Railroad Ties

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

To take Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to the Bay Area is an all-day excursion, 12 hours if you’re lucky, 14 or more if there are delays. You can do it only if you have time to give yourself over to the experience, which is why, on a Saturday morning in summer, my 12-year-old son, Noah, and I are in our seats, waiting to leave Union Station for the long passage north.

Part of the joy of taking the train, I’ve been telling him, is that you really feel it, really get a sense of motion, of the passage of the miles. I don’t have to convince him. Noah has been crazy for trains since he first discovered what they were, enraptured by their size, their history, their vibrant power. Even at this age, he’ll gleefully pay a Sunday visit to Live Steamers in Griffith Park or climb up and down the derelict locomotives at Travel Town. It’s a vestige of his early childhood, which is one of the reasons we’re on this adventure, to take an enduring fascination of his and make it real. Living in Southern California, we don’t get much opportunity for a train trip--at least not one that takes us anywhere. When I suggested that we take the Starlight and spend a few days in San Francisco, he jumped at the opportunity, shedding the studied diffidence of early adolescence for the unfiltered enthusiasm of a little boy.

Time is different on a train. This is travel for its own sake, in which the getting there is as important as the arriving, and we’re immersed in an unfolding process, the process of our passage through space and time. It’s what I’ve always loved about rail travel, the idea that on a long ride, the train becomes a cocoon, a place carved from the world where there is nothing to do but hang out. Sitting next to me, Noah gazes through the window, pointing to the beach just north of Santa Barbara where we went surfing two summers ago. As we move up the coast, we see kelp forests, red and green in the water like organic oil slicks, and the fishing boats that hang around the fringes, hauling in their catches.

I was worried, I’ll admit, about how (or whether) Noah would enjoy this, a wired kid in a distinctly unwired setting, with only the distractions we might imagine for ourselves. He’s brought his laptop, but except for an hour or so at the start of the trip, as we rolled through the industrial flats along the Los Angeles River, he hasn’t had it on. By midday, after we’ve eaten lunch in the dining car with an ex-Marine on his way to Seattle and a grandmother who makes the round trip from Portland to Southern California every summer, he’s chattering excitedly that he feels as if we’ve gone back in time. When I ask what he means, he tells me it’s like being in a small town--less rushed, more civil--where people talk to one another like human beings. He’s right, of course; on the train, the buzz and sharpness of daily living blur a little, become unfocused, giving us no choice but to slow down.


There is a sense of dignity, of--dare I say it--community in all this, the idea that we are part of something together, bound not just by proximity but by trust. Late in the evening, as the train arrives in San Jose, Noah and I sit in the observation lounge, listening as a man in a biker vest plays Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” on an acoustic guitar. The car is sparsely populated; it’s 10 p.m., and a lot of people are asleep in their seats. As the man sings, his wife adds a harmony line, high and wavering, while another passenger beats out a ragged rhythm on a tabletop. Noah can’t decide if he’s intrigued or embarrassed, but the more they play, the more I see him give in to the notion that, on a train at least, we might loosen up a little, if only because there’s nothing else to do.

I have a secret reason for this trip, one I won’t articulate to Noah, even though I wonder if he’s thinking the same thing. My son is on the cusp of something--adolescence, then adulthood--that will take him away from me. I don’t lament this, but I am aware that each experience we share is an opportunity, a chance to step outside time a bit. Before Noah moves full-bore into the teenage years, I want to carve out some space, a little breathing room, a zone where we can be together with no expectations, no obligations, none of the complex and occasionally fraught dynamic of father and son.

Sitting on the Coast Starlight, as it rolls up the coast and inland through the Central Valley, Noah and I play endless hands of casino; we discuss trains and San Francisco, and how cool it is to eat in the dining car. We sit in silence for a while. We talk about the book he’s reading, George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” We share an intimate series of interactions, stretching through the afternoon and evening, until we pull into Oakland’s Jack London Square. As we gather our things and emerge blinking like newborns, I am reminded again that this is what the train can offer: a caesura, an interlude, a way to find connection in the interstices, where, for one day anyway, there is time enough at last.