Back in our sleeping berth as the moon slowly illuminated mountains and small towns, we had arrived at our 30th hour onboard, and we were not halfway to Frisco, but we had surrendered to the pace, and the delays, and had even begun to enjoy it. The kids had now played hourslong rounds of Polish Rummy with their grandfather, bantering and showing off their snark and cleverness to an appreciative audience of one. I stared out the window at the little houses and farms, imagining the lives of those inside.
Lulled by the rolling film-scape out the window, I became aware of a strange sensation that I hadn’t noticed at age 7, when life lay ahead, vaster than the continent. The experience of watching that much of the world go by, foot by foot, mile by mile, gives time a physical, visceral dimension. From my seat, I could feel the past being left behind. It hardly mattered whether we were going 20 miles an hour or 70. We were going somewhere, and that was all that mattered.
The next morning, we opened our eyes to a purple bowl of mountains around Salt Lake City, and by breakfast we were zipping over the vast, white salt flats. The terrain greened again as Nevada blended into the Sierras. We soon entered another vista of plunging ravines, pine forests and lakes (including Donner Lake, named after the doomed pioneer party marooned here one winter who cannibalized their dead to survive). It was there we met a park ranger who happened to be traveling from Utah to Sacramento. He named the indigenous shrubs, manzanita and ceanothus; told us about the red soil; and shared tidbits of Western history.
By now, our conductor had a bead on an actual arrival time — we would be in San Francisco only seven hours late, a fact that made us suspect that our attendant’s dire 31-hour delay warning in Chicago had been a brazen attempt to keep our expectations low. Great! Only seven hours late!
We pulled into Sacramento and our first glorious California sunset, a sheet of horizontal oranges and reds silhouetting black water towers and high-tension wires. In no time at all, we were at our final stop, bidding fond farewells to the train staff who had come to know the children by name.
Around midnight, we were tooling through San Francisco in a cab toward our hotel. Any sense of excitement was dulled by the late hour and the long journey, and the kids were nodding off, but as we rode through empty downtown streets in the dark, the familiar smell of eucalyptus and the soft foggy Pacific air yanked me back 50 years.
The next morning brought back a nearly forgotten memory: the ubiquitous hobos and junkies who populate San Francisco’s streets, and who panhandle much more aggressively than those in New York. While we ordered at a Starbucks on Market Street, the barista caught a man filling the inner pockets of his trench coat with bottles of orange juice.
We took a city bus across town to check out Haight-Ashbury. The neighborhood is gentrified now in the era of Silicon Valley; expensive, chic and almost touristy. Gone are the Diggers, the street theater group that gave away food and held up large, empty frames for people to step through to change their “Frame of Reference.” We passed psychedelic murals, head shops, coffee shops, tie-dye and vintage emporiums and purveyors of exotic textiles from Kathmandu. But the hippie wares now come with hefty price tags. My father recognized only one store — an old vinyl record shop.
At the end of Haight Street, we arrived at the entrance of Golden Gate Park, and a small playground where my dad reminisced about my eighth birthday party — an event I don’t remember — and how he realized only once he had brought 10 children to the spot that he didn’t know how to keep track of us. He recalled the famous bands, including the Grateful Dead, that used to play on the grassy hill nearby.
I had another olfactory moment that transported me back to second grade — patchouli, incense, smoke and, again, eucalyptus wafting from an encampment of young men and women lounging on blankets in the grass, strumming guitars. Of course they asked us for money. My 11-year-old daughter, weary from the long day and walk, and no stranger to the homeless in New York, could take it no longer. “I hate this city,” she said. Despite San Francisco’s many charms, this modern variation of the homeless flower children of the ’60s was beyond annoying to my world-weary traveler. Holding her hand, I recognized her unease. It was exactly what I’d felt about the hippies a half-century ago, when I had wished my dad was more like the father in the Nancy Drew books I had begun to read in second grade — a lawyer in the fictional small town of River Heights.
As I watched my children clambering on swings, I recalled Joan Didion’s horrifying scenes from San Francisco in her collection of essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” the drugged-out hippie kids, the 5-year-olds fed acid by derelict parents in what one described as “High Kindergarten.” My parents didn’t do drugs and I did not recognize the smell wafting in the streets until someone lit up a joint in high school. Our mother was almost in sole charge of three small children, and while a poetic spirit herself, was never overly enamored of the Beat scene. She spent the San Francisco year pushing a one-year-old in a stroller around spaced-out hippies and up the steep hills. Eventually my parents divorced. My father now says he regrets our journey. He can’t really explain why he decided to chuck it all and head west. He remembers that, at the time, it just made sense.
Our trip to that revolutionary place brought back a flood of memories of a gone world. The Summer of Love aimed at nothing less than the wholesale transformation of American society. In some ways, the flower children and their fellow travelers, like my parents, succeeded in fashioning a more tolerant America. In many other ways, they failed. But for the 7-year-old child on the train, the journey toward the Summer of Love, and not the destination, was what changed everything.
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the passenger train on which the family rode in 1967. It was the California Zephyr, not the Silver Zephyr. The article also misidentified a railway that connects Russia and China. It is the Trans-Siberian Railway, not the Orient Express.