We boarded Amtrak late–around 10pm– and settled in to sleep soon after;
By morning we were rolling through southern Arizona. We had a long stop in Tucson where the train station served up an incredible breakfast burrito.
It was a beautiful day to appreciate the desert scenery.
The BIG event was the appearance of “Big Boy”, the world’s largest steam engine locomotive. Built by Union Pacific, the giant train was chugging across the country to celebrate 150 years of transcontinental rail travel.
Throughout the state, crowds lined the railroad track waving to us while they awaited the main event.
I got the impression life was kind of boring down there.
One person who was not bored was Jefford from Alabama, strumming on his mandolin in the observation car.
He plays violin and piano as well as this mandolin which he likes because everyone is running around playing guitars and banjos. The mandolin also fits better into his lifestyle which involves hopping freight cars and taking them cross-country. What? I thought “riding the rails” ended with the Great Depression. I was wrong.
Apparently there’s a whole community–a “rough crowd”, according to Jefford–who travel around the country this way. He showed me how they stow themselves between freight cars and how they avoid getting asphyxiated when the trains enter long tunnels. Anyway, it’s better than taking Greyhounds. “Those people are crazy!” he said.
Jefford was neither “rough” nor crazy. He was smart enough to describe Alabama in three words: “Bibles, Baptists and Republicans”. When I asked whether it was mainly homeless people who rode the rails he got a little miffed. “I’m not homeless! Look at these shoes! My instrument cost $1000! Not homeless. I like riding the rails. It’s my addiction”. In fact he was on his way back to Alabama to help run his family’s pecan farm after stints working as a shepherd in the northwest and picking up odd jobs as a handyman.
It was a long day but the desert along the Mexican border had a stark beauty that kept me mesmerized.
I particularly liked the red rock arrangements as we passed through southern Texas near El Paso (hard to capture on a moving train).
We turned in early as the train was due to pull into San Antonio at 5am. Our heartfelt prayers that, just this time, Amtrak would be late went unanswered.