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Thoughts and Hallucinations

Lamy to LA

The railroad story from the previous home page:

The town of Lamy, named after the archbishop that death came for in Willa Cather’s novel of New Mexico, is a cluster of buildings around a train station. That same station explains why Santa Fe looks like it does today. When the railroad first came, in 1880, it bypassed Santa Fe and headed right for Albuquerque. This, needless to say, knocked the capital of the old colonial empire right off its centuries old throne. No more starring role as the crossroads of the Santa Fe trail and the El Camino Real. Now what? The answer was a decision to lure the passengers up a spur line to a newly minted tourist town. “Pueblo Revival” architecture spread like a virus and produced the attractive and contrived town that draws in crowds of paying visitors today.

The Lamy train station, “LMY” in Amtrak code, sits peacefully now in our post-railroad era. Two trains a day make quick stops, on their way to Chicago in one direction, Los Angeles in the other. We decided to take a ride, just for the hell of it. It being February, Los Angeles was the obvious choice.
Why ride a train? I’m not sure. Terminal disgust--you should excuse the pun--with air travel is one reason. My grandfather worked for the Burlington Railroad in Chicago until he retired--I still have his gold watch--and he used to take me and my cousin for rides around the Midwest. I imprinted on trains. Maybe that was it.

But when we pulled up to the old station, that’s not what I thought of. A two episode time warp took over. First my imagination travelled back to the 19th century. I stood on the platform and looked around at the familiar arid desert landscape. The whistle of the Chicago bound train blew in the distance and I saw it round the curve and head for the station. What a revolution the train must have been for New Mexico. An isolated desert village now connected with Chicago and Los Angeles and points between and beyond. Not to mention a telegraph that could send a message anywhere. And a “mountain” time zone, that being a demand of the railroads so that they could standardize national schedules. What did that do to people’s minds? It must have changed how they thought.

That feeling of a long-ago revolution in time and space picked me up and carried me into more recent memories of my lives in Vienna, in Austria. The Suedbahnhof, the southern train station, was the point of origin for trains to and from Turkey and the lands of the former Yugoslavia, the sources of the “guest workers” who immigrated to find work. I used the station as well for travel to work in the south of Austria and in Croatia. Sometimes I’d get there a little early and have a coffee or a drink with Turks or Yugoslavs who’d come there just to feel the connection with home. I’d tell them the story of how I was a guest professor and when I went into the police station to register the cop didn’t know what this long-hair in jeans was all about and so, in perfect diplomatic Austrian style, slid two forms across the desk, one for foreign visitors and one for guest workers, to see which one I’d take. The story always made them laugh, native Viennese being figures of fun for them. And then they’d go back to their conversations about what was going on at home. Same sense of connection, same sense of a train station as a land link to the rest of the world that made you think of your connection to it when you entered its local space.

The Chicago train pulled into the Lamy station and interrupted my dual nostalgia. A young guy came into the waiting room. He carried an empty plastic beer cup and hiccupped and stumbled a bit. He had gotten on the train in Albuquerque to see his mother off and, in the middle of affectionate farewells, looked out the window and noticed that Albuquerque was sliding backwards. No problem. A phone call was made and Amtrak just put him on our train when it arrived and sent him back to Albuquerque. He brought me back to the local. The train might connect with the rest of the world, but we were still in New Mexico.

Lamy, and then later our stay in downtown LA at the other end of the trip, are really the story here, but as a service to other potential travelers let me say a few words about the train. We bought a roomette in a sleeper car with two beds, shared bathrooms in the same car, meals included. The car attendant greeted us by name when we boarded and showed us the ropes. Staff were uniformly competent and kind, even the attendant on the return trip who sent us to a late dinner and then demanded that the beds come down before ten so we didn’t have time to watch our movie on the computer. Bourgeois life is loaded with disappointments. The food was ok, nothing spectacular, but you have to sit with other people when you eat, not our favorite thing--one set of table companions were fun, one were ok, one were boring as dry toast, and one was a self-centered motor-mouthed nightmare.

And--it’s probably a matter of taste--but sleeping on a train, for an old guy who wakes up during the night and gets up early, it was a dream, both literarlly and metaphorically, on a fold-down bed designed for comfort, though not wide enough for anyone addicted to spread-eagle toss-and-turn sleeping style. Maybe I regressed to the trips with my grandfather and slept like a kid, I don’t know, but I wish I could sleep like that every night.

But--the compartment is small. Unlike European first-class sleepers, there is not an inch to spare. If you get up at night when the bunks are down, you have to hold in your stomach to get into your jeans with so little space between the edge of the bed and the door. Because roomettes are built into both sides of the car, the aisle between them is narrow--see the picture--to the point where two adults can’t pass, never mind if one or both of them are overweight.

Would I do it again? I’m not sure. If you buy early and don’t travel in peak times and share a roomette, it costs about as much as two non-stop early purchase web tickets to LA, and of course you get food on the train. The train takes 18 hours, though. It’s hard to get much work done in the roomette, though the second day on the trip home the “view car” wasn’t so full so I could grab a table and turn into a Protestant ethic machine while watching the distant Sandia mountains grow in the windows as we approached Albuquerque. I checked to see if I could take the train to Washington DC for an upcoming meeting. No, on my own it would cost a fortune. For example, you have to buy two roomettes each way because you change trains in Chicago. And a train from Lamy to San Antonio--another job I have to do--would be a nightmare. You can’t get there from here except by changing trains on some other planet.

I think if prices were competitive with the airlines and the connections were possible and I knew there’d be a workspace available outside the roomette I’d take trains a lot more. But that’ll never happen because in America public transportation is supposed to be profitable, and of course it never can be. It’s public money whose payoff is quality of life for both humans and their environment, a concept that doesn’t work among our fearless leaders. But I’d take it to Chicago or LA again, for work or for the hell of it, as long as the price was within airfare range.

And Lamy, I’ll drive down there again another day just to see if it feels the same. A little historical perspective on how technology changes consciousness might help see things more clearly today.

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