Borderlands Day 1: Sunset Limited

This post is part of a series on Nora and Andy’s scouting adventures for Borderlands Education, Nov. 20- Dec. 20, 2018

Journeying from Charlottesville, VA to Tucson, AZ by train, Nov. 17-20, 2018

I have only to say that the light is dimming, just getting more bleak in the swampy landwaters of southern Texas. Some time in the night we will get to Houston, then San Antonio, then somehow, somewhere, the soggy puddle vastness will become the desert. How? This will most likely happen as I sleep, the machinations of the train window world will rearrange themselves into the desert like behind a curtain or during a vast, incomprehensible scene change.

Some things I’m thinking about traveling:

Going fast is privilege. This train doesn’t go faster than a car, and at most it goes almost the speed of a car. The train through the southern states was old and crammed and sticky, and my seatmate was very kind but we were also jammed, and it seemed dim even in the daytime. There is more newness on Texas’ train. There is a dining car with two different sittings, there is a cafe with a ridiculous conductor. There is a glassy observation car which makes me feel like we should be watching the alps go by rather than the soggy landwater of industrial southern Louisiana. It feels like getting off the bus from Ramallah at the first possible street corner at the end of the line of the Jerusalem light rail, and suddenly everything was quick and there was a clear automated voice and people were solemn and hopeful rather than wrung out and beholden. Can I even make this comparison? Is this an ok thing to say? I mean only that a piece of this reminds me of a piece of that. The train was held in Washington DC so the passengers delayed in Chicago could make their way down the eastern seaboard. But what about the next passengers, waiting for five hours in Greenville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Meridian? The train is necessarily a legacy, a legacy of who is waited for and who waits.

It’s so much more possible to go when you know what’s on the other side. At the rupture, there’s a sense of forsakenness, of being left at the gate, of not knowing how to proceed, or what it means to proceed, or who will meet me if I turn a different way. It is all routes and paths and entrances, all invitations and expectations. What difference it makes to know that there is one person who has acquired for me permission to pitch a tent for $5. What does it mean to go somewhere where someone is awaiting you?

People come and go on the train. Especially on the Crescent, almost no one starts in Washington and ends up in New Orleans. It is a train, in its spirit of disruption, that expects its populace to constantly change. Some people even get on just before the train arrives in New Orleans, apparently unaware of the long and weary voyage they are boarding. The knowledge of locales changes. ‘Oh, I’m just going to the next stop’ brings with it a sense of expectation, as though one should always know at least the breadth of the next stop.

I’m interested in how people’s local knowledge is splayed across geography. Are places held to each other locally, bound by each tie of expectation of what’s around the next bend? The train is a different way of knowing space. It will proceed whether or not its passengers have tethers of expectation. It knows it is going far. In New Orleans people are impressed but not surprised by the ones going to Los Angeles. The train has priorly delineated the breadth of the way, it already contains what’s coming. It’s different from the bike trip where the way unfolds as you probe the scope of each person’s local knowledge along the route. On this train, the local is already the transcontinental.

I wake up surrounded by different neighbors. We stopped in San Antonio, crouched between freight crates and a floodlight, between 11:14 and 1am. Somehow this train can change its clothes in the night, and still be in some ways the same thing. In Beaumont, TX some of the conductors got off and they called goodbye to each other based on their places of providence, ‘bye Mississippi, bye Alabama’ Maree called from the platform as two conductors rolled their bags away from the train. ‘G’bye California!’ They called back.

This must be one of the very few places where a train hurtles towards the border; all through the night, we approach Del Rio. It takes a full night of sleep to get there from San Antonio. How did the too-wetness become the scrublands of southern Texas? I almost wish the journey were slower, that the world became less different during the times we’re asleep. There is a sudden vastness, the space we awaited when we were ringed in by the leafy fall of Alabama and the leaning eeriness of the bayous.

Once away from the shorelines their difference became writable. The superdome in New Orleans by the train station that housed many displaced people during Hurricane Katrina, the massive steel railway bridge across the Mississippi, the constant bayous, the sunken trees alongside the track, sugar cane and flooded rice fields.

People shuffle by on this boat of a train and Elwood makes his creepy dramatic comical morning announcement from the cafe car. We pass through the ranges of Alpine and Marfa north of Big Bend, where the jagged peaks constantly surge upwards. In these vastlands of western Texas, the scrub proceeds widely, bison or cows intersperse the grazing lands. An aerostat is tethered to the ground: this blimp that can see a jackrabbit running, used for patrolling the border. It’s just like the blimp that flew over East Jerusalem on shabbat which I was told on the Ir Amim tour could count eyelashes.

My heart leaps to be in El Paso, where we disembark to buy homemade green chile burritos from a lady’s cart, Trans Mountain is many-colored and majestic, Juarez’s iconic red X sculpture stands with hands splayed. A passenger asks for my help finding the stairs back on the train saying she has lost her eyesight, and thanks me by telling me I have a beautiful face. We cross the trickling constricted Rio Grande and rattle right along the border fence before opening out to New Mexican vastness south of the Gila Mountains.

What does it mean to be traveling to the border? Not as a point of passage, but as a site of confrontation. The surveyors of the western border never expected this terrain to be a site that would draw not only migration but commerce and community. A member of the Joint United States and Mexican Boundary Commission described, ‘much of this country, that by those residing at a distance is imagined to be a perfect paradise, is a sterile water, utterly worthless for any purpose than to constitute a barrier or natural line of demarcation between two neighboring nations.’ The fact of border drew settlement, and the railroad’s route at the edge of the border is no coincidence. This route for a southern transcontinental route was part of the impetus for the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. In 1877 the Southern Pacific Railroad crossed the Colorado River at Yuma, and reached Tucson in 1880. Rachel St. John writes in Line in the Sand, ‘On the site of the western border there had simply been no ‘there’ there before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo’

After 3 days of travel by train, my gut flops at the thought that Tucson is four hours away, which feels imminent. In the observation car I read Adrienne Rich’s lines that Hanah sent me, ‘O you who love clear edges/ more than anything…watch the edges that blur.’

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