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I’ve been on this ride before, in fact several times. I’m partial to long train trips, the longer the better. Whenever I book the trip the reservations operator always informs me of shorter trip options to my destination. To their surprise I always opt for the long way. A trip sixty some odd hours and it can surely get odd. It gives me time to decompress and see what’s out there in great Americana. As many times as I pass this way I never fail to be amazed by meeting new people and making new discoveries. I load up on Trader Joe’s trail mix and dried fruit and hit the road.
I board the train and take my assigned seat next to an elderly black gentleman who calls himself McKinley. We spend the first hour getting to know each other and he fills me in on the short version of his life up to this point. Most importantly he informs me that he is going only as far as San Antonio. My ears prick up at that news which means that from that point on to Chicago I will most likely have two seats to myself which equates to stretching out my legs and some good sleep. I Mean hey, I like McKinley and all but two seats is two seats. After a few hours of meeting people, learning about where others are from, one of the great things about the train, chatting up pretty girls and train car carousing akin to a kind of a stationary cross country cabaret without the booze, I settle in next to McKinley for the night. We forego any cuddling. As usual I sleep out the night between Yuma, Arizona and El Paso, Texas then awake about seven A.M. just in time to catch the burrito lady at the El Paso station.
I always look forward to the El Paso stop and her burritos. They’re small and simple with either bean and cheese or bean and pork but oh so delicious. Surely better than anything I can get elsewhere. The women herself is a very pretty Salma Hayek looking Mexican women her thirties who under any other conditions in any other town would probably have an easier life, maybe not necessarily better but just a little easier. I buy a half dozen to share on the train she thanks me under cover of a sheepish smile and eyes trying to retain their sparkle that tells the story of her life. I give her a de nada then turn to look out just past the barbed wire fence not too far off that separates us from them. Us from them, El Paso from Ciudad Juarez and I wonder just what she had to go through to get to this country just to sell me a lousy burrito, the American dream. I carefully remove the tinfoil wrap of a burrito, bite into it and taste the full flavor of gratitude and being blessed in my life for what I do have and not regretful or in want for what I don’t. Though it may sound a slight bit presumptuous, odds are no matter what I go through and what twists and turns my life may take it will probably always be easier than the life of the burrito lady.
As I said, sometimes the trip can get odd and this day I awake in El Paso just in time for the floor show. At El Paso the dope sniffing dogs and their police handlers always load on the train immediately after it comes to a stop. Being a border town hour stop they have plenty of time to aggravate the shit out of passengers. I call the plain clothes train police professional Ball busters because of the chip they have on their shoulders for probably having been denied jobs on real police departments. They like to make a big commotion so everyone knows they have arrived. However to their credit they never fail to pinch a passenger or two for carrying pot or smuggling some other form of illegal contraband. You would think any smart dope dealer would know El Paso being the drug Mecca it is, is a bad place to have dope in your bags but apparently not.
They stroll up and down the aisles of the train cars and discreetly take notice of the bags the dogs sniff out then exit. A few minutes later the same police return less the dogs to zero in on the bags and passengers in question. There is always a few. I am always very careful to keep my bags close to me. You can never be too careful. There always seems to be an opportunist smuggler around ready to use your luggage as a mule for the trade. Being no stranger to an occasional jail cell and the dicey side of life I tend to be a bit paranoid causing me to be a little more careful than most. Like most things in my life I play it close to the vest.
They grab the bags in question from overhead compartments or off the luggage racks and the inquisition begins. After searching the bags and terrorizing the owners they either have a pinch or they don’t. If they do, well you’re sweet ass is going to be a resident of El Paso for a bit. If not well they leave you feeling unapologetically violated. Today they score and score big, two definite smugglers, a maybe and a possible illegal alien and his smuggler.
While the passengers gather outside the train for fresh hot desert air and a smoke they watch the floor show. Two hippies whom probably like I are out of Los Angeles are frisked and led away in cuffs, the end of the line for them. A third suspect is freed after the cops realize he has nothing on him but for the remainder of the trip he will surely be known as a potential dope smuggler by other passengers and crew. The damage is done. As for the potential illegal’s, the border patrol on hand is called in to shine the bright light and make them sweat. They question them freely in front of everyone in the car only to find out that while they don’t speak English too well they are legal. In fact, as I later find out from them over lunch in the dining car one of them is a former Honduran police officer with US political asylum and the paperwork to prove it, while his assumed human smuggler is his nephew who does have his green card on his person.
As they exit the train the train coppers appear dejected and bummed out that their pinch this morning didn’t turn out better. All I can think to myself is, boo hoo, all they got was a couple of white hippies for their trouble. The coppers and border trolls go away and almost immediately the air quality level and passenger mood jumps exponentially. I hate to bust on the lawman but it comes almost naturally to me and in all fairness I bust on the taxman and G-man just as much if not more. I’ve never known a time when I didn’t have a problem with authority, nor have I know a time I had any respect for authority either. Time to get onto to San Antonio where I will disembark and hit the town!
Staring out the viewing car window into Texas I realize that I’m still trying to find my way home wherever that may be. For right now at least home is somewhere between LA and Chicago and you know what, I’m okay with that. I’m here with some trail mix, a jug or water, a little Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Gypsy Biker’ playing on my IPOD, my laptop and a whole lot of ideas bouncing around in my head. Not a bad place to be.
Wouldn’t you know it, just as I’m feeling all in touch with my feelings and nature and all that good stuff, I meet a girl. Maybe she’s not the girl, but a girl nonetheless. Considering my mood, current locale and the fact that she is pretty good looking she fits the bill just right.
You get to meet a lot of personalities on a cross country train ride and every one of them has a story to share. Many I love to listen to and get to know, some I stay away from like a bad ex-girlfriend which is like a relationship with a great drug. You can love them from afar but not miss what they do to you. What’s all this with the disdain for authority and insinuation with drug usage you may ask. Authority and drug usage are just two of the demons I am all too intimately familiar with. Some of the people are just flat out strange.
The difference between meeting folks on a train and a plane is that on a train you have a chance to get to know them a bit more intimately. You get an opportunity to learn about the world around you through the experiences of others and live vicariously through them. So was the case with the girl whom I’ll refer to as Heather. Her name does not really matter, what does is what we learn from each other and that bit of humanity we impart on the other in a world that becomes more impersonal every day. One thing I am always ready to do is learn, learn and share with others what I have to offer. Though more often than not I am not quite sure of what that is I have to offer but I seem to get a little clearer picture of it with every new life experience.
As it turns out Heather whom currently resides in Silver Springs, New Mexico grew up in Springfield, Illinois. I felt and instant connection when she told me that she had lived for several years in Chicago’s northside Uptown neighborhood that I know well. She’s on her way to Bloomington, Illinois to stand up in her mother’s wedding and like me, reconnect with her loved one’s. Heather is a Midwestern girl and college graduate with a masters degree who was formerly married to a law student headed for the big legal corporate life. However the plans and ideas she had for her life didn’t quite jive with his. So she gave up the safety, security and comforts of the middle class life and potential for wealth for the uncertainty of life on the road. In return she got the chance to see the world from the driver’s seat of a car headed west with no particular destination. She says once she took that right turn onto the interstate of life she never turned back and never regretted it at all.
These days she lives in a self sustainable community of a dozen or so others like her and often makes a work/trade living with some cash flow but only enough for what she needs. My kind of girl. At first glance natural beauty belies her true identity of a twenty something girl who is on her own and not necessarily looking for a home but finding out it is inside her. She dressed in a soft red flowing cloth dress that reminded me of something Native American women would wear. She wove water bottle holders out of rawhide leather. She spoke about what she found on the road and what she learned about herself. She knew she was not done travelling and that Silver Springs was not her last stop. Heather is an extremely interesting, intelligent girl with a direction and purpose and it never hurts to be beautiful.
After a lengthy conversation I learn that she is neither running from anything or to something. To label her a hippie girl, granola girl, tree hugger or anything of the like would not be correct and would not by far do her justice in fact it would probably be an insult. She is simply Heather, a girl who knows who she is and what she is about. We had a great conversation about life and what is necessary for a good life in the simplest terms. She spends her time in nature and seems to be a student of life and a teacher to those who desire to learn. She is unlike so many, seemingly satisfied with her life at present and has plans for her future that not surprisingly include helping others and sharing her life’s experiences.
The thing that makes the trip so interesting is the people. It’s through the people I meet that I learn about the places I want to go and the different things I want to see. I’ve visited a lot of places seen a lot of things and have only scratched the surface of what’s out there. It’s about time to start seeing some more.
Ah San Antonio, Texas! Nice town but I wouldn’t want to live here. Actually I’m pretty sure there’s no place in Texas I would want to live. No sooner did the train pull in at nine thirty pm for ten hour layover than passengers started jumping off the train to hit the town and the tourist trap known as the Riverwalk. The attendant directed everyone to go to the left of the station for the Riverwalk and to stay away from the right side of the tracks. The irony was not lost on me that the right side of the station was the wrong side of town at least in some eyes. Wouldn’t you know it no sooner did he waste his breath than my feet carried me to the right side of the station. You see I’ve always been a student of the dark side of anything, Ever since I can remember if someone told me to stay away from somewhere that was exactly the place I wanted to be. Hell, anyone can tell you that all the fun is on the wrong side of the tracks. But only a few of us will admit that’s where they love to be. I’ve always been drawn to the underbelly of life. Not to mention I was starving and all the really good food is always in the shithole restaurants on the wrong side of town which in this case was on the right side of the tracks. Giddy up cowpokes Stevie C. comin’ to town!