The Long Way To San Diego, Published 4 July 1945Here we are, at El Centro, California. We are only 123 miles from San Diego by highway, and a good motorist could do it in two hours and a half. Our train will take a scant nine hours, a meteoric effort of 13.6 miles per hour. Mind you, I am not complaining. I wanted to come this way, and I am glad I did. I merely indicate what you can expect on the San Diego and Arizona Eastern. Originally they gave the train a little better than six hours to do the trip. Then, the day I arrived there, they added another two hours to the schedule. That would have brought us in at 3.20. Finally, we did get to San Diego about 4.40, in plenty of time to miss the Santa Fe streamliner. But I am again ahead of myself.
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The San Diego and Arizona Eastern, a subsidiary of the Southern Pacific, handled us west from El Centro. This latter place, 23 feet below sea level, is at the bottom of the highly productive Imperial Valley. From here, at El Centro, after having emerged from Mexico through Mexicali, Mexico, and Calexico, California, we made a right angle turn, and started west.
When I walked into the dining car that morning, I said to myself: "At last, a dining car in California. Now we'll really get good orange juice." I licked my lips in anticipation, because real orange juice in California, not only tastes better than what you get elsewhere, but it is bountifully served. If there is one thing California should have a lot of, it is orange juice. Imagine my irritation, then, to get canned orange juice. I had to come all the way to California to get canned orange juice. And that as we flashed past orange trees, outside the window. I could have real orange juice on my diner out of Brockville, and I had orange juice again all the way back from San Francisco but it seems I must come to California to get the only canned orange juice of the trip, in a dining car. (Later I met Vice President Peterson, of the Southern Pacific, and he admitted the charge. He said it was true that the dining cars were serving prepared orange juice, but he blamed it on the war. He's anxious to get back to real juice again.)
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The train crawled slowly over the desert, as we rose from 23 below sea level to a point some few feet above it. The big blond brake-man, who didn't wear a uniform, and whose badge, "Brakcman" was always becoming unpinned, groaned as we steadily lost time going upgrade. He had a date with the horses at Agua Caliente, and the way old train 363 was going, he could see race after race being missed. The medium engine No. 2360 couldn't take our train upstairs, and so we kept on losing time. At Coyote Wells, we picked up helper 2844, a 30-ycar-old Southern Pacific, and then we did a little better.
Now I would like you to get the picture as to where we are, and where we are going. This line flirts with the Mexican frontier for miles. There are many places where you can see Baja California only a few feet away, or, at the most, the nearest mountain south is in Mexico. The train then runs north, and it comes south through the Carriso Gorge, a masterpiece of elliptical engineering. Then the railway wanders into Mexico, stays there for a couple of hours, and finally emerges at Tijuana. Thats the preview. Lets go back and start all over aain.
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The train goes through nothing whatever for hours, it seems, until finally, you are advised that we are about to enter the gorge. The number of tunnels we went through I forget, but it seems there are officially, over thirty. The train creaks over spindly trestles, it clings tenaciously to tenuous trails on the mountain side. You can look ahead across the abyss and see the two engines starting to double back in the opposite direction. This gorge is like something dead, in that it is all a dirty gray, unrelieved by trees, water, or grass.
The altitude, a while back below sea level, now registers over 3,000 feet above, and before we are over the hump, it will be more than 4,000. The train does well to do 15 miles an hour, as like a weary snake, we twist up into the dirty grey canyon. For a long time, we play crack-the-whip with ourselves, till finally we come out of this spectacular yet depressing Carriso, climb some more, then start to fall downhill.
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Next thrill is crossing into Mexico. At one end of the tunnel, you see an American soldier. Then half way through, you cross the border, and when you come out into the daylight, there's a Mexican soldier. The train soon reaches the top, sloughs off the helper engine, and we start to wind down toward the sea. You pass picturesque little Mexican towns, and even more picturesque people. A village caballero rides his horse down the tracks. There is a long stop at Tccate while the Mexicans, who had ridden through in bond from Mexicili, and under company of an American immigration officer, debark freely on their own soil. The Mexicans have their own intcr-Mcxican day coach.
Then there is a lilt and a swing to the train, as it falls and drops and rolls down the west slope cf the mountains. The grey of the sea mists blots out the brilliant sun Still it doesn't stop the Mexican towns frcm being interesting, the countryside from being picturesque, the people from being appealing. Finally, we pass a sumptuous race track, and that's Agua Caliente where Ottawa's own Tommy Gorman used to be master of all he surveyed.
Meanwhile little Mexican kids beg for money or sell hot tamales. John S. McCauley, assistant division engineer, who had ridden with me on the rear platform, urged me to try one. Put that one down to expcrience, not pleasure. Then we crawled ahead and stopped. This was the frontier. Solemnly, the U.S. official unlocked the gate, and we crawled at a slow puff into the land of the brave and the free. The gate was duly locked again, to keep out the Mexicans, presumably, and we huffed our way into San Diego, with the grey sea flecked with fighting craft, on my left. It was the Pacific Ocean at last, and I had come the long way, the hard way, but by all means, the most interesting way.