All In The Valley

WestCoast 194The old couple on the train had children in their 50s. One son worked in the corporate office of a large chain of discount stores. Despite how the lower workers were treated, the upper officials were given ample compensation, vacation, and enjoyed many benefits that are rare of contemporary work life. The gent told me his wife was actually born in Compton in the early 1930s. Then it was several small houses with farms filling in the area down to Long Beach. Today, taking the rail down to Long Beach brings on a view of lost opportunity and the potential failed state that is Orange County. Watts, famous for the riots does not appear different from other stretches of half-abandoned stores and small houses protected by spiked fences and several other protective defenses. Compton is not the village of orange trees and gardens. It is also not the N.W.A. Straight Out of Compton ghetto, at least not as seen by the trolly. What is striking about the crowd getting on and off the train is that they break the stereotype that people on the west coast are in good shape or even the slightest bit healthy. Like much of America, the high fat, corn syrup and salt diet had dug in deep, with the chicken joints (no Pluck You or Chick-a-Flick?) and deep fried everything joints, where were strangely packed for 7 in the morning on a weekday. Long Beach was everything one may want from a place famous for homeless, and in the park were perhaps thirty or so folks who appeared to be in the park since they had nowhere else to go and all day to do whatever it is they must to to get by.
The old gent said he was born in Boston just after the Ice Age. He had a sense of humor. His family had moved out west some time after he graduated from Latin School. For years he had worked as a forest ranger, got married in France to the woman who was sitting across from me after he met her in Colorado. “We’re not married,” she reminded him, and informed me, “but we remain really good friends.” The old gent smiled and made a slightly off-colour pass at his former wife, enough to get what seemed to be a familiar “now you, we’re out in company,” she chuckled.
WestCoast 211The train moved to the coast and the open ocean on one side and the mountains on the other. Out in the ocean some of us saw sea otters, dolphins, and of course surfers. Out the other side the hills were supposedly part of a huge ranch that had been divided into hundred acre parcels, all with access to this private coast accessible to the public only by Amtrak or the beach that was public, but only accessible by boat. From the former ranch, we passed into the air force base. There was no formal sign other than a fast boat parked on the coast and that in time, the fields were dotted by launchpads and missile installations. There was some chatter among the crowd in the observation car about how this new space exploration company was going to replace NASA. “The government is getting out of the space businesses and allowing private companies a chance,” one of the passengers claimed. The towers then gave way to the open fields, a few towns here and there, some of them surprisingly trashy settlements considering the cost of land and access in the region. The houses were small, the yards littered with old farm implements, goats, some fences made of reclaimed materials, work horses eating what appeared to be piles of lettuce.
Then, the fields of lettuce. Red lettuce for as far as the eye could see, collard greens stretched to the mountains in the distance, little lettuce, then celery, then walnut groves, apple trees, then some type of plant that was blooming little yellow flowers, “what do you think that is?” a woman asked, “maybe broccoli that’s gone to seed someone else answered” and “are those seedless grapes” but who could know as the train rocked back and forth, lemon trees in some farmer’s backyard, mayonnaise in the old country store, it was the salad days all throughout the year for the people in this valley. The train flew past migrant workers toiling in the fields (perhaps American-born too, far too quick to check), rows of tractors, something the kid behind me called a “forklift-tractor” and sundry other colours of lettuce, more greens, and more food either nature or Monsanto Frankenfood, it was too hard to tell. Suddenly, the valley opened up into an expanse of oil derricks, and the smell of sweet, sweet crude permeated the air of the cars, but this soon was to pass and we lurched out into the hills, brown, tan, the colour of old army uniforms before the Great War, the water had run out, there was just enough for a small river, the green trees sipping at the water’s edge, but up in the hills, no country for water, just dry grass, dust, and tank tracks from some vanished Panzer division, the acreage now taken by the one hundred and first or some such attack battalion, “Live Ammunition Testing” the tanks sitting by the sign seemed to say, and perhaps they actually did say that, perhaps this was not just me to see a warning to those not on Amtrak as to the dangers of trespassing above the Waldorf Salad Valley, and we should all know that just based on the beauty of the land, because instinctual we know that beauty signals danger, the red lips of a Pitcher Plant, the long lashes of the Venus Fly Trap, the dark green of the swirling foaming fluid in the Slush Puppy mix, Darlene/Max from accounts relivable who although she has a few years on you still has a few knocks left in her/him. Safe within our silver bullet, assigned seat, observation car, snack bar, dining car should we choose to make a reservation, we needed not fear too much plant fiber, diverted waters, or the blasted tanks. We were powerless, and in a way happy for it, there was a higher power in charge, and that was two locomotives drawing us up North, some to home, some back from adventuring out to Vegas in order to cope with some loss, up home to separate houses after so many years of marriage, up home after traveling the rails from Maine to Miami, from DC to Denver, from Albany to Albuquerque, and those traveling on to points unknown, or just along for the ride.
WestCoast 210We moved past a large quarry, red volcanic rock and a ridge of burned out trees from a forest fire from four or five years ago, not a real huge landmark, but someone mentioned, “that’s the red rock they used to make the roads out of in Oregon” or words to that effect but not enough detail to know if they used the materials to form the roads or to spread it when it snowed like how Pennsylvanian tosses clinkers and coal dust on their roads to get rid of toxic polu… make the roads passable.
The train stopped.
Silence, and then an announcement, “this is your conductor we have a freight train ahead of us with a broken coupler and we’re not sure how long this is going to take.” “We may have to bugger one another, eat each other, and go full out Donner Party tonight,” some of the passengers seemed to imagine him saying at the news. But, this was intense, there was a broken freight train and no way to just go around, “I was trapped like this for a long time” an older man next to me said. “I was in a train that had some train in front derail off the tracks, they sent buses for us but…” he looked out the window to the spot where we had stopped, beyond the last blackened stump, tall drop of sharp rocks from the tracks to the ground below, and anyway, where would we go after that? The world here was literally out in the middle of nowhere. Shit.
But, the bar car was not running out of beer. It took about an hour for people to go stir crazy. There was, on top of being out in the middle of nowhere, no cell phone or internet service. This minor stoppage reduced all of us to having to live as we had in 1996. It was brutal. As folks attempted to log on, make calls or otherwise use their many devices people were reduced to watching films on their hard-drive or breaking out old portable DVD players from deep within their luggage. The fear set in. We were not connected. It was like the olden days of yore when people waiting for the ship to return had no idea, had no texts, status up-dates emails, or phone calls from those aboard and just had to wait. So many people to inform we were late, how else (other than Amtrak telling them) were they to know, how were they to make their many connections? “We will be here for some time folks,” the faint PA system chattered. Those in the observation car started hitting the beer, there were small klatches of strangers now best friends, others attempted to shut out all contact by reading, watching films on their computer, listening to their iDevice for music, inspirational motivational talks, or whatever they needed in order to fill their heads with sound. The beer was quickly vanishing, first the Bud, then the Bud lite, miller lite, then the imports started flying off the shelves, “We may as well party if we’re going to sit here all day,” the man in the hat said.
It was 10:20 AM.
People discussed all manner of things as we sat there. One thing under discussion was how to get out to smoke. With an embankment on one side and the track on the other, it was too dangerous to let out this train car of elderly, drunken, drunken elderly, women and children, and the rest of us into the wilds of wherever. Smokers started turning funny colours. “We have warned you not to smoke in the bathroom and someone has,” the announcer exclaimed, many in the train cabin spreading the rumor that someone had been “put out” the train and would have to be picked up from the wilderness by the local sheriff, “we will let you smoke two at a time out the window in the cafe car” and several people, the smokers on board lined up. By the windows those gathered could not be more different, yet, there they were all taking turns just like kindergarten taught them.
So for hours we lived in a village. The rules were bent. We passed the time each in our own way, and then, finally, the broken train was fixed, moved out of the way, and we returned to our journey, the PA announcement telling us “we folks we bent the rules a little while we were stopped, but do not open any windows on the train.”
Some returned to their seats after hours of day drinking, others had to be escorted to the seat by the conductor or otherwise reminded that drunken behavior would get them ejected by the side of the tracks. Cell service returned, and we again took to starting, texting, chatting, or being otherwise engrossed by our iDevices. The train now turned to face the mountains off in the distance, and we continued on passing more freight trains, safely to the side of our shared track, and we again became passengers sitting in our seats.
UpperWest 012

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