Just when I though travel couldn’t get any weirder, I learned the Japanese built a train platform in the middle of nowhere with no entrance or exit, no amenities, and no grand vistas. Obviously, you’ll be asking “Why?” And, “No really, why?” And finally, “Is this a joke or some kind of esoteric performance art?”
Burrowing into the online research like a badger, I unearthed clues suggesting you’re supposed to get off the train and simply stand on the bare platform for an hour or so until the next train comes along. (Obviously you want to be very, very sure of the schedule so you don't miss the last run of the day.) Apparently people are traveling hundreds of miles just to experience this unique way of creating a little pause in the headlong rush of their lives.
I must say I prefer a few more creature comforts in the way stations on the journey through life. Give me shelter, food, a glass of cheer, good music, and congenial company. Not to mention a bathroom. Unique as it is, Japan’s Seiryu Miharashi train station is not making my short list of potential travel destinations — or my long list, for that matter. My tastes run more to hospitable old roadhouses that have been comforting weary travelers for generations. I visited one such establishment last Friday: Giaco’s Valley Roadhouse in San Geronimo, California.
I approached the visit with some trepidation. I’d known the roadhouse in its previous 40-year incarnation as Two Bird Café, which started its career as a motor inn and morphed into a popular roadside restaurant with three rooms for overnight guests. It has now passed into the hands of the Giacomini family and chef Alejandro Cano, and I was a bit worried they might have yielded to the temptation to stage a trendy makeover.
As you can imagine, I was enormously relieved to see the same sturdy wooden furniture standing its ground.
“We kept it pretty much the same,” Andrew Giacomini reassured me. “We changed the name — Giaco is my nickname, so we’re calling it Giaco’s Valley Roadhouse — and updated a bit, but kept the atmosphere.”
Whew! With that worry out of the way, I could get to grips with an even more critical question. “What is the secret of this Chicken Marsala? It’s extraordinary.”
“I keep asking Alejandro, but he won’t tell me,” he said, laughing. “It’s his closely guarded secret.”
Over dinner at Giaco’s, I told Rich, "I just read, on another roadhouse's website, the quote, 'We believe behind every favorite song there is an untold story.' You think that's true?”
He nodded, too busy ravaging the Chicken Marsala to speak.
Of course, I’ve known for ages his favorite song is Ben E. King’s 1961 classic “Stand by Me.” King incorporated words from an old gospel hymn drawn from Psalm 46: "will not we fear, though the Earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea." He tried to sell the song to the Drifters, but they turned him down (a move they no doubt came to regret) so he recorded it himself. The rest is megahit history. By now it’s been recorded by everyone from Otis Redding to John Lennon to Tracy Chapman to the 2015 lineup of the Drifters (better late than never).
“So why is it your favorite?” I asked Rich. But just then more wine arrived, and somehow the moment passed. We didn’t get around to discussing “Stand by Me” until two days later, during Sunday lunch in our garden.
“I’d always liked the song,” he said. “Then when I saw the movie, back in 1986, it became my all-time favorite. These boys go out on an adventure, and it took me right back to my childhood."
"When I was nine or ten," Rich said, "I started being allowed out on my own, without being under anyone’s watchful eye. My friend Bruce and I heard about this swamp in another part of town. It was supposed to have snakes and be dark and mysterious. So we decided we’d ride our bikes over there and have an adventure.
"We left our bikes at the edge of the swamp and walked in. It was very muddy, and we found a stream running under an old iron train trestle with graffiti all over it. We climbed on the train trestle and started inching our way out over the stream. It seemed so dangerous, but looking back, if we’d fallen, it was probably only fifteen feet. We kept looking for snakes; never found any. But it didn’t make any difference. It was my first big adventure. I felt like a free spirit. It was perfect.”
"Bruce and I made a pact to keep the place our secret. And I haven't really ever talked about it ... until now." He smiled at the memory and added, “It gave me a taste for adventure, for being spontaneous, and is probably the reason I travel the way I do today.”
Rich is never happier than when he’s setting off into the unknown, with minimal (if any) luggage and no fixed route or timeline, prepared to make frequent detours and follow whims to their illogical but fascinating conclusions. So far, he’s never invited me to shimmy along a train trestle, but we’ve done plenty of other chancy things; some of our exploits in Albania and the Peruvian Amazon come to mind. Not knowing what’s next adds to the fun; we’ve learned that too much advance planning can dull the edge of excitement and turn the whole enterprise into a mind-numbing exercise in dotting i’s and crossing t’s. “A journey is like marriage,” John Steinbeck once said. “The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
Maybe that’s why I’m not so keen on the Seiryu Miharashi train station. When it comes to control, that bare platform clearly has the upper hand. I sometimes imagine travelers stepping off a train there, feeling interested and hopeful for about five minutes, walking from one end of the platform to the other and taking the usual selfies from this angle and that. And then, inevitably, they must realize they’ve plumbed the possibilities, and the next train won’t be along for 55 eternal minutes. Perhaps author PG Wodehouse describes that feeling best: “I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” Or, as he writes of another character, “He had the look of one who had drunk from the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.”
In my view, travel should not evoke dead beetles but rather the intoxicating sense of freedom we felt for the first time as kids — and, if we’re lucky, have kept on cultivating ever since. “We travel, in essence, to become young fools again,” says essayist Pico Iyer. “To slow time down and get taken in, and to fall in love once more.” Travel reminds us of the thrill of mystery and the half-forgotten truth that every destination is standing by, ready to offer itself as our partner in whatever adventure lies ahead.
Do you have favorite song? Did you have adventures as kid? I'd love to hear about them in the comments below.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California.
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