Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Spring on the rails

I know it's not spring any more but this got caught in the queue.
I've often thought that the reason California is called the Golden State has nothing to do with 1849. Rather, I suggest it's because most of the year, the hillsides in this state are golden brown, reflecting our long dry summers. But for 6 weeks or so in the spring, the hills turn green and lush from the winter rains. March is the greenest month.

On the train from San Diego to Los Angeles, signs of spring are all around. But you can see spring most strikingly on the long stretch of track through the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton, the great expanse of open space that prevents San Diego from merging with Orange County. The hills somehow look softer in their green mantle.

The flowers are out, too. In the warm glow of early morning, the colors are partiicularly vivid. The brilliant orange dots of the clusters of California poppies, opening up as the sunlight hits them (they furl up at night). The lavender-blue of the stalks of lupine. The leggy mustard, with the balls of bright yellow flowers.

The story goes that the Spanish Franciscans marked their path from mission to mission by throwing mustard seed from the pockets of their habits. Now, it's everywhere, and it looks like someone scumbled patches of cadmium yellow paint across the hillsides with a brush.

Along the beach side, there are glimpses of muted yellow daisies, and purple sea lavender with its flat leaves like lapping tongues. New growth on the coastal sage has a grey-green color, giving it a silvery glow. There's a carpet of green grass underneath.

The visiting birds are still feeding in the lagoons in their dull winter plumage. The beaches are still victims of winter waves that hide the sand offshore, exposing patches of smooth beach stones like scars . But soon enough the birds will migrate north wearing brighter colors, and the summer rhythm of the waves will return the beach sand to cover the stony areas. And we will move through the dry season into fire season and into winter again, all framed by the windows of the train.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

White Pass and Yukon Railway

Skagway, Alaska is a tiny town at the top of Lynn Canal, that basically lives on cruiseships. It's the familiar boom-n-bust story of frontier living. Imagine it in the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s, where miners offloaded their gear from crowded steamers at low tide, and then desperately dragged it ashore before the sea took it. They then painfully climbed the narrow paths up the mountain over White Pass, to eventually float down the Yukon to the gold fields at Dawson City.

Entrepreneurial spirit led to the construction of an impressive narrow-gauge railway, the White Pass and Yukon, to carry people and products over the mountains into British Columbia. In fact for years after the Klondike, it was container and freight company. The railway fell onto hard times but was reborn for the tourist trade and now you can take a ride on the spectacular railway up several thousand feet to White Pass (or beyond, into British Columbia if you choose) on replica and original passenger cars. Most trains are pulled by sturdy diesel-electric locomotives, but there are a couple of beautiful old steam locomotives for special trips. The train we were on was at least 20 cars long with three locomotives.

Our train turned around at White Pass, although some go on to Fraser, BC. Apparently hikers can also flag down a train and selected points on the line.

The single track line hugs narrow canyons and switchbacks, with spectacular views. It crosses the White Pass and into Canada, marked by a couple of flags and a replica RCMP hut, but no one is there. "Turning around" means switching places with the people on the other side of the aisle and flipping the seatbacks while the train stops at a siding. The locomotives then uncouple and run down to the other end. But the best views are from the platforms outside the cars--really cool!

Although no longer used, the huge old cantilever bridge, the tallest in the world when it was built, is still an impressive piece of engineering.

The last picture is of a rotory snowplow--an impressive, impressive machine.

More pictures from the San Diego Steam Special

Sorry for the delay in posting. It's been a bit crazy. Here's another view of the locomotive, plus another Great Dome, and the end, a California Zephyr car.