The Sunset Limited

IMG_0556The train out west is much different than that from north to south, at least experienced by this blogger. Perhaps it is the work-a-day nature of the Northeastern corridor and that so many people have so many other ways to travel. Perhaps it is because the view is not entirely scenic along the way to New Orleans or that the Crescent Limited is not marketed right, doesn’t offer Cajun food, music and be the rolling party that it could be. Or, perhaps it shouldn’t be a rolling party, since we’ve seen that that does to a city.
The train from New Orleans to LA makes up for that lack of social experience on the ride down. The Sunset Limited starts early in the morning. When I got there I was in a hurry, but not enough of a rush to miss the few handsome classic Pullman cars, their curtain windows open revealing spacious compartments and a lounge will full bar at the top of each car. That was from when traveling about was in style, for those who could afford it. Even for those who can’t there was a moment last century where common people could travel about, that travel was fun. Gone is the Eurorail hop on and hop off service of old that allowed generations of Americans the luxury once reserved for tortured German students studying Romantic poetry and twity British gentry sowing their wild – poorly toothed – oats. An older family friend talked about how much fun the rails had been. Compartments where friends partied, the trains took time to cross Europe allowing for seeing the landscape out the window, and border crossings gave you a stamp in your passport. All on a middle-class budget. That has greatly come to and end. One unintended consequence of the European Union is that you travel about freely, which is bad for the passport control stamp collectors, that the trains are high speed has very much eliminated the need for sleepers, and that in general the price has gone up and the Eurorail pass has become complex to use, has many rules, dates, limits, and may not be the free ride so many learned so much from using. Amtrak has sleepers, but I have not seen them. The ticket I am using is complex in some ways, but so far it has been simple. One detractor of seeing the nation by rail said it would limit me to seeing only rail yards and the inside of cities, which it has in some locations given a stretch of rotting and dismal America, but then, highway travel in this country is an unending repetition of clean and orderly Motel 9, WaWa, Hampton Inn, McKenTacoHut, Family Dollar, Dollar Tree, Save-on, WalKmarts so that America seems to exist in some new space-time continuum accessed with a Yaris . the new city attached to the old, as the colonial cities attached themselves to the medina quarters providing clean straight lines, and French cafes.
IMG_0470The Sunset Limited takes its time to leave New Orleans. It crawls over the spans that lift up the rails over the swamp, poverty, and rivers and passes the freight trains lined up coming in or out of New Orleans, which all jazz and voodoo aside, is still a huge industrial port. Once it gets going out to the fields and rice-paddies it takes up speed…. until it again hits a crawl or full stop since unlike the rails up to the Northeastern lands, the Southern rails are owned by CSX or Southern Rail, and their job is to move freight, not silly meaty creatures still hung over from their time getting Street faced on Bourbon shit. This has a delicious effect of allowing one to take in the view, whether it be a pile of wrecked cars and apliances in someone’s backyard or a flock of Spoonbills, stray alligator, or other more charming vistas. The train still suffers from the last century investment in highways, airports, and air traffic control, all of which are funded by public money to a much higher degree than the subsidy Amtrak gets, as well as the decades it has taken for Amtrak to create a unified system out of so many competing entities. The old rail systems were various companies, often two or more serving the same area, as if the Eisenhower Highway system (hello, highways are big government you foolish fuckers) had to compete with the Kennedy and Johnson Highway system, which it didn’t, because the others don’t exist… With redundant tracks, a government hostile to rail transportation, and deferred maintenance on infrastructure, stations, and equipment, it is amazing there is any Amtrak at all. While the new Penn Station is indeed a toilet, the station in New Orleans one of the better Amshacks, the rail service has grown in the past years, in the face of heavy congressional opposition and threats of budget cuts, the best known from John McCain who was schooled when he was reminded how much Arizona gets in airliner subsidies in order to jet about the bluehairs. Perhaps saving this country from totally losing passenger service when our near future will see subsidies for highway, airport, and air traffic control diminish or drastic cuts to programs like… air traffic control… in times of sequester and utter congressional nincompoopism, that the train crawls along every now and then is, from the long view, well worth it.
As the train moves across Eastern Texas, one sees just what one expects. Manicured lawns, followed by a strange development of shops, a fast food KenTacoHut out in the middle of nowhere, just fuck you in the middle of a field, road after road each one huge and swollen and empty (I wonder for the price paid for cement and such, what does each pickup truck represent if they had to pay a ticket for the use of that road? Is the road service really needed if it is underused? Like the rails, will we be preening roads soon? Then outside of Houston again the lawns, the developments that make little sense (few building regulations) and then the city itself, which looks like most of the other cities in America, utter shit with a few glass middle fingers stuck up by banks or insurance companies or other scams.
West Texas is where it really gets interesting.
IMG_0572West Texas is indeed another country, perhaps another planet. Seen from the train – Bison, havalina, mule deer, antelope (they were playing), goats, cows, long horn cows, hare, and West Texans. This part of Texas is stunning and an unexpected treat as the train passed ghost towns and small abandoned farm outposts, all of which, considering it was just more rotting crap seen from the train, was majestic and mysterious and spoke of a hardscrabble existence of the early settlers and the continued difficulty of life on this frontier.
Alpine, Texas was somewhat the same abandoned storefronts all built between 1922 and 1936, but there was a cafe, an art gallery, and it seemed that the town benefited from some influx of artists, outdoors people, and students and some community had been formed. The train continued on through more landscape, and just when the flat land took over, again hills would creep in and the train moved through this dry country. Inside the lounge car, people were getting a little more festive, and with the beer being sold out, turning to boozie drinks, a little more merry as they loudly joked, talk about how the country was going into the shitter, and discussed and compared criminal records, street names, or 401k assets since the train represented a real cross section of American life, from those older former thugs to retirees, to a handful of young travelers who were on their way from Chicago to Tuscon to WOOF.
Coming in to El Paso, the landscape changed back to utter shit. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how he can acquire such shit and stack it up, and take a landscape and paint it with poverty and piles of PC computers? A pile of PC computers… Just sitting there. OK. From El Paso one can see the misery that is Juarez Mexico, a collection of tin houses and shanties piled up against the US border which is marked by something that looks like the Berlin wall, but I must be mistaken. Oh no, I must be mistaken we, not we would build a Berlin wall, that was what Commies do, they build walls so screen actors can ask them taken down, we export freedom… And yet, there it was, the bulwark against illegal entry into our land, least the Mexicans infect us with their version of poverty, and diminish our home grown version, poverty, but with and American face.
By this time, the lounge car was going nuts. Stir crazy. People were waiting for dinner, the beer was replenished in El Paso but people were running out of money, the kids on the woofing expedition were flicking cards about and playing music loudly, the girls flirting with anything that moved, the old couple were cracking jokes about gay marriage, two professional alcoholics were swapping stories, one guy from California who resembled Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite the other a chief from the Philippines who had a face that looked like he used it as a brake pad a few times, which knowing how drug-addled the food industry, he may have done so. This fun riot continued until I disembarked in Tuscon, AZ and I left the train to continue on its way to LA. The majority of the Sunset Limited has been completed, and after a short stay in Tuscon, I return to the rails to finish this line, I can only assume, by the time I get on the train, it will be a party… since they restock the bar in El PasoIMG_0612

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