There was an hour layover in Albuquerque and the guy in the café was suggesting that everyone hit up a market right outside the terminal if they wanted to save some money on lunch. Maybe he was running low on turkey and cheddar sandwiches. A few Native women had tables set up on the platform and were selling blankets, jewelry, and baskets. I made my way through the station and over to the market where the special of the day in the deli section was the Frito Bowl, basically a bowl of chili and a bag of Fritos, not bad but why not just call it chili. I bought an Arizona Iced Tea to drink and went down to sit down and eat on a wall outside the terminal.
On a bench, not far away, I saw my seatmate, the Blues Brother, who I hadn’t gotten a chance to talk to yet, looking like he was waiting on a special assignment. After about fifteen minutes an old man pulled up and he walked over and got into the car with him. Apparently, his mission had either been aborted or completed and he was going home with his dad.
Back on the train, I returned to the observation car. The guy who’d gotten an early start on the whiskey cokes, who was wearing a Thug for Life T-shirt, was sitting at a table with the guy in the paisley sweatshirt, jamming his jam real loud for everyone to hear. At a table next to them sat four Amish folks sat playing cards, looking like they could’ve just arrived on the Mayflower, so out of touch with modern times had they remained. At first one of them appeared to be giving Thug for Life the evil eye, until I walked past and realized there was no eyeball in the socket.
After a short stop in Lamy, we passed through pine mountains before reaching Las Vegas, New Mexico. From there, it was largely blue skies and yellow plains. Small groupings of pronghorn antelopes stood in the grass and watched the train pass. Beneath a distant windmill, a herd of cattle grazed contentedly, no thought of the past or future, suspended in the eternal now. A river flowed beside the tracks. Yellow wildflowers appeared in thick bunches.
Around 4:30 we pulled into Raton and were given a ten-minute smoke break. I’d been through Raton on the train before but only remembered it because Townes Van Zandt had written a song about it snowing there. Townes was a songwriter who’d had a big impact on me as a young guy, and I’d done my best to become the kind of traveling troubadour he’d been, going so far as to emulate all the self-destructive habits that destroyed him by his early fifties. What I’d discovered about tortured artists is that their suffering can seem romantic from afar. When it happens to you, however, there’s absolutely nothing to recommend it and you can be sure there’s no one standing around applauding. I still love Townes Van Zandt, but realize now that it’s too late that I should’ve chosen my role models more carefully.
Just outside of Trinidad, as we were beginning to enter a mountainous, forested region, the conductor announced that he’d seen a lot of black bear activity in the area lately, and that if we kept our eyes open, we might get lucky and spot one. I sat at the window scanning the hillside intently, but saw no bears, only a lone bull elk with an enormous rack, bugling with its head tilted back.
I got a cheeseburger and coke in the café and returned upstairs to look for more wildlife. Deer and antelope were everywhere, and it struck me that this was the proverbial home on the range. There were no buffalo roaming, but all the other elements were in place. It was the very opposite of the downtown Los Angeles scene I’d just left, and what you might call home on the street – tents on sidewalks and under freeways, toxic rivers, rats, and cockroaches – the place that had driven me out of my mind and onto the road, with no end in sight.
Just then, young homey appeared over my shoulder. He pointed to the seat next to me and picked up an ipad, asking if it was mine. When I shook my head no, he went looking for the conductor so he could turn it in. It wasn’t what I expected from him. He wasn’t that bad, just crazy. If that were a crime, most of us would be locked up for life.
The sun had already set by the time we pulled into La Junta, Colorado. Three women who were traveling together took the seats behind me. The one who was right behind me had a mask on and was sniffling and wheezing from the get go. It was around then that I looked on my phone and saw a news report about a hurricane that was forming in the Caribbean and making its way towards Cuba. They were predicting that it would continue to gather strength and hit Florida the exact day that I was scheduled to arrive.
We made our way across southern Colorado and the sound of the train whistle felt like that of my own pain and disappointment, pouring out of my open mouth and bellowing into eternity. What were the chances of a hurricane striking Florida on the one day I was going to be traveling through? If I could ride the train straight into the hurricane and get ripped off the tracks and blown into smithereens, I gladly would have, but that’s not how it would go down. Instead, I’d get to DC, find out the Silver Star line had been suspended, and then be stranded there too late in the day to come up with a backup plan.
Eventually, I slumped over and got back into my sleeping position, bunched up on the two seats, with my knees tucked into my chest. In the middle of the night, I woke up and my throat felt itchy. I thought of the woman behind me who’d been sneezing and blowing her nose all night, and couldn’t even go there. To get sick right now, probably with COVID, would make this the most ridiculously bad trip I’d ever been on, at a time in my life when I could least afford to take it. The train whistle kept blowing and blowing, almost like it was sobbing, and the darkness at the window seemed like it would never dissipate.