Hitting the Rail for Raleigh

I went on a train trip this month.  It’s been years — really decades since I traveled on a train.  When I was a teenager, my parents would put me on a train to travel along the California coast to Morro Bay.  Oddly, the only thing I remember about the travel is seeing the familiar streets when I was coming home.

This train trip was from Washington, DC to Raleigh, North Carolina.  There was a science fiction convention in Raleigh, which is about a 5 hour drive from me.  I’d been sort of thinking of not going just because I really don’t like to drive (Washington, DC will do that to you.  The drivers are terrible and very Type A, Me-First types).  But I saw an article in the Washington Post about personality and different modes of travel:

  1. Airplane: You’re in a hurry or on a timetable.
  2. Car: You want to be in control.
  3. Train: You want someone else to do the work.

So I booked the trip on Amtrak.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  All my more recent experiences with travel have been long, dull, driving trips or jammed into a seat on an airplane.  I’m a short person, so jammed in really means something.  Never mind the added problem of go through security …

I hunted all over the Amtrak site for how long in advance I needed to be there, which it didn’t have, and settled for 90 minutes.  I’ll tell you, looking at Union Station from the outside, you’d never even know there were tracks behind it.  Very hidden.

They boarded like airlines.  First class, senior citizens, then everyone else.  As we went out the cars, we were separated out by where we were going, so I ended up in the last car.  I was able to sit by the window (yay!  I do that even on an airplane.  There is always something to see!).  The seats were large and roomy, with lots of leg room.  The aisles were also relatively wide.  I didn’t feel like a sardine packed in like I do on an airplane.

I’d brought my computer and thought I would write along the way, but as it turned out, it was fascinating watching the world g0 by out that window.   This time time of the year, everything was green and really growing.  Sometimes I could catch glimpses of the engine as we followed the curving track, and I heard the horn every few minutes.

I got up at lunch time and went down to the dining car, which was quite a hike.   The dining car has tables so you can eat there or back at your seat.  I stayed and read as I ate, and watched as we passed through what looked like warehouses.  When I came back, I saw this one man at the end of my car, looking out the window.  I was curious, so came up behind him to look, too.

Seeing the tracks falling away behind us gave me an instant pang of homesickness.  It reminded me of leaving things behind, like leaving my parents when I went to Morro Bay.  A plane kind of depersonalizes the trip because you can’t really see anything.

But on a train you can see what’s ahead and what’s behind.

Photos: Morro Strand Beach at Morro Bay, California

This part of Morro Strand Beach is two miles away from the Cayucus pier.

Beach a wetsuit clad surfer in background and a ground squirrel in the foreground
Morro Strand Beach

This was taken from the parking lot.  I saw the ground squirrels on the rocks — evidently they burrow under the rocks — and started to take a picture.  Suddenly one of them scrambles off the rock and heads straight for me.  “Rabies” is going through my head, and going through the squirrel’s is “Tourist!  Food!”  This was taken at about three feet away from him.  I couldn’t go anywhere near those rocks because the squirrel would come out hoping for a squirrel treat.

Morro Rock against a backdrop of the beach.  Pacific Ocean is on the right.
Morro Rock.

This was taken of Morro Rock from the beach. Only visible from the beach is the old man. If you look carefully to the right, you’ll see an outcropping of rock that looks like an man’s face looking up at the sky.  The seagulls line up on the line of his face, facing into the wind.  The debris on the beach is giant kelp.

Morro Rock from the docks
Morro Rock

Had to include a better shot of Morro Rock, though this wasn’t taken from the beach. As you can see, the shape of the rock changes quite a bit, depending on the angle. It’s a very distinctive feature of the area and can be seen from almost anywhere — unless it’s foggy out!


Photos: Morro Strand Beach at Cayucus, California

With all the cold weather in Washington, DC, I decided to make the trek out to Southern California, the land of sun and stars. One of my stops was in Central California, to Cayucos (a Native American word for dugout). When I was a kid, we used to drive to neighboring Morro Bay for July 4th and watch the fireworks. The following day, we’d come out to this beach, and I’d search the sands for burned out fireworks.

The sun reflecting off the Pacific Ocean on Morro Strand Beach
Morro Strand Beach from the Cayucus Pier.

his photo looks like it was taken at sunset, but it was actually at 10:30 in the morning from the Cayucos pier. The sun is just above the picture.  This is Morro Strand Beach, which ends two Miles away at Morro Rock.

Cayucos Pier
Cayucos Pier

Above is the pier I was taking pictures on. The pier was partially closed of so it could be worked on. The waves in California can be pretty powerful, so piers can taking a beating, and this one has only been maintained sporadically since World War II.  If you look carefully in the picture, you can see the fence that closes off the end of the pier.

Despite the image of people on the beach in their bathing suits, basking in the hot sun, this beach was cold!  The wind blows in constantly from the sea.  Good for walking, but not so good for sunbathing!

Touching Space: The Final Frontier

When I was a kid, space still seemed like a very far away thing.  The space shuttle was a really big deal because it could take off like a rocket and land like an aircraft.  I remember when the first one came out, and through a letter writing campaign, NASA named it Enterprise.  Really, I think without the promotion Star Trek gave space travel, we might be in a different place than we are today.  The show made space an exciting place to explore.

The other day, I heard on the radio that Virgin Galactic is doing a flight where the aircraft would go briefly into space.  Ordinary people might one day be able to see what astronauts like Sally Ride have seen!  Anyway, here’s a video of one of Virgin Galactic’s tests.  Would you go into space if you could (and didn’t cost a fortune)?

No, it’s not clouds — it’s fog

When I was doing research for The Sea Listens, I was inspired in part by the phrase “Voices in the Fog.”  My grandparents lived in San Francisco for many years, and fog was a normal thing to see.  It’s amazing how it looks like clouds, but it’s a giant fog bank.

Adventures on the Potomac River

A ship with two open decks is docked at the Alexandria wharf.

Being on a boat conjures up images of going on an adventure to a strange and exotic place like Indiana Jones.  As a child, my grandfather went to Korea on the ships of the early 1900s with names like Empress of Australia and the Empress of Asia.  His father was the first missionary there, so it was truly an adventure!

For me, it was a 40 minute cruise from Alexandria, Virginia, around the Potomac River on the Admiral Tild.  Getting on a boat made me nervous.  When I was in the Girl Scouts, I took the Catalina Flyer.  The boat rocked so much that I got sea sick.  All I could do was sit on the stairs and try not to throw up.  So I kept my fingers crossed.  Exploring is no fun if you’re turning green (aliens don’t count).

The day started out hot, layered with humidity.  The sweat stayed on my skin, and I kept feeling the tickle of drops running down my shins.  Even the ducks near the wharf weren’t motivated to do much beside float — until the two kids with bread came along.  The 5-year old hurled half a heel into the water and started a duck war.  Every duck for himself!

Ducks on the surface of the river go after pieces of bread.

A breeze from the water carried the briny smell of the river but didn’t do much to cool me down.  So I melted while I waited to board the boat.  This Indian boy of about seven tried to take my picture.  Didn’t bother me, but his father chided him, telling him to ask permission first.  Instead, the boy took a picture of his father.

The boat consisted of two decks.  A curving, steep staircase went up to the second deck.  That probably had the better view, but I thought the lower deck would be cooler.  So did grandparents with their grandchildren.  The Indian family went on the top deck.  As I sat down on one of the bench seats, vibration from the engine came up at me through the deck and into the seat.

The captain gave us our safety briefing and pointed out the locations of the tiny bathrooms, opening one up to show us.  I think he was trying to discourage anyone from using them except in an emergency.  I think I would have turned into a pretzel inside.

Shot of the captain's wheel and the two very small restrooms on either side.

The captain gave long pull on the horn.  No one was going to miss that we were leaving the dock!  As we did a 180 degree turn,  my sinuses lurched sickingly, and I hope this wasn’t a sign of things to come.  It turned out that I was okay as long as I didn’t stand up and move around too much.  The vibration changed to a steady rumble and we were off on our adventure.

Tree-lined riverbank with trees sprawled in the water.

This looked like damage from the recent storm — a lot of trees were ripped apart and tossed aside as if they were discarded paper.

The underside of the Woodrow Wilson drawbridge, with curving arches of concrete.

The underside of the Woodrow Wilson drawbridge.  As we passed under it, we could hear the ghostly whistle of traffic speeding across it.

Maryland shoreline showing a distant bridge

The bridge marks the unofficial border between Virginia and Maryland.  There’s a lagoon on the other side where the military trained frogmen.  Frogmen were the early version of the Navy SEALS.  Isn’t that cool?

What looks like the wooden legs of an old pier in the middle of the water, with green bushes growing out of it

I thought these were the wreckage of an old pier, but they were used to tie up boats.  It was strange seeing this burst of green out in the middle of the water.

A distant view of the Capitol dome.

And where would a trip on the Potomac be without the Capitol?  If you’re having trouble spotting it, it’s on the right third of the photo.

All that humidity may turn into a thunderstorm later today.  If you were on the boat and a thunderstorm hit, what would you do?  What kind of adventure would it take you on?

Read my flash fiction story The Librarian at the Writer Unboxed’s 7 Sizzling Sundays of Flash Fiction!