I Can Watch the Country Side

You don’t drive on Interstate 80 between San Francisco and the Sacramento/Roseville area for the view, unless, of course, you find strip malls enchanting.

The towns on this part of I-80 seem to run together — the same fast food places, the same chain stores. Housing developments fill in where the stores temporarily peter out. The houses come with spectacular freeway views from the upstairs windows and their backyards come with a constant roar of traffic.


The best thing I’ve ever seen driving on Interstate 80: a huge, metal giraffe seen last year a few days before Christmas.

I’ve been traveling this stretch of road for most of my life. Almost every holiday, my family and I shuttled between my mom’s family in San Francisco and my dad’s family in Sacramento.

Now, I travel the same route to visit my parents. Mr. WholeHog and I usually leave late so we can avoid the often-terrible traffic. (Plus, in the dark, we avoid seeing the out-of-control growth on the side of the road.) For Thanksgiving, though, we avoid the road all together and take Amtrak.

The train offers a totally different view of California. It passes through grasslands and marshes, where egrets stand in the water, stark and white against the grasses. It passes tilled farmland and ranches where cows still eat grass, where sheep and goats range freely, just a hill or two away from a maze of cul-de-sacs lined with identical houses. Coming home this last Sunday evening, when the train snaked around the bay, we could see the sunset turn the hills of Marin pink.

Of course, it’s not all pastoral. The train also cruises past junk yards and water treatment plants. You see the slums of Martinez and Richmond. (This is the time you pull out the New York Times Sunday Crossword and spend a little quality time with it.)

People on the train can be trouble too. On our last trip, there was a man whose cell phone ring was a bird song and each time it rang, another passenger whistled bird-like in response. (This is the time to pull out your ipod which you have loaded with This American Life episodes).

But it’s worth taking the train – for the break from traffic, for an escape from the mall-ization of California, and as a reminder that the natural landscape is still there, you just can’t see it from the road.


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