Monday, July 30, 2007

Ode to the Southwest Chief

It was afternoon in Chicago
When we pulled out of town.

Galesburg was nondescript.
I looked upon it
From the window
Over dessert
With a travel-writing acquaintance
Just met in the dining car,
That felt as if
I should have had
A long chiffon dress
And a longer
Cigarette holder.
He should have been wearing spats
And I should have entered in a hat.

It wasn’t much later we crossed
The Mississippi
Molten gold in the setting sun,
Looking exactly like Charlie Pride sung.
The longest double-decked, swing-span bridge,
Piers and boats gave way to rails,
Illinois gave way to Iowa.

We didn’t so much stop at Fort Madison, as pause
For a breath or two,
And then we were moving again,
My cigarette lay half-smoked on a platform in the sun,
A sentence hovered, unfinished.

Other rivers kept lazily in step
Through Montana,
As amber waves of grain
Became fields of cattle
That did not turn to watch us pass,
Though farmers at a railroad crossing
Waved with unexpected bonhomie.

Large clouds rolled across the spacious skies.
It was a rainy night in Kansas City.

We paced the platform uncertainly
Not knowing what we waited for,
Nor, more importantly, for how long.
The freight train passed us as we pulled out,
Leaving behind the other dinner companion
Who told me passionately
That this was a city
Far greater than NYC,
But she was only fourteen.

We joined the Santa Fe trail,
The dark Missourie flowed beneath us unseen,
And I slept, rocked by the rhythm
And the knowledge that
There were no more
Stops for me
This side of Colorado.

I woke with the memory
Of a long wait on the dark prairie,
For an Express this time
And another, soon after.

After scrambled eggs and toast,
In the company of a lady
Who’d come a long way from Boston
And seemed to feel she’d come
A longer way than I,
We came to La Junta.

We stopped long enough, Mountain Time,
For cigarettes and coffee in mountain air.
The pack of boy scouts
Were finally let out
To let go a little bit.
They called out “All board”,
And wouldn’t let me hang out the door.
So I peered over their shoulders instead.

The engine curved before us
As the railroad twisted upwards
And the whistle seemed to change its tune
As we climbed the Raton Pass.
Seven thousand feet higher, the trees grew thicker
And flowers grew purple on the ground.

Raton Station was pretty,
With yellow brick buildings and Rene told us
This is where the boy scouts come.

The Observation Car was strangely empty
Without excited children in scarves.
I remember a very young one
Offering to share his iPod.
I declined, choosing wisely
Not to explain
The involuntary playlist
On shuffle and repeat in my head:
No signboard passes that I cannot sing,
No landscape I haven’t already
Seen in song.

Now there was just an old soldier
With shattered eyes,
Who said he still believed.

The vastness of New Mexico
Rolled away to infinity
Thorny hills rose
From badlands where only shrubs grow.

Horses cantered in corrals,
Jackrabbits bounded beside the rails
And white-bottomed deer
Turned their faces resolutely away
On the banks of swollen streams
That would be called rivers
In other lands,
Whose lakes are not as large as seas.

I chose to lunch privately in my room,
My need for conversation was small.

It was windy in Albuquerque.

Another kind of Indian sold silver
And blankets on the platform.
I bought a tiny tomahawk
And the obligatory dreamcatcher
(The one I have on my wall
Is ragged now, after all,
Sagging under the dream it caught).

The station is old and evocative.
My dinner companion
(Was it only yesterday?)
Showed me around,
But briefly.
I was nervous
Of being out of sight of my train.

So I wasted quite half an hour
Standing by my door
In the unpicturesque part,
Striking my match in a gale.
But I wasn’t the only one,
I listened to tales of fishing
In New Hampshire,
In between
Assuring a harried person
With luggage
That this was indeed Car 331.

A railwayman whistled,
His walkie talkie crooned,
The engine driver accompanied on the horn.
We set off with a swing,
A rock and a roll
Along Route 66.

Gallup gave on to the redness of Arizona.

Ghosts of possibility clung
To rock sculptures and mesmeric plains,
An aching almostness of dust clouds
In the wake of horsemen
Riding hard to meet this or any other train.

When the day came to its long-drawn-out end
A lightning storm unfolded
On an Imax horizon.
The hours that followed
Did so unnoticed.

As Harry Potter marched to his death,
Winslow passed me by.

I made an exception for Flagstaff,
But was driven back by the storm.
Wind is just a struggle,
But rain has to be a surrender,
So I returned to Potter.

It was much later, after my reprieve,
That I looked out to find
The full moon was sketching
A great, grand canyon
Lavishly on the star-spangled night.

I slept, with a sense of largesse received
For the second time.

Some time in the early hours,
We entered California.
Needles, Barstow and the Mojave desert
Flashed by quietly,
I saw the City of Angels at dawn.
Pink skies, lilac hills and squalor,
Where palm trees grow and rents are low
And the feeling is laid back.

And I’ve seen palm trees before
But these seemed larger
Than life itself.

As we pulled into Union Station
Through a side entrance of LA,
They called out to Rene,
Waving jubilantly,
That I’d come from sea
To shining sea
A full hour early.

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