Lunch with the Amish as we Cross New Mexico

Instead of the cafeteria, I signed up for lunch at the dining car on the third day. Chance had it that an Amish couple would share the table with me. We had just left Gallup behind, a name made famous by the poll company. It was hard to believe the global firm was associated with this little town.

They looked past fifty yet their demeanor and speech made them look more youthful. The wife was following the conversation with attention and a smile where due, but she only spoke once, towards the end. Even though they were speaking Pennsylvania Dutch among themselves, so thick was their American accent that a casual listener would be fooled into believing they were speaking in English.

While we were awaiting our carnivorous meals – she ordered a burger with fries, her husband chicken, and I, a steak – we exchanged the first courtesies: where are you from, what’s your name and what do you do. His name was most unusual, so much so that it overrides my principle of naming the subjects of this chronicle by pseudonyms: Orus. He did not know what it meant, but it was the name of his parents’ landlord when they married and moved into their first house. If what I knew about the Amish was correct, then their landlord, too, must have been Amish. But Orus did not say it.

Indeed, he did not say they were Amish for the first fifteen minutes of conversation, until he asked, a little intrigued that I was not asking, whether I knew that they were Amish. And it only came up because I was discussing the travails of journalists in the era of the Internet. Whatever happened elsewhere, in their home state of Ohio newspapers were in healthy shape, Orus thought. “There are many Amish in Ohio, and they can’t use the Internet, so they still buy the paper,” he said. “You know that we are Amish, right?”

Orus was a real estate agent at Holmes County, the largest concentration of Amish in the United States. He thought there were more of his kin in Holmes than in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Then he took a call on his mobile phone, a compromise with modernity that surprised me. Were they Amish of the Old Order? I asked. They were indeed, but obviously he had decided to make an exception to the rules forbidding use of portable electronic devices. There was none of the “chat room,” the hall where the other Amish I had spoken with a couple of days ago would go to place and take calls for his work as steel roofing salesman.

So I mentioned my amazement when I saw Amish on trains. No, they were allowed to ride on trains, even the most conservative among them. “That’s probably because there were trains around back in the day,” he reckoned, shortchanging Amish history by at least two centuries. They had arrived in the seventeenth century and the first trains had started to roll in the nineteenth century. Their reaction cannot have been but scandal and rejection at the time. Over the centuries, however, they must have come to terms with a means of transportation that in America had come to be quaint when compared to airplanes.

“But I really don’t know,” he said, when I queried further on the theological rationale. “I have good guesses, but that’s about it.” A Sudoku devotee, he was not much into books, and it was clear curiosity was not his biggest strength, or weakness. His grandfather had once visited Europe by boat, but he had already died by the time Orus was born.

“We make exceptions in case of emergencies,” he said. His mother had been flown to Mexico for cancer treatment. She was in Tijuana, where they were going to join her: they would board a bus in Los Angeles headed south across the border. Had not her first flight, at the age of 73, frightened her? “Not at all,” Orus said.

Then I returned to my seat and dozed off until dark. When I opened my eyes were crossing a bustling city, full of neon signs, cars, and people, brimming with life. It was Flagstaff, Arizona.

 

*     *     *

This is the nineteenth part of The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron, a travel diary. Please see the previous stories below:

The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron
The Trans-American Railroad (Part II)
Penn Station: The Journey Begins
Suburbia and the Ruins Outside Philadelphia
The Flies, the Blue Whale, and the Boatman on the Potomac
Descent into West Virginia
The Grain Express: How Tomorrow Moves
The Amish Travelers of the Old Order
The Color-Blind Passenger
To the Sides of the Railways
Away from Cincinnati, and the Sun
Chicago: Four Blocks Around Union Station
The Southwest Chief
The Crossing of the Mississippi
“Next Official Smoke Break: The Paris of the Prairies”
“On the Road”
Where Trains and Cars Come To Die
The Jumping Devils of Glorieta Pass

 

 

 

Where Trains and Cars Come To Die

At 7:39 AM on the third day of the trip, we called at Lamar, Colorado. The train clanged past a car wrecking yard. Among the old models I spotted a 1970s Impala. The piles of crashed and crushed cars reminded me of a cemetery of locomotives in the Gobi Desert on the Trans-Siberian railroad in the summer of 1993. Even though it had lasted seconds – so fast we sped past it that I could not shoot with my film camera – the image had stayed with me. There were green locomotives, some crowned with large, high relief, five-pointed stars. Some were empty bodyworks, like disemboweled beasts. They had moved the Soviet Union. Now they were rusting, as the last embodiment of the Russian Empire had, terminally, two years earlier.

Our call at the Colorado town of La Junta, at 8:46 AM, lasted twenty minutes. Almost all vehicles circulating were pickup trucks and occasionally an SUV. Sedans were rara avis. This was the place where an Amish family of the New Order disembarked. They traveled with us from Virginia and changed to the same train in Chicago. Here, too, was the destination of a disheveled young man, dressed in a neo-Hippie style, with long hair and a shorter beard, holding a kind of lute. He was accompanied by two other men. One of them was tall, looking like a body builder, sporting a goatee and wearing sunglasses even though the sky was cast. The other one was short and limp, leaning on a cane. He was in a baseball cap and an oversize Raiders Football, black and white sports jacket.

At the train station an amiable, small old lady with white hair and large eyeglasses, was manning tables laid out with what in the States are called antiques, but elsewhere would probably be discarded, if not kept for any emotional value. There were some belts in Native American style, with faux fur accents and imitation turquoise incrustations, but the leather was authentic. A pile of yellowing Sudoku magazines was on one corner. Some passengers got off to browse but few walked out with anything.

Our last stop in Colorado was Trinidad, “Trinity,” as we were rolling Southwest across a geography bearing the imprint of Spanish colonialism, Catholicism, and language. If nothing else, the names had survived even if devoid of any content, in a country that moved forth in an eternal present, without looking back.

 

*     *     *

This is the seventeenth part of The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron, a travel diary. Please see the previous stories below:

The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron
The Trans-American Railroad (Part II)
Penn Station: The Journey Begins
Suburbia and the Ruins Outside Philadelphia
The Flies, the Blue Whale, and the Boatman on the Potomac
Descent into West Virginia
The Grain Express: How Tomorrow Moves
The Amish Travelers of the Old Order
The Color-Blind Passenger
To the Sides of the Railways
Away from Cincinnati, and the Sun
Chicago: Four Blocks Around Union Station
The Southwest Chief
The Crossing of the Mississippi
“Next Official Smoke Break: The Paris of the Prairies”
“On the Road”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“On the Road”

Third day on the Trans-American Railroad. I ran to the cafeteria in the lower deck of the observation car for a breakfast of straight black coffee and toasted bagel with cream and cheese. “What are you reading, sir?” It was a soft voice, but there was something peremptory in the tone, like a cop’s trying to sound nice but not necessarily meaning it.

It had come from a short man with bushy mustache who had his eyes fixed on me. He wore a red baseball cap, a legend embroidered in white:

 

JESUS
is my boss

“On the Road,” I responded. It was such a self-conscious choice that I was feeling embarrassed. But the man shook his head, in a gesture indicating he did not know Kerouac’s book.  “I’ll tell you what,” said the cafeteria attendant, “no kid reads these days but my seven-year-old boy just loves books.”

Then I grabbed my cardboard tray with the coffee and the bagel, and went up to the observation deck. As the arid landscape of Colorado ran past us, I turned to look what the girl a few seats down from me was reading: “On the Road.” But it was a different edition.

 

*     *     *

This is the sixteenth part of The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron, a travel diary. Please see the previous stories below:

The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron
The Trans-American Railroad (Part II)
Penn Station: The Journey Begins
Suburbia and the Ruins Outside Philadelphia
The Flies, the Blue Whale, and the Boatman on the Potomac
Descent into West Virginia
The Grain Express: How Tomorrow Moves
The Amish Travelers of the Old Order
The Color-Blind Passenger
To the Sides of the Railways
Away from Cincinnati, and the Sun
Chicago: Four Blocks Around Union Station
The Southwest Chief
The Crossing of the Mississippi
“Next Official Smoke Break: The Paris of the Prairies”