Notes on A Trip To There and Back

Sunset viewed from the side of Griffith’s Observatory in LA, looking out over valleys full of human places toward the Pacific. 

Just call me Frodo Saggins. Who went from East to West and back again.

6,000 miles, mostly on the train — or trains. First Delta to LAX. Then The Sunset Limited. The City of New Orleans. The Capital Limited and finally, The Pennsylvanian.

This trip had an irony hidden in it. I traveled a long way, looking for something I didn’t find until I was back at the starting point. It was here all along: me. (I’m a walking cliché.)

But I’m not complaining. It makes me smile. Life seems to be all about dealing with unintended consequences. We plan one thing. God laughs. Something else happens. God leans against a tree, arms crossed, and watches to see what we do with it. I hate that, but the same way I hate sit-ups and stretching this old body. It’s just what we do.

What people says about LA is true (as far as I could tell in four days, anyway). The climate soothes and caresses you, and ineffable beauty is around many a corner, suddenly. But the place sadly contains its own destruction, too: there are too many people. It’s name industry is nothing but dreams and illusion. And the very earth underfoot is unreliable. But damned if I didn’t fall in love with it anyway.

I talked with a life-long Californian about earthquakes and a recent rare storm with thunder—the latter so unusual it left an impression. We talked about the accommodations we all make to keep on living in the ways we choose, where ‘normal’ is somehow most important. It made me remember once, long ago, living without thunder for a long time in the far Northwest, and then returning to the Midwest. When the first big summer storm rumbled in, full of electric, roiling, immense energy, its purple fury stretching across the horizon and up, seemingly, to the edge of space. I couldn’t resist, and stepped out in it, letting the rain wash over me and feeling the deafening booms set my bones vibrating. Flashes burned my retinas through closed eyes. My bones missed the thunder. The electricity in the air felt like home.

But then….

I saw a sunset in LA that nearly broke my heart. I stayed there until the lights of the vast city winked on in the darkness, waving in the haze all the way to the horizon, in all directions. Sunsets like that could be worth a few earthquakes.


In Texas. San Antonio.

I met a torn man, a man bloodied by war with himself. He was impaled on a sword with handles born from two cultures. It was, for him at least, a war coded into his genes.

I was in the waiting line of a McDonald’s in San Antonio on my first morning there. A damp fog still dripped from the stones of the Alamo a block away, and on every stone in between. He latched onto me while I was trying to decide which would be the less bad serving of fat and carbs, and got close so only I could hear. He began talking with no pauses, a conversation I sensed had been going on for years.

“I am proud of my heritage! I am descended from a great man and great people!” he would almost shout, drawing his spare frame to maximum height, brown face composed, confident. People nearby glanced over, then moved a half-step away. The next second his damaged brain would flip into a dark place and he would shrink and whisper to someone I could not see:

“I do not belong here, I do not belong. They hate me, they hate me.” His mind was trapped between those two irreconcilable parts of himself, back and forth, back and forth, like a needle jumping scratches in an old vinyl record. He repeated and repeated and repeated. Two sides of a deeply fractured mind, one then the other, drove him wandering the streets trying to get someone to finally listen, to lead him to answers.

Nearby was an acequia. A refreshing, musical word to roll in the mouth and swallow, isn’t it? Ah-SAY-keeah. An aceqia is an irrigation stream of cool, sweet water river water or rising from deep in the rocks. Comfort. Rest. Safety. Home.

In the midst of that great dry, implacable desert place water is the difference between life and death. The broken man’s soul thirsted for his acequia, longed to lie down in the cool, sweet waters of healing, to close the wounds that kept him suspended between Heaven and Hell.


First breakfast on train

The Sunset Limited left San Antonio on time at 1:15 in the morning a couple of days later. I boarded, got my bed ready and popped an Ambien. No time to waste. Dawn and breakfast come early in the desert. I fell asleep to the rocking of the car and the distant horn of the locomotive.

I was awake as soon as it was light, and we stopped for 15 minutes in Houston. I got to know the car steward, had a cigarette, and was ready to go. Breakfast found us east of Houston, closing in on Louisiana. The desert slipped past at 75 miles per hour while I ate my eggs and sausage and grits. I got to know a couple from Georgia. She manages a hotel in a big city downtown; he’s in health care.

Every meal on the long haul trains is with someone different, and we all come to eat, partially, but also to meet someone new, to share stories. Instant friends, anonymous confidants.

When I first was taken to the table, they were already there. She had been crying. He had his arm around her shoulder. I hesitated, and admit I thought “Oh, great. I don’t need drama.” I felt awkward, like an intruder into a sore moment. But I stayed, looked at the menu and broke the ice after a few minutes of awkward pauses with some simple questions. The usual ones: “Where are you headed?” “Where have you been?” “Done this before?”

Soon, the storm had passed. She relaxed and smiled, he took his arm back, and we chatted away like old friends, exchanging biographies. Everything was OK. That’s the way it is on these long-haul trains. It’s like speed-dating for travelers. There’s only so much time, so you tend to focus on what’s important.

Up ahead, by late afternoon: The Big Easy My new love. I was excited about this stop more than I’d realized I would be, and kept looking at the map, out the window. The land outside gradually changed. Water appeared in gulleys and small lakes outside, and there were trees again.

New Orleans will take a post of its own.

Screenshot 2016-01-10 11.12.29
Trains, Planes, and Automobiles

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