Days 17-21: Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo
I’m not sure why I thought Los Angeles was worth stopping in, but I suppose I just scheduled it in as a large city worth seeing along the way. Well, I saw it.
With no couchsurfing hosts forthcoming yet again, I headed to a Hollywood hostel listed in my guidebook after stepping off the Pacific Surfliner. In the time it took to find said hostel, find out there was no room at the inn, and find another hostel, I had determined that Hollywood didn’t have much to offer me. While it was nice to see one or two archetypal palm tree-encircled mansions, the packed streets of tourists, the names of celebrities in the pavement, and the creepy Scientology presence just didn’t appeal to me.
Waking up the next morning, I read through my guidebook to find out what the other parts of LA had to offer; turns out that many of the few things I wanted to see were closed (not because it was Martin Luther King Day, but because it was Monday), and the destinations that remained after that would require hours upon hours on the public transit system – which I’d been repeatedly told was atrocious. After brooding around the hostel kitchen for an hour, I remembered that flexibility was the whole point of my rail pass, and made the snap decision to catch the noon train to Santa Barbara, and write off LA. Instantly, my mood brightened, and I realized just how much I hadn’t been looking forward to the remaining day and half in Los Angeles. After checking out of the most anal-retentive hostel I’ve ever seen (charging $5 per day for wifi? Come on.), I got on the subway and was free. All I can say for the second biggest city in America is that it has a nice train station.
The train to Santa Barbara accorded some nice scenery once we got beyond the sprawl. Upon arrival, it seemed completely idyllic compared to my departure point; the train station was only a few blocks from the beach, where the sun shone down on bicycling kids (again, MLK Day) and the smell of the sea wafted in. Once the sun went down I met up with my host, a late-20s IT manager who, although pretty quiet, afforded me not just a proper bed, but an entire guest room.
The next morning, my hopes of another such day were shattered by pouring rain. Hoping to wait it out, I spent a couple hours online, catching up on a few things, but eventually decided to give Santa Barbara a fair shake, and headed down town. After shivering on the pier and walking down the muddy beach, I browsed through a used-book store, guessing that I might need to prepare for some indoor activities. I then hit up SB’s historical offerings – a small museum, the remnants of the original Spanish presidio (military fort), the bell tower of the county courthouse, and finally, the original Catholic mission, which featured some moderately impartial depictions of the mission’s historical role as a kind of priest-administered commune for “Indians” who converted to Catholicism.
The rain hadn’t stopped by the next morning, and I was informed by an Amtrak staff member that my hopes of escaping the storm were fruitless – the forecast was wet for up until long after I’d have left California. My weather-related complains to any local, however, were quickly rebuffed with an explanation of how badly the area needed precipitation. Oops – bad for the silly boy who decided January was a good time to check out the west coast, and good for farmers and firefighters, I guess.
I noticed many cycle tourists in Santa Barbara – it seemed to be the one place where my urban-based itinerary and what I assume is a cyclist’s coast- and rural-based itinerary overlap. A middle-aged French cyclotourist I noticed was clearly not having the rain, as he had bought a train ticket; although I forgot to snap a photo, all the California trains have bike racks on the lower level. This had me thinking that a great trip, shorter than cycling the entire length of California, would be to combine cycling with the 7-days-out-of-21 California-only rail pass ($150) – and of course, that the racks are an awesome idea. Especially for the smaller cities like Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, whose main attraction is being close to beautiful wilderness, having the ability to get out of town – without having to worry about a car – would be great.
It turns out that rain isn’t conducive to train travel either – thanks to what we were told were obligatory weather-induced safety inspections, my three hour ride north to San Luis Obispo turned into a five hour ordeal. I didn’t really mind, though; one of these stops was fortuitously within ranged of an unlocked wireless internet server, so I easily put in the time, and more importantly than that, this was one of the most beautiful train segments thus far. Completely out of view of the interstate – and even dirt roads, for that matter – this route ran directly beside the increasingly jagged coastline, which was devoid of any signs of human contact beyond the smooth rocking of the train itself.
It also featured what looked like the greatest train stop ever:
The only problem with the delay was that my enthusiastic host had planned to meet me at the station, at the train’s scheduled arrival time (I guess this may be a hint as to why ever other host has asked me to call them upon arrival instead of going by the timetable). He, a Colorado native studying mechanical engineering at CalPoly, had to leave for class, but after I got some laundry done we met up and he took me to a hilariously stereotypical engineering-student household, where I met his incredibly laid back room mates and joined in a long evening of video games and reality television. While this wasn’t exactly the kind of house where clean dishes were easy to come by, it was definitely the most relaxed couchsurfing I’ve done so far, not so much because of any particular uptight nature of previous hosts, but just because of the untainted apathy of these guys. It reminded me a lot of my own “college” house, with its perpetually unlocked front door and obsession with lowering bills – the engineers were burning stolen pallets to keep warm without turning on the gas heat, and were working on a place to secure free egg cartons via Craigslist for the same purpose. Strangely enough in the face of such frugality, all five room mates owned cars. Oh, California.
The next morning, given the rolling hills encroaching on the town, the fact that I knew there wasn’t going to be any more sunshine for me, and that “SLO”, as it’s known, didn’t have much to offer in the way of culture, I decided to throw on my gaiters, throw in my contacts and head out on a hike. The six mile loop up to Bishop’s Peak is a great hike, given that it’s within walking distance of the city center, and while all I did at the top was stare out into the fog while my teeth chattered, I’m sure it’s a beautiful lookout. Maybe it was just the rain, but the green hills around SLO seemed a lot like Scotland to me.
I also prepared for my long, albeit staggered, train ride back east by buying some used paperbacks – which I was smart enough to do before the hike, so I not only carried the weight of them up that trail, but got them wet as well.
After a few more hours of video games, and failing to dry out my boots (which I unhappily realised I would need in Salt Lake City, where it was -8), my host gave me a ride to the train station, where I caught the midnight bus heading north.
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