17 – 19 August 2003
St. Louis, Missouri – El Paso, Texas, by way of San Antonio
Texas Eagle / Sunset Limited
I spend this day simmering in nerves. Will I remember how to observe, explore, to write?
It has been so long since I last took a train. Let’s see if I can remember. Christmas 2000, it had to be. The Ann Rutledge between Jefferson City and Chicago. Almost three years now.
Tonight I’ll be hopping the Texas Eagle, from here to the Mexican border.
All morning I mull over Saint Louis maps. Which will be our route out of town? Will we follow those tracks through Carondolet Park, near Cristina’s house? But there is such a maze of rails southward. I give up.
I try to catnap. It’s another sultry summer day on these banks of the Mississippi. Heat advisories are posted again. I can’t sleep. I give up.
I pack. Try to rest. Give up.
We have a late lunch. Despite the beer, and rum-coffee liqueur- spiked ponche crema (or because of), I still can’t sleep. I awaken sweating. I give up. I shower, stow the gear into Rocinante (my knapsack) and tie her down. I try to read for a while. But I can’t … I give up.
And I worry. Can I remember how to ride, how to write?
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
Cristina, Germán and I arrive at the downtown Amtrak station. It is already crowded with people and baggage for the Texas Eagle, due in at 8:50 p.m. from Chicago. We greet a friend awaiting his brother on that train. The Eagle finally alights at 9:17. I check my watch with the lobby clock. I am three minutes fast.
Cristina, Germán and Dan marvel at this silver string of double-decker cars. Never before had they seen a Superliner, the long-distance trains. But I must find my place, and Dan has spotted his brother. Time only for hurried hellos, good-byes and hugs.
A man across the aisle helps me hoist Rocinante onto the overhead rack. I peer out the window. My friends are nearing their auto. Germán keeps looking over his shoulder to our gleaming Eagle. I wave furiously. They finally spot me. We say farewell one last time.
Indeed, this is the Texas Eagle. Here in Saint Louis, the last car will be taken off. Once we get to San Antonio, only this coach and one sleeper will hook up with the west-bound Sunset Limited on its way to California. And I’m on my way to El Paso.
We are in darkness for a while until the last car is detached. Union Pacific freighters clunk, rattle by on the next track.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
And so we slowly roll through the railyards, boxcars parked on sidings. The night streets are abandoned. Over there is Saint Louis University.
We glide through the blackened metropolis, swaying past Monsanto Center and warehouses. Crossing empty streets, red lights flashing. Lit truck yards. Long expanses of pitch, desolate city.
At last the rhythm of wheel upon rail quickens. A blast of train horn. Trees silhouette against a charcoal-grey sky.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
Down in the smoking car, a girl listens to her mother and two other women trade tales of men.
The loud boasts of teen-age boys fill one end of the snack bar. The attendant is taking stock of his wares. He slow-wipes the counter in rhythm to that sweet jazz playing.
And in the sightseer car, a twenty-something man talks on his cellular phone. A young woman wraps herself in a blanket. Other folk listen to music filtered through headphones. All settle to watch the Missouri countryside slide by.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
Now our Texas Eagle soars through the velvet night, carrying its passengers into the Dream World.
The mother in front of my row hushes her children. Jeremy, shhhh, people are sleeping. Jeremy turns the lights on and off. They flicker across these pages. His younger brother looks over the seat and waves at me. Mother returns to Harry Potter, a third son nestling against her.
The horn again blows as we pass through a nameless village, past the police station, past the tavern whose small windows are lit with neon beer signs.
And once more into indistinguishable night. The hollowness of a bridge. The sway over a rough stretch of tracks. Crossing-bar lights pulsate. A pick-up truck waits our passage.
More ebon-forested landscapes, scattered anonymous towns. The earth begins to mound. We are winging into the Ozarks. High above in the east, Mars shines red. Behind fleeting trees, I see the copper half-wane moon. Here in the near-midnight countryside, the sky is a rich deep blue.
More nameless … More hollow …
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
About 2:23 a.m.
I awaken, wondering where we are. Has Poplar Bluff come and gone? Nothing looks familiar. We are flying across a flat land. The now-white moon seems fuller. Endless civilization.
I struggle against sleep.
And awaken to our Eagle creeping. Another train zooms by. The almost-continual horn.
And suddenly again the vibration of our speed through my body. And the planed scape, stark moon, civilization. I hear the conductress go through and later, drifting towards the edge of wakefulness, I hear her seat a new passenger.
I rise and sink to consciousness. The land is flat, flat. I search the nameless towns this train stalks for some clue.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
About 4:56 a.m.
We hover through these Little Rock railyards. Freighters pass us at a quicker clip. Their engines hum. Their cars clatter. In the distance, neon-outlined buildings shine through the fog. Over a river, a long hollow rattle, boards creak. The capitol. And a momentary rest for more passengers.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
About 5:45 a.m.
Still it is so dark outside. Soon we will stop at Malvern, near Hot Springs. Perhaps by then dawn will paint the oriental heaven.
I think I shall fall back into the rhythm of this Eagle – allow it to lull me, to let me swoop on its wings into the Dream World once more.
The sky is faintly lightening.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
And when I next awaken, it is pale blue. We dart straight through skimmed-green swamps. Through small towns without stopping. Hope, Arkansas. Cows and egrets out in a pasture. Rocking and rolling. Occasionally the click of rails can be heard. Osage orange trees hang heavy with fruit.
The snack bar is now open for breakfast.
Coffee .. sausage and egg sandwich
Or perhaps a bowl of cereal.
And down there, the attendant serves his coffee. Dinah Washington sings soft.
The dining car is now open
for your dining pleasure.
Up in the sightseer car, Robert the Porter spins tales of his many years of service. The best ride? For scenery, the Empire Builder. Ah, also the California Zephyr. It goes through high desert, low desert, plains, mountains and canyons – views you can get only on a train. The craziest thing that’s ever happened? The twelve kids that wrea-eaa-eaked havoc all the way from Dallas to Chicago.
(Suddenly this reminds me of My Nightmare Train, on which the kids wrea-eaa-eaked havoc all the way from Viedma to Bariloche in Argentina’s northern Patagonia. Gee, kids aren’t so different 9,000 kilometers apart.)
Amtrak’s next scheduled stop is
Last stop in Arkansas
The self-same landscape into Texas. That young boy in front of me looks over his seat and greets me.
Amtrak apologizes for the delay.
We’ve got a bit of freight traffic
coming our way.
We sit surrounded by woods. Twin locomotives and containers on flatbeds, sometimes double-stacked, rumble by. Worn-white, orange, blue flash past our windows. The air conditioning within here blows soft. Soon enough that other train passes.
And we skim the red soil of Texas. Over rivers. A lake with drowned trees shimmers beyond the forest. Past swamps, an egret flying above.
The mother and her three sons gather their belongings. Shifting his small pack upon his back, the youngest turns and gives me a quick smile, a quick wave. The vestibule door closes behind them.
Through Atlanta slowly, past its prim brick station, not stopping.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
Our Eagle alights in front of a brick station with pristine white trim and wrap-around porch. We await our new conductor and engineer to arrive. I scan the Union Pacific freight train passing with multitudes of boxcars and tankers and hoppers.
Robert says it’s already getting hot out there. The early-morning sun sparkles on his smile. “And when we get to Dallas, it’s going to be 5,000 degrees. And El Paso, whew,” he wipes his molasses-colored brow, “7,000 degrees!”
We are running ahead of schedule.
Most likely we will now be arriving
to all our stops early.
On time we take flight, cutting through mid-morning forests of willows, oaks and sumacs, past refineries, through woods of mimosa, horseweed and locust. The earth is drying. The many swamps and rivers of before have disappeared. Now and again dirt roads raise their dust. Past acres of rolled-up bales of hay. Sometimes a farm pond. Clapboard houses shrivel.
A young boy across the aisle listens to his CD. The music leaks from the headphones and flows on this air-conditioned wind. He dances in his seat, air-scratching the records. His ma hopelessly tries to still him. She turns to her window to gaze upon the countryside beneath this gliding Eagle.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
Passengers go, passengers come. Below on the sidewalk, some child has drawn a yellow-chalk figure. Four generations of African-Americans with mounds of luggage on carts board the train. A young Texan stumbles with her red duffel bag.
As we leave, lunch is called in the dining car. Service must be finished by Dallas. I share a table with Renee of mid-sized town, Oregon. She’s been visiting family in Arkansas. Sandra serves us our meals. (On this side, Cornish hen, mashed potatoes and green beans, with a glass of Merlot.) Renee is a third-grade teacher. Sixty percent of her students are Hispanic. She tells me of their difficulties immigrating, of their poverty-filled Christmases. Over cheesecake and coffee, we talk about how our rôles as women have changed and the constrictions we still face.
It is now just before one. We are the only two diners still left. The workers are clearing other tables, folding the cloths. Renee asks Sandra where we are entering. Dallas. In the distance its high skyline rasps the faded-denim heavens.
Sunlight sheens off hot chrome handrails, off the metal horse wings and hooves of a mural. On the other side of the platform, a Trinity Railway Express commuter departs for Fort Worth. The air is barren and still. The sun glints off the glass walls of the Hyatt.
And within here, the ages, the rainbow that is the United States. Whites, Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans. Immigrants or mere travelers from Eritrea, India, China and Switzerland; from Mexico, Germany, Australia, Japan and Israel. We spend this time watching DVDs on computer or reading; talking on cell phones or sleeping. Some lean over seats, chatting with one another. Others play games. A few women knit.
Leaving Dallas, drifting by a caravan of open hoppers of shredded scrap metal, and boxcars. Empty lots, neighborhoods and then the railyard web, sandwiched between long lines of cargo trains. Under and over interstate highways, towards Fort Worth. Soil bone-dry, trees small-leafed. Shopping centers. Warehouses. Pawnshops and lounges and Baptist churches. Into and out of Arlington. Traffic stopped by red and white-striped bars, red flashing lights.
I doze. I hear an announcement in the hazes of dreams.
And awaken to a slight breeze cooling the blistering sun. We are in Fort Worth. A large Santa Fe sign on the roof of the station-cum-market. On the other side of our platform idles – and soon departs – our sister Eagle. Further beyond, two BNSF engines head a long string of hoppers heaped with coal.
We pull away. On the next track over, a Union Pacific freighter is stopping, blocking roads.
The snack bar once more is open.
The line forms. The attendant repeats over and again, “No, ma’am, we’re out of that. That, too, sir. But we do have …” And that jazz, still that jazz.
Back into small town and rural Texas. A land of nopales, drying arroyos, of dust devils a-winding. Cumulus clouds build high into the bleached sky. A land of fragile, pale soil carpeted with wildflowers. A dead dog rots into the earth, its bones stark white. Fields of brittle corn. Mesquite. Mobile homes and decaying barns. Horses and burros, cattle graze among snowy egrets.
And miles upon miles of flat, unpopulated lands.
We arrive in MacGregor at almost 6:30 p.m., over a half-hour late. The conductor seats more passengers going beyond San Antonio.
And that young Texan who got on back in Longview? She’s raising a fuss about having to give up the seat next to her. At least she said it: She’s a spoiled l’il brat.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
Chasing the Sunset
I came to the sightseer car to watch the sun set. It has hidden behind a bank of grizzled cumulus shadowing the land. A solitary, thick ray shines towards earth.
Acres upon acres of sear maize, hayfields, and feral brush dusted with white flowers. The train horn blows. Yards full of scrap lumber and abandoned autos.
That beam widens. Faintly the heaven begins to color.
A tractor with a sunbonnet mows a field ere dusk settles. In the distance is the Temple, Texas water tower. Doves gather on electrical lines.
The clouds gather pale melon.
Folks in this car watch the movie. They ignore Temple, our horn blow.
To the east, lightning pulsates.
Street lamps light.
Sometimes to watch a sunset, one needs patience. It becomes a meditation.
The ray frays, becoming lemon yellow. That melon pools deeper. And above the nebulous star – pale rose.
Now it’s about seven-thirty. A small dog chases a pick-up truck across a field.
The sun sinks beneath the clouds. Its orb is visible, a bright yellow-orange. Out to the east it rains. The sky is now peach.
Through a town of old wild-west buildings. Through stubbled-corn acreage.
And that star emerges again. The heavens intensify – peach and orchid, a touch of magenta. Gradually this evening’s painting is emerging. The peach turns to orange, the magenta brightens. Distant oriental clouds reflect soft gold.
Shadows are forming as we enter Taylor. A large graveyard lies yonder. Between birthday greetings and community announcements, a bank sign flashes 8:03 p.m., 90º. These buildings block my view of the sunset.
And by the time we leave Taylor, that near star has completely departed. The sky is shading to indigo. The greenery darkens. Clouds cling to the thinning remnants of color.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
The conductor announces we are approaching Austin. Our Eagle wings down a highway median, surrounded by traffic. We pull in 26 minutes late. Higher downtown buildings are outlined in neon.
Then over Town Lake, heading south. These interior lights are dimmed. Some children are already tucked in and asleep. Twenty minutes behind schedule, we arrive in San Marcos. Those burnt rails are cooling with this new night. With a horn blow, the train slowly takes flight.
Robert stands at the front of our passenger car. “We should be getting into San Antonio about 11 p.m., or about a half-hour early. A barrier will be put up between this car and the ones in front. Those cars are going back to Chicago tomorrow.
“Now, you can get off this train and do what you all wish. But remember, this is your place.”
Just before 11, we hover past the Alamo. Ay, to have a tour at this hour, to meet the ghosts of Texan independence. We roll into the blackened old-city heart and roost at Sunset Station. And I fall asleep.
I awaken before midnight and wander the streets in this part of town. No stores, nothing is open. Some people found the Denny’s, but it is closed until two. I take a study of the huge black Southern Pacific steam locomotive and hopper on display. Engine Number 794 – 58,000 pounds light; 160,000 pounds loaded.
Suddenly our Eagle lifts off, switching tracks, changing the order of cars.
I enter the station. The woman behind the counter is speaking Spanish to a family of would-be travelers. I chat with her co-worker. He says the Sunset Limited is running about an hour late. (It’s due in at 2:28 a.m., according to the timetable.)
“The rest of the trip will be off about the same amount of time. Rail traffic is heavy out in west Texas at night.”
“Indeed,” I reply. “Lots coming up from Mexico.”
I reboard. That Texan who had gotten on in Longview is leaning over a seat, talking loud. A few older women nod their heads politely (and occasionally shake them). She’s going to pull a blanket out, she declares, and sleep in the aisle. (Poor thing, she can’t reckon having only one seat. She needs so much space. As ma across the aisle says, “If you want two seats, pay for them.”)
The young woman pushes her glasses up with a fat hand. Her Texas Roadhouse t-shirt shudders with a quick breath. Chomping her gum, she praises the air conditioning. The train crew is mean and selfish. They charge so much for food. They take a whole row of seats for themselves. They were out of margaritas when she went. (Is she old enough to drink?!) Therefore, the train is full of drunks. Only old people ride the train. And there are no kids. (Ahem – and how many are there presently in this car? At least six.) Well, I just heard her say she’s in ninth grade and has a pretty high reading level. She’s going to get a scholarship to study law at UCLA. She has always wanted to be a lawyer.
I continue writing in my journal and peering down to the station. I hear an announcement. I can’t understand it.
After El Paso, it’s going to be so boring, nothing but desert, nothing to see, she complains. She’s going back to California to live with her pa. She couldn’t cotton living with her ma and stepfather. Her mother’s shipping her back …
I am beginning to feel sleepy again. Perhaps I’ll nap for a while.
Shortly before four a.m., I awaken to the rising crescendo of an approaching locomotive, to its horn. We begin divorcing from the Texas Eagle, wedding to the Sunset Limited. I keep dozing off. By the time the ceremony is over, we are almost two hours late.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
About 6:39 a.m.
Eastward the sky begins to lighten, and for a while, holds a dusky rainbow. Shadows lift to reveal a fawn bounding through sage and mesquite. The returning sun is brilliant yellow, bathing the sky gold. A hawk skims the brush. The earth sculpts into buttes.
In the sightseer car I sit, meditating upon the desert below. A young woman plays guitar.
In some small town, way before Del Río, we stop for the passage of a Union Pacific train: 126 boxcars and tankers. We are now entering the region of these massive cargueros. There is no hope of making up lost time – all surety of losing more.
A zopilote soars above flatlands, above a mobile trailer parked back from the dirt road. A herd of pronghorn antelope wander through the desert.
A one-hundred-twenty-car Union Pacific rushes by. In the distance, north of Del Río, Laughlin Air Force Base shimmers like a mirage. Then Del Río itself, where we can step off and stretch our legs. “But you can’t go into town,” the loudspeaker warns. Too soon we receive the all-aboard and we begin journeying. Only to stop within a few feet to pick up a passenger who – yes – had gone into town.
We follow the Río Grande. A wild ram fades into the dull brush. We pass a dam to the south, its Lake Amistad bright blue. Sage, fruiting nopal and mesquite. Candelaria cactus, creosote. Rocky earth scattered with ranches. Yucca, agave. Soil leached pallid. A solitary windmill whirls, no buildings near. A herd of sheep. Zopilotes swoop.
And somewhere out there lies Mexico.
Into a canyon, the deep-green Pecos River shaving the red sandstone walls.
Longview and a sight of that Big River once more. Over yonder, the Hanging Judge’s ranch.
Land rises into hills and buttes, thick layers of wind-eaten rock, eroded soil, barren arroyos.
By late morning, animals have retreated from the heat, and I am sleepy.
But when I awaken, it is still the same desert. Orange butterflies dart amongst flowering bushes.
Before Sanderson, our train sidewinds, then continues straight like always. Across Warbur Flats, Marathon Flats, part of the Comanche Trail. Glass Mountain to the north. Across a broad, ancient volcanic flow.
Sometime before Alpine, up on a southern slope not too far from the tracks, sits a stagecoach driven by three dummies, teamed by four silhouette horses. The air is parched in the Gateway to Big Bend National Park.
Flat-bottomed cumulus spot the sky. The distance is hazed by heat. Whirlwinds spin. Some small town somewhere and an abandoned cattle loader, a large maze of chutes. A deer runs towards the West Mountains that climb, shadowed by clouds.
All along Texas one sees the occasional herd of longhorns and ranches. This is a mostly open country – though not desolate. For this desert holds so much life for those who are willing to still themselves – to watch, to meditate, to listen – not with ears, but with Spirit.
And its colors so pale, so leached, so eroded. Beige, tan, pink, ochre. Sage, bright green, yellow-green. Grey, black, bone-white, bleached-bone-white. The blue sky – bright above, fading towards the horizon.
Another town, Valentine, of rust-lace tin roofs, melting adobe. The sand is embossed by prints. Another Union Pacific train of Mexican boxcars. A pair of dirt devils dervish across the desert. La Migra patrols the chain-link border. We wait for three freighters to pass.
Rain falls upon those mountains. Twisted carcasses of derailments. Dry gulches, dry washes, canyons. Clouds thicken overhead, their rains eluding us. The surrounding land relaxes.
We near El Paso, drifting past irrigated orchards and fields of blooming cotton, past a campo santo, a trailer park, our horn blowing and blowing. A sister and brother walking up Álvarez Road wave to our now-creeping train. We must wait for a carguero: seven locomotives, 115 cars.
We are just, just within reach of El Paso. It is now 4:20 p.m. The conductor announces our delay: We are behind two freight trains awaiting relief crews. We don’t know how long it will be before we can arrive in El Paso.
To our left is a high school. Football teams practice under the hot, late-afternoon sun. Male passengers watch.
A quarter-hour later we crawl a few hundred yards. Again we stop dead. Now we are beside a warehouse and lot, beside fields of brush and more cotton.
By 5 p.m. we jerk nearer El Paso. The first call for dinner comes. I look out the window. There are no tracks on either side of us. I go down and pull my knapsack out from behind, beneath others’ luggage. It’s now 5:20 p.m.
The conductor gives us an update on our position. We’re now moving up a bit, half up-limit. Then we have two trains that have to move to the left. Then we can switch from Track 1 to Track 2 and go on in to El Paso. Five-forty-five p.m. – one down, one to go, he tells us.
Suddenly we are moving into the web of the railyard, clicking, clicking, Crossing bells clang, our horn blasts. Under an interstate overpass, its leggings painted with portraits of Che Guevara, Pancho Villa and the Virgen de Guadalupe. The sky is beginning to darken with a muted dusk. Those rain-wettened mountains draw nearer. But here it is dry. The streets are full of traffic. These rails are full of traffic.
And finally, at 6:10 p.m., I step into El Paso. I watch that train leave to chase this day’s sunset.