Episode 1: Banging and Clanging and Pronghorns, Oh My!
As you may recall from TRAIN TRACKER, Season Two, Episode 3, the post ended with a cliffhanger. I was somewhere outside of Little Rock, Arkansas, heading west, and I was eavesdropping on the passenger behind me as he discussed the intimate details of barbecue sauce with a woman he hardly knew. Would I ever get to hear his secret recipe? Well, no … I fell asleep.
I was jarred awake at 1:30 a.m. by a sudden lurch, accompanied by loud banging and clanging. I later learned that we were coupling. Now, don’t get too excited. It’s not what you think.
We’d arrived in San Antonio, Texas — the end of the line. Most of the train would be reversing direction, heading east again, but some of us (including the car I was in) were continuing west. This required a feat not unlike the mitosis and miosis that I vaguely remember from high school biology. The train split into two, each part with its own engine (or nucleus, if you will). So, basically, I got to witness train reproduction from inside the train.
It was a slow process, more like how I imagine turtles doing it. We sat still for hours, and the lights and A/C were turned off during this time. I started to doze.
Sometime about 2 a.m., two conductors came striding down the aisle with flashlights blazing. They stopped at a seat up ahead. “Sir, wake up. We need to see your I.D.,” they said. I was instantly wide awake.
They demanded that the sleepy man produce either his I.D. or his ticket, and they announced in front of everyone that they’d been told he was supposed to have gotten off in St. Louis. Several minutes passed before the poor guy could find his I.D. The conductors loudly read his name and then left. I think they must have made a mistake, because they never came back or ejected him from the train.
After another hour, I saw a conductor and asked him why we weren’t moving. “They had to fix everything and change the train,” he stated, continuing down the aisle. Not exactly reassuring, but he said it so matter-of-factly that I assumed it was all going according to plan.
Finally, at 4:45 a.m., we started moving. “Why are we going backward?” someone said, looking panicked. It was the lady to my left. She was looking to me for an answer.
I don’t know why people think they should ask me questions about directions. I’m the last person they should ask. I once drove 50 miles in the wrong direction before noticing I was heading west, not east. But I did happen to be holding my cell phone when she asked me, and she looked so worried, so I decided to “phone a friend.” In other words, I consulted my GPS. Indeed, we were heading in the right direction, and I said so. But I didn’t tell the lady that I was just as confused as she was. How the hell were we still going west when we were also going backwards? Where was Einstein when I needed him?
About five hours later, the crew came along and reversed all of our seats. We were moving forward again, and we had survived the strange night. I moved to the observation car and took in the views.
Taking photos of scenery from a moving train is a challenge. To avoid reflections, I held my phone against the window and hoped for the best. The result was often blurry, but I like being reminded of how fast we were going (about 79 miles per hour).
A few specific places were announced along the way.
The Amistad Reservoir, straddling the U.S./Mexico border, was pointed out as we zipped past. It lies 12 miles northwest of Del Rio, Texas. “Amistad” means “friendship” in Spanish.
The famous Pecos River also was announced. It begins in New Mexico and empties into the Rio Grande River in Texas. I’m not sure, but I think we were on the Pecos River High Bridge. Yikes!
And then there was a scene I’ll never forget (and didn’t get to photograph): a herd of wild pronghorns galloping swiftly next to the train! I feel so lucky to have been at the right place at the right time to see them. I made a note of where I was (on the north side of the train, just after Alpine, Texas). Pronghorns, I’ve learned, are often seen in this exact spot. You can read more about them here.
In tomorrow’s episode (“I Want My Wi-Fi”), I’ll tell you how I passed my time on the train without a high speed internet connection. Believe it or not, it can be done!