By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
But until that announcement was made, my train was news. Press photographers trailed us in Arizona. And across America, people actually came out of their homes to wave at the embattled train. The train was cheered when it pulled into Sanderson, Texas. But unlike Amtrak, I'm getting ahead of schedule.
ON JUNE 21, AT THE 10:30 P.M. DEPARture time, I'm in my coach-car window seat at a Union Station siding. At 10:35, after a small tug, the train grinds and squeaks north, and I'm treated to the barbed-wired vista of L.A. County Jail. There, we stop for more than half an hour. I don't know why. At about 11:10, the train rolls again -- but backward -- returning to the station for a hundred yards or so before stopping for yet another half-hour, this time on a bridge over Vignes Street. Shortly before midnight, we're finally moving with what might be called confidence, swaying, creaking and clacking across the Los Angeles River, making a wide U-turn southeast. The downtown skyline and lights of Dodger Stadium recede as the Sunset Limited hugs the 10 freeway, past Cal State L.A. and out toward Pomona. About 2 a.m., near the banks of the Salton Sea, I pop a Sominex, turn off my reading light and recline into oblivion.
You must surrender any concern for punctuality in order to maintain sanity on this train. The difference between those who cherish riding the rails across the country and those who hate it is the difference between those who can let go of time, and those who can't. For the Sunset Limited is not about getting there, it's about getting there, about the conversations with strangers in the dining car or the observation car (a special carriage with swiveling seats and windows across the roof). It's about the San Gabriel Mission or a ghost town flashing by, about watching the Mojave Desert's expanses of gnarled buckthorn and greasewood chaparral yield to New Mexico's red sands and tundra-like pepper trees.
June 22, dusk: Conductor Miller points out the Rio Grande snaking to our left. After we cross over the river, he explains, we'll be in Texas. Behind a looming fence to the right lies Juarez, Mexico: unpaved roads and homes of cardboard and tin, people barefoot in rags. On a mountain of dirt, a young couple sits holding each other, watching America pass before their eyes.
June 23, 3 a.m.: A pair of burly Border Patrol agents in dark-blue uniforms and cowboy hats beam flashlights across the sleeping passengers.
5 a.m.: Two boys, their parents AWOL, giggle, run and toss a rubber ball, which careens into my pillow. Grubby hands retrieve it, scraping my face. Bleary, I see one of them, who looks about 11, on his hands and knees in the center aisle. A rolling thunder of flatulence blows out of the child for about 10 seconds, curdling for its finale. The kid stands up and screams with delight, "I farted!"
A groggy young woman staggers down the aisle clutching a blanket. She glares at me with fury, pointing at the boys: "Are these yours?"
I shake my head no. She gives them a stern lecture about the train belonging to everyone who purchased a ticket, some of whom are trying to sleep. Chastened, they settle into their seats.
3 p.m.: A man who boarded in San Antonio fumes that the train, due to depart at 6 a.m., didn't even arrive until the afternoon. "First and last time I'm ever riding Amtrak," he bristles.
A man behind him lays back in his seat, blissful as the train rocks to and fro; his stomach bulges and jiggles beneath a tropical shirt. "I luuuhv the train myself," he answers in a Louisiana drawl, sucking his teeth. "Don't really care about the taahm . . . of course, I am retaahrred."
5 p.m.: A willowy blond woman flirts with a taciturn Latino guy -- half man, half boy, straining to be cool. Says he's 16.
"I never drink," she insists, when he offers her a slug of Jack Daniel's, tucked into his sweat jacket. In the blur of conversation, she says she's 19 and wouldn't sleep with any guy until after she's known him at least two months. "I'm gonna go to my friends in the next car," she says. "Come by and get me if I don't come back."ä
"Okay," he says.
5:23 p.m.: She returns. "Why didn't you come get me?" she chirps. He shrugs. They talk.
7:15 p.m.: She takes her third slug of his Jack Daniel's. She makes a call on her cell phone.
7:17 p.m.: He shows her his tattoo just below his left nipple.
7:18 p.m.: She shows him her tattoo just below her navel.
7:30 p.m.: They're snuggling and whispering to each other. They kiss, on and off, for the next 45 minutes.
8:30 p.m.: An inebriated cowboy pleads with the conductor not to have him arrested in Houston for abusing the train staff.
9:30 p.m.: Houston Station, 10 and a half hours late. The conductor apologizes in what must be a memorized speech. My sister's waiting at the platform with her 2-year-old daughter perched on her shoulders.
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