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In Transit: From S.F. to L.A. via Public Transportation 

Wednesday, Jun 22 2011
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Illustrations by Mark Ulriksen

On Monday, May 23, Michael Suniga lost his teeth on a bus in Watsonville. He'd removed them to chew gum, wandered off the vehicle to inquire when it would be departing, and returned to find someone had swiped his dentures. "I had bad luck all May, man," he says with a toothless cackle.

June has been no better. A man who'd purchased a fighting cock from Suniga — that's how he keeps afloat, along with drawing disability checks — stiffed him. "He owed me a lotta money — hundreds. But the cops nailed him before I could. And I got a whole bunch of eggs that need to be incubated." Suniga knocks back a slug of E&J Brandy from a single-serving bottle after I open the cap for him. It's not quite 11 a.m., and the 23 King City bus is rumbling down Highway 101 between stops in Chular and Gonzalez, making local pickups from the cul-de-sacs of remote towns dotting the vast agricultural landscape. Suniga grins and extends a pointed finger, preparing to recount another tale of woe. Instead his head bobs forward, his eyes close, and the bus rocks him to sleep.

Biking and busing between Greenfield and Salinas to visit his doctors — and overworked dentist — is part of Suniga's routine. It is not mine. But, on a recent Monday, I was in the opening stages of a transit odyssey — an attempt to venture from San Francisco to Los Angeles using only public transportation.

My route is the brainchild of transit blogger Matt Nelson, a baby-faced 24-year-old who grew up in an Arkansas town where the closest thing to mass transit was a Chrysler Town & Country. After relocating to transit-rich San Francisco, he founded www.californiastreets.org.

Among self-professed transit nerds, devising Rube Goldberg–like routes necessitating dozens of bus or train rides to travel even short distances is a matter of pride. Many itineraries are strictly theoretical: No sane human will undertake Nelson's 68-hour S.F. to L.A. route via Yosemite.

Nelson's 32-hour, 14-transfer trek from this city to Los Angeles seemed crazy, too, at first glance. Going over it again and again, however — nah, still crazy. But it was too late. I was smitten. Just as the mountaineer George Mallory famously uttered "Because it's there" as his rationale for attempting Mount Everest, the notion of leaving the S.F.-L.A. route unchallenged ate away at me. I can't climb a mountain. But I can sit in a bus. And while Mallory's obsession led to his dying on a mountainside and transformation into a human Popsicle for 75 years, the worst thing that could happen to me was a night (or two) in a central California bus depot or an impromptu lesson on what manner of steroids to inject into fighting cocks.

As Suniga snores, I figure that my attempt to travel to Los Angeles on public transit will simultaneously answer two questions: Can you do this? And who would do this?


The N-Owl pulls up at Haight and Fillmore at 4:11 a.m. Somewhat surprisingly, it already has 16 passengers. Not surprisingly at all, the bus is already thick with the official Muni odor — BO ineffectively masked by Old Spice with hints of pee. Sunflower seeds are scattered beneath the seats and the floors are already movie theater-sticky. A man wearing a Philadelphia Eagles knit cap repeatedly smacks himself on the forehead; his pensive expression indicates some elusive knowledge is on the tip of his tongue. The driver's eyes meet mine. He exhales deeply. "It's Monday," he sighs.

Knit cap man stumbles off the bus at Fourth and King streets along with all the other riders. It's a shade after 4:30, and the Caltrain station glows like a beacon. Every last soul on the 4:55 train to San Jose is blearily staring at something: a computer screen, a newspaper, or simply straight ahead in an early morning stupor. No train car has more than three riders seated in it; it's a tight-knit club, and the passengers and ticket-checkers are on a first-name basis.

A young man wearing a black undershirt plops down in the seat across from mine. He has two phones clipped to his shorts, meaning he officially has more phones than shirts. He whips out a laptop and methodically bangs away at the keys. John Antoigue doesn't call what he's writing a diary: "It's more just facts." He documents life's minutiae: Bought eggs at Safeway. Watched Smokey and the Bandit on Net-flix. Chatted with weirdo reporter. Stuff like that.

A creature of habit, Antoigue daily runs the 2.4 miles from his home near City Hall to the train station in his Earth vegan shoes. He sprays Brut deodorant on his underarms — two pumps each side — dresses, and disembarks in Palo Alto, where he manages a hotel. Before we can delve into the finer points of his documented existence, he's off the train and hustling into the darkness. The sun rises 15 minutes later. Fittingly, we're in Sunnyvale.

The train reaches San Jose's Diridon Station hours ahead of my next transfer — I've allotted plenty of time in case Caltrain suffers what the French sensitively call "an accident of person."

A man with a fishing pole joins me on the 55 Monterey Express bus and whips out a cellphone. A painstakingly detailed discourse on the nitty-gritty of angling ensues. He describes the locales he fished, camped, and "drank beer and stuff" in Shasta County; the weekend's weather conditions; his strategies in selecting bait — even sharing what manner of worm he deemed appropriate. His monologue stretches past a quarter of an hour, and he still hasn't caught anything yet.

A familiar sensation comes over me. Just as every time I watch a production of The Merchant of Venice, I think maybe this time — surely this time — Shylock will emerge victorious, I begin to pull for the rainbow trout on the angler's line. It is, as ever, a futile endeavor. Shylock will always finish a forced convert and broken man, the fish end up in the frying pan, and the angler yammers unceasingly at 7:55 a.m. It's in the script.

The 55 rolls through San Jose, Morgan Hill, and Gilroy before depositing passengers at the Prunedale Park and Ride, a smallish parking lot tucked among a eucalyptus grove, the freeway junction, and a cracked, weedy street. There are no restrooms in sight, so I ask the Caltrans crew towing a traffic cone-orange Porta-John if I can use theirs. "What for?" the foreman asks. This question catches me off-guard; there are only so many things to do in an outhouse. After admitting my need for the facilities, permission is granted. I was asked only because "one time a guy put graffiti in there." Ah. That had not occurred to me. But, if it had, I probably wouldn't have answered the foreman's question by stating "I intend to vandalize your Porta-John."

The 29 Salinas glides up at 10:02. After not quite six hours on the road, we've traversed just about 100 miles. A handful of men emerge from the shade of the bus shelter to board. Most of them are toting bags stuffed with clothing; well south of San Francisco, we have solidly passed the point where passengers are riding transit because it's convenient or environmentally responsible. This is the trip of last resort.

Tony Perez's car broke down, and he has taken a series of buses from Los Banos, where he lives with his wife and three children. He's toiling in a Coca-Cola warehouse near Salinas and crashing with family during the week. His story is interrupted by the HAL 2000 monotone of his cellphone: "Excuse me, boss: You have a text message." He wanders off the bus with his gym bag slung over his shoulder. To his right is a store adorned with an unintentionally ironic sign: "HEAVEN ON EARTH. Everything on Clearance."

When the driver cuts the engines and staggers off to use the john at a Soledad Taco Bell, a pair of tangerine-sized furry heads squeeze out of Kim Rodriguez's purse. A friend discovered the weeks-old kittens abandoned on the railroad tracks, their eyes still shut. But an auto body shop is no place for a pair of mewing kitties, so Rodriguez is stuck babysitting cats on the bus. Again. "Always I'm the one who gets abandoned kittens," she says wearily. "I'm the one climbing a tree or hearing them crying under the truck. Always." Sparky and Astro are the only male animals on the bus, and Rodriguez is the only woman not clutching several small children and bantering in Oaxacan. The driver emerges from the Taco Bell restroom, which he presumably did not vandalize. The kittens are hurriedly crammed back into the bag.

Grapevines give way to brambles, which surrender to pavement. The large bus navigates ever smaller streets in ever smaller towns. At one point, we enter a strip mall and actually drive through the alley behind it, inching past flattened cardboard boxes and apron-wearing men smoking cigarettes.

The coach eases past the cemetery, the trailer court, and the electric blue tent of the visiting Circo de Mexico. It shudders to a halt in front of the dialysis center at Mee Memorial Hospital in King City at 18 minutes after noon. According to the schedule, I should be finishing my journey in Los Angeles exactly 24 hours from now.

The signs marked "Downtown" lead me past several blocks of taquerias, carnicerías, and other establishments ending in "-ia." Downtown abruptly ends, however, at a massive corrugated iron warehouse featuring a large clock stating the time as 6:20 — which it will be, in some six hours. The site once hosted a train station where Errol Flynn and other Hollywood notables used to roll into King City to hobnob with William Randolph Hearst; the media titan once owned Connecticut-sized tracts of land nearby and maintained the "Hearst Hacienda" in the Valley of the Oaks. Now, according to an orange-helmeted worker, we are standing at a washing facility for the plastic boxes used to transport crops from the field. When asked how long the clock has been broken, he cocks his head. "The clock is broken?"

My itinerary calls for a four-hour layover in King City, which prompts the question: "What do you do for four hours in King City?" If you're me, you head to City Hall and ask to speak to the folks in charge. Queried where King City got its name, city manager Michael Powers and finance director Jim Larson point to a portrait of Charles Henry King, a white-bearded gent bearing a resemblance to Frank Morgan, the actor who played the Wizard of Oz. Yet neither administrator could explain the significance of the rather odd artwork directly across from King in City Hall chambers: an oil painting depicting a dilapidated two-story house. "That's just pretty," Larson ventures.

Larson volunteers to take me on a walking tour of downtown. King City's wide streets were originally laid out by the Spreckels sugar company, and its denizens raised sugar beets. Italians and Swiss Italians subsequently transformed the region into a dairy center. Now, however, some 86 percent of the residents are Hispanic, and most folks are growing salad vegetables.

You can learn a lot on a walking tour. Larson touts the municipal golf course he hasn't visited because he doesn't golf, and we pass the bars he's never set foot in because he doesn't drink. His passion, it soon becomes apparent, is amateur dramatics. He's a member of the Stage Hands, a local community theater group, and recently played the captain's messenger in Mister Roberts. His character, at one point, drunkenly attempts to smuggle a goat aboard the U.S.S. Reluctant. In an agricultural town like King City, it was no problem casting a goat thespian for the role.

This is more of King City than most folks will ever see. From the highway, all that's easily visible is the hulking water tower and "what used to be the garlic processing plant," Powers says. When asked what that sprawling complex does now, he smiles sheepishly. "We're trying to figure that out." At the end of the month, that won't be Larson's concern. The city's finance department is being outsourced, as there aren't the finances to sustain it. He has no job prospects lined up. "But it's okay," he says. "I'll find a new job." It's a mantra many in King City have been forced to adopt.

Asked what locals do when they're not working, a King City security guard pauses before stating, "At 4 p.m., it's gonna get hella windy." Huh. But at the very stroke of four, huge gusts of wind rattle the bus shelter. I am on the cusp of the most critical — and precarious — leg of the journey. A trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles on public transit became feasible only in December, when the Army financed bus lines from King City to Fort Hunter Liggett and from the base to Paso Robles. These lines run just twice a day — in the early morning and late afternoon. Only eight minutes separate the scheduled arrival of the bus in Paso Robles and the departure of the last bus out of town. Even a minor delay would blow up the itinerary — and, not insignificantly, leave me stranded in Paso Robles overnight.


The No. 82 Fort Hunter Liggett Express pulls away from the dialysis center at 4:15 p.m. — it was still hella windy — with your humble narrator as its sole passenger. We head through jaw-droppingly beautiful country — massive vineyards; rolling hills; gnarled, moss-draped oaks growing out of gullies. The sky is remarkably blue and the clouds are every bit as magnificent as those in any Albert Bierstadt painting.

Driver Jerome Garza used to teach junior college California history in the early 1970s. He picks up where he left off for my benefit, lecturing his solitary passenger on the local flora and fauna, the histories of the adobe buildings alongside the road, and the ghost towns dotting the region.

He wishes me luck as I'm dropped next to a rusting M-551A1 tank near the mouth of the military base carved out of Hearst's former land. Gargantuan camouflaged trucks driven by shirtless soldiers in helmets rumble past, down a seemingly endless road toward the fort's main drag, five miles off. It's 4:50 p.m., and the No. 83 Paso Robles Express is due in 20 minutes. It's the one bus that just can't be late.

Of course it's late.

A sense of resignation familiar to any lifelong Giants fan grows as the minutes agonizingly tick by. At last a blue and white bus emerges from the horizon, rolls through the base's archway, and grinds to a halt. It is 15 minutes past due. The machine spits back the Monterey-Salinas Transit all-day pass I bought in San Jose, so I ask whether two bucks will suffice. "Sounds good to me," says the young, bespectacled driver. I take an instant liking to this man.

He roars down country roads, past whole valleys of mobile homes, and through infinite vineyards. But he cannot alter time and space, and it soon becomes apparent that we will not make the transfer on time. A single soldier disembarks at the barren downtown of San Miguel at 6:05 p.m. — meaning we have 15 minutes to drive some 11 miles, making multiple in-city stops. Desperate, I lean forward and inform the driver that I need to make that last bus or I'll be marooned in the depot overnight. Is there anything he can do? Amazingly, there is.

Fortune smiles upon me. This was no ordinary driver, but a supervisor filling in for a shift. So when he orders the final No. 9 San Luis Obispo bus of the day to wait, they listen to him. He can authorize a delay of only five minutes, until 6:25. That gives us seven more minutes. The bus heads over a bridge and along a hillside — five minutes to go. We coast to a stop at a mall. Most of the passengers disembark. Slowly. One leaves his iPhone. Three minutes to go. We pull into traffic. Red light. Another red light. Ninety seconds to go. A long overpass. A gentle right. And — mahalo! — a right into the Paso Robles Transit Center. It is 6:24 p.m.

I bound out the door and leap into a small magenta bus, only to be met by somewhat hostile stares from its two passengers. There is no driver in sight. I glance up to notice the Paso Robles Express driver gesticulating frantically my way — I am on the wrong bus. I hurdle into the No. 9 as the door closes behind me. The Paso Robles Express driver, incidentally, has done all this without having any inkling I'll be writing it up in a newspaper article. As far as he's concerned, I'm just some guy who paid two bucks and needs to get to San Luis Obispo.

I never catch his name.


A wave of euphoria washes over me as I decompress aboard the No. 9. And this is definitely a party bus. A spectacularly inebriated mechanic claims his true calling was to be a chef; he once cooked a meal for Burl Ives. He regales the two other passengers on board. One is Robert Tinker, who rides buses just for the hell of it and calls out all the stops in his best radio announcer voice. On his journeys he met our last rider, Jennifer Perry, who touches up the DVD covers of a Paso Robles–based porn studio. "I know there is lots of porn on the internet, but we only have local girls that there is a very good chance you know," the outfit's website reads. Perry's job is essentially to "make the girls all pretty." Only occasionally does this involve Photoshopping in the local girls' missing teeth.

Tinker and Perry hang with me for an hour in downtown San Luis Obispo until the No. 10 Santa Maria pulls up at 8:33 p.m. The sun sets as the bus navigates past the silhouettes of landscaped suburbs, then mountains, and finally motors alongside the Pacific, which reflects chichi seaside resorts' neon lights in an orange and purple glow. I am the last passenger off the bus at 9:30 at the Santa Maria Town Center Mall Transit Terminal, which is actually just a bus stop in front of a fenced-off section of the mall. After 19 hours of travel and layovers, I am 225 miles from my front door. I settle on accommodations located, conveniently, next door to a bail bondsman. The television, when switched on, begins showing professional wrestling. Dinner duplicates lunch: granola bars and hard-boiled eggs. I sleep in my clothes.

I am the only pedestrian in Santa Maria at not quite 4 a.m. on a Tuesday. It's a four-mile walk to my next bus stop, and I veer off Broadway and into the industrial section of town, which also features a 24-hour "pay-n-play" racquetball court. I bear left for a 1.4-mile stroll down a pitch-black bicycle trail alongside the railroad tracks. Hagerman Softball Complex, the disembarkation point for the Clean Air Express, literally emerges from the fog.

The Clean Air Express, created by the Santa Barbara Air Pollution Control District, and Muni are both modes of public transportation in the manner that beagles and mastiffs are both dogs. The Express recoups 81 percent of its operating costs from fares, which is roughly four times what Muni does. And it transports some 200,000 riders a year, which is roughly one-fourth what Muni does — in a day.

Riders don't line up for the 5:50 a.m. bus, but instead reserve spots by placing their bags in a queue before heading off to parts unknown. Some leave bottles of water or diet soda. One woman tosses her rosary beads out of a moving pickup truck.

As has been the case for so much of this trip, the scenery outside the windows — hills, beaches, a railroad bridge framing the Pacific — is gorgeous. But this crowd has grown accustomed to it, and spends the trip sleeping, reading, or, in the case of the gent behind me, singing along with his iPod in unintelligible, falsetto bursts. This most unwelcome Neil Young impersonation lasts 90 minutes.


After a short wait in the heart of Santa Barbara, I ascend an onboard spiral staircase — yes, really — to enter the Coastal Express bus. A driver who croons along with the country music on her radio drops me off at the Pacific View Mall in Ventura, where the 101 Connection hops on and off the eponymous highway en route to the Thousand Oaks Transit Center. As we do not pick up any elderly passengers at our Leisure World stop, I manage to make my transfer with a luxurious three minutes to spare. I am now rolling downhill, literally and figuratively. I can smell the finish line. On the Metro 161, I can also smell the crotch sweat and liquor-through-the-pores odors you associate with urban transport.

The bus slowly navigates through leafy green suburbs on Los Angeles' periphery. At one point a young resident attempts to bluff his way onto the bus with some manner of bogus pass. The driver methodically tears it to shreds in his face, a moment startlingly reminiscent of Mr. Hand doing much the same to Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

I catch the Orange Line bus in Woodland Hills and, for the first time on this trip, a vehicle fills up. It's also the first time I've ever thought to complain that a bus smells too good. The vehicle is stocked with young women in sundresses and takes on the scent of berry shampoo. At North Hollywood station, I stumble past patchouli salesmen to my last transfer — the much-filmed Los Angeles Red Line subway. The disembodied voice piped through the coach kindly requests riders to keep their feet off the seats. The woman next to me actually follows this directive — it was her first time on the subway, too. We pull into Los Angeles Union Station at 12:18 p.m. I have finished my voyage at the exact time Nelson's itinerary said I should. To the minute.

There is no welcoming committee on the platform, unless you count the woman cursing every last passenger and dancing along to music only she can hear. I clamber aboard the escalator, navigate the vast Depression-era rail station, and exit through the grandiose, Art Deco foyer. I then literally bump into Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The mayor is a charming man. Too charming. But then the former Mrs. Villaraigosa could tell you that.

I wander off into the heart of downtown L.A. beneath a staggeringly bright midday sun. Doing the math, I have just taken 16 buses or trains operated by seven public agencies. Transportation costs totaled $41.25 for a trip that took exactly 32 hours and seven minutes and covered some 480 miles. And was it crazy? Of course. But traversing the state via public transit allows you to meet people and see places you'd never encounter in any other way. You share a seat with a cross-section of California.

But, yes, still crazy.

The ride home on the Amtrak Coast Starlight, incidentally, costs not quite three times as much and takes a little less than half as long. Yet, counterintuitively, sitting among the same people in the same seat of the same train car for the whole journey makes the voyage home feel longer than the one there.

On the Coast Starlight, however, it's a good bet no one will steal your teeth.

Follow a map of this journey with photos at http://bit.ly/BusTrip

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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