On the Train 14 – El Paso (Part 1)

El Paso, TX

Backyard Sprawl

El Paso is an expansive suburban sprawl. Between mountains and valleys are ubiquitous mini mansions built with palm wood, stone, and red clay. The opportunity for unique, independent, interior design is lost in the faceless repetition of homes. Lawns with burnt-yellow grass are redeemed by epic Italian pines that seem anything but indigenous. Everything is spaced out and requires transportation. The roads are unrestricted playgrounds for billboard signage. Driving down I-10, there are as many ads on the highway as there are on the internet. Couple that with aggressive drivers who drink while driving, and I’m not surprised to hear how high the driver-fatality rate is.

Italian Pine Trees

But that’s just El Paso and its massive roads. The heart of my experience here belongs to my uncle. While we drive, observe the scene, and see the evolution of his achievements, he is coming to terms with divorce. He talks of mistakes that feel like opportunities left to wilt. Quotations from a former life begin to resonate with us, such as “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” and I get the feeling he would give it all up to show his family how good a father he is. Instead, he now belongs to a community of bachelors who have a fringe-like influence on their children.

“You got to teach them how to shave,” I tell him as we drive away from the park where his ex-wife and kids are hanging out with other single mothers and their kids. He and I brought them doughnuts from Krispy Kreme. Minutes out of the day belong to bonding experiences shared between him and his two young, impressionable sons. He doesn’t blame his ex-wife. He blames himself. His work and his hobbies filled a void that family simply couldn’t. That was before he realized how important family is. In the absence of love, he would likely say, there is a void. To fill a void, you need a vacuum.

On the Train 13 – Valentine

Valentine, TX

Empty Morning Gray

Oceans of brush and rivers of sand exist everywhere out here. There are small dirt roads for dune buggies and motorbikes, but nobody rides on them. A mist covers the land all morning, and the cacti feast and make the most of it. Down the car, a mother scolds her child with threats of punishment that make me sad. There is a road following our train, and outposts every so many miles. Little towns exist near every outpost. A small, malnourished cow eats from a small, withering shrub. Everything misses the water. A small group of cows with visibly tough skin watch our train go by from a distance. There is no farm in sight, and no signs of domestication beyond the ubiquitous wire fencing that follow us on the left.

Sand Mountains

So many hills surround us on all sides. I imagine a grand body of water once existed here, and those hills were the islands that fostered primitive life. Now, they are the first thing to feel the sun’s hot kiss. Another small group of skinny cows gather around a small cement trough. The beauty in this vast open landscape is lost in the fact that, like a desert, it exists without end. The presence of water is very much like the hope of finding sustainable life. What you may find out here is more insular that you can imagine. A livelihood in the dry brush is a test of endurance. The air is thin, and I can see for miles, and all I see is an empty canvas for artists to paint in red.

Before arriving in El Paso, we stopped in Valentine, Texas. The conductor made a point to tell us Valentine has no grocery store, and yet it has a Prada outlet store. I shook my head in disbelief. You can’t buy food, but you can buy thousand-dollar handbags and designer shoes on a whim. There’s a mattress under a leafless tree nearby, and homes look just as run down as the ones I saw in Baltimore. We would soon move on to richer pastures. There is an abundance of tumbleweeds along the way, and I wonder why they choose to tumble alone when they go so well together.

Town from the Train

On the Train 12 – New Orleans (Part 2)

New Orleans, LA

Horse Painting for $350Wall of Chairs

Antique Pencil

I found an antique store on Frenchman Street. The walls were covered top to bottom in local folk art, wooden chairs, and flare unseen by many outside Louisiana. There was a glass window case with trinkets inside, and it was there I found a mechanical pencil from the early 1920’s. I bought it for $5, satisfied and convinced I got the better end of the bargain. My attention returned to the streets after a brief chat with the shop owner, a nice guy, who told me about the time he found that pencil. It was during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and he went scavenging in the debris. He found it in an old cigar box, along with a speeding ticket from 1916. We laughed at the idea of getting pulled over back then, and I later told him about my trip with candor. He, like many before him, wished me well as I left to collect my things and catch my train for El Paso.

Antique Speeding Ticket

Perhaps I hadn’t noticed it coming into New Orleans, but I noticed it leaving – our country is littered – there’s a lot of wasted space, talent, and resources out here. Only now on the train do I allow myself to reflect on that. “Step out into the world with your head high.” That was a public service announcement advertised on a billboard in the projects outside metro New Orleans. It was a motivational proposal for all those broken by poverty to simply “step out into the world” with a sense of confidence. How many of these people have heeded this advice? How many will ignore it, and resume their no-where, no-way routine? Vice has such a tight grip out here.

A black man is passed out on a train-side bench, his arm hangs off the end of it, as if it’s been there for hours, and a big white police officer approaches cautiously, as if he might walk upon a dead body on duty. Our train slowly observes before switching tracks West for El Paso and beyond.

On the Train 11 – New Orleans (Part 1)

New Orleans, LA

The French Quarter of New Orleans is a wild place. It’s certainly not safe for young, solitary explorers like me. The lure of exotic, sensual pleasure does little to mask the danger that really exists out here. Despite all that, people are friendly and good-natured. Bourbon Street during the day has a wholesome attraction, much like the food you can find out there. I was warned not to venture far, so my miles walked were in circles, around the various Rues, each with their own handful of galleries, shops, and locals. Street performers entertain and artists create art in Jackson Square, in the midst of loud music and people, and everything is bubbling with activity.

Eventually I went to the riverfront, where a man was playing a famous blues song I’ve heard so many times before. A full moon was rising behind him, and casting a line of light across the rippling river. It was a perfect moment. I took a picture of it and gave the man a couple dollars, thanking him. A drifter sitting behind him stood up as we began talking about the little beauties of this town, and he said “I’ve lived and grown up here all my life” as he held out his hand to shake mine.

He took my hand and held it with a strong grip, preventing me from letting go. There was a moment when we locked eyes, and his friendly smile took on a more serious tension. I tried to let go. He had my hand and pulled me towards him. My heart was fluttering and I knew I was in danger. The guitar player simply sat there, looking up at me with a sad sort of look on his face that said, “What the hell are you doing, kid?” He didn’t interfere, even when the man exposed a broken glass bottle in his other hand. Things were in slow motion. I aggressively shook my hand free before he had the chance to try anything. Without making a scene, I left the riverfront, making sure I wasn’t followed, and returned to all the tourist attractions.

On the Train 10 – Greenwood

Greenwood, MS

My impressions on the train begin to change in each passing mile. As if a picture caption was suffice, every new minute had a different title. We moved across fields of black-water marshlands. Trees grew out of water. Expansive bodies of farmland exist without crops growing; perhaps the harvest has passed. It feels like an underdeveloped Virginia landscape. There’s a unique smell of the swamp – profound and always present. Empty, one-lane roads belong to no one but the townies of rural America. Orange wisps of hair grow out of slivers in the prairie. A single baize horse grazes in a field meant for two.  Next stop, Greenwood, Mississippi.

A goose flies alongside a stretch of submerged electric poles that lead to a Viking warehouse surrounded by cars and trucks. Greenwood, home of unused trains and tracks, home to scores of shoebox homes made of wood and tin, cars on the front yard, barren, uncared for, and people loitering like they did back in the Great Depression. The roads are flat and made of cracked gravel. It’s one of many thru-ways for major American industry; smoke-stack cities in power-line suburbs.

As we continue southward to New Orleans, more sights manifest in the morning. Little wisps of dust rise off the ground in a parade of soft, white clouds. I see my first alligator, sleeping in greenish-brown waters, alone perhaps, resting among the rocks and algae and fish too proud to care. Small streams of sand lead into small bending rivers. Vast open spaces of prairie are just waiting for a roaming pack of wildlife. In between the seemingly empty stretches are marks of established agriculture. People on the train are friendly and outgoing, ready to tell you about themselves and their stories of travel, life on the move, and subtle abstractions in relation to how things were compared to how they are now.