I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Port Costa and the Past

In the hallway

It wasn’t the squeaking of the bats that kept me up all night. It wasn’t the way my shoulders dug in to the thin mattress that kept me rolling over, not the low-voiced howl of the passing freight trains that rattled me out of my half-dreams.

It was that I had to pee. And I was too scared of ghosts get up.

Not that I’m 7, and not that I actually saw or heard any ghosts. Just that, you know, I’m a wuss. The bathroom was only a couple doors down the hall. But I’d heard stories, of ghostly laughs and the clicking of century-old high heels, and I figured—why risk it? I waited until the gray light of dawn sank its fingers through the curtains, brushed the walls and illuminated the shadows. I relieved myself with incident.

The whole overnight to Port Costa, actually, went without incident, the kind that had been hyped and fore-warned: red necks, ghosts, bed bugs, cocaine-fueled partiers—I didn’t see any. What I did see: peeling velvet wallpaper, a spooky porcelain doll, fishermen tromping over gravel and train tracks, a stuffed polar bear, a dude playing a banjo and a whole lot of motorcycles.

We arrived after dark, weaving our way through the shadowed coastal hills of a regional park. The pavement gave way to gravel as we delved into a little valley, dim houses and an old chapel lining the one road of Port Costa. The road dead-ended into a wide parking lot, gravel, train tracks, the misty water of the Carquinez Strait. On one side of us was a three-story, dirt-colored old warehouse, on the other, the bay windows of the Burlington Hotel. That was it.

Inside The Warehouse

We turned the locked knob to the hotel’s door a couple times, until the banjo-playing dude on the corner told us we had to go across the street to the bar to check in. We entered The Warehouse, the main occupant of the 19th-century grain storage-house.  We stared stupidly for a couple moments, taking in the mish-mash of burlesque lampshades, checkered plastic tablecloths, mounted animal heads and vintage signs. We must have stood out—a man in the corner waved at us.

Turned out he was Howie, accompanied by Barbie, proprietors of the Burlington Hotel. They greeted us in what we’d discover was a typical Port Costa way: genuinely friendly and down-to-earth. It wasn’t the affected over-sweetness of a typical tourist town, nor the you-ain’t-from-round-here skepticism of an isolated small town. The vibe was unpretentious and warm, but not overly warm. It was the Goldilocks of small towns—just right.

Everything was just right about Port Costa: just enough overnighters that I didn’t feel too out of place, just enough decrepitude to make the hotel really really cool, just enough vestiges of history to make the town special—not undiscovered, but not blown up or theme-parky.

On the mantel in front of our room.

We wandered around the Burlington Hotel with our jaws dropped—it was the antique/vintage/ creaky dollhouse of cool we’d hoped for. But it wasn’t the stinky filth-pot Yelp reviewers and the Chronicle had made it out to be. Sure, it was faded and had the musty smell of an attic, but I had to wonder—had the people who’d called it dirty ever stayed in a cheap third-world hotel? Or a flea-bag American one, for that matter? It was no Courtyard Inn, but definitely one of the nicer hotels I’ve stayed in the US (not saying much, granted).

Maybe they’ve already started to spiffy up and straighten out, as the Chronicle article claimed. Aside from the lack of bed bugs and grime, there wasn’t a lot of raucous activity either. The other guests definitely looked like they were there for a good time, but the most debauchery we experienced at the Burlington Hotel was some middle-aged folks having a Hank Williams sing-along (I wanted in), followed by some late-night bed creaking (I did not want in). Pretty mild, really.

Ate all that!

As part of the Valentine’s Special, a $99 dinner-room combo, we headed back to The Warehouse for some good ole American eating. I’m usually a free-range, organic kinda girl, but I figured, meh, when in Port Costa. We grubbed on a whole lobster, one pound of prime rib, and unlimited salad/chili/chowder bar, washed down with soda served in a glass jar. My pants felt quite a bit snugger. A post-dinner stroll was definitely in order.

We tip-toed across the puddle-ridden parking lot, through an opening in the chain-link fence, and across the dark of gravel and train tracks. The nighttime mist made everything feel dream-like and removed, like we were somewhere much further away, like those weren’t the lights of a suburb blinking and sighing across the water. The way the Amtrack and freight trains’ horns would wail, the way their lights gleamed like animal eyes, how the heaved and rattled past—it made it feel like we were in some little pocket of the world, not quite forgotten by time, but where time just kind of rumbled past, without really stopping, leaving only a puff of exhaust and the echo of its cry.

Sitting on the rocks, I looked out across the water, and had a strange, back-of-the-head tingle. The lights of a far-off refinery winked in the billows of steam pouring out its towers, glittering like some kind of industrial Oz. Jagged fragments of memory came cutting back. “Fuck,” I said. “I’ve been here.”

High school. Malt liquor and weed and pills. We’d piled into B’s truck, drove around El Sob and Crockett looking for drugs and trouble, finding none of one and only a little of the other. We’d pulled into a parking lot, staggered across gravel. Refineries twinkling. Feet numb, and sides closing in, black. Cigarette smoke in my hair. Wanting to sleep.

My little kaleidoscope of fucked-up broken memories came out of some forgotten fold of my brain, stinging and still alcohol-damp. So I’d partied in Port Costa after all. Who knew.

The next morning, the town was mist-shrouded and dewey-eyed. I was dazed; all night I’d listened to the trains, thinking of all the other people who’d laid in that room before me, in the gray and shadows, listening to that same rumble and sigh. We drank teeth-burning from styrofoam cups and took another tromp around town, then further down the train tracks. Lots of killer photos ensued (currently, only the digital ones are ready; pro film shots will take plenty longer). Coolest find: on some rusty old rails, someone with a similar nerdy affinity for trains and travel left their mark:

The mild afternoon melted past, time a far away thing. The trains continued to pass, rumbling and horn blowing at a couple of kids poking around the rocks and rails of a once-great railway hub, filled with miners and shipyard workers and whores and ferry horns—and now, just the ghostly groan of the trains, passing, passing, but never stopping, no, not anymore.

Photos by Theo Konrad Auer. More on the way…

11 Responses to “I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Port Costa and the Past”

  1. 1 Gray February 17, 2010 at 9:00 am

    Yay, I’ve been waiting to read this! You know what I love about this, almost as much as how beautifully well-written it is? I love that you had such an adventure just going to a nearby town and staying overnight. Just goes to show you don’t have to go halfway round the world to have a fun travel adventure. You just have to have the right attitude. Nice job, Lauren!

  2. 2 laurenquinn February 17, 2010 at 9:18 am

    Aw, thanks Gray. It did feel like an adventure. But, I have to say, I’ve been back in the States for 4 months and I’m itchingitchingitching to get out!

  3. 3 Candice February 17, 2010 at 9:32 am

    Hahahahaha. You’re my new hero.

  4. 4 Susan February 17, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    What an awesome adventure you had! Your photos are your evidences of fun memories. Thanks for some information about this place, someday I will be going in this exact location.

  5. 5 spunkygirlmonologues February 18, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    Great post. Sounds like good times. I’m even more curious about that hotel!

  6. 6 Sarah February 19, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Funny how you don’t have to go very far from home to have a full-on travel experience. Loved the memories and the trains.

  7. 7 TheWordWire February 21, 2010 at 6:47 am

    How did you manage to make me want to go to a creaky dollhouse that smells like attic? Thanks for sharing this great adventure.

    We once stayed in a place you had to check-in at the bar, though the experience wasn’t as noteworthy. It was a 5-room motel/saloon somewhere in the Sierras. Don’t even know if it was a town… it seemed to be the regular watering hole of anyone who lived out in the wilderness. Bartender didn’t ask for ID, and there was no messy paperwork. We just handed over some cash, and he gave us a key attached to a wooden block, as if we were asking to use the restroom at a gas station. We’re pretty convinced the rooms were mostly for bar patrons who couldn’t make it home for the night, but who knows. We were glad to have a roof over our heads.

    Enjoyed your article – thanks for your great perspective.

  8. 8 Undar March 27, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    Sounds like you had a wonderful stay. Hope you’ll come back and visit us again soon. On your next visit, you must come and spend the day hiking the trails of the Carquinez Reqional Park that surrounds Port Costa. You’ll really get some get photos from high atop the surrounding hills and maybe….just maybe have a few more “flashbacks” of your past visits to Port Costa. :)))))

  9. 9 Stacey June 3, 2010 at 6:32 am

    Seems like a crazy nice place! I want to fee that too. Now I’m planning to visit that very spot!

  10. 10 Minos Beach Art Hotel March 31, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    Really great post. Sounds like good times for you.

  1. 1 Recommended Reads, February 21, 2010 | SoloFriendly.com Trackback on February 21, 2010 at 6:12 am
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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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