Here in Santa Cruz County, we tend to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. When we do leave our little burgh, the impulse is to jump in the car and drive.
I broke my behavior pattern last year by pledging to take public transit to San Francisco (and back) to see an Giants baseball game. If I walked to the Metro station, my carbon footprint for the trip would be zero (well, I wouldn’t be adding to the existing footprint), I smugly told myself.
The Chicago Cubs were in town and my buddy Paul from over the hill had scored tickets. He invited me to join him on Caltrain on the way to AT&T Park. He even called to inform me of the departure time (9:40 a.m.) of the train he would be boarding in Mountain View.
He further had made reservations at Momo’s, a popular grill across the street from the ballpark, for lunch at 11 a.m. There would be six of us having lunch and sitting together in the left field bleachers. Game time was 12:30.
Through a couple simple keystrokes, I learned that the Highway 17 Express bus serves as the Amtrak connector from Santa Cruz. It goes directly to the Diridon Train Station in San Jose, with a brief loop through Scotts Valley on the way.
In order to make the 9:40 a.m. train out of San Jose I needed to leave the Santa Cruz Metro Station on the 8:05 Hwy 17 Express. That calculated out to a three-hour trip one way. I would bring a magazine and leave the driving to someone else.
Save for my inflated environmental correctness, I had worrisome thoughts about the day’s travel. I am a California driver. I cherish my independence. Did I have the time for six hours of bus and train transport (round trip) to see a baseball game?
Up until the final moments on the morning of game day, I tacitly reserved the right to jump in my van and drive to the San Jose train station, or even to the ballpark. That would be easier.
I was wrong.
The departure point for the Highway 17 Express at the Metro station downtown is clearly marked and easy to find. And the bus departed at 8:05 precisely. I boarded and soon was on my way up Ocean Street and onto 17.
I recalled traveling in Italy a couple of years ago, taking a bus trip to Sienna from Florence, and all that that entailed. This was easier. I knew the language, the bus station was smaller and simpler and I didn’t have to wait as long.
As I remember, the first bus leaving Florence for Sienna that day was full, and we had to wait for the next one. The 17 Express had plenty of room, was comfortable and the driver was careful (no reference to Italian drivers intended).
Most of the Express riders seemed familiar with the system. Some were students going to San Jose State. There was a mother and child traveling to the airport. One rider was eager to help others, pulling a train schedule from his coat pocket and referring to it as a bookie would a racing form.
We picked up more riders in Scotts Valley and soon the bus was nearly full. I sat next to the window and opened a newspaper. Matt Cain would be pitching for the Giants, while Carlos Zambrano, with an impressive 14-9 record, would be on the mound for the surging Cubbies.
We crossed the foggy summit and before long were pulling into the Diridon Station on a sunny San Jose morning. It took about an hour to get there. I had 30 minutes to purchase my train ticket, use the restroom and find the right track for San Francisco.
An all-day Caltrain pass, or round-trip ticket to SF, costs $17.50. The trip would take about an hour and twenty minutes from San Jose.
I knew I was at the correct boarding place when I saw the folks assembled there. Black and orange ruled — Giants caps, shirts, jackets, even orange shoes. There were a few blue-and-red-clad Cubs fans as well.
This was obviously the fan train. The spirit was beginning to grip me.
Paul called me on my cell. I told him we were just leaving the Lawrence station and that I was in car #2. At Mountain View, he boarded and found me. We chilled and watched the peninsula landscape fly by.
I was intrigued by the number of well-appointed little train stations — Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Redwood City — with more fans joining us at every stop.
The Caltrain station in San Francisco is about two blocks from AT&T Park. We walked the distance to Momo’s, directly across the street from the stadium. Momo’s was jumping. Fans everywhere. Fresco dining, as well as an urban-atmosphere restaurant and bar.
Our table awaited us, thanks to Paul’s foresight with the reservations. We were a refreshed group. No traffic hassles, no road rage and no problem finding a place to park. We had nothing to park but ourselves. I liked that.
We found our seats beyond the left field fence just as the game started. The weather was sunshine perfect and the baseball diamond pristine. What a fine ballpark. We lathered up with sunscreen and settled in for what turned out to be a great game, for Giants fans.
Matt Cain threw a gem, six-plus innings of shutout baseball. He contributed to his 4-1 winning effort by lashing his second career homer into the bleachers in front of us.
John, our cohort from Concord, works as an usher at Giants and 49ers games.
I asked him if he had a chance to see any of the games he worked. Every play, he answered like a true fan. And, “I get paid $11 per hour.”
The deal landed him a seat at the ‘07 MLB All-Star game, as well as World Series tickets.
One of our group offered that he’d like to get a job ushering when he retired. “I could do that,” he said.
The game ended shortly after 3 o’clock and we were on the train heading south by 3:30. This particular train was smothered with fan delirium. After our second stop down the peninsula, the conductor said over the PA system that he had let two Cubs fans off the train at the last stop, “sent them back the other way,” he joked.
The fan train is pretty much a party. The conductor’s only admonishment was to please not use foul language. “No cursing,” he said. Beer was flowing.
Paul got off in Mountain View. I dozed off for a short spell and arrived at the San Jose station just before 5 p.m. I attempted to get change. You need exactly five dollars to board the Highway 17 express. The lady at the coffee counter couldn’t help, neither could the woman at the ticket window.
I ran to catch the 17 Express that was nearly full and waiting. I told the driver that I had a ten-dollar bill or $3.75 in ones and coins. “I’ll take it,“ he said. “Someone’s already overpaid.”
That’s the spirit of the Express.
I believe I was the only person on this bus who had been to the ball game.
An hour later, at about 6 p.m., we pulled into Santa Cruz. I found myself walking away from the Metro station amid a completely foreign milieu from the one I had been among all day.
Santa Cruz is far away from the land of Giants and Cubs. I hadn’t driven a single mile, but I had traveled comfortably through another world, seen the other side, and returned home relaxed and ready for the evening.
Did I mention my faint carbon footprint?
For information & scheduled times:
To get started from Capitola, take either the 69 or 66 bus from Capitola Mall to Santa Cruz Metro.