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!