Steinbeck country from my Amtrak window

I enjoyed preparing my last post and sharing ocean views from the window of my Amtrak travel up the California coast, and your comments and appreciation for both the coastline and mode of travel have encouraged me to share a little more from my experience.

Even as a child I was fascinated with the fertile agricultural land that makes up much of Central California. I had my own small vegetable patch by the time I was ten years old, and traveling with my parents my head would swivel from left to right, eyes darting across the highway as I wondered at the beauty and variety of green and brown swaths of land boasting lettuce and other greens, broccoli, artichokes, garlic and much more.

Still today, one of my favorite views from the highway or by train is the agriculturally abundant Salinas Valley.

California is often referred to as the breadbasket of the world. The state possesses a mere 4% of the total U.S. farms, but with over 400 different crops grown is still the world’s fifth largest supplier of food and agricultural commodities.

Amtrak’s “Coast Starlight” follows the Salinas River for 100 miles with The Diablo Range on the left and the Santa Lucia Range on the right. I read and attempt to figure out where we are and what I am viewing as the train speeds on. Internet is “spotty” and some of my attempts at identification may be off by a few miles!

But the Salinas River, not observable from the highway, was a delight to see from the train’s upper perch.

The Salinas Valley is “Steinbeck Country.”

I have “worried” about these farmlands for the past six years, watching as agribusiness, small and large operations, suffered during the drought. While some parcels had enough irrigation to flourish, the politics of water allotments and distribution left others to plow under their crops to wait for a better day.

John Steinbeck’s words provide an interesting backdrop, punctuation for my view from the train.

“I have spoken of the rich years when the rainfall was plentiful. But there were dry years too, and they put a terror on the valley. The water came in a thirty-year cycle. There would be five or six wet and wonderful years when there might be nineteen to twenty-five inches of rain, and the land would shout with grass. Then would come six or seven pretty good years of twelve to sixteen inches of rain.

“And then the dry years would come, and sometimes there would be only seven or eight inches of rain. The land dried up and the grasses headed out miserably a few inches high and great bare scabby places appeared in the valley.

“The live oaks got a crusty look and the sage-brush was gray. The land cracked and the springs dried up and the cattle listlessly nibbled dry twigs. Then the farmers and the ranchers would be filled with disgust for the Salinas Valley. The cows would grow thin and sometimes starve to death. People would have to haul water in barrels to their farms just for drinking.


“Some families would sell out for nearly nothing and move away. And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.” ― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The winter of heavy rains came this year, and although we know there will be another drought, it was lovely to witness growth and fertility. The hills, although always brown this time of year, looked relieved. That’s how I saw them anyway.

In two weeks I’ll be boarding the Coast Starlight again and heading further north into Oregon.

I am looking forward to observation and sharing what I hope will be of interest to you.

All Aboard!




46 thoughts on “Steinbeck country from my Amtrak window

  1. Eva Marie June 28, 2017 / 10:01 pm

    What a wonderful trip and gorgeous photos! I used to drive that area often when I lived in California – it is very beautiful. Can’t wait to hear about the next leg of your trip!

    • Debra June 29, 2017 / 8:43 pm

      I would suspect you’d immediately recognize the Salinas Valley, Eva Marie. It’s different from the San Joaquin Valley and other “growing belts” we have come to appreciate over the years, and in close proximity to some of the best coastal cities, as well. It pleases me to give you a little glimpse of a place you know well, and may not have visited for a while. 🙂 Thank you for your very kind compliment.

  2. restlessjo June 29, 2017 / 1:17 am

    ‘The land would shout with grass’! What a phrase is that! I always loved Steinbeck. Hard to belive that the land is so fertile with the fluctuations in rainfall. Thanks so much for letting me tootle along, Debbie. Have a wonderful trip with Mum 🙂 🙂

    • Debra June 29, 2017 / 8:49 pm

      Although the Salinas valley is my favorite “growing belt,” it is but one in a series of very large agricultural swaths in the state of California, not to mention all the vineyards. On one hand we have the year-round climate to support long growing seasons, but then irrigation is always an issue. I must admit I become a little obsessed with the whole cycle. I find it fascinating. Thank you for the travel blessing with my mom. It will be a special opportunity for us to share several days together. 🙂

  3. June 29, 2017 / 6:14 am

    I had never thought of taking that trip by train. It is such a great way to travel – relaxing and stress-free.

    • Debra June 29, 2017 / 8:53 pm

      Here’s some irony…I read in this morning’s Los Angeles Times that Amtrak is under “review” and could be defunded. Just as I become enthusiastic! I’m not betting on anything in these days of idle threats, but I did have to shake my head after posting just last night. It is a relaxing travel from Southern California to Northern…now I’ll have to reserve comment until after the trip to Oregon. We’ll see if I’m still smiling. 🙂

  4. Gerlinde June 29, 2017 / 6:47 am

    The Salinas Valley is special and I am happy the drought is over. Everything was green and luscious this spring and now the hills are golden.

    • Debra June 29, 2017 / 8:55 pm

      Doesn’t the area just look happy, Gerlinde? I don’t know what we’ll see this coming year, but I’m hoping we get another deluge of rain. Easy for me to say…I don’t live in a flood plain. 🙂 I’m with you, however, and so happy we at least broke that long nasty dry cycle!

  5. Karen Snyder June 29, 2017 / 7:07 am

    It will be 55 years in July since I last took a train trip, traveling from Lamy, NM to Indiana roughly seven and a half months after I had first made the reverse trip from east to west. Only 18 and having led a sheltered (polite euphemism for tethered) life, that trip from Indiana to New Mexico was an epic adventure!

    I have only seen the full length of California from the driver’s seat of my trusty little car as I made my way from north to south before heading east, enroute from Whidbey Island, WA to a lifestyle change in Charleston, SC in January 1996 (I was simply not brave enough to cross the Cascades and the Rockies in January). I remember marveling at the variety of regional landscapes and wondering whether I’d see any of them again.

    Your recent posts have reminded me of both trips, as well as some of that scenery I saw in ’96. Since I’m not likely to travel there again, your photos and memories are always a treat. Thanks so much for sharing them.

    • Debra June 29, 2017 / 9:09 pm

      Karen, I loved reading about your very ambitious travel while moving from Washington all the way to Charleston. Did you ever total the number of miles? Your trusty little car must have been tired when you finally “landed,” and I’m sure you were, too! If you drove the full length of California you would have seen the diversity in the regions and as many times as I’ve driven from bottom to top and back, I am never bored. That’s how I feel about the train as well. There’s so much to see and I do find it relaxing. I’m so glad I could share some photos with you and bring back the adventure of your travels. And thanks for sharing your experience, too. You definitely “untethered!” 🙂

      • Karen Snyder June 30, 2017 / 7:03 am

        As a matter of fact, I still have my little “log” from that trip — shows where I ate, where I spent the nights, where I purchased fuel, etc. I drove 4171 total miles from Freeland, WA to Summerville, SC! It was a grand trip that I’d happily repeat, but the shoestring budget I traveled on then wouldn’t go nearly far enough these days! 🙂

        • Debra June 30, 2017 / 7:32 pm

          I think it’s wonderful that you kept a log or journal, Karen. In some ways I suppose I use the blog that way, but it doesn’t have the little details that would be so fun to look back on. I need to consider doing that with even my smaller travels. A relocation over 4,000 miles, by car!, is just wonderful. You’re so right when you think about how once we could find little “hideaways” along the way. There aren’t many bargains left! I hope you have a delightful 4th, my friend. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Kate Crimmins June 29, 2017 / 7:08 am

    That’s one area I never visited. It looks very lush this year.

    • Debra June 29, 2017 / 9:10 pm

      The Salinas Valley is very close to the coast and is cooled by the ocean climate. Not that it doesn’t get dry, but I think that creates a little balance. It’s very pretty! 🙂

  7. Amy June 29, 2017 / 8:13 am

    Beautiful scenery, Debra! Enjoy reading the quote and thank you for sharing your thought. I’d love to take a train trip. 🙂 have a wonderful trip!

    • Debra June 29, 2017 / 9:11 pm

      You’d have fun with your camera from the seat of the train, Amy! It isn’t a fast way to travel, of course, but I think you’d enjoy it very much. 🙂

      • Amy June 30, 2017 / 6:15 am

        Happy travel, Debra! Looking forward to seeing more photos. 🙂

  8. Robert M. Weiss June 29, 2017 / 8:45 am

    I haven’t seen the Salinas River in years. Your photos make me nostalgic.

    • Debra June 29, 2017 / 9:15 pm

      I’m so glad I could share with you, Robert. I understand how photos can definitely trigger a strong bout of nostalgia. You would find that the train’s position above the highway allows a really interesting perspective of familiar landmarks. As many times as we’ve driven up the 101 I’ve never before seen the Salinas River from that perspective. I’m very curious about what we’ll see on our way into Oregon. 🙂

  9. kogmissionem June 29, 2017 / 12:47 pm

    That last part you quoted of Steinbeck is so movingly true…both in real life farm lands but also in our own lives. Loved looking at these pictures…can’t wait to see your next trip! xoxo

    • Debra June 29, 2017 / 9:19 pm

      I really love that portion of the Steinbeck quote, as well. We have very short memories when it comes to experiences, both positive and negative. With drought-related water restrictions lifted I’m nearly positive people will generally return to water wasting, and then in a few years we’ll be wringing our hands again. Human nature doesn’t change much, does it? Thank you so much for stopping by and showing interest. I look forward to sharing from the trip further north. 🙂

  10. Cathy June 29, 2017 / 1:28 pm

    I believe the same happens in many regions of the world, but agricultural hotspots obviously notice it more. And memories fade too! I kept a diary of the weather for about five years (some time ago now) and noticed how so many people ‘remember’ incorrectly when we had flooding for example. Thank you for sharing those words from Steinbeck… I keep meaning to reread that book!

    • Debra June 29, 2017 / 9:23 pm

      Cathy, I’m fascinated that you kept a weather diary! What an interesting thing to do and you may have given me an idea! I am so interested in weather patterns, especially as more and more we talk about climate change. Now would be a very good time for me to start doing the same. I wonder if you kept your diary? I have a renewed interest in Steinbeck myself, and think now would be a good time to read them again. 🙂

      • Cathy July 1, 2017 / 2:37 pm

        I think those diaries might be up in the attic! My blog now helps jog my memory as I often mention long periods of rain or drought.

  11. nrhatch June 29, 2017 / 1:35 pm

    Thanks for sharing more of your train travel with us, Debra. It must be heart-breaking to be a farmer/crop in need of rain/irrigation when none is forthcoming.

    I’m sure I’ve enjoyed ample produce from the Salinas Valley over the years!

    • Debra June 29, 2017 / 9:33 pm

      I do think about the mid-sized and small farming operations and don’t know how they withstand all the variables in their lives. It’s hard for me to imagine, really. It must be very difficult!

    • Debra June 29, 2017 / 9:34 pm

      I’m glad I can take you along with me, Colleen! 🙂

  12. lifeonthecutoff June 30, 2017 / 6:40 am

    Such magnificent views, Debra. I loved the sense of motion and growth in the very first photo and the scenery just came rolling and you rolled along on the Coast Starlight. You really are a tourist ambassador for California. We have some close, dear friends who are relocating to southern California. I need to tell her about you (waiting for her to settle in) as I know she will enjoy your adventures as well as your treasure trove of history.
    I think I have a very old copy of “East of Eden”, which I’ve never read – and now MUST.
    Loved this, Debra.

  13. Debra June 30, 2017 / 7:26 pm

    I have a 1952 edition, perhaps a second printing, of East of Eden, as well, Penny. I think it probably belonged to Jay’s mother. I have more Steinbeck posts to come, as I have time. We spent time in Cannery Row last fall. I like the idea of being a travel ambassador for California, but I sure haven’t been keeping up my end of blogging. LOL!
    I hope you’ll let me know more about your friends when they move to SoCal. Depending on where they are, perhaps we’ll have the opportunity to meet somewhere down the line. You know the geography so it’s unlikely we’ll be in the same broader neighborhood, but it’s fun to think of it! I hope you have a wonderful time with your “family plans” for the holiday, my friend.

  14. aFrankAngle July 2, 2017 / 7:55 pm

    I enjoyed this trip. Reminded me about the first time I drove from Santa Cruz to Monterey as I was out there for business. First time I ever saw artichoke plants. 🙂 … and I’m drawing similarities on your train series as my beach walks. 🙂

  15. 2e0mca July 4, 2017 / 11:05 pm

    Hi Debra – I’m certain I put a comment on this post before but it seems to have disappeared 😦 Perhaps I’m having a senior moment 😉 I really liked the interplay of your images with John Steinbeck’s words. When you do your trip up to Oregon I will be interested to see how the countryside changes along the way.

  16. Anna @ shenANNAgans July 4, 2017 / 11:50 pm

    What a great trip. I haven’t actually done a big train trip in Australia but it’s on the bucket list somewhere to cross the country by rail. What fabulous pics you’ve taken too! Loved the quote by John Steinbeck, East of Eden – I come from a farming family back a generation or so and I have memories of so many conversations centering around the weather, it seemed to me as a young kid that Grandpa was very happy when it rained and not so much in the drought years.

  17. colonialist July 5, 2017 / 6:10 am

    Such a lovely way of seeing a lot of a country. I wish we still had more than the limited opportunities currently on offer. It is fascinating to study the pictures and see that although many of the scenes have near-counterparts in other areas, there are aspects which are specific to their own.

  18. thefolia July 5, 2017 / 5:03 pm

    I too worry about the lack of water Debra. As your remind us California hs a vast variety of crops we all would feel the thirst of the land. Enjoy your ride!

  19. Dee Ready July 6, 2017 / 2:53 pm

    Dear Debra, thank you for the quote from “East of Eden.” I read that book in college about the time that the movie came out. It opened a world for me. So many books; so many worlds I’ve entered and learned from and in which I’ve rested.

    I can just see you–now and as a child–looking from side to side, absorbing–like a sponge–the beauty of nature and its vitality during the wet years and its despair during the dry.

    I am writing a series of postings now about peace and its history in my life and your blog brought home to me something I hope to write about soon with regard to that subject. Thank you. Peace.

  20. 3rdofthe3rd July 9, 2017 / 12:24 pm

    Thank you for sharing your little trip.

  21. reocochran July 9, 2017 / 6:38 pm

    My favorite photo was above the beautiful quote from Steinbeck about “live oaks.” 🌳

  22. Otto von Münchow July 19, 2017 / 4:04 pm

    What a fun way to travel, in the gorgeous landscape of California and with Steinbeck as a “guide”. I am happy that your part of the world has finally gotten out of its long drought. All the more impressive that California is such a big producer of agricultural commodities. Keep enjoying your travel!

  23. roughwighting July 26, 2017 / 4:23 am

    Thank you for bringing me back to a part of the state – and country – that I love. I lived in the SF bay area, but so enjoyed driving down to the Salinas area. These photos are fabulous.

  24. reocochran August 5, 2017 / 7:46 pm

    The water spraying like plumes, it was such a stunning shot. The photo representing the dry period of the fields and land out West was my favorite one, Debra. This was such a great post combining the evocative words of Steinbeck and the pictures. My favorite John Steinbeck book was, “The Red Pony.”
    I’m blessed to still have my mother which is always precious to share time together. 💕

    • Debra August 9, 2017 / 10:07 pm

      Thank you for such thoughtful comments about the photos, Robin. The San Joaquin Valley has always been an area, even as a child, that somehow spoke to me. I, too, feel blessed that my mom is still able to travel with me. She’s good company! 🙂

  25. The Laughing Housewife August 9, 2017 / 3:58 am

    It’s my dream to travel Amtrak one day. You live in such a beautiful and varied country.

    • Debra August 9, 2017 / 10:00 pm

      There are some wonderful Amtrak routes all over the country, Linda. Several years ago we traveled a southern route from Los Angeles to New Orleans. We saw a lot of desert, which may not be as exciting to some, but it was a fun trip. As you reference, the country is very large and so each region has something special to offer. I hope one day you can visit and make a choice that suits you! I do feel partial to the Coast Starlight, but there are several other trips I’d like to take as well. 🙂

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