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Travel Log of Fred Natividad
by Fred Natividad

The president of the travel club in which I am a member was a bit skeptical that my wife and I would enjoy a trip to California by train. Air travel, after all, is the normal way to go for most Americans.

But we love train travel.

On a prior trip to Los Angeles when we rode the Southwest Chief a Native American tour guide boarded somewhere in New Mexico. One of the features of his lecture on Native American culture at the observation lounge was his proud claim of racial kinship with Asians such as Filipinos. I think he detected I was a Filipino. He was repeating a theory I have heard before that Native Americans originated from Asia. On this trip he was, disappointingly, absent.

Train travel, like anything in which we have choices, has pros and cons. Of the pros we enjoyed a treat not available in a plane: an intimate awareness of the beauty and vastness of our adopted country. A ground level look at the land without the distraction of having to do your own driving is a peaceful communion with nature when you behold, as far as your eyes can see, panoramic views of stark deserts, of pristine snow, of towering mountains, some barren, some lush with snow-capped evergreens.

Being Filipino-Americans our trip had an added bonus. For two and a half days we traded life stories with a Philippine-born Amtrak employee who tended the snack bar.

We woke up on our final day on the train as we were somewhere in San Bernardino. We had been here before yet the mere sight of palm trees outside the train window gave us an exciting feeling of being a stranger again. The mountains ubiquitously loomed all around. A while later the Los Angeles River, so familiar in movies, came into view by the side of the train. Somebody pointed out the home of the Dodgers somewhere up on the hillsides.

Some Northwestern University loyals who came for the Rose Bowl parade and football game gaped in anticipation as we crawled past Pasadena. It is not everyday that Northwestern University football fans would make a special trip to Pasadena to cheer their team that just captured the Big Ten championship. As we pulled into Los Angeles the public address system, in a farewell message, broadcast Christmas greetings in English, Spanish AND TAGALOG (Philippine language) with an unmistakeable Filipino accent. Don't expect this to happen on every Amtrak train though...

While we waited for a rental car driver to take us to where to pick up our reserved Taurus we must have looked funny under the palm trees at the L.A. Union Station because we donned our heavy winter coats to free our hands for our luggage. People around us wore lightweight clothes. Across the street the Mexican-motiffed Olvera Street Market bustled with casually clad tourists. A few even wore shorts and walked leisurely to Chinatown a few blocks away. To this Chicagoan the scene was strange in winter.

A gracious couple in Long Beach welcomed us with guavas they picked from their backyard about the size of Mike Tyson's giant fists. It was a gesture that almost tempted us to promise them a dozen 24-inch Chicago hotdogs if they visit us in Chicago but we realized that there are no such things as 24-inch hotdogs. Hopefully, someday we could reciprocate with something really unique like a rare Chicago Tribune headline - not the "Dewey Defeats Truman" classic but something like "Chicago Cubs Win the World Series." Maybe next year ...sigh... the Cubs will win.

We should have purchased All Aboard Amtrak tickets that would have allowed us to keep on traveling up and down California on the train at no extra cost but that would have prevented us from spur-of-the moment changes in our itinerary. So we rented a car.

The drive between San Diego and Long Beach is a welcome change to this Chicago driver but one curiousity is the posting of traffic picture signs cautioning motorists of people crossing busy Route 5. The supposed crossers are obviously illegal aliens although the signs politely do not indicate so.

I had wanted to see Black's Beach near La Jolla but a member of the Prude Police (my wife) gave me an ugly, icy stare. It did not really matter because it was a bit chilly and the nude bathers could not have been around, anyway. She gave me that same ugly stare again on our way to San Jose when I mentioned that in the vicinity of the Big Sur there is a secluded hotel called Ventana where clothing is optional... Well, Big Sur was a bit way off Route 101 anyway.

The mountains on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west, together with the saintly names of towns and old Spanish missions are the trademark of the California coast. One saintly named place is San Luis Obispo where we spent Christmas with our son who works at a nearby nuclear plant. Tourist brochures tout that Pismo Beach nearby is the clam capital of the world but a tourist center clerk admitted that there is no quaint village of clam diggers anywhere anymore. Nor are there any pizmus left (sticky black tar) with which Native Americans used to waterproof their canoes. Surfers and tourists abound instead. Seafood, of course, is profusely available in the tourist-priced restaurants.

We nosed the Taurus towards Stockton where we stayed at the home of a long lost relative. Stockton may not be able to compete with other American cities for tourist dollars but its farm productivity is undeniably a part of America's economic strength. We tracked down a retired couple we had become friends with back in Chicago who moved to Sacramento. They didn't seem to miss Chicago. After all, Sacramento, being California's capital, is cosmopolitan enough to boast of the usual string of cultural amenities.

Between San Jose and Stockton, on Route 205, we had another look at a forest of windmills on the hillsides and it puzzled us that while the wind was blowing in the general area only one or two windmills turned. We also wondered why Chicago always called itself the Windy City and yet does not have a single similar windmill.

When we decided to revisit San Francisco from our base in Stockton our host suggested a rural route into the heart of farmlands and the scenery reminded us of the flat, rich fields in Illinois. Then, as someone routinely familiar with Chicago's puny bridges (so puny they had to be opened up to let boats pass), I found the seven-mile long San Franciso-Oakland Bay Bridge particularly awesome this time. I've crossed the bridge before but this was the first time I did the driving and by some insidious coincidence the weather was even awful.

Inspite of the dreary weather Fisherman's Wharf fairly bustled with tourists. With us that day was a young Italian girl named Michaela, a houseguest of our niece who guided us around San Francisco. Michaela gawked like any, well, tourist. I suppose that had she seen us when we toured Rome she would have smiled at how we gawked at the nudes of the Sistine Chapel and other novel sights on her turf.

The rush hour is the time slot when the quaint city by the bay becomes, traffic-wise, another wicked cousin of monstrous Chicago. The rented Taurus protested with funny sounds as it struggled up and down the hills in the stop-and-go traffic. Mercifully the guide car we were following skipped San Francisco's Most Crooked Street which we were able to see anyway from the vantage point of the Coit Tower.

We wound up at a Japanese restaurant where we were supposed to meet the Italian girl's boyfriend. He was driving in all the way from Los Angeles but he called to say he was stranded a hundred miles south on Route 101 with a busted fuel pump. Thanks to modern technology (our niece's cellular phone) we were able to advise him to get towed all the way to Pittsburgh (my niece's home) rather than get bilked in some strange place.

If our calculations were correct the stranded lover must have been in the vicinity of the garlic capital of the world (that's what the roadside signs advertised) which we passed a day or so earlier and where we resisted the temptation to try garlic ice cream. That's correct, GARLIC ICE CREAM is available somewhere on California's scenic Route 101.

When our San Francisco hosts gave us directions on how to get out of the city a bit of panic gripped me because Balboa to Turk to 101 to 680 to Stockton is not as familiar to me as The Chicago Loop to Eisenhower to Harlem to Berwyn. At night all streets and landmarks look alike. Next day we drove back to San Luis Obispo for a brief reunion with our son and his wife at Santa Maria and then headed back to Long Beach. We resisted the urge to revisit Morro Bay whose possibly most photographed feature is a huge rock that geologically protruded out of the water to a height about half that of Chicago's Sears Tower.

A visit to Hearst Castle at San Simeon is a peek at the life of the rich and famous. The place is a fantasy castle built by the wealthy San Francisco publisher William Randolph Hearst. According to a tour guide Mr. Hearst used to expect his high society guests to be morally upright although he made no effort to conceal his affair with the lady architect who designed the place. It is now a tourist spot run by the State of California.

The Reagans supposedly live in Santa Barbara. The main attraction of Santa Barbara, of course, is its picturesque Mediterranean ambience. Its beaches and its hillsides dotted with red-tile-roofed houses are just postcard perfect.

In winter when Illinois temperatures get viciously down in the teens and cheap off-season travel fares delightfully get into effect California is an irresistible narcotic. But like always when our train on this return trip crossed the Mississippi and the "Welcome to Illinois" sign came into view we felt a nostalgic tingle down our spine.

We were back home, to snows and all.

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