Hop aboard from San Jose to Oakland

It was time for a modest day trip to escape my burdens: I had two commitments in the East Bay and decided to catch out from San Jose to Oakland. I needed to feel a steel floor under my feet again. After a few years of rejections, my once-grand ambitions have shrunk to being incarcerated in a custodial environment. So I wasn’t risking anything.

In San Jose you can pick up the CIBAT and other Oakland-bound Coast Line freights; around 11 am is the best time for a northbound. They generally slow down near the Caltrain depot.

Two viaducts south of Caltrain, I descended to Los Gatos Creek. Homeless dwellers have fouled the creek and its overgrown banks, but it is one of the last few Silicon Valley streams that have escaped burial in concrete. It was a cool and shady spot to read and daydream.

One of the traits the hobo had better develop is a patience that civilians can find creepy. I hunkered down, for geologic time if need be. If nothing came along, I could ride the Amtrak Capitol at 1:05 pm to Oakland. But at 11:45 am, that familiar horn, much deeper and louder than the tinny passenger-train whistles, blared out. As soon as the units disappeared from sight, I raced up the embankment.

I let one grainer go because it was too close to the units. Bad move. The train was only 30 cars long, and a succession of tank cars and impenetrable sealed boxes drew near. I reluctantly snagged one of the last tankers.

This was a real bush-league ride, as crass as my 96-mile Vancouver- Wishram trek on a ladder in 1991. I felt ridiculously visible sailing between the commuter platforms aboard a grilled, one-foot-wide rear deck. Now I had two preoccupations: gripping the railing at all costs and speculating what the tank held. Most likely it was petroleum, but I remembered hearing of the infamous Rocky Flats nuclear-waste cars that would glow green in the Denver yards.

The tracks veered through the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Just out of sight stood a disused trestle parallel to the Dumbarton Bridge. In 1994 I hiked to the trestle with a friend, climbed up the superstructure, and jumped into the bay. But I survived and had to fly to Russia a month later.

My train crossed the refuge marshlands atop a long causeway that was bordered by stands of poppies and wild mustard. The pleasant smell of saltgrass marshes hung in the air; I reflected that Amtrak could boost ticket sales if it allowed passengers to open the windows and climb out to the roof.

The interlude away from civilization ended, and the procession of East Bay bedroom communities began. The train rolled past a baseball game, something that always saddens me when riding. I feel peripheral to others’ lives, and the sight of rooted locals enjoying themselves communally worsens my mood.

Memories flooded back, all the more melancholy because nothing else can be made of the past. Somebody who understood futility and loss wrote, “It is in vain that we return to places we once loved. We shall never see them again for they were situated not in space but in time, and the man who seeks them will no longer be the child or youth who enriched them with his passion.”

The neighborhoods grew poorer and the people darker-skinned as Oakland approached. A homeless man grinned and tipped his cap. On the other hand, two UP laborers stared at me with uncharacteristic hostility. During a meet, a bag-toting Mexican woman was seen off by her extended family, as if she were about to board a plane instead of a freight.

Those two UP workers’ stare still unnerved me; I could imagine them dropping a dime. The track was now flanked by barbed wire, and the openings were becoming scarce. I bailed at the 5th Avenue crossing, south of Laney College. There was a cluster of Chinese restaurants where I ate lunch.

An Oakland acquaintance and I caught up on news; then I BARTed down to Union City for a cocktail party, looking a little like Pigpen. It was a short ride, but it’ll sustain me while I bear down and try to graduate. There’ll be time for longer trips later. Stampede Pass, you’re next.

 (Read more Rail Rides and True Adventures)