I woke early in the pre-dawn darkness, ready to dress myself and load up my gear in the car. I had packed the evening before knowing that I wouldn’t want to do so this early, barely five now. I had also mainly said my good-byes before going to bed since I wouldn’t see the majority of my family this early ante meridiem. Mom drove me the short distance to the bus depot for the Amtrak connection in Santa Rosa, California, part of the Sonoma County wine country. As has been my previous experience, not many people were on the bus this morning although we picked up a few others along the way in Rohnert Park, Petaluma and Napa. The world seemed fairly quiet this early in the day, especially on a Sunday. The Sun had risen by the the time the ride had terminated in Martinez, where the bus connects to the train, but as yet a thick fog hung over the valley and I could stare at the dimmly glowing orb hardly knowing that it was our Sun.
A fog generated from the Pacific Ocean had lain over the region but had begun to rise once the Sun rose. Having a lay-over of nearly three hours I paid a small fee to have the station agent hold my luggage while I walked first to downtown Martinez. Martinez lies in Contra Costa County on the Carquinez Straight, between San Pablo and Suisun Bays. Like many similar cities, an older downtown core is surrounded by both older residential neighborhoods and newer suburban development. Relatively early for a Sunday morning, the misty streets were nearly deserted except for a few bikers, joggers and such. After wandering around for a quarter of an hour I walked into the Copper Skillet, a pleasant restaurant serving breakfast. On other similar trips I have made the same breakfast stop, knowing that I could sit for a spell imbibing hot coffee and devouring a delicious meal. This isn’t my first rodeo!
Having feasted on an omelette and quaffed many a cup of hot Joe I left the restaurant to walk north towards the station but continued by crossing the tracks and entering Radke Martinez Regional Shoreline Park. Typical of many such parks that lie in or near urban development, this park consists of an area where heavily developed recreational facilities exist (softball diamonds, soccer fields, picnic areas, manicured lawns, a boat launch, etc…) next to more or less undeveloped open space that serves as a refuge for native flora and fauna. I passed through the former to reach the latter, the Sun streaming through the steadily rising mist, revealing the channel ahead, the narrow Carquinez Straight where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers disgorge their contents into the salty ocean. A fog horn sounded its melancholic din, and the shrouded hulks of the Benecia-Martinez and Southern Pacific Bridges became increasingly visible as I walked out towards the marshland.
Numerous aquatic birds busily searched out food as I and other walkers plied the paths. Interpretive signs offer snippets of history, both man-made and natural, that provide insight into the region. One sign describes a ferry that used to operate between the two towns now connected by a bridge, while another extols the virtues of nature reserves and their concomitant benefits to society. Most striking to me, however, is the pathos surrounding the rotting hulk belonging to the Schooner Forester. Having plied the ocean trade for some decades under a sole skipper, the boat was eventually beached in its current location and served as the home for said captain until his death years later. It burned to the waterline sometime around Nineteen Seventy. Besides serving as a direct link to the past in a form that is hardly comprehensible to most moderns, that is, a commercial sailing vessel, there is a certain romantic quality about the entire story.
Some time had slipped away as I admired the Schooner Forester and I noted that the time was near for my departure. I ambled back towards the station and retrieved my bags from storage. Although the misty fog had lent a damp chill to the morning air the ocean’s moderating warmth kept the temperatures into the comfortable range, especially since the Sun had emerged from behind its cloak. On the outside of the station I discovered a small garden of native plants, one of many on the Alhambra Native Plant Trail. Having come from snowbound Colorado it was a marvel to see flowers at this season. A couple of commuter trains came to a halt and a transition of passengers commenced. As I finished my admiration the California Zephyr rolled into the station exactly on time. I boarded, stowed my baggage and found a seat on the sunny side of the train. We pulled out of the station, passed a large oil refinery and subsequently crossed the Southern Pacific Bridge, a massive steel girder type of drawbridge dating from the nascent days of the Great Depression.
We zipped across the Sacramento Valley and just east of Roseville began climbing the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Now we slowed down and wound around the mountains, the vegetation becoming increasingly dense with conifers as we gained elevation and left the oak savanna behind. Contouring around hillsides and following ridge lines, we kept our elevation above the Yuba, Bear and American Rivers. Eventually we rode up to the lower snow line and I knew in earnest the my Winter Break’s end was near at hand. Passing over Donner Pass, the lands were blanketed by the whiteness and we entered the Great Basin, leaving the Pacific drainages behind. Following the Truckee River to and through Reno, this is perhaps my favorite part of the rail journey as I admire the large ponderosa along the banks. Some thirty miles east the river swings north to deposit its liquid flow into Pyramid Lake while the rails continue eastwards into the rain shadow created by the Sierra Nevada Range. We entered the realm of sand dunes, salt flats and vast expanses of sagebrush. The climate had changed drastically form the morning and all afternoon and into the night we kept on heading east deeper into the inter-mountain west. Well after dark we entered Utah and changed from Pacific to Mountain Standard Time. The cars’s rhythmic swaying made it easy for me to dose off intermittently, but when awake I would catch snippets of lights passing by, traffic on nearby Interstate 80 and occasional patches of complete darkness. As we rolled into Salt Lake City I noted to myself the end of the day, more or less. A long stop so as to facilitate the changing of the train crew, I took a moment to get out and stretch my legs. The cold air that I inhaled drew forth a visceral awareness within me that I had truly reentered the mountainous domain that I now call home. I re-boarded the car and snuggled back into my seat before dozing off as we continued on through the dark.