low high­ways and the Wil­lamette River north to a dif­fer­ent Union Sta­tion. As I exit the sta­tion’s slid­ing doors I’m con­fronted by the smack of a sweet scent. Dozens of rose bushes clus­ter in a gar­den around the sta­tion, their per­fume a force­ful re­minder that there is no longer a win­dow be­tween the

• trav­eller and the world.

Lake Ewauna in Kla­math Falls, Ore­gon.

ANDY HAZEL is a Mel­bournebased free­lance writer and jour­nal­ist. He is The Satur­day Paper’s ed­i­to­rial as­sis­tant.

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