There is a train that started running near my house a little over a year ago; at night I can hear it dinging. The other day I decided to ride it for the first time, to go all the way to its southernmost stop, in San Rafael, Marin County, and then all the way to its northernmost stop, the Santa Rosa Airport, in Sonoma County, and then back to my house. This was not an ambitious plan; Santa Rosa and San Rafael are 45 miles apart.
This is where I trot out my public transit bona fides, because I am going to be a little scornful of this particular train, and I do not want to come across like I am opposed to public transit. This is all you need to know: as an adult I lived in Bakersfield for four years without a car. Also two years in Los Angeles, one in Tulsa. Bakersfield actually has really good bus service, and also the buses used to have public health ads that told me that chlamydia was not a flower.
I was somewhat scornful of this particular train because although traffic sometimes makes that stretch of the 101 freeway very annoying, the train is almost never a net time savings over a car, once you factor in getting to the train and arranging your schedule around the train and getting from the train station to your ultimate destination. Meanwhile, there is already a perfectly good bus that goes along the 101 all the way from Santa Rosa into San Francisco without any transfers. They are meant to be expanding the train, north and south and maybe ultimately to the east too, and maybe one day it will be genuinely useful.
But, despite my scorn, I had been meaning to take the train for months. Not to get anywhere, but to sit by a window and stare out of it and drink train wine, the quality of which is irrelevant. It is a two (sometimes three) car train that travels 45 miles, but it travels those miles into Sonoma County and so serves wine and beer. This is the sort of thing that makes me a little extra scornful, but also sucks me in. Who doesn’t want to drink wine and stare out a window?
I got to the station not that early for the first southbound train on Sunday. I was not that early, but I felt early because the internet blocker I have on my phone to make sure I actually get out of bed was still on and so I couldn’t gaze glassy eyed into my phone. Also it felt early because on the mostly empty platform a woman with a bicycle settled into a space that I felt was inappropriately close to me. I knew that I was the one who was wrong, but I couldn’t help it, my itchy brain wouldn’t let me stay there, so then I walked past her, and then a man came on my other side and I couldn’t even look at my phone and everything was unpleasant.
When the train finally arrived, it was full, and so I could not sit next to a window. I sat next to a woman who was wearing a blue Best Buy shirt and thought about how I had clearly underestimated the usefulness of the train, because it was so full, and the woman next to me appeared to be using it to get to work and I should not be so smug about all the things I knew. Then someone I work with called out my name and I waved at him and he waved at me and he was going to San Rafael with his friends and I was also going to San Rafael, but I did not have any friends with me. That made me a little self-conscious, even though one of the things I had been looking forward to was doing something by myself. I did not see any kind of concession stand where I could obtain beer and wine, and I worried I would lose my seat if I got up to explore. Over the shoulder of the woman next to me I could see that the scenery was pretty and I listened to the playlist of bad pop music that I had made special for this train trip, and then when we got to San Rafael I wandered off and got lunch and that was fine. I felt like I should do more, having taken the train, but I reminded myself that the point was just taking the train.
When I got back to the station, it was in that awkward in-between time. The trains don’t run very often on the weekend. But then a train arrived, and even though it would not depart again for 30 minutes or something we could get on, and this time when I got on I got on the car with the bar, which surprisingly was open even while the train was stopped at the station. I bought myself a $10 glass of La Crema Chardonnay and I sat by the window and then eventually the train started moving again and I could listen to my very bad pop playlist. That was much better.
The thing about trains is how beautiful the country looks from a train, because you’re at this slightly different level vis-à-vis the land than you usually are and also you’re a little bit away from the freeways and there California was spread out beside me, marsh birds darting away and the empty swimming pools of houses backed up right against the train tracks and this sense of there being so much more to the world than just the parts of it that I know.
I have a car now and I can drive anywhere I want and mostly I do, mostly even when I go on vacation now it’s driving trips, or, sometimes, flying, but not taking Greyhound or Amtrak, which I used to do, all the time. Unless you have spent significant time as an adult nondriver you don’t really understand or appreciate how much the world is designed for drivers. The getting from one place to another can be replicated with a decent public transit system. It is the waiting, the walking on streets that nobody ever seems to walk, the carrying things awkwardly for long distances, the not having a place to put your purse at the beach other than in the sand, that weird feeling of relying, possibly recklessly, on other people not just walking off with your stuff, that makes up the texture of not driving. The explaining to all the people you know with cars. So much explaining.
And some days now I miss that texture, partly because I am sentimental about everything, especially things that felt difficult or hard at the time, and partly because there is something very luxurious in a particular way about being adrift and out of place, which is to say there was something lovely about waiting at a deserted Los Angeles bus stop as the streets got shiny in the night, and something lovely about looking out a window for no reason other than that there’s nothing to do. And so I rode the train all the way to the Santa Rosa airport, and got off only to appropriately tap my Clipper Card to show my trip was complete and then tap it again to say, hey, let’s go around again, and then I bought myself another glass of $10 La Crema Chardonnay and I took the train home. The next morning I drove to work.