Oh, I see! moments
Travel Cultures Language

All Aboard for
Aha Moments!

by Joyce McGreevy on May 9, 2017

The Amtrak Station in Salinas, California leads to aha moments, thanks to Trails & Rails, a partnership with the National Park Service. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Catch a train in Salinas, a town made famous by John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden.
© Joyce McGreevy

Time-Traveling on Trails & Rails

Unsteadily hiking the path, I meet a National Park Service guide.  She tells me that “Spanish explorers traveled this historic California trail, named for Juan Bautista De Anza.” This was the land of the Chumash, Pima, and Quechan peoples. Wait—I’m in a moving train. But as I’ll discover, I’m “right on track” for aha moments.

“Believe it or not, you’re in a national park right now,” says guide Kathy Chalfant, as the Coast Starlight rolls southward. We’re following California’s coast and time-traveling to the 1700s. Oh, I see: Sometimes a train commute becomes a journey into history.

The logo for Trails & Rails, a partnership of Amtrak and the National Park Service, inspires travelers throughout the U.S. with aha moments. (image by NPS/Amtrak)

This serendipitous Anza Trail tour is part of Trails & Rails, a nationwide partnership between the NPS and Amtrak. Each of the 17 tours is designed to encourage travel by train to natural and cultural heritage sights.

Earlier, boarding the train in Salinas, I had opened my laptop, clamped on my noise-canceling headphones, and immediately set to work as a JMD: Juggler of Multiple Deadlines.

It’s our new American tradition, this habit of tethering ourselves to technology. It’s as if we humans were no more than plug-in peripherals.

Visual Feast of Eden

Ah, but the magnificent Salinas Valley keeps distracting me. The scene changes of nature’s theatre present captivating visual dramas. Then the conductor announces that two volunteer guides from the National Park Service will shortly begin a guided tour. Huh? I’m up like a shot.

National Park Service guide Kathy Chalfant, seen here with passengers on the Coast Starlight, inspires aha moments with Trails & Rails tours. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

NPS volunteer docent Kathy Chalfant inspires passengers to look beyond
their mobile devices and notice where they are.
© Joyce McGreevy

“You’re probably wondering why National Park Service volunteers are guiding a tour onboard a moving train,” Kathy says, as I totter into the observation car. It’s a skylight- and window-filled carriage with seats that swivel toward views on either side of the tracks.

Unsociable Media

At first, though, it appears that only a handful of us are wondering. The observation car is packed all right, but most passengers stare deep into their mobile phones and tablets.

Granville Redmond's oil painting, A Field of California Poppies (1911), inspires a California traveler with aha moments. (Public domain image)

A Field of California Poppies (1911) by Granville Redmond, who often acted in movies
with his friend Charlie Chaplin, reflects the visual contrasts of the Central Coast.

All around us vast fields and valleys unfurl, streaked with purple lupine, chrome-yellow mustard flowers, and orange poppies. The wildflowers appear to race each other through the golden oat grasses.

The Power of Live Narrative

Unfazed by the tech-tethered, Kathy’s husband Don begins telling tales—by turns thrilling, heartbreaking, and humorous—of diverse families who “scratched their way through Alta California, and carved a trail into American history.”

When this hardy band of 250 people—mostly children—reached San Jose, says Don, “It doubled the European population of Alta California.” Today, San Jose alone is home to 1.2 million people.

National Park Service guide Don Chalfant, seen here on the Coast Starlight, inspires aha moments with Trails & Rails tours. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

An expert on Central California’s historic lands, NPS guide
Don Chalfant has also crossed the country by bicycle.
© Joyce McGreevy

The Magic & the Tragic

As mile by time-traveling mile goes by, the portable devices loosen their grip on passengers. Soon, everyone is riveted by the Chalfants. They expertly interpret the land to reveal:

  • Engineering magic: Highway 101 and the train tracks switch sides with each other a dozen times before we reach Santa Barbara, an engineering process that looks more like movie magic.
  • Where to catch a train back to the heyday of Elvis: Two 1947 rail cars once rolled on the “Orange Blossom Special,” the rail line made famous in song by Johnny Cash. They’ve found new life as the Rock & Roll Diner at Pismo Beach, located on—where else?—Railroad Street.
  • A Lost City, whose artifacts are hidden deep under sand dunes: In 1923, this meticulously constructed faux “Ancient Egyptian” city was the biggest set ever built for the biggest movie ever made, Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic Ten Commandments.
  • The city mysteriously vanished after filming. This triggered a 30-year battle to excavate it, chronicled in a 2016 documentary. Why the obsessive search? Keep in mind that 95% of silent movies have been lost forever, leaving a massive gap in cinema history.
    A movie set from Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, filmed at Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes in Santa Barbara County, California, inspires aha moments when described in Trails & Rails, a partnership with Amtrak and the National Park Service designed to educate train passengers about America’s history and heritage.

    No longer ready for its close-up: Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 movie set is buried
    under the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes.
    California Historical Society Digital Collection

  • A tragedy at the ocean’s edge: In 1923—before sonar and radar were standard—seven naval destroyers steaming south from San Francisco Bay to San Diego ran aground on rocky Honda Point. Twenty-three men died in the largest peacetime loss of U.S. Navy ships.
The Point Honda shipwreck site on September 8, 1923, in Santa Barbara Co., California features in Trails & Rails, a partnership with Amtrak and the National Park Service designed to educate train passengers about America’s history and heritage.

Point Honda shipwreck site September 8, 1923, Santa Barbara Co., California

Monarchs in the Trees

We roll through Nipomo Mesa, a place where monarch butterflies winter, roosting in the tall branches of the eucalyptus trees. Don tells us that when eucalyptus was introduced into California from its native Australia, people thought it would provide the wood for telegraph poles and railroad ties.

“Just one problem,” says Don. “As soon as the lumber dried, it cracked. They’d brought over the wrong species of eucalyptus. Makes a great windbreak, though.”

As for the monarchs, their annual migration from as far north as Canada circles to the volcanic mountains of Mexico.

A monarch butterfly and its migration inspire aha moments, as described by Trails & Rails, a partnership with Amtrak and the National Park Service designed to educate train passengers about America’s public lands. (Image NPS)

Monarchs don’t ride rails—they just wing it.
National Park Service

Later, as the train sweeps down to gasp-inducing views of the Pacific Ocean, passengers catch a tantalizing glimpse of a whale. We learn that it’s a California gray whale, likely a mother guiding her calves to the Arctic. There they’ll feed on sea-bottom organisms for the summer.

Passengers on Amtrak's Coast Starlight gaze at the Pacific Ocean, as a Trails & Rails tour guide's commentary inspires aha moments. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Checking email can wait: All eyes are on the ocean as the Chalfants share stories
of the California coast.
© Joyce McGreevy

Next Stop, Antarctica?

An area Don calls “California’s elbow” points in the opposite direction.

“There’s 6,000 miles between here and the next major land mass, Antarctica,” says Don.  The reason for this is sobering: we’re passing through Vandenberg Air Force Base, which is oddly devoid of airplanes, because it’s a site for testing missiles and launching satellites.

Eerily beautiful as the base is, I welcome the return to nature’s drama farther south. We gaze east, where striated sandstone mountains are the legacy of the ocean’s plate tectonics.

California's coastal mountains inspire aha moments when seen during Trails & Rails train journey, conducted by Amtrak with the National Park Service. (Image © Christopher Baker)

California’s coastal mountains span 800 of the 840-mile coastline.
© Christopher Baker

Transported in Time

We see fields of strawberries and broccoli. We pass a cluster of Airstream trailers. They mark the surfing hangout of James Cameron, filmmaker of Titanic and a National Geographic Explorer. We watch as pelicans wheel and windsurfers glide from rainbow kites over the ocean tides.

An old structure in San Miguel, California, seen from a train during a Trails & Rails tour, inspires aha moments. (Image© Joyce McGreevy)

Traveling by train takes one back in time. (San Miguel, California)
© Joyce McGreevy

After the Chalfants offer stamps for National Park Service passports, I reflect on time-traveling by train. Trails & Rails has transported us millions of geologic years, to Native America and New Spain, the Golden Ages of Hollywood and Rock ‘n Roll, John Steinbeck’s era and the Cold War, and, best of all, to many aha moments.

A National Park Service booklet, map, and passport stamp are souvenirs of aha moments during a Trails & Rails talk on the Coast Starlight. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Histories, maps, and passport stamps turn an ordinary train ride
into an adventure in learning.
© Joyce McGreevy

Find out more about the Coast Starlight tour here.

Discover the 17 U.S. Trails & Rails programs here.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.


2 thoughts on “All Aboard for
Aha Moments!

  1. Another fantastic travel tale, enlightenment, and education, Ms. McGreevy! Makes me so wistful and wanderlustful! (is that a word? :-)

    Thank you! Wishing you many more happy trails!

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