Riding an Old Railroad

Ever so often we drive up to Felton, a small town in the redwood forest, built up above the San Lorenzo River, so that we may ride the railroad from Roaring Camp back down the river canyon to the beach in downtown Santa Cruz. This train line was established in 1875 in the heart of the lumber industry as an effort to preserve redwoods and give tourists a thrilling, three-hour round trip ride down the mountain.

The ticket office opens at 10:15 on summer mornings. This allows enough time for the morning reckless commute traffic to clear off busy Highway 17, when many thousands of car loads of people drive over the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains to go to work in Silicon Valley, so that they may afford a style of living at the beach that is not available in the valley of high technology. With the traffic gone, I can drive to the train station with little difficulty.

We pull in adjacent to the railroad park in Henry Cowell State Park, where we may park for free with our annual state park pass. We look for a spot where we can leave the little Toyota parked in the shade because it looks like it will get hot up here today, but, alas, the other park attendees all have the same idea, so we leave the car out in the bright sun. Oh well, the summer heat is not that intense. Opening doors and letting a breeze blow through will quickly cool down the interior.

We step over the tracks that separate the railroad park from the state park. A grove of trees along the tracks separates the two parks from sharing the same view. On one side of the grove is day hikers and bicyclists, preparing for a day of exploration, as they slip into hiking boots and hang water bottles in their brightly-colored fanny packs and day packs. The bicyclists ride fat, knobby-tired bicycles, but with a low center of gravity and a wide selection of gears for easy pedaling up the steep grades in the park. They pull these finely-made, expensive instruments out of the back of their fifty thousand dollar sport utility vehicles and set them out on the parking lot to check air pressure and adjust derailer chains and hand brakes. We will see a few of the bicyclists later on, during our train ride, when they follow stretches of single dirt track that follows along the path of the steel rails.

The park on the other side of the rails and grove of trees is the railroad park. It is an expansive area of green lawns, buildings, and facilities for large picnics, including tables and barbecue pits. Companies will rent these grounds for the day and bring their employees here for summer celebrations. I could see a caterer parked beside one of the picnic areas and a couple of men lifting ice chests out of the back end of their bobtail truck. A crowd will soon be settling in here for beer and cooked meat.

The other buildings are bathrooms, museum exhibits displaying some of the interesting history of Roaring Camp, such as a blacksmith shop where horses once stood and waited for new shoes, and barns for storing rail road cars. I didn’t go in the gift shops because I didn’t want to buy a gift for anyone, not even myself, and I didn’t want to look at all the clutter anyhow.

I come this day to see the hundred-year old train and the miles of track through virgin redwood forest that separates me from the blue bay on the Pacific. I know that most gift store items these days are made in China, by Chinese, who I love for their industriousness, but much of this sort of merchandise leaves me with a sense of not being authentic when I go into a local store and expect to see locally hand-made gifts and pieces of art. I am sure that one of the old barns on the railroad property is stuffed with inventoried cardboard boxes that have arrived here from the port of Oakland.

Families with children out of school for the summer cluster about the ticket office as the ticket master opens her window right on time to begin doing business. We have a couple of free passes this time, but still must show them to the lady at the window and redeem them for the more true pieces of paper that will allow us a couple of seats on board the train. The technology tools we see everywhere these days seem marginally employed here today. People are wanting to feel what the air felt like a hundred years ago, when the unwired world still ruled. I do hear some old-time folk music–banjo and violin–being pumped out through well-hidden speakers, which is done, I suppose, to quickly get people into a different frame of mind, to bring them back to a time in history when music was not only acoustical, but rather simple, fun, and relaxing to listen to, when feet could tap without the head exploding.

We get our tickets and walk around the grounds some while waiting for the train to pull up to the waiting station. Out in the bright sunlight, away from the trees and overhangs of the buildings, the air is warm and still. I wore a small pack on my back with a thin coat wadded up inside of it so that I would be ready for that cool, fog-driven wind that blows up the redwood canyons off the ocean, unexpectedly, in the middle of a bright summer day. Today, however, I have no need for it. The air has no breath to it, and I detect some sweetness to it as well. Perhaps some of the wild, aromatic plants that grow in abundance along the fringe of the redwood forest have released their fragrance to contribute to the gentle beauty of this day.

Around the edges of the large, fanned-out grounds of the park, I see the woods. They stand as a barrier against an interior darkness that I cannot peer into when standing in bright light. I love being in the woods on a July day, even if it means a drop in temperature, because the way the light becomes fractured and remanufactured by the many shapes of trunks and branches makes me wonder in awe over every inch of it. Even the ocean, much as I like visiting it regularly, just does not have the same sort of intrigue as the inner deepened darkness of a grove of redwood trees. It is a world of mostly shadow, with small piercing darts of bright light to balance out the darkness.. Many have likened the experience  to being in a majestic cathedral, and groves of redwood trees in areas of preserve up and down the coast bear the word ‘cathedral’ in their naming. I don’t think of church when I go into the woods about here, but do obtain a sense of divine awe, which, I suppose, is what a cathedral is meant to do for one’s soul.

The train conductor steps up on the loading platform, signalling to the bunch of us lined up that we will soon be getting onboard. The family next to us–man, wife, and two young boys–tell us they are visiting from Grass Valley, which is a couple of hundred miles away–and had come mainly just to see some big trees. I knew those boys would enjoy this train ride and the beach and boardwalk in Santa Cruz at the other end of the line. There is so much and all is so wonderful, filling the imagination of the young with all sorts of fancies, when you are less than 10 years old. I tell them to sit on the open-air car and on the side that is closest to the river for the best viewing experience, as we will be passing by beautiful long views down the walls of tree-studded canyons.

We have our seats and the conductor gives us a quick lecture on safety rules. Don’t grab tree branches as we fly through the forest because some are poison oak and may snap back and slap the face of the guy behind you. I wouldn’t do that anyhow. Might a little kid get yanked out of the train car if he grabbed and held a branch tight enough? Maybe not. Just a thought…

I would like to know more about trains. They seem to have chugged away from our main stream of consciousness. Where once they were commonplace, they now seem to have exacted a position of exotic, historical respectability. Oh, there are public transportation systems, such as light rails, but they are just not the same as a hundred year old steam locomotive. Such a curiosity that many people would  travel together simultaneously on the same track, as opposed to automobiles going in all sorts of goofy directions all over the terrain with no particular common destiny in mind. America, where are we headed? The trains I rode over 50 years ago, half way across the continent to Kansas City to see my cousins, were more sleek and powerful than what they run at Roaring Camp. These are narrow-gauge steam locomotives that have been well-preserved since their introduction onto these tracks in the 1880s. I don’t believe there are many steam locomotives left and still operating anywhere in the country, so to be able to hop onboard and ride one to the ocean for the day is quite an out-of-the-ordinary treat.

The one we ride today has I think four passenger cars: one completely open air, one open air but covered with canvas tarping, and two enclosed cars. The conductor for the train is a young woman dressed up in an 1880s outfit, with conductor hat and braided pigtails hanging out the back, granny glasses, tall black boots, white shirt, black vest, and pants. When she talks and tells us tidbits of history about the railroad and the local history, she refers to the train as “my train”. I’m jealous of her. I want it to be my train. I think to myself, “Why didn’t I become a train conductor on an historical train too? What a wonderful gig!” It must be one of those careers that you do not plan for, but simply fall into. I know of no local school that hands out degrees in conducting trains.

The steam builds, the whistle blows up and down the river valley, allowing the camp to live up to its name. The whistle is not quite like any other sound that I am accustomed to hearing, but I don’t live near train tracks. At least, not tracks that are still being used. The tracks that run up and down the coast through Santa Cruz County have been trainless for many years while politicians continue to talk of bringing back the trains. The intent of the founders of Roaring Camp was to provide entertainment to the tourists and to preserve the giant redwoods close by. Teddy Roosevelt came here and rode the train when he was considering starting the federal park system. So much of these mountains got hacked away by lumber jacks and milling companies. The thoughtfulness of the people who started this line so long ago continues to delight the newer generations, who might not have ever see an uncut grove of redwoods. Do people still fight to preserve, or is everything now only at the mercy of corporate desire?

Roaring Camp became famous in the 1800s from a wandering writer named Bret Harte, who came to the area and heard a story about a child drowning the previous winter. He turned the tale into his own story titled “Luck of Roaring Camp”, which then brought him international fame.  The story wraps around a community of tough-spirited lumberjacks who find room in their hearts for an orphaned child named Luck.

As we go through a few of the turns out of the park we cross over tall, rickety-looking trestles over the San Lorenzo River. I lean out from my vantage point just enough to see some of the stream below. We are in a second year of drought, so the river has dwindled to that of a trickle. The train now snakes back into the forest, where I can barely see any blue sky. The trees in here are two and three hundred feet tall. I lean back and look up and snap a photograph of them with my tiny pocket-sized camera. I suspect that these will come out either underexposed from lack of bright light or blurred from movement of the train. When I shoot forward, looking ahead at the train as it goes around the bends, most of my shots will have the elbow of the guy sitting in front of me, as he uses it to prop himself up while peering down at the river far below us. It’s okay. I’m probably unconsciously doing the same for the people behind me. Is there software for these digital cameras that erases the elbows of others?

We pass the Garden of Eden, which is a stretch of the river where one can hike down from the highway that also snakes along the upper lip of the river canyon. Here the sunbathers come to enjoy all the fresh innocence and purity that was attainable in the earliest of human gardens. I can see tiny dots of people strung out on rocks that separate ultramarine pools of water. Where the water is running today, however, the river looks rather brown and dirty. We need rain in these mountains to give it all a big flush. Some of the pools are pretty colors of jade and opal that have been influenced by the minerals that seep into the water from out of the eroding hillsides.

On the edge of the forest, walking or bicycling distance from town, we begin to see hobo camps along the tracks and river, as we steam closer into town. This California climate can be quite favorable for those who have chosen or have been forced to dwell among the elements. I see tents, sleeping bags, grocery store carts, and plastic bags stuffed with nomadic treasures of the homeless. All is so well hidden away from the eyes of civilized people, except for the people this day who have chosen to ride backwards in time a hundred years or more. The homeless camps are regularly visited by officials, however, and the people in them whisked away They leave for a short spell, then when reasonably sure that the inconvenience has passed, will return and once again set up their carefree camps.

The train suddenly emerges from out of the darkened forest into bright light. We roll along through the back streets of Santa Cruz, through the area of light industries that one will not normally see. We then go through a quarter mile of tunnel below the Santa Cruz Mission on the hill above–one of the 21 missions established by Junipero Serra in the 1700s, when the Spanish considered that the rest of the world should live and think like them. The tunnel shrouds us in complete darkness for a moment, until we see a half-circle of light ahead, into which we shortly emerge. On the other side of the tunnel we are thrust into downtown Santa Cruz, with its lovely and stately old mansions clustered together in wonderfully groomed neighborhoods full of bright flowers, ferns, and ornamental trees. Even though this part of town is old and brings out the best of nostalgic sentiment for those riding through it, the streets are plagued with automobiles, red lights, and stop signs, just as in any other city in America. But the train has dominion over all traffic.

The guard crossings turn red, the arms come down, the bells go ringing loudly, while we ride along through the middle of it all as if we were the only ones alive in the whole universe. Such a privilege to be able to make the whole world hold up for a minute while we pass through in full regalia. It’s almost as if we have won a war or done something else equally dramatic and wonderful, and others must stop their busy lives to pay us homage. The automobile drivers cannot argue with the obstinacy of a heavy iron locomotive.

We wave at everybody along the streets and sidewalks. The only ones who do not wave back are those who are prepossessed with their iPhones and iPods, or other means of digital escape. I notice that those who wave are also happy to smile, while those locked into the digital world look at their gadgets with furled eyebrows and squinting eyes.

Our train will intersect with the tracks that run north and south. The conductor explains to us that the brakeman will have to stop the train and throw a switch so that we can join those other tracks. After that, she continues, the train will run north on the new tracks, and the switch will have be to thrown again, so that the train can then back into the beach and boardwalk area, which is our ultimate destiny today. We will ride backwards down the beach to the boardwalk and amusement park, right where trains used to come from San Francisco and beyond to deliver tourists well over a hundred years ago, before the advent of highways and automobiles.

We could wait one hour for the ride back to Felton, or hang out on the boardwalk for four hours and make the return trip much later in the day. We came just for the train ride today, however, and not for the beach and boardwalk fun. But I am sure that other families on the train with children would come to play for the day, and even four hours on the boardwalk would not be enough time for the children to get their full fill of fun. The boardwalk is sheer childhood magic come to full life.

We walk half the length of the boardwalk. It is jammed with people laughing, riding the rides, eating ice cream cones and hot dogs, while some sit on benches above the sandy beach and enjoy staring out to the open ocean and Santa Cruz Wharf on the horizon line. I have to walk carefully because I am not as spry as I used to be. My balance is out of kilter because of neuropathy. Many little kids seem to be practically weaving between my legs as I step slowly forward. I don’t want to trip over them or squash them either. My goodness they have loud and shrilly voices. They squeal like livestock bound up in a pen. It must have been that long slow drive over the Santa Cruz Mountains that brought them to this state of lunatic excitement.

At one end of the boardwalk is an indoor, greasy-spoon restaurant.  I haven’t eaten in here in 10 or 20 years, even though I live only a 15 minute drive from here. Most locals simply avoid the boardwalk, and regard it as a place to contain the tourists so that they won’t spill out into the rest of the town. I’m surprised that it is still intact, pretty much the way I remember it from years ago. I order fish and chips, my wife clam chowder. Not too bad! It’s fun food! I wish I could squeal like the kids outside on the boardwalk are doing, but the stares I would anticipate receiving cause me to eat with verbal restraint. When I hand the cashier a twenty dollar bill she holds it up the bright light and studies it before she slips it into the till. She hands me some one-dollar bills, so I carefully hold each of them up to the light as she has done with my twenty. If she can’t trust the credibility of my twenty, how can I find faith in her ones? Maybe our government’s multi-jillion dollar bail-outs should also be held up to the light?

An hour is not enough time to do more than eat and get back onboard the train. We opt to sit in one of the indoor cars rather than the open one we rode in on. The seats are more comfortable, as they face forward and backward, up and down the length of the train, as opposed to the bench seating that causes one to turn back away from the view, and then twist the upper torso and neck around in a semicircular fashion to view the passing forest. I wonder if people have been forced to sit twisted like this for the past hundred years or if perhaps this is a modern innovation.

The whistle resounds once again as we pull away from the boardwalk. We receive the same safety warnings from the conductor that we listened to when boarded the first time in Felton. Some are boarding here for the ride to Felton and then an afternoon return to the beach. We stop again, presumably so that the track switch can once again be thrown, just beyond the boardwalk, and then build up some speed for the gradual roll back through town. The conductor points out to us a house on a hillside that was the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s spooky-looking house in his movie “Psycho”, the house where Norma Bates lives with her son Norman. Hollywood would later recreate that facade on a back lot at Universal Studios.

I sense that much of Santa Cruz is a sort of play set, constructed to entertain and delight. The beaches, river, ocean, and forest all converge here in such a unique and interesting way that people have been wanting to come visit for more than a hundred years. The old-time entrepreneurs of entertainment and imagination added what they could dream up into the mix of nature’s majesty, and much of it is still in place years later. What I notice is that, unlike in a major metropolitan area like San Francisco, what was built here was done in a much more low-key and human scale, where life was not meant to be rushed and intensified. The buildings are not so large that they block views and intimidate common people with unaffordable luxury. I find it pleasing to my senses that the thoughtfulness and the modesty of a past generation is still alive here today and continues to have an influence on how people live and view life.

The train rolls deep back into that forest, where the sun has begun to lower some and add a new slant to the dominant tree shadows. The ride back is less exciting to me, knowing that I will soon have to step out of my few hours of fantasizing and reminiscing, but I do my best to keep each moment of the return alive in my mind. I really cannot see the river and the forest as well from this enclosed car. My wife wants to remain inside, but I stand up and walk to the open-air car. It’s completely stuffed with people, with nowhere to sit, so I go back indoors. It’s okay. I’ll manage. I live on the edge of redwood forest and stare at it all day long anyhow. I wonder how it is that once people have seen these magnificent trees they could possibly choose to live anywhere else but here. I suppose there are many reasons why that I have never thought much about, which is why they come here in summertime to ride the train. They need that open-air car more than I do.

We stop and unboard, if that is the proper railroading term for getting off a train. The engine keeps running and we need to get around the train to get to the quick little dirt path back to our car. I can see the path, but the direct approach to it would involve crawling under the train, which doesn’t seem like an intelligent thing to do, so we walk around the length of the train instead, up close, within arm’s reach of it. The thing is like some mighty beast of burden, as it rumbles and shakes, even though resting on the track. The engineer leans out a side window and assures that he will not run over us, as we then head back down the other side of the train and back into the parking lot of the state park.

The Toyota is cooking hot. We open the doors and let it breathe for a few minutes before getting inside. We will drive back into town on the highway that follows the train tracks. We have a list of items to shop for in the big box store before heading home. It’s hard to rejoin the modern world when we have just spent three hours in the previous two centuries.

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