The California Zephyr route was extremely beautiful, passing first through the plains and then into more interesting landscape as we crossed the Rockies.
After a month of traveling on Amtrak, I finally made a crucial breakthrough in the quest for sleep in coach class: don’t sleep in coach class! The first night, I slept in the lower section reserved for the elderly or disabled, which was empty when I entered. About two hours after falling asleep, I was woken up and told I couldn’t sleep there. I was getting such good sleep that I decided to try another approach: sleep in the cafe car. It was pretty good, except for the strawberry jam covering the floor and the fluorescent lights which never turned off. Still, leaps and bounds ahead of sleeping in a chair. The next night, I slept in the lounge car, which was better still. Of course, it’s impossible for everyone in coach class to sleep outside of coach class, so you should stake out a spot early.
The next morning, as were passing by Lake Tahoe, my laptop broke. The screen started flashing and turned a shade of green. That’s why there’s been such a long delay in between updates on this site.
Eventually, the train arrived in Emeryville. A shuttle brought me to the Caltrain station in San Francisco. I took the next train to Palo Alto and called the family who had offered to let me stay at their house.
The Strathearns served some delicious seafood pasta when I arrived at the house. It was especially tasty because I had been subsisting on a diet of peanut butter and honey sandwiches for the past couple of days. We talked for a while and then called it a day.
When I woke up the next morning, they offered to let me borrow one of their bicycles. Palo Alto is one of the best places I know of for bicycling: perfectly flat, pleasant weather, numerous bike lanes and trails, and plenty of places to explore. The first place I cycled to was Stanford. It’s a nice place, with a large, modern Californian campus. I went to the local market and purchased some bread, some “sparkling kiwi nectar”, and a piece of overripe Brie that tasted like ammonia. I found a place to enjoy the snack and read a bit of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. After that, I ventured briefly into nearby Menlo Park, and returned to Palo Alto’s main street, University Avenue. I walked up and down the avenue, had an expensive cappuccino, read some more Utopia, and biked back to the house for some lunch. After lunch, I biked out to the SLAC. Unforunately, the particle accelerator was closed to the public. I then biked to Stanford’s nature reserve and hiked up to “The Dish”, a radio telescope perched on top of a hill with a view all the way to San Francisco.
Later that evening, we had sushi at a place called Miyake. We sat at the bar where they served sushi on a fleet of small wooden boats circling around.
The next day, I took the train into San Francisco. The first place I went to was the Haight district. It was not such a memorable place, to be honest. I went into Amoeba Records, which had a pretty good selection, though I didn’t purchase anything. I had an espresso and a sandwich at “Coffee to the People”. I saw some interesting shops as I proceeded down towards the Lower Haight, but many of them were closed.
After exploring the Haight, I took the subway to Chinatown. Chinatown, on the other hand, is quite a place. Shopping is made much more exciting when you see signs with skulls that read “Warning! This product contains lead-based paint!” next to the mug you’re thinking about purchasing. I ended up buying some Pu-erh tea and a clever Taiwanese teapot (which is currently enjoying extensive use aboard the Transsiberian Railway). Initially I thought it somewhat counterintuitive to purchase things in Chinatown immediately before visiting China, but after seeing the selection in China I’m glad I did (although I did see a Chinese knockoff of the Taiwanese teapot for $5 in Beijing instead of $15 for the one in Chinatown).
After Chinatown, I walked back toward the Caltrain station along the Embarcadero.
The following morning, I took the train south to San Jose and met up with another distant relative, Barbara, and her husband, Bill. We drove to Santa Cruz and had lunch on the pier there.
We spent the afternoon exploring the area, seeing the surfing museum and a few dedicated souls out in the water on that cold, rainy day.
In the evening we went to the house. They have a great place; the garden in the back was very impressive and they had chickens as well. Bill is an avid fisherman, and the main course of the evening was abalone which Bill had pried from the ocean floor himself! Quite delicious.
Barbara showed me some extremely interesting research she had been doing, which concerned how we can use genetic profiles to determine which diseases one may be predisposed to, and the implications on personalized medicine. We then had a fascinating discussion on the future of world politics.
We started off the next day with an excellent breakfast – the scrabled eggs were perhaps the best I’ve ever had. After breakfast, we drove to Big Sur, an exceptionally beautiful section of the West Coast. Apparently, it’s the most photographed section of coastline in the world.
We had lunch at a restaurant called Nepenthe, which had a great view. After lunch, we drove to Monterey and saw Cannery Row (think Steinbeck). We then explored other interesting places in the area, including a pier completely covered with sea lions.
The next day, we had lunch with Bill’s extended family at a great local Mexican restaurant. After that, I sent my laptop and a few books and souvenirs (including two abalone shells generously given to me by Bill and Barbara) back home, to make some room in my suitcase. I said farewell to Barbara and Bill, and took the train back to Palo Alto.
At the station in Palo Alto, I was greeted by a guy called Paulmer, and his son. After settling the matter of how exactly we knew each other (uh, I think my parents are friends with your wife’s sister?), we had dinner at a restaurant called NOLA. Over the course of dinner, Paulmer convinced me that a degree in physics is the way to go. (“Philosophy? What are you going to do with a degree in philosophy?”)
The next day, I took the train into San Francisco. I had come across the concept of “hackerspaces” on the internet a while ago, and I knew that there was one in San Francisco, so I decided to check it out. I took the bus to the Mission district and walked to “Noisebridge”. A tall guy with a trench coat and his associate walked in, both of whom looked oddly familiar (were you in The Matrix?). I followed them inside and entered the hackerspace. Immediately, a guy greeted me and showed me around the place, noting the electronics lab, the woodworking shop, the kitchen, a couple computer labs, a library, a 3D printer, and a ton of scrap electronics and other hackable objects on shelves. The place is run by anarchist principles: there are no staff and it’s all supported by donations. I purchased a couple of electronics kits designed by local DIYers. I spent a while soldering the first one, which has a multicolor LED and a programmable microcontroller that cycles the LED through a sequence of colors. After putting it together, I decided to try my hand at programming it. The difficult part was not actually programming it, but rather coming up with an idea worthy of reprogramming it. After that, I popped into the Linux administration group in one of the computer labs. The group consisted of old guys with beards who looked like they had a great time in the 60s. It wasn’t the most exciting place, so I went back to the electronics lab to solder the second kit. I was a bit hesitant about this one because it used tiny surface-mount (SMD) components, which I had never dealt with before. I ended up having to use a microscope to finish it. All in all, it was a fun day and an intriguing concept.
The next day, I had some coffee, some pizza, and flew to China.