We ended the day in Texas yesterday. Last night, the conductor announced over the PA that we’ll be in Texas for a very, very, very, very, very long time and he’ll check back in with us tomorrow when we’ll still be in Texas.
I share a breakfast table with a man who doesn’t want me to use his name or take his picture. Let’s call him Scott.
Scott has been retired for 12 years and I tell him he must be an expert at retirement by now. He laughs a little and says many people he knows don’t know how to retire. “Their whole lives were their jobs and they think letting go of the job means letting go of life,” he says.
But Scott says he started retiring at age 48. He owned a contracting business for decades, doing electrical engineering. But in his 40s, he began setting aside time for tennis and skiing and especially hiking.
Scott is a passionate hiker. He lives in central Pennsylvania but travels thousands of miles to find unfamiliar trails. I’m a planner, but Scott likes to get lost. He’ll wander down a path with no idea where it goes. “I like to do it like they did 300 years ago,” he says, “I can be like Daniel Boone.” His wife tells him she hopes he dies “with his hiking boots on.”
He’s been married for 60 years, by the way, an impressive feat that I congratulate him on. “It hasn’t been easy. We’ve both had plenty of good reasons to walk away,” he tells me. “But, you know, marriage is like climbing a mountain, and I’ve hiked up 14,000-foot peaks. You could give up at any point and you’d have good reason to: your feet hurt or there’s blood in your socks or your backpack is bruising your shoulders. But when you get to the top and see the view, you realize that’s the reason you kept going. You get rewards you didn’t even know were there.”
Scott sees me taking notes and tells the server that he’s afraid of me. I laugh. “I’m not going to use your name if you don’t want me to,” I tell him. “I just like to hear people’s stories.” He says he likes that, too, and sometimes goes to bars just to listen. “I have to start the conversation, you know, but once I do the floodgates open. People seem so desperate to let it out, they’d talk to a zombie, I think.”
Scott’s on his way to Los Angeles. What is he going to do there? He shrugs. “Wander around.” He tells me he loves to read the books of Paul Theroux because “he’s a traveler, not a tourist.” At that point, the train passes over the Pecos and the view is literally breathtaking. I take a picture and mention that the camera function is one thing that’s wonderful about smartphones.
Scott nods while he eats from a bowl of cold grapes. “You know, I went unconnected once. I decided to hike the Continental Divide Trail and I told my kids and my friends that I wouldn’t have any electronics with me for eight days. They couldn’t believe I wanted to do that.”
I ask him how it went, being without his phone. “I got to be honest with you,” he says, as he leans in across the table, “After two or three days, I started to get the shakes. It was worse than quitting smoking. I was anxious and insecure and I wondered if that’s what it felt like to get off drugs. But after three days, that was gone and I felt incredible. It felt like being at the top of a mountain. Euphoria. That feeling lasted for the rest of my trip, and then I picked up my phone again and was just as addicted as before.”
The rest of the day is idle chat and staring out the window at the Texas landscape. At one point, the conductor notes that we’re passing Prada Marfa.
This is a Prada storefront in the middle of nowhere, that never opens and never sells anything. It’s an art installation, created in 2006 by artists Elmgren and Dragset. According to Wikipedia, “The artists called the work a ‘pop architectural land art project.’ The sculpture, realized with the assistance of American architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, cost $120,000 and was intended to never be repaired, so it might slowly degrade back into the natural landscape.”
Not long after, we see a line approaching on the southern side of the train. It’s the border between the US and Mexico, a long, dark fence line across the horizon.
When we get to El Paso, there is a Border Patrol SUV waiting near the station and an older Latina woman beside the train selling homemade, fresh burritos. I assume this is the burrito lady that other couple was talking about, so I buy a burrito. It’s delicious. I’m talking to my son on the phone and telling him about the burrito. He says, “You don’t know who that woman is. What if someone is trying to assassinate you and put something in there.” I tell him, “I’m afraid I’d be really easy to assassinate. It just takes a warm burrito.”
It doesn’t take long to travel through New Mexico, although the scenery is gorgeous as mountains appear on the horizon. The train is fairly quiet. Many of us have been riding for a while and we’re tired. Every time the train stops, I get out and walk up and down the platform to stretch my legs.
As the sunsets, we are crossing into Arizona and we’re rewarded with one of the sunsets for which this state is justly famous.
I eat dinner with a couple from Florida who are on their way to Scottsdale to visit their first (and only!) grandchild. They met when they were both in the Marine Corps (She came after me, he says. She gives him steel side-eye.) They tell me they spent long enough around weapons to know that we need regulations on firearms. “The Corps doesn’t want any of its people getting hurt,” he tells me, “So they make sure all the guns are locked away when they’re not being used.” The server stops by the table to say that he follows a Twitter account that lists all the gun owners who haven’t shot anyone. It feels like a non sequitur, but the subject of guns tends to make people emotional.
I crawl into bed early because we should pull into Los Angeles at 4:30am or so. When I step off the train in my hometown, the longest single ride of this trip will be over.