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Roaring Camp Railroad

Saturday, May 10, 2003

Even computer crashes can lead to an interesting adventure. Well, in this case it wasn’t a crash but rather the need to expand the system. With the landscaping finished in January, the new plants filling in nicely, new patio furniture and cookout grill purchased and set up, I wanted to spend more time enjoying the spring weather in our backyard and less in my office. However it doesn’t take much time away from my computer in the office to start experiencing withdrawal symptoms. The simple solution was to install an Apple Airport base that would allow me to wirelessly access the files on my desktop computer as well as my DSL connection from my laptop.

A trip to the Berkeley M.A.C. store was in order to buy the Airport transmitter unit and have a receiver card installed in the laptop. During the installation I wandered about the store looking at hardware and software, eventually stepping outside for a cigarette. A product in the store’s display window caught my attention: a portable car navigation unit like the one installed in the dash of my next-door-neighbor’s Lexus. I knew it would be great for camping trips in unfamiliar territory and didn’t hesitate to buy it.

Installation was easy (it plugs into the car’s cigarette lighter) and I tested it out on a few trips to the grocery store and other routine journeys. After a couple of weeks I felt I was familiar enough with its operation to try it out in unfamiliar territory. I had never heard of Felton, much less knew where it was, when I came across an interesting article about it on SFGate, the San Francisco Chronicle’s online version which I read every day. A map showed it in the Santa Cruz mountains, about 70 miles south of here. I needed a better photo of the Santa Cruz Lighthouse, which wouldn’t take more than a few minutes once there, so Felton and Santa Cruz seemed like a good destination for a Saturday drive to test out the car navigation unit.

It was close to one o’clock by the time Pat & I finally pulled out of our driveway, nav-unit all nicely programmed, printed maps and laptop with mapping software for backup at the ready, and camera bag in the back seat. Per the nav-unit’s spoken instructions, we headed down Seminary Avenue to the Coliseum where we jumped onto the I-880 freeway south to San Jose. I-880 becomes state highway 17 through the Santa Cruz mountains and I’d traveled the narrow four-lane before, but had never ventured off of it. Our new Garmin nav-unit gave us plenty of warning for the Felton exit and in less than 90 minutes, we found ourselves in the small California town repleat with antique stores and small cafes.

We drove around the four square blocks of downtown Felton (population <5,000) looking for a place to land and settled upon the parking lot of the town’s grocery store. The street we turned off of into the parking lot was intriguingly named Covered Bridge Road. “Street” is perhaps overstatement for a tree-lined dirt road squeezed along side the San Lorenzo River in a residential neighborhood of run-down houses whose yards resembled junk yards. A hundred yard walk down the street revealed a covered bridge at a bend 50 yards ahead. Unfortunately, we had left the cameras in the car back in the parking lot.

After 90 minutes of driving and a short five-minute walk, my bladder wanted relief and my stomach wanted attention, so we picked out a cafe. Who knows why Pat would want eggs benedict and hot tea at three o’clock in the afternoon. A reuben sandwich with a Corona beer chaser was more my cup of tea. Forty-five minutes later we returned to the parking lot and drove down to the covered bridge, walked across and got some good photographs. The placque on the monument in the foreground reads as follows:

"Built in 1892-3 and believed to be the tallest covered bridge in the country, it stood on the only entrance to Felton for 45 years. In 1937 it was retired from active service to become a pedestrian bridge and figured very prominently in many films of that period. After suffering damage in the winter storms of 1982, it was restored to its original elegance in 1987 using native materials and local talent.

California Registered Historical Landmark No.583.
Originally registered May 17, 1957."

The SFGate article had been about the Roaring Camp Railroad and armed with directions from one of the other diners back at the cafe, we headed the two miles out of town to the small town theme park. The park is a replica of “an 1880s logging camp, with its general store, depot, steam-powered saw mill, skid sheds, one-room schoolhouse, covered bridge, and opera house.”

The Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad is pulled by an 1890s steam-powered locomotive on tracks that loop around and through the park. Frankly, it looked more like a glorified kiddy ride and indeed the park’s advertising for this train is aimed at families with young children. During our visit the park was swarming with rug-rats from a local Baptist Church youth group and their parents. One little bugger, to the apparent delight of her parents, stood outside the one-room schoolhouse replica clanging its bell for a solid ten minutes. Pat quickly dragged me off to a different area to prevent me from killing the brat or its parents.

The Santa Cruz, Big Trees & Pacific Railway uses a modern diesel locomotive on standard gauge tracks to wind its way from Roaring Camp through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park’s dense redwood forest along a 300 foot downhill grade that hugs the San Lorenzo River Gorge for six and a half miles to its end at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk beside the shore of Monterey Bay. Though it was late in the afternoon, the train still had one more round-trip to return passengers it had just brought up from Santa Cruz, so Pat and I bought tickets ($19.บบ each). During the hour wait for the train’s departure we learned that this particular weekend was the 100th anniversary of President Teddy Roosevelt’s visit to the redwood forest now encompassed by the state park. The train’s engine and passenger cars were all decked out in red, white, and blue bunting and we’d be stopping at a picnic grove in the state park to pick up “President Roosevelt” and his entourage who were having a commerorative ceremony and picnic there.

Behind our engine was a typical early twentieth century passenger car followed by two open-air flatcars with bench seating followed by a another passenger car. Just a handful of folks were onboard as we pulled out of the Roaring Camp depot and glided into the redwood forest. The 200-foot-plus tall trees all but blocked out the sunlight and blue sky above leaving us with a sense of being transported back in time. Seven minutes later, we rounded a bend in the woods and our train eased to a stop in a picnic grove. About thirty folks boarded and found seating on the flatcars’ benches while a few headed to the covered passenger car in back. “President Roosevelt,” in convincing period attire, took up his VIP spot on the engine.

As the train resumed its journey down the grade our conductor, armed with a microphone and speaker system, recounted the history of the area and called out points of interest. Along the left side of the tracks the San Lorenzo River rushed across the rocks nearly three hundred feet below, barely visible through the dense forest. The roar of the river and silence of the forest were frequently pierced by the sound of steel on steel as the train lumbered around curve after curve, hugging the hillside that paralleled the river. Above and to the right of us was two-lane state highway nine descending from higher up the mountain, eventually crossing our tracks, and disappearing behind a hill as we exited the redwood groves and made our final descent into Santa Cruz.

Rolling through the industrial area of Santa Cruz’s northwest side, our train pulled onto a siding where the engine could unhook and reposition itself at the back of the train to push us through an upcoming tunnel that cut through one of the city’s church-topped hills. Just the other side of the tunnel, the train made its final stop in the midst of one of Santa Cruz’s Victorian neighborhoods where all the passengers, save for Pat, me, and one other couple debarked. We last saw “President Roosevelt” and his wife climbing into a parked Chrysler. Ten minutes later the train headed back through the tunnel and up the mountain to Roaring Camp.

"President Teddy Roosevelt" stands at the front of the engine.

It was about six o’clock by the time we got back to our car in the parking lot and drove down to Santa Cruz in search of the memorial lighthouse. The Santa Cruz Lighthouse is actually a memorial built by the parents of a teenage surfer killed in a 1960s surfing accident at the point where the building sits. Though the structure contains a light that flashes at night, it is not listed as an actual aid to maritime navigation. The building contains a surfing museum as well as the ashes of the teenage surfer.

Pat and I wandered about the grounds for about an hour, he making friends with off-leash dogs and their owners and me mostly watching the surfers riding the waves into the inlet while dodging the cliffs. The sun was starting to set out in the ocean and I decided we had enough daylight left to get one more lighthouse photo if we hurried up. I programmed the Garmin nav unit to find the quickest route to Pigeon Point and it accurately talked us through the maze of Santa Cruz’s winding streets to Highway One, the Pacific Coast Road.

About 45 minutes later, we pulled into the parking lot of Pigeon Point Lighthouse at dusk. Too tired to get out of the car after the day’s activities, Pat stayed behind as I lugged the camera and tripod up the path to a suitable vantage point, set up my equipment, and due to the rapid onslaught of darkness, took several time-exposures of the 148-foot tower. The cold night winds blowing off the ocean in this desolate stretch of California coastline hastened my return to the car.

Camera equipment safely stowed in the backseat, I programmed the nav unit to take us home and drove back out onto the coast highway. We arrived home around 9:30, loaded a DVD movie, and after ten minutes of trying to stay awake to watch it, turned it off, called it a day, and went to bed.

Both of us had some vivid and interesting dreams that night. Where else in the world can one time-warp back and forth through nineteenth century logging camps, pristine redwood forests, riding historic trains, and driving desolate stretches of coastal highway past empty beaches and maritime sentinels all in the same day? You gotta love California livin'!