Time traveling wishes and a coal car ride from San Jose to Oakland

For some time, I had been speculatively eyeing elderly pedestrians and baby strollers from my car. So for everybody’s benefit, I returned to the freights on Saturday.

The 50-mile San Jose-Oakland run can’t hold a candle to the Feather River or the tragic Royal Gorge. But such a short trip has its advantages.

You can bring next to nothing – no food, no water, the shirt on your back – and survive. On Saturday morning, I retired to my hideout with fairly bizarre trackside reading, an emigre collection of Soviet jokes.

Three hours into the vigil, my ride showed up. It was a succession of ridable coal cars, older ones with decks on the ends. Four years ago, I’d sailed across Montana on one of them.

I uneventfully made the electric transition from onlooker to uninvited passenger, but the train briefly paused at the depot. To my acute embarrassment, a Caltrain passenger spotted me. “Where’d you come from?” he asked. He got the unglamorous truth.

Though mine was a low-priority train, the tracks were clear. Under an azure sky, we crossed the saltgrass marshes to Oakland. I cheerfully jumped off far from the bull’s territory and set about visiting a museum, a restaurant and a boarded-up train station. At day’s end, I boarded a ferry to San Francisco instead of the faster, viewless BART tunnel. That decision cost several hours of lost time, but it was the right one: a bare handful of us glided out of the estuary into a sparkling, sunset-framed Bay, under the Bay Bridge, past Alcatraz Island, up to Pier 39. It was a fitting end to a modest day’s escape.

Every journey has an element of self-discovery. Sometimes the results are deflating in various ways. Many mountain climbers report that little changes upon their safe return. There are no great epiphanies or transformations of character.

My most memorable trips have taken me to Russia and the less traveled landscapes of the West. The loss of everyday anchors forced me to adjust and adapt, as best as my nature would allow. Some of the personal revelations were bearable, others much less so.

Disappointing lessons notwithstanding, travel does have a certain value. We have time, for better or for worse, to reflect on the situations we left behind. A poet once said:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

And yet, I yearn for more than the gaining of perspective. If only I could travel in time as well as in space; if only I could reach back to the countless mistakes, the disastrous personal moments that ache forever, and undo them. That gift eludes us all.


One thought on “Time traveling wishes and a coal car ride from San Jose to Oakland

  • October 1, 2012 at 4:12 AM

    I am interested in your experience hopping coal cars. My friend’s son was found dead in the coal on July 23/24 while passing through St. Louis. She is very certain that any train hopper would not intentionally place himself inside the coal. Do you know of any accidential way that Colin Kelly could have wound up in with the coal?

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