The El Paso Amtrak station Has been refurbished while maintaining its old charm. The façade is the same, but the interior has been modernized and slapped with a new coat of paint. It is a beautiful building, and one that is severely underappreciated in El Paso. The tiles on the floor are original, and there is still a slight odor of old Mexico in the walls.
My train departed the station at 1:45pm in El Paso with an estimated time of arrival in Maricopa, Arizona at around 8:55pm. Given the loss of an hour as we cross the Arizona/New Mexico border, that puts the trip squarely in the nine-hour time slot, a full three hours longer than it would take to drive (at the speeds I am accustomed to). However, the convenience of being able to use my laptop, take a nap, or have a margarita outweigh the extended period of time. If one is flexible in their schedule and not in too much of a hurry, one can do no better than an Amtrak train.
The prices for food and drink on the train are comparable to what you would find on an airplane. Hamburgers cost around twelve dollars and a beer will run you about four or five. However, given that there was absolutely no security check of my bags, the next time I travel with Amtrak I am taking a bottle and a mixer for myself. Furthermore, I saw a woman bringing a cooler onboard and wondered at the wonderful treats she might be smuggling on to the tracks in plain sight.
Gone are the days of the train as a luxury liner. Nowadays, the clientele are made up of lower income commuters and older nostalgia seekers. The alternative travel options mean that the trains run at about a third or less of capacity. People generally have their seat, as well as their little surrounding area, to themselves. Most keep to themselves, though there are people who talk loudly as they walk up down the isle, vying for any attention and smiles they can get from their fellow passengers.
For a nine-hour trip, this could be the party train of the century if a group of people were so inclined. The conductors seem rather nonchalant about the goings-on of the passengers – though they are exceedingly friendly – and I bet a group sitting together could have quite a shindig if they were only somewhat discreet. Of course, this all depends on your level of conscientiousness to other passengers, though in that department it seems like there are no real social rules governing the behavior of the other guests. If you are a person who is okay with people changing diapers in the seat, yelling loudly about their desire to smoke a joint, or talking about the non-important minutiae of their day-to-day activities, then the train is for you. Just accept it and let your inhibitions go. Party here we come.
The seats are comfortable, wide, and recline to an angle that could allow for sleep, but I am enamored with the desert scene passing by. It is a perspective of El Paso that I have never seen – a detached intimacy with the landscape and the city, separate from the pulse of traffic, yet hugging close enough to feel like a fellow passenger on the freeway.
The train hugs the border with Juarez close enough to reach out and touch. There are still stories of train robbers stopping trains (usually not passenger) to unload the precious cargo, carrying them back across the border into anonymity.
As the city of El Paso fades into suburbs, then ranches and farms, then sparse mansions, the desert swallows the views and becomes all encompassing. It may look like brown blandness to the outsider, but to the people who are familiar with the landscape, there is an abundance of flora and fauna to be seen. Each small crevice holds a creature; each green dot holds a small ecosystem that it supports. For the discerning eye, there are myriad shades of green, brown, yellow and reds. The desert may look like a wasteland, but it is a living, breathing creature – although one that takes no prisoners, gives no quarter, and asks for no forgiveness.
The first stop on the way was in Deming, New Mexico. Deming is a small town along I-10 that takes about 5 minutes to drive through. The stop lasted about 8 minutes and we were on our way again. The train lopes across the tracks slowly but consistently, making up time where stops would otherwise eat up precious time. Driving is still faster; cutting off around 2 hours of travel time, but the ability to recline, watch a movie and relax is worth it.
Although there is no Wi-Fi on this train, there are plenty of things to do for the adventurous. There is a dining car, a scenic car (replete with ceiling windows) and books to read if one has the foresight to bring them. I caught myself yearning for a wifi connection, but how would that affect the experience? Like the movie Wall-E, we are forced away from our screens to blink at each other in the natural light of the setting sun, away from the blue glow of our miniature companion devices.
Our next stop was at the booming metropolis of Lordsburg, New Mexico. The train seemed to hesitate for a moment before continuing on, as though it realized the futility of stopping in a town that is fighting from being reclaimed by the desert. It is one of those places that makes one wonder what kinds of prospects there are for children born there. Lordsburg is either a beginning or an end, it is not an in between.
After Lordsburg the train goes through a time change and we lose an hour. If you were to take a one-hour nap in Lordsburg, you’d wake up to the same time you went to sleep. Perhaps there is an irony there. Lordsburg and the surrounding area seem to be trapped in some terrestrial Bermuda triangle. Time is different here, if not irrelevant.
The trip seems ideally suited to the contemplative. This journey is best taken by those that wish to ponder the vastness of life, constantly imagining life in the distant mountains so far away from the disappearing tracks. The peaks rise like ships on the open sea, each holding their own world but floating around and away from each other. Now and then an abandoned house appears between the tracks and the mountains. Who lived there? Why did they build there? If their intent was to leave civilization they succeeded. Their bones are probably still in their homes, left to dry and flake because no one else is as curious as they once were.
As we cross over into Arizona there is a marked difference in the terrain. New Mexico gives way to rolling hills that turn to rolling, craggy peaks as we climb into a higher desert.
Benson, Arizona is our next stop. The train seems to make it a point of hitting small, almost off-the-map destinations. Mobile homes and small convenience stores are all that line the tracks in an endless connect-the-dots to a real city. The rule of the track seems to be dilated pupils, upset stomachs, and nervous energy confined to the mechanical and organic tubes that ride these rails.
Tucson, Arizona is the next stop we’ll make, the first stop since El Paso that has been a city of any size. It seems as though from San Antonio to El Paso in Texas the cities diminish in size and structure, diminishing further until Tucson and Maricopa just beyond. The light starts to fade around 6:30pm and the glow casts a yellow hue on the hills and mountains passing through the Arizona desert. Do to its size and importance on the trip; the stop in Tucson is around 40 minutes. Ostensibly, this is to drop off and pick up riders, but it feels more like a respite for the conductors who have seen an endless landscape of small towns and weary faces.
The train stops and the power shuts down. The beast has been quieted momentarily. There is finally WiFi available, but it is spotty and about as fast as Missouri molasses in the winter.
I think that perhaps an overnight train through this section of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona may be the best of all possible worlds. The seats are comfortable enough to catch some sleep, and the lulling motion of the train could act as a cradle to rock you into slumber. I am reminded of the old, turn of the twentieth-century folk songs about rail riding and marvel at how little things have changed when it comes to the feeling the train inspires. The imagery of small towns passing by are still present today, though the train may have had an upgrade. And hey, according to the map, there are plenty of other opportunities to see the United States by rail. Who knows, maybe I’ll channel the spirit of John Henry and strike out for a bit on the tracks.