Stateside: Oklahoma City to Los Angeles
Oklahoma City to Los Angeles
(Final stage of my summer vacation)
The morning I left Oklahoma City I was woken early by thunder, lightning, and - oh, sweet joy! - rain. The storm was stronger to the north and west of the city but it was great to be sitting on the train platform looking at the misty edge of the storm's passage and savouring relatively cool temperatures.
The train back to Fort Worth was pretty full, largely - this being school holidays - family groups. One of the kids near where I was sitting was teased mercilessly by his slightly older brother because he'd said we'd know we were in Texas when we saw the cactuses. "What's that smell?" kid brother asked his mom at one point. "Oil!" replied the older one, and sure enough that's exactly what you could smell.
I had a couple of early afternoon hours to spend in triple-digit Fort Worth before joining the Texas Eagle again, and spent them in the nearby Santa Fe Produce Market, where you can buy fresh fruit and ice water in what was the old railway station. The big news on the front page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram was about the Texas Democrats who'd fled to neighbouring New Mexico so the Republicans couldn't force through the legislature a redistricting measure guaranteeing the Republicans more seats.
Also in the paper were the 22 constitutional amendments that were to be on the Texas ballot in September - including one to reduce the size of juries in misdemeanour cases from twelve to six - and a story about how the word "longneck" has entered the nation's official lexicon as a term for a bottle of beer, the word having first been highlighted in advertisements created for a Texas beer company in the 1970s.
And lest we forget who's in charge here, there was also a story about a local town council meeting where "about a half-dozen uniformed officers" stood two to a wall and behind a crowd of 100 residents who'd gathered to discuss gas drilling on land owned by the town's principal developer. Apparently the Star of Texas Energy Services' president had complained of jeers from the crowd at another meeting earlier in the month.
The Texas Eagle carriage I had to find myself a seat in was pretty much full of an extended family group who'd got on the train in Chicago and were going to a family reunion in Arizona. The carriage in front of that one was fairly empty so - at our own risk of being left behind later in the trip - another passenger and I went and sat up there.
We moved back to the correct coach before San Antonio, where it was detached from the rest of the train and plugged into a big power point to keep our air-conditioning going until the Sunset Limited arrived from Florida at about 3 in the morning. San Antonio is home to the most famous spot in Texas - the Alamo - where 189 defenders fell on March 6, 1836 after repeated attacks by Mexican General Santa Anna's army. After the Alamo battle, Santa Anna led his forces east in pursuit of the rest of the Texas army, but on 21 April was defeated by General Sam Houston. Texas won its independence and later applied to the United States for statehood.
My trip, however, was taking me west across the South Texas Plains, in places following the Rio Grande, which forms the border with Mexico. It is magnificent country to see from a train - scrubland and prickly pear, yuccas, turkey buzzards, a few longhorn cattle, which somehow survive with absolutely no shade. Away across the plains we see a rainshower falling in just one spot, dust devils, trucks like a string of maggots, a freight train with four engines pulling 90 container beds, most of them stacked double, closely followed by a train with just three engines and only 80 container beds - many empty, and only a few double-stacked.
Getting closer to El Paso, the soil is pink and some of the clouds are like stripes and whorls of whipped cream; other clouds are dark and contain lightning. It starts raining on one side of the train as we enter the space under one of those clouds and hear thunder; on the other side of El Paso we go through a local rainstorm where the fork lightning is hitting the ground nearby. It's not hard to see why there are so many cowboy songs about the Texas prairie and the Rio Grande. It is a magnificent landscape.
In the El Paso rail yards there's a train with five engines, and I give up trying to count all the fertiliser wagons, car transporters and so on that they are pulling. We have left Santa Fe Railroad territory now and we're into Union Pacific railroad country instead. Immediately across the fence beside the railway line from El Paso is the city of Juarez, a huge Mexican flag flying proudly in the distance.
Close up though, Juarez is a shanty town and about a half-dozen young men come running out from a culvert that goes under the fence just as we pass by. A border patrol jeep heads in their direction. I confess to having a very jaundiced view of Juarez because of the documentary I once saw about all the young women who simply disappear from there. A lot of US companies relocated just over the border in order to escape US taxes and take advantage of cheap labour, and girls would be singled out in the factories and disappear amid terrible rumours of what fate they befell out in the desert.
Just west of Lordsburg, New Mexico, there's a store called "Mom and Pop's Pyro Shop" - selling fireworks - and a truckstop selling Texaco fuel and $5 blankets. It also boasts a set of truck scales. The amount of freight that passes across this part of the continent is simply mind-boggling. We pass a freight train about every half an hour, and there's a constant stream of trucks on the road.
The family I had kind of squeezed myself into once I'd had to change carriages in San Antonio the previous night, got off at 1.30 in the morning in Maricopa, Arizona, where a chartered bus was waiting for them all. I learned some new lingo from them, like how "You got *that* right!" is interchangeable with "Speak the word!"
By the time I wake next morning we're in Palm Springs, California, its US flag at half-mast, presumably for Bob Hope. Just west of the city a lush green golf course next to the railroad is incongruous in the midst of brown, brown hills. Then comes the citrus orchards, trees drooping with foliage, speckled with tangerines, and interspersed with single fin windmills, which I guess draw the irrigation water along. This water is being taken at the expense of other uses, and is fought over bitterly.
A couple of hours later we're passing through the smog-ridden Inland Empire city of Ontario, and an hour after that I'm in LA's Union Station. I had traveled approximately 2200 miles from Portland to Milwaukee, 1100 miles from Milwaukee to Fort Worth, 400 miles round trip between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, and 1700 miles from Fort Worth to LA. That's about five and a half thousand miles in two weeks, in a giant circle around the land west of the Mississippi.
The land I loved the best was the Columbia River Gorge and the South Texas Plains. Favourite T-shirt was the one that said "Just do it" above a graphic of a guy in a hammock and the word "tomorrow". The image that sticks in my mind is of the high-school age girl at the reception desk of a cheap chain hotel in Milwaukee, checking in at the government's expense to take a test. If she passed it, she's now in the army and will soon be on her way to Iraq.
Just a farm-town kid trying to make a living any way she can.