Passing El Paso

A view of a sandy mesa rising from the Arizona desert under a clear blue sky

Arizona!

I have never, ever been to Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas before today (December 1st) (and yes, this will be posted later because of internet issues).

Arizona in the morning

Arizona in the morning

The woman sitting next to me got off at Yuma in the wee hours, so that was the first I saw of the state of Arizona. I got in a little more sleep until, hours later, we arrived at Maricopa (which is about 30-40 miles away from Phoenix). That’s when the sun was rising, so I gave up on getting any more sleep.

It's a cotton field in Arizona

It’s a cotton field in Arizona

Right now, I am on the Sunset Limited, a passenger train service which has been in continuous operation since 1894. Connecting New Orleans to Los Angeles, it was the second transcontinental line built in the United States, and was in some ways a major improvement over the first transcontinental line. For example, it doesn’t have to cross the Sierra or Rocky Mountains, and it is much easier to keep running in winter.

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Keep in mind that when this service started, there was no Panama Canal, so this train line made it a lot easier to move people and good between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

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At one time, the Sunset Limited went as far north as San Francisco. It (briefly) went as far southeast as Miami. After Hurricane Katrina, all service east of New Orleans was suspended (yup, even more than ten years later, they *still* haven’t restored service) so now the Sunset Limited is, as it originally was, a Los Angeles/New Orleans route.

The sightseeing lounge on the Sunset Limited train

The sightseeing lounge on the Sunset Limited train

When riding Amtrak, I’m only in my assigned seat when I’m trying to rest/sleep. When I’m trying to actually do something, I prefer to be in the sightseeing lounge (for example, this post was written in, you guessed it, the sightseeing lounge).

This was the tag above my seat on the train. The tag indicates that I am sitting at the window, which station I will get off the train, and shows that the aisle seat is currently unoccupied (this was after the woman sitting next to me got off at Yuma - she was nice, but I was still happy not to have anybody next to me on my second night in the train - more space for me!)

This was the tag above my seat on the train. The tag indicates that I am sitting at the window, which station I will get off the train, and shows that the aisle seat is currently unoccupied (this was after the woman sitting next to me got off at Yuma – she was nice, but I was still happy not to have anybody next to me on my second night in the train – more space for me!)

Amtrak has a system where each seat is marked by the passenger’s destination. This helps the crew keep track of who needs to be woken up in the middle of the night to get off at places like Yuma, which seats will become available at the next station, etc.

A trailer/RV park in Arizona

A trailer/RV park in Arizona

So, who rides Amtrak? That depends on the line. There are a lot of foreign tourists on the Coast Starlight, for example. The Sunset Limited, however, seems to mostly serve people who live somewhere along or near its route. Since that route goes through southern California, southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and Texas, that means a lot of the passengers are Latino.

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Sure, I’m not the only tourist, though most of the tourists seem to be backpacking types. For example, I talked to a young woman who flew from Vermont to L.A. just so she could take the train back to Vermont (and stop at many cities/towns along the way). However, generally, the passengers are people who have less income/assets than typical airline passengers. Many of them live in small towns, and have to arrange rides to get to/from the train station. Amtrak passengers, obviously, aren’t the poorest people either – they can afford train tickets after all – but the ridership does tend to lean towards people from towns rather than cities, and towards people of very modest economic means.

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To give a sense of the range of the passengers’ economic situations, I’ll offer two examples. One man I talked to lives in Houston, and he had gone to Portland for a vacation and had a cruise up the Colombia River. He was clearly fairly affluent. On the other end, I played cards with a man who didn’t want to tell his whole story, but he said this much: he got on the train in Benson, Arizona, he needs to get to Atlanta, Georgia, and his train ticket will take him as far as Shreveport, Louisiana. Why Shreveport? Because he ran out of money to buy a train ticket which went any further. He figures that Shreveport is a lot closer to Atlanta than Benson, and that he’ll find a way to Atlanta. I reckon most passengers are between these two guys in terms of economic means.

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One of the pleasures of riding the train – and hanging out in the lounge – is being able to talk to people of various walks of life, whether it’s woman who lives in Mesa, Arizona who going to Houston to help her brother who needs a liver transplant and says that looking at all the desert scenery is helping her calm down, or the guy who was born in El Paso in 1931 talking about how the southwest has changed during his lifetime. and to overhear other people’s conversations. I couldn’t understand the conversations in Spanish, but just listening to the conversations in English was more than interesting enough.

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The Southwest is beautiful. There is almost always some kind of mountain in sight (at least past Maricopa), and some of the desert mesas are really lovely. Sometimes the shrubbery seems monotonous, but at other times it’s fascinating to look at. A highlight was seeing all of the saguaro cactii.

A picture of a saguaro cactus

I find it ironic that southern Arizona is greener than southern California right now.

Downtown Tuscon, Arizona

Downtown Tuscon, Arizona

I got off the train for about five minutes in Tuscon.

Apparently, there was some major feud between two men, and one of them was shot and killed at Tuscon train station.

Apparently, there was some major feud between two men, and one of them was shot and killed at Tuscon train station.

Arizona mostly is desert. However, occasionally one could see these housing developments. There are also plenty of trailer/RV parks in Arizona, particularly near the towns. Once in a while, in the middle of the desert, there would be a lone dilapidated building, or set of trailers, connected to the world outside only with a dirt road and an electric line.

A housing development in the desert.

A housing development in the desert.

Southern New Mexico basically looks like southern Arizona, but less green, and the two towns I passed through (Lourdesburg and Deming) looked more run down than the Arizona towns I saw.

Lourdesburg, New Mexico

Lourdesburg, New Mexico

The scenery entering the Rio Grande Valley / El Paso was dramatic. My photos do not capture it at its best.

The train has to curve around cliffs to get into the Rio Grande Valley.

The train has to curve around cliffs to get into the Rio Grande Valley.

I think this is the Rio Grande river, but I'm not sure.

I think this is the Rio Grande river, but I’m not sure.

I also got to see Mexico for the very first time today. At one point the train is only about fifty feet away from the fence which marks the U.S.A./Mexico border. Ciudad Juarez looks quite different from El Paso even though they are right next to each other.

This is Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. At the bottom of the picture, you can see part of the fence which marks the border between the U.S.A and Mexico.

This is Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. At the bottom of the picture, you can see part of the fence which marks the border between the U.S.A and Mexico.

Because the train was behind schedule, the El Paso stop was very short, but I still got out of the train for a few minutes.

El Paso Train Station

El Paso Train Station

In the evening, the train stopped in Alpine, Texas, for half and hour.

A mural in Alpine, Texas.

A mural in Alpine, Texas.

Alpine is more than 4000 feet (over a thousand meters) above sea level, so it was chilly.

The train in Alpine, Texas.

The train in Alpine, Texas.

Overall, I am struck by the vastness of the southwest. It seems the train went for hours and hours through terrain with hardly any human habitation. It is a humbling experience. And it was not just me – other passengers were talking about how the land is greater than humanity, that the desert was here before us, and it will still be there after we’re gone.

One final Arizona picture.

One final Arizona picture.

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5 thoughts on “Passing El Paso

  1. Pingback: Riding the Zephyr through the Mountains | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

  2. Pingback: Transportation Is a Utility: Thoughts on Airplanes and Trains (Part 1) | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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