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.

 

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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”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Southwest Chief

The Southwest Chief was a double-decker, with only a small cabin in the lower levels of the cars for short-distance travelers. If not my mood, my muscles were feeling it was the second day of my trip. And I had another two nights on the train before arrival in Los Angeles.

Two massive engines would pull this monster of a train for almost 2,300 miles from the Great Lakes to California across the Northwest, the Prairies, the Midwest and the Southwest all the way down to its last port of call, a city that took its name from the Italian town Santa Maria degli Angeli. Even though there is no agreement among historians, the name was believed to be a homage by Franciscan priests to the founder and patron of their order, St. Francis of Assisi. These churchmen had explored what is now the Los Angeles area in the 18th century.

Indeed, the original name of the second largest city in the United States was El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula, Spanish for The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula.

The Porciuncula was the church of St. Francis in Assisi. It was yet another instance of an Italian echo on the American landscape, muted and lost over the vastness of the New World.

*     *     *


This is the thirteenth 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