Footloose, along the West coast…

Iakhil-usn spite of all the delays and the fog, our ferry docked at Bellingham, Washington State, an hour earlier than scheduled. Terence Finan, my friend and dorm-mate from University of Washington, Seattle, picked us up upon my request, took us on the 32 km Chuckanut Drive. It is said to be one of the most spectacular drives in the world – if you are able to catch the view. That day, dense fog had blanketed the picture. We couldn’t spot the curve of the snaking, cliff-hugging road; nor could we spy even a needle of the beautiful pine trees; or even a square inch of the blue waters of Puget Sound and its forest-clad islands. We didn’t see a thing in the fog!

The city of Seattle, hemmed between the Olympic and Cascades mountains, their peaks helmeted with glittering snow, and its expanse of lakes and sounds, has always been one of the most liveable cities in America. It is likely to remain so even if climate change predictions come true. According to sources, temperatures in the west of Cascades will only rise by 1.7 degrees Celsius by 2080, while in the east they will go up by 2.2 degrees. This will make Seattle the choicest place to live. Nancy Ritzenthaler of Climate Solutions, an organisation influencing public policy on environment, took us to the women’s pro basketball match between Seattle Storm and Tulsa Oklahoma, and pointed out the increasing number of Chinese and Latinos who made up the audience. “Migration to Washington State and Seattle has gone up
significantly over the years and climate change related migration is bound to increase in the future as other places get warmer,” she observed.

Boarding the Coast Starlight, we rolled along the rippling waters of misty Puget Sound, through never-ending evergreen forests, past busy lumber mills stacked with mountains of logs. Quaint villages with picturesque farmhouses constantly framed our train’s window as we rushed through Oregon towards
California. An Indian ship, Prabhu Sumat, was seen docked in a scrapyard.

akhil-us1Talk between passengers in the Parlour Car was dominated by the on-going flooding in Colorado. Half a year’s worth of precipitation was dumped in three days. Four persons died and a thousand went missing. Some called it “Biblical”. Others relate it to climate change. This summer Colorado was drought-affected and had its worst and most destructive wildfire – followed by flash floods. Another dismissed it as just a freak accident that had nothing to do with either religion or climate change. There was one in a thousand chance of a downpour such as this happening in a year – and it happened.

Reports of two tropical storms – Ingrid and Manuel – hitting our route through Mexico have caused us some concern. Landslides have cut off highways. Twelve passengers died when a landslide swept away a bus. A total of 33 deaths and several accidents on rain-slickened roads have been reported.

Oaxaca region is also affected. On the train, we met Jeff Chandler who had served in India as a peace corps volunteer from 1964-66 teaching Santhali tribal students in Ramakrishna Mission Vidyapeeth in Deogarh district of Bihar. He said he had enjoyed the time spent in the remote area – “till Indira Gandhi threw us out. We were CIA – or so she thought,” said Jeff, laughing. The “spy” spent his entire life teaching high school kids in Richmond, an oil refinery township across the bay from San Francisco.

Soon after Leaving San Jose station, our train stopped and remained motionless for the next 45 minutes. It was announced that we would be returning to San Jose for crew replacement. The engineer/driver had jumped a signal and the entire crew, including the conductor, was being suspended.

A fresh crew had to be brought in from Sacremento. The passengers showed rare patience and reckoned it was prudent to wait than risk the hazard of being in the hands of an irresponsible crew. Meanwhile, we cooled our heels for seven hours in San Jose. The sight of the substitutes did not provide any consolation. The engineer and the lady conductor seemed to have been pulled out of their graves. We missed our connection from Los Angeles to San Diego. Arriving in LA at 4.30 am, Amtrak bussed us to

Our destination. The seven-hour-delay was a record for Coast Starlight and I hope it remains
unbeaten till Amtrak retires from the market.

In the US, it is the cities, rather than the federal or state governments, that are taking a lead on climate change action. California is in midst of a water crisis with reduced flows in the Colorado River, reduced snowmelts from Sierra Nevadas, and reduced availability in the Bay Delta – all attributed to climate change. San Diego, lying at the southern end of the emptying water pipeline, is particularly vulnerable.

The Water Policy Implementation Task Force, appointed by the San Diego City Council, has identified a set of actions the city should take to ensure a better water future. These include: a 20 per cent water use reduction by 2020; use of native, drought-resistant plants to reduce landscape irrigation; older homes to be retrofitted with more efficient indoor water systems; gradually recycling one-third of the waste water into drinking water by 2035; optimising use of grey water from sinks and washers for on-site irrigation;
and harvesting storm water for replenishing groundwater basin.

We made the long trip to the University of California, San Diego, to meet Dr. Mario Molina, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995 for identifying a class of common household chemicals that were damaging the earth’s ozone layer.

The Nobel laureate’s door, in Urey Hall was locked. We noticed the name plate of one  Amit Sinha on a nearby door. We decided to disturb him instead. He responded to our loud banging, upon enquiring about Professor Molina, he told us: “He is a very busy person. Must be out giving lectures or collecting awards.” Molina was due to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian award, at the White House.

For some reason the Indian connection is strong in San Diego. The Star of India, commissioned in 1863, the world’s oldest active sailing ship and one of the first iron ships ever made, is docked in San Diego. And the borough of Little Italy dominates India Street.

Tomorrow we enter the lawless part of northern Mexico. US and European travel advisories plead with tourists not to venture into this region. No car rental company gives out its vehicles for this area. All travel
agencies recommended flying. Mexican underworld has targeted bus passengers for mass killings. The drug cartel don, Death, arrested two months ago, would hijack buses, make passengers fight unto death – and recruit the sole survivor into his private army. We find the advisories gratifying.

akhil-bakshi(Akhil Bakshi, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and vice-president of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, is currently on a 35,000 km trans-America journey from Arctic to Antarctic. He wrote this account from Alaska, the first stop of his epic journey which began at Deadhorse Creek on the Arctic Ocean in Alaska and will end at Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America).