On the Road

Happy New Year! I hope you all enjoyed your holidays. Although you likely weren’t aware of it, I was actually away for the entire time: my wife and I left town on Friday, December 21 and didn’t get back to Redwood City until last Wednesday evening (January 2). Our holidays went well, and our travels were smooth, which, considering the problems that can arise when a large number of people are traveling during a season that typically has challenging weather, was delightfully unexpected. But because I haven’t been in town for a while, and because the end of the year is typically a fairly quiet time both for the Redwood City Council and for some property developers, I’ll tell you right up front that this post isn’t going to have a lot to do with Redwood City. I do have some travel tips, though, and a thought or two about life in Redwood City informed by my spending time elsewhere in the country, so if those sound at all interesting, read on. Otherwise, know that by next week I’ll have been in town for a full week and will have had plenty of time — weather permitting — to do some walking; things should be back to normal by then.

We actually spent our Christmas in the Portland, Oregon area: our kids live in the Pacific Northwest and Portland was a nice central location where we could easily all get together. Because that meant hauling our Christmas presents up, and bringing some of them back, we worked out a multi-pronged strategy. First, I had one or two large presents for my wife that I elected to leave here; she opened them (along with two or three from a couple of her siblings) here in Redwood City. Next, my wife put a number of presents into a large box and sent them ahead via UPS. She mailed them to my younger son’s house, where we had Christmas dinner; we opened them that evening before we ate. Finally, the rest we gathered up and took with us. Because we were going on such a long trip, and because we also had a number of presents that were for the kids and thus were not going to be coming back with us, before we left we dropped into Savers — the downtown Redwood City thrift store — and bought a large used wheelie suitcase. It was a bright pink, but we didn’t care: it only cost $13 and worked great. We packed it full, and then, after we got to Portland, we emptied it out and donated it to a thrift store up there.

Considering what some of the major airlines charge for baggage, $13 sounded like a great deal. Of course, we didn’t take one of the major airlines. While normally we would have taken Southwest — they’re an ideal way to get from the Bay Area to Portland, and we could have each checked two bags for free — we decided that it’d be more fun, and perhaps easier when dealing with our large pile of luggage, to take Amtrak from here to Portland.

If you’ve never done it, I recommend that people look into Amtrak. The Coast Starlight runs between Los Angeles and Seattle, and stops at San Jose’s Diridon Station (the same one Caltrain goes in and out of). Heading northbound, it leaves at 8:23 p.m., and arrives in Portland the next day at 3:32 p.m. Sure, if you do the math the trip takes quite a while, but for a good part of it you are actually asleep, and for the rest, well, the views out the windows are terrific. I highly recommend getting a roomette, or, if you are willing to spring for some real comfort, a full bedroom. Both give you a proper bed in which to sleep, but of course they are much more expensive than simply sitting in coach. You have a much greater chance of getting a decent night’s sleep in a roomette or a bedroom, though, so they are definitely worth consideration. And know that the extra cost includes all of your meals in the dining car: you get dinner when you first get on the train (yes, at 8:30 or so), and breakfast and lunch the next day. Except for alcohol, which you do have to pay for, the food is all included — and these days it’s actually pretty good. Oh, and about the baggage: Amtrak lets you check up to four bags at no cost (plus whatever you can carry on: if you are in a sleeper car you can carry on a couple of suitcases as well). One last Amtrak tip: as with the airlines, prices vary depending upon the season and upon the day you are traveling: during the busy holiday time a bedroom is admittedly not at all cheap. But don’t let those prices put you off altogether: they get much lower during different times of the year, and there are discounts for students, seniors, and AAA members, among others. Oh, and Amtrak has a smartphone app much like the airlines do, where you can buy tickets, display your boarding pass, and check on the train status.

You can easily get to the Amtrak train from Redwood City by taking Caltrain, but if you have a lot of luggage, as we did this trip, you may find Caltrain to be a tad inconvenient. This time we arranged for a car to take us down to San Jose. Once there, we were delighted to learn that our train was on time. Normally that would mean that we would get on, dump our stuff in our bedroom, and head straight to the dining car. But the train was packed — they actually sold the seats in the observation car, which normally are unreserved and available to anyone who just wants to see the sights — so for the first time ever we found ourselves with about an hour-long wait until we could go into the dining room and have dinner. That was OK — we didn’t exactly have a lot on our schedule — so we relaxed in our room before having a fashionably late meal. While we were dining our car steward made up our beds so that when we were done, we went straight to bed.

We lucked out with the weather: the rain was just starting when we arrived in Portland. Although it was understandably cold the whole time we were there, it actually didn’t rain all that much. We were able to explore the town and do some needed shopping rather easily. I did rent a car for part of the time we were there, but mainly so that we could drive to Vancouver, Washington where my younger son and his wife live. Other than that we mainly walked and used Portland’s excellent transit system. From our days in downtown Portland I got a feel for what it might be like to live in one of the downtown Redwood City high rises and not own a car. While the lifestyle is very different from what I currently have in my suburban Redwood City home, I can certainly see the appeal. Not having a yard to maintain, and not having to worry about everything that comes along with car ownership would be great. Once you get used to getting around using transit and ride-sharing, not to mention walking to nearby shops and services, for those who are able it can truly be a nice way to live. While it certainly isn’t for everyone — my wife and I do love our house and our yard, for instance — I like how efficient one can be, both resource and energy-wise.

A couple of days after Christmas my wife and flew to Philadelphia, to join family and friends in a birthday celebration for one of my brothers. There, too, we got lucky: although our plane was late, it wasn’t so late that it caused any problems. And the weather in Portland (when we left), in Denver (where we changed planes) and in Philadelphia (when we landed) was good. My brother has a place about 30 miles outside of Philadelphia proper; we spent a couple of days there and although it rained a bit, it was never a real issue. It was very cold, but fortunately we didn’t have any problems with snow or ice. Because we had gotten rid of one bag in Portland, and because we were no longer transporting all of those presents we had taken to Portland for the kids, our luggage load was no longer an issue.

Back there my brother’s house is on a well, and has a septic system. Thinking about that made me remember that many parts of the country doesn’t have the water concerns that we do: although I still kept my showers somewhat short out of habit, I do admit to some envy over the amount of water they have. My brother’s place has a large lawn, one that he gleefully points out doesn’t have sprinklers: they get enough rain that they simply don’t need to irrigate. So not only do some parts of the country have plenty of water, they simply don’t need to draw upon what they have as much as some here in the West do. Of course, if more of us out here would recognize the type of climate we have and plant our yards accordingly, we, too, would have much less need for irrigation. People still need to bathe, wash and drink water, of course, and thus we westerners still need to conserve in every way we can, but irrigation is by far our largest use of water, and that is something a lot of us have control over. While it seems a bit odd preaching the gospel of water conservation while simultaneously thinking about whether or not I’m prepared for the powerful storm moving into the Bay Area this weekend, according to both my backyard rain gauge and to the National Weather Service we are well below our normal amount of rainfall for this time of year and thus we still need to conserve.

We may be short on water, but something California has in abundance, especially when compared with areas like Philadelphia, is sunshine. My wife and I had packed for snow, given that it was in the long-range forecast before we left. We lucked out and didn’t get any, but the area got some just after we left. Because a blanket of snow renders solar panels ineffective, at least we are able to use them all year around out here (although I must admit that, this time of year, when the sun has shifted its position, most residential panels are not nearly as effective as during the summer). I am fortunate to have a dozen panels on my rooftop, and although I still have to pay PG&E a small amount each year for electricity (and gas; solar panels of course do nothing to help there), these days my total bill for the year is less than what I would have paid in one month before I got my system. And I could easily add a couple more panels and drop my annual bill for electrical usage completely to zero (but note that solar customers still have to pay a monthly fee to be hooked up to the grid: this “Minimum Delivery Charge,” plus taxes, does and would continue to cost me $10.35 per month). While I’m not sure that my system will ever completely pay for itself, that isn’t the point: I just want to lower my “footprint” as much as possible, and this, plus the small electric car that we charge with the system, goes a long way towards that. I’m always looking at ways to be more efficient — better insulation, for instance, or more efficient bulbs and appliances — but it’s a start.

Our trip home — Philadelphia to Denver to San Francisco, on Southwest Airlines — was practically flawless. Both flights were on time, and although there was some turbulence, otherwise the weather was not a factor in any of the three cities. We took a taxi from SFO to Redwood City, and I was even pleased with that: I suspect that the influence of the various “app-based” services is causing the taxis to step up their game. Our ride was quick and not too expensive, and I loved the convenience of simply stepping out to the center island outside baggage claim and immediately getting into the first cab in line. Now if only SFO could speed up their baggage service: it took between 30 and 40 minutes from when we stepped off the plane until we were able to claim our bags.

I’m delighted to be home, and looking forward to exploring the city on foot next week. I’m hoping that the weather forecasts for next week are accurate: although we may get some showers, they don’t look to be the kind that would prevent me from getting out and seeing what’s new around Redwood City. I did a lot of eating and drinking over the holidays, as one often does, and didn’t walk nearly as much as I do when I am here. Thus, the walks will be good for my health, too. Finally, with all of the nonsense going on at the federal level, I’m happy to be back where I can focus on a local government that, although by no means perfect, is actually getting things done. I’ll be watching our new City Council with interest, curious to see where they take us in the new year. Here’s hoping that our new year is a happy one!

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