Clad in khaki boiler suit and dark glasses, Michael Portillo joins the US Navy Pacific Fleet, birthplace of the elite flying academy Top Gun.
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I have crossed the Atlantic to ride the railroads of North America
with my faithful Appleton's Guide.
Published in the late 19th century,
it will direct me to everything that's novel, beautiful,
memorable, and curious...in the United States.
As I travel through this vast continent,
I'll discover gold and silver, movies and microchips,
oil and oranges,
and learn how America's most famous railroad
conquered the wild landscapes of the West.
My journey will soon conclude at the southernmost part
of the Californian coast,
near the Mexican border, and the Mexican town of Tijuana.
As I travel south, the light and the coastal beauty
seem to get ever better.
And I shall indeed sample a tourist attraction.
But, it's not all plain sailing.
Water is not just for recreation.
It's a vital resource that cannot always be relied upon.
And, beyond the ocean lie perceived dangers to the United States
that keep its armed forces ever in a state of readiness.
I'm nearing the end of my exploration,
which began 1,000 miles back in Reno, Nevada,
and will end by the Mexican border in San Diego.
Today, I embark upon the final leg,
which starts in the coastal town of La Jolla.
I'll then travel to the green heart of San Diego City,
before exploring the surrounding hillsides,
and ending in the bay at Pacific Fleet.
On my travels, at the birthplace of Top Gun,
I get ready for action...
So, the theory is that there might be something in that pipe
-and it just spurts out when I take it off?
-It could, yes.
..get a sense of proportion at a very big small railroad...
Would it be unfair to say that you people are a bit fanatical?
Oh, yes, yes!
Very easily so!
..and find a novel way to play the organ.
Ha! You've got it!
That was such fun!
"Los Angeles is connected to San Diego", says Appleton's,
"by the Southern Pacific Railroad."
Now operated by Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner,
and you can see how it takes the name.
The book tells me that the points of interest include La Jolla caves.
Well, no journey is worth the name unless one's ready to venture deep.
'Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
'we're now arriving at our next destination of Solana Beach.'
The La Jolla line was closed several decades ago,
so I'm alighting at Solana Beach.
The caves to which my Appleton's refers
are along a stretch of spectacular sandstone coastline,
which was becoming a popular destination
at the time of my guidebook.
I'm meeting Carol Alton of the La Jolla Historical Society.
Carol, this is a remarkable spot, an extraordinary rock formation.
We're actually on top of one of the caves, are we?
Yes, we're on top of the cave called the Sunny Jim Cave.
Sunny Jim is named after a cartoon character from the early 1900s.
The Sunny Jim was actually developed so that people could view
Sunny Jim Cave from the inside,
and actually see the silhouette of the cartoon character.
How are the caves marketed to tourists?
They were marketed through the railroad.
The first railroads were built here in the 1890s.
They came from San Diego,
and the railroad would bring people up to La Jolla,
and they would post when the low tides would be,
and so people would come during the low tide and be able to walk
all along these beaches, and look at La Jolla.
Following in the footsteps of those 19th-century visitors,
I shall wend my way gently towards the beach.
-Hey, good morning.
-How are you doing?
-I'm very good.
Get a lot of tourists coming in?
-What are they attracted by, do you think?
The beauty of the environment here.
You know, this has quite a migration of seals and sealions and birds,
and whales and dolphins that tend to just love this environment.
So, you think people are highly attracted by the wildlife here?
-Completely. It's a haven.
Today, as in Appleton's day,
the best way to explore the caves and to see the wildlife
is from the water.
Then, they used rowing boats.
But I'm going to paddle a kayak.
Nick McManus is my guide.
-Oh, we have a little harbour seal out there.
-Yeah. That's very cute.
-Good thing you're wearing that jacket!
Getting close to the caves now.
These cliffs are almost 75 million years old.
And today, there are seven caves to explore.
One of the reasons why this is one of my favourite caves is
you just look at it and it looks almost like a movie set.
An old-time pirate cave.
During prohibition in the US, that's what this was used for.
It was used to smuggle alcohol up from Mexico.
Do you think, if we breathe deeply, there'll still be some fumes?!
Wow, look at these rocks!
So many different colours in here, purples and yellows and greys.
Vivid, vivid colours.
And you can see the geology piled up, can't you?
You can see the millions of years that this thing took to develop,
and then later to be hollowed out.
And the cave now opens out, the colour of the cave changes.
It's been quite dark until now.
And...round we go.
Oh, that's lovely, Nick. That is a fantastic circuit.
Leaving the coast, I'm back on the rails.
My last stop will be San Diego, which, Appleton's tells me,
was founded by the Roman Catholic missionaries back in 1769.
It lies on the north-eastern shore of a bay
15 miles north of the Mexican border.
And the harbour is, next to that of San Francisco,
the best on the Californian coast.
I'm sure I'll find lots to grab my attention in this temperate city,
a place of great strategic interest to an institution founded in 1775,
the United States Navy.
As a natural deepwater harbour on the Pacific Ocean,
the city of San Diego has long been an important defensive location.
But it wasn't until the Transcontinental Railroad arrived
in 1885 that the city really began to expand.
San Diego has some beautifully preserved buildings
from the late 19th and early 20th century,
and, like Los Angeles, it's got great weather, the beach,
the ocean, and mountains.
But it's much more compact.
So, if you want a Los Angeles without the endless freeway journeys
San Diego's your place.
My Appleton's of 1891 notes the rapid growth of San Diego.
The phenomenal expansion of the city in the late 19th century
was in large part down to one man,
industrialist and property speculator John D Spreckels.
I've come to the city's old heart to meet Spreckels expert Ross Porter.
Hello, Ross, I'm Michael.
Hi, Michael, nice to meet you.
It's lovely to be in San Diego.
I'm impressed by the city.
Tell me about John Spreckels.
He was the eldest son of the sugar baron, Claus Spreckels,
the founder of the West Coast Sugar Trust.
John expanded his father's business,
and along the way he found San Diego,
he found his way here, and fell in love with the region.
What kind of things did he invest in to make the city grow?
Well, starting with the coal concession,
he then bought the daily newspaper, the Union Tribune,
and began to be its publisher.
And he created a water supply system for the city as well,
with a couple of dams and reservoirs.
I take it that railroad connections became important.
Very much so. The only connection was north to Los Angeles.
So the idea of a rail connection directly to the east
across these rugged mountains,
was what Spreckels envisioned with the San Diego and Arizona Railroad.
And they called it the "impossible railroad"
because the landscape was so rugged.
They finally finished it in 1919, but it almost cost him his business.
When the Panama Canal opened in 1914,
Spreckels and the city leaders were quick to promote San Diego
as the first port of call in the United States.
Balboa Park was built with Spanish colonial pavilions,
and included the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world.
Today, it's played by Alison Luedecke.
Bravo, bravo, bravo!
Alison, that was absolutely marvellous. I'm Michael, by the way.
-Thank you, Michael.
-Wow, what an instrument!
I mean, this organ has bells and whistles.
It has every conceivable sound.
It certainly does!
And the way you play it... I mean, I don't know how you do that.
It's like, you know, having to do this,
with your arms and legs all over the place!
How on earth do you become accustomed to it?
Lots of practice!
I can believe it. Show me how you produce some of those things.
So, when we hear the crash cymbal, there are a couple of ways to do it.
But one, we can do it over here with just the toe stud.
It's what we call the toe stud under there. So, fun effects.
Some of them are there,
some are these little buttons on the side here. We have a police whistle.
I think you need a sense of fun to play this!
-And you have one, don't you?
-Indeed! It is a joy.
Would you be able to show me some things you can do?
I would love to teach you how to go from the roll cymbal
and the crash cymbal...
So, the crash cymbal is right here,
and you're just going to try and roll into the crash.
I'm just going to try it now. So, I go right to left, here we go.
Anything that reminds us of trains?
If we wanted to do some trains,
plant your foot over as many notes as you can get!
-OK, we're pulling out of San Diego...
..and we're heading towards Los Angeles. Here we go.
Picking up steam now!
You got it!
CHUGGING GETS FASTER
-I think you made it to LA!
That was such fun!
Before I leave the park,
I've learned that one of the pavilions here
houses the world's largest operating model railroad museum.
That's got to be worth a visit.
Based on two Californian lines of the 1950s,
the Cabrillo South West and the San Diego and Arizona Eastern,
the layout is 262 feet long,
and represents 28 scale miles of railroad.
The museum is full of different models
representing diverse environments and places.
This is Tehachapi in California.
The attention to detail is exquisite, almost obsessive.
Every tree, every detail of the track.
And here, an enormously long freight train
is making its way slowly up the steep gradient.
It will go over the bridges, it will go through the tunnels,
it will wind its way around and up into the mountains.
Hello, I'm Michael.
Michael, nice to meet you. Bob.
Very good to see you, Bob. This is a remarkable bit of layout, this.
It's from Tehachapi loop between Bakersfield and Mojave, California.
And when they built the railroad back in the late 1880s,
they came to this point, and it was too steep.
So the engineer figured out that if he did this helix, or spiral,
that they could make it work.
This makes the point then that everything that you do in here
-is actually modelled on reality.
These models have been under continuous construction
for 35 years, and are valued at nearly 3 million.
All the painstaking work is done by a team of enthusiasts
like Bill Kellan.
Very good to see you, Bill.
And what are you working on here behind the scenes?
Behind the scenes we're laying some turnouts here.
A turnout is where there are points and where the lines begin to...
-Diverge and separate.
Wow. Are you a volunteer?
Oh, yeah, yeah. Been coming down here for 25 years.
-It's a labour of love for me.
Would it be unfair to say that you people are a bit fanatical?
Oh, yes, yes.
Very easily so, yes.
Bill, I want to thank you,
because the railroads that you and other people have built
-have given such pleasure to people.
-We get pleasure out of it too!
-I know! Thank you very much indeed.
This morning, following a recommendation in my guidebook,
I'm making an excursion out of the city to a huge structure.
San Diegans living in the dry climate of Southern California
have depended on it for the last 130 years.
The famous Sweetwater Dam, finished in 1888,
built of solid granite and Portland cement.
A capacity of six billion gallons.
90 feet high, 46 feet thick, 396 feet long.
From this immense reservoir of 700 acres,
San Diego, National City and Chula Vista obtain their water.
Thanks to my Appleton's,
I've climbed this rattlesnake-infested mount
and been rewarded with this spectacular view.
I'm meeting Jim Smyth,
who used to be general manager of Sweetwater Authority.
Jim, for all its many delights,
San Diego has a problem with a lack of rainwater, is that right?
That's exactly right. We just don't have that much rainfall here,
so it's imperative to have a dam so you can store that rain when it does
come, and the region just came out of a very severe drought these last
five years. This past winter it rained a heck of a lot,
and we were able to get some water.
This was down to about 10% full. Now we're up to about 50%.
-Did 10% have you pretty worried?
And it was state-wide.
When Sweetwater was built in 1888,
it was the tallest masonry arch dam in the United States.
Built to store huge volumes of water,
its curved design gave it extra strength
to withstand extreme pressure and water surges.
In 1916, it was put to the test with some of the worst floods
in Californian history.
Part of the land washed away,
but the strength of the arch allowed the dam itself to hold.
Jim, I had no idea from the waterside just how dramatic
this curve and this drop was going to be on this side of the dam.
Now, how was it that it was first built?
So Frank Kimball, he came to this area in 1868,
and he wanted to develop this property.
He bought almost 27,000 acres, and he said,
"If I'm going to develop all that acreage, I need water."
He had the National City rail built.
Down to Chula Vista.
He had a rail that came up called the Sweetwater spur line
that came up the valley here, as we see down below.
And so that train brought the materials for this dam.
April 7th, 1880, he finished, at a height of 90 feet.
Where we are today is much, much higher than that.
Ultimately it went to 112 feet.
-Do you need to make any changes in the future?
The state of California has a term called "probable maximum flood".
If it should occur, it's going to be well above our heads here.
So, there's going to be about 7 million of improvements
that will occur on this dam
to prevent damage to property down below us here.
So, after all these years, you're still wrestling
with the two problems, drought and flood.
That's correct. And drought is far more prevalent than the floods.
I'd made my way back to the city.
And my final destination on this journey
is to one of the most important military bases in the United States.
I'm riding the San Diego trolley, what I would call a tram,
to the stop called Pacific Fleet.
Now, Top Gun was filmed at the Miramar Naval base in San Diego.
Takes my breath away!
This stretch of land has been set aside for military use since 1852,
and today, San Diego is the mainland home of the US Navy's Pacific Fleet,
the world's largest fleet command.
The Navy embraced aviation early in the 20th century,
and the elite flying academy, known as Top Gun,
began here during the Vietnam War.
I've been given special access to naval base Coronado
to meet Captain Timothy Slentz, its executive officer.
May I interrupt you a moment?
-How very good to see you.
An amazing panoramic view of a very substantial naval base here.
Why did the military first choose this area?
As we look out the window around us, the Pacific ocean is to my right,
your left, and then there's a channel that comes in,
so it's a protected channel, which is wonderful for the Navy
from a defensive standpoint,
with the high mountains of Point Loma,
and the low trajectory here of North Island.
So it's a natural fit for the Navy
to have those geographic features here.
The Wright brothers, flying for the first time in 1903,
but just a very few years later,
we're talking about using aviation for the Navy.
That strikes me as quite a step forward
in a very few number of years.
Correct. As he governments became interested,
and wanted to have aircraft used at sea to help with spotting and so on,
Glenn Curtiss developed the first naval aircraft. It's called the A-1.
And it had the capability to land on dry land, as well as a float
capability to land in very calm water, but could do both.
When did we first talk about aircraft carriers?
They modified existing ships with a flight deck around 1911,
and that first launch of an aircraft from one of those ships
came in 1911, which we recently celebrated in 2011,
the 100th anniversary of naval aviation.
What are your missions out here in the Pacific?
Our aircraft carriers support our fleet commanders.
They go forward and do all kinds of maritime missions
while they're out there, whether it is just maritime patrol,
freedom of navigation operations,
they obviously could conduct strikes if they needed to.
I've been to many military bases in my time.
The difference about the American ones is the scale.
They don't have one or two attack helicopters, they have dozens.
And out here is the Pacific Ocean.
It is the United States' enormous back yard,
and its combat zone in World War II, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
The power and might of the US military depend on the thousands
of dedicated service men and women who make up its ranks.
I've donned my overalls to meet some of them.
-I see your name is Parker, but what's your first name?
Sarah. I'm an avionics electrician.
So I work on the electrical components of the aircraft.
Wow. What made you join the Navy?
I'm from Jacksonville, Florida. It's a big military town.
-Has it been a good choice?
-Yes. I have a different job.
I do different things every day. It's not boring.
I'm going to leave you to your avionics.
-Thank you so much.
-Hello. Hey, how's it going?
-Hi, I'm Michael. Good to see you.
Tell me what it is that you have to do on this part of the base.
This part of the base, we fly out here.
Our main missions here are search and rescue, logistics.
What kind of missions have you been on recently?
Recently we were out in Texas, as they currently have the hurricane.
Hurricane Harvey passed through Texas, so our squadron was helping,
bringing water, food, over to people that needed aid.
Was it quite emotional as well?
Were you getting involved with the tragedies of the people you were
-Yes, it's hard not to.
One house had written "Help me" on it.
I think it was way past the point of anyone helping them at that time.
It's definitely not easy to keep your emotions,
but one of the parts of the job is to stay kind of level-headed.
To fly these important missions, the aircraft must be in top condition.
I've been invited to help Petty Officer Reed Coleman
change a fuel pipe on this helicopter.
-Nice to meet you.
Welcome. I'll give you the apron first.
-Thank you very much.
-I'll tie you up at the back.
-Wow, this is a heavy rubber apron.
Yes, it resists all the chemicals in the fuel.
And then last but not least, face shield.
So the fear is that there might be something in that pipe,
-and it just spurts out when I take it off.
-It could, yes.
Now, we'll go in here.
And then here are our tools.
This is called a Y tube.
It's part of the fuel transfer system for the helicopter.
Right now, what we're doing is,
we're incorporating a technical directive to replace this part.
So we've got to take this one off, and put the new one back on.
Loosen this back one right there.
-I think I'm on. Is that doing it?
-Yes. You see the fuel coming out?
Once we get that line all the way off, it should come out.
Ah, oh, look. Fuel is pouring out of the pipe now.
And the stuff is running out over my rubber gloves.
Do the last few turns...
-There it is.
-There we go.
The part has at last come out, and appears to be pretty clean of oil.
-And you are going to put a replacement part in.
Yeah, I got the new one right here. I'm going to replace it.
OK, wow. Good job, I really enjoyed that, thank you.
-Thank you for your help.
-I'll leave it to you.
Appleton's guidebook of 1891 was overwhelmed by California.
If all the natural wonders of the old world
were collected in one state of the union,
they would fall short of the variety, majesty,
and charm of California.
In little more than a century,
this state went from the gold rush, through oil and oranges and movies,
to silicon chips.
The creativity in its valleys
gave the world a shared entertainment culture,
and applied to digital innovation,
it has shaped the way that we all live.
If you want to know the future,
abandon your crystal ball, and look instead into California.
Michael Portillo is nearing the end of his thousand-mile rail journey from Reno, Nevada, to San Diego in southern California. In this final leg, clad in khaki boiler suit and sporting dark glasses, he joins the US Navy Pacific Fleet, birthplace of the elite flying academy Top Gun. Aboard the Pacific Surfliner, he arrives first in the coastal town of La Jolla, where he takes to the water in a kayak to explore the extraordinary 75-million-year-old caves.
In San Diego, he picks up the trail of the industrialist and property speculator John D Spreckels, who made the city boom in the 19th century and built a pavilion to house the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world. Michael is offered the chance to play it. Appleton's recommends a trip to a huge structure, completed in 1888, on which San Diegans have depended for water for 130 years - the Sweetwater Dam.