Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mile 2492 -- Los Angeles, CA, USA -- Day 4

To me, the American west exposes one of the great secrets of our nation: that much of it is empty. Perhaps I am alone in the believing in the fallacy that America is a fundamentally populated nation, yet I must confess that no amount of reading academic texts nor pioneer fiction and spaghetti Westerns prepared me for the reality of the Great Plains.

I am crossing them by train, specifically Amtrak's Southwest Chief. The train consists of nine cars and three engines: three coach and sleeper cars, an observation lounge, dining car and a baggage car. The modern-day Chief is of course successor to the Santa Fe railway's Superchief, the so-called "Train of the Stars", one of the great 20th century luxury trains with Pullman cars and uniformed porters serving haute cuisine on silver platters. My father took the train with his family back and forth to Chicago in the 1950's and can attest to its former glory; while the route has changed little over the years, my coach seat is no doubt a far cry from the feather-mattress that he enjoyed as a child (let alone the fact that the Superchief set its fastest run speed in 1937 at 39 hours and 49 minutes; four hours faster than its Amtrak cousin). My seat is not dissimilar from a first-class airline berth, with ample legroom and a long recline as well as a footrest though I have chosen to carry my own provisions aboard in order to avoid the microwaved fare in the dining car. The long-haul passengers such as myself who have resigned themselves to spending two full nights in coach seats are seated together at the rear of the train, where we can observe the steady progress of the train and its elegant curvature as it bends in wide arcs across the landscape.

We speed across long tracks of standard gauge, the great expanse of angleless land and sky surrounding the train like a perfect cube. Sagebrush, red rocks and Angus cattle abound on all sides punctuated by the occasional flight of a skulking coyote before our rumbling diesel locomotives.  The towns of Western lore pass by day and night: Kansas City, Dodge City, Flagstaff and others, each a dusty affair of signals, switch yards and dwindling fortunes.

My fellow passengers are from all walks of American life. My most intimate acquaintances (of the last several hours) include Raymond--a rusty, old pensioner from the Bronx--Jemira, a young lady and her elderly grandmother--and Malachai et al., the young patriarch of a 21st century Amish family. Without doubt, the train is an ensemble cast of characters, each deserving their own particular sketch. A comradeship unique to train travel has sprung up among us who will never meet again upon reaching our destination, sharing much between us that might otherwise remain unsaid.

Raymond, like myself, is a traveler. The open spaces we now pass by appeal to him given the close living spaces typical of Long Island. A staunch advocate of timeliness on the rails, he has memorized our timetable to an even greater degree than I. (For this reason, I should introduce him to the doctrines of Mencius, the great Confucian scholar). We consult our pocket watches together at each stop and tut-tut approvingly at the conductor as the train glides into each station on time (which our train #3 typically is, approximately 83% of the time). Raymond is pursuing a grand tour of the United States by way of its great ballparks in a triangle with points in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago. His affection for baseball is such that each morning he scurries into the station to purchase a newspaper with adequate sports reporting and was much chagrined to learn that my cellular phone was insufficient for checking the scores in real-time.

Jemira is a far more patient companion. She knows much of geology and remarks upon the canyons and rock formations that we encounter along the way with the measured tones of a consummate tour guide. Though I expect that she is my own age, Jemira's grandmother snaps awake in an instant when I speak to the girl. Ever the chaperon (though I never hear her speak a word in English) her eyes hold a tacit suspicion of my conversation with her granddaughter. The young woman rolls her eyes at me. Born in California, she is a budding novelist and I admire her success at writing in English. She shows me a bundle of papers--her great American novel, she says to me with a wink. The irony is not lost on her as Grandmother rattles off some phrases in curt Spanish at the two of us to which Jemira chatters back. I look over the novel draft  as she tends to her relative, making a few corrections to her prim cursive text.

As the plains fade way behind us, the train begins to rise through the Raton Pass (7834 feet above sea level, necessitating the third locomotive at the front of the train) and at its peak the crags and scrub desert of New Mexico are at our feet. The train passes through a long tunnel and in the darkness I feel Jemira return and pluck the manuscript from my grasp once more, carefully noting my remarks.

"Now tell no one what you saw!" she laughs. "Trade secrets, you understand. You'll have to wait for the paperback."

"Of course," I replied, noting a horned antelope skipping across the landscape, content to look for her on Amazon some years hence.

I enter into a description of Malachai and his family last of all, for it took me longer to enter their circle. We left Albuqurque and he turned to me. "I'll bet you a turkey you've never sat this long either," he says.

I concur; my previous record was 20 hours on a train to New York. I inquire after his destination and that of his family: eight men, women and children spanning three generations.

"Tijuana. It is our first time away from Michigan."

The decision to travel there by train had not been made lightly. Malachai's father maintained buggies and kept horses, yet the thousands of miles to the Mexican borderlands would no doubt prove overwhelming even for the most determined horse and driver. His wife sat next to him with a squirming infant in her arms.

"My son," Malachai said. "He has a brain tumor and there are doctors that can help him in Mexico. American trained, I am told."

And we can afford them, I clearly understood from his gaze.

We spoke little more of the matter. For what could be said, beyond further grumbling at American health care. I am normally speechless on account of reticence, not shame or surprise.

Malachai told me much of his family. They were dairy farmers and between the vast assortment of uncles, brothers, sons and cousins their family holdings totaled over 600 acres near Camden, MI. They had seen the rise and fall of many larger farms with better financial backing even as their friends and neighbors had begun to sell off their land in search of an easier life. We spoke of windmills, of cattle and cheeses (their primary product) and I took great joy in experiencing the Western scenery at their side. Their wonderment was infectious at the tracks and tunnels, canyons, red soil and rocky mesas. Together we marveled at freight trains passing in convoys, each individual longer than than the eye could see carrying Chinese goods out of Californian ports. The Western stones burned with raw color across New Mexico into Arizona and the canyons ran red with murky waters. The Amish family peeled away a worldly lens from my eyes for which I am grateful.

The train appraoched Los Angles at dawn of the next day, a four-hour approach through the metropolitan perhiphery toward a city I regard with uncertain intentions. I wished my erstwhile companions luck at the platform, some of whom who would need it more than others. The air bore a plesant chill to it, a shock to my preconceptions as I stode away toward the waiting car where better-known companions awaited me.

1 comment:

  1. LOVE THIS! I hope you continue taking those of us who are unable to travel- with you on this marvolous adventure. I can hardly wait to find out what "we" get to do next!