Sweet highway, heading northeast. I could feel some of the problems blowing off my shoulders, hope on that center line, a new town, new place, towards more unmarked canvas, an unwritten page. Toward a meeting with myself at track’s end, country’s end, as far in the future as I could push it.Afternoon rain slicked the highway as I passed through small Mormon towns. I could feel the family closeness, knew that everyone was watching and being watched. A live soap. It got to be dinnertime, and I found myself at an intersection staring at Mom’s cafe, a tawny brick building with a square Western facade and pickup trucks parked everywhere. Home cooking, the sign added gratuitously. I tried to remember the three warnings of the West: never eat at a place called Mom’s, never play cards with a man called Doc, what was the third? I ate at Mom’s anyway. What the hell. The place was filled with families and men coming in after work. I stare at the local paper and wonder if I want to drive all night. One of the fringe benefits of being a brakeman–turning day into night. It’s like living near the Pole; it’s always daytime for a rail. On the map I find Moab, like the name, and mark it for my destination for today.
What I really want is to derail somewhere, not to go on with this pursuit of work, to come to rest so that the babble can stop, so that an overwhelming beauty can color me. There could be no further beauty than this country here, chocolate mesa fingers washed in lavender distances, streaks of green and rose, the grey highway following the contours of the land. Navajo sandstone bluffs turned on a lathe, saturation of color dependent on the changing light, a landscape continually repainting itself. I could have just stopped here, let the railroad find me, let my careening mind go on alone. I could have just stopped, but instead drove on, pushed the curtain of evening through the deeper canyonlands courting the swollen rush of the Colorado River. Hearing her now in the dark, I take only one breath of her swift presence, and then I flee. I inhale the icy ideas of her, get close to the great geographical imperative, the defining arterial fact of the Western states, feel her power, her tumbling mist on my face, and I turn away to the south. Like my own power, my own river of strength within, it is too mysterious and frightening now. Drawn to it, I turn away when I feel its presence near me.
The town of Moab appeared out of the silence of canyonlands like the neon blaze of Reno out of the high desert. Motels and hotels, kayak rentals and four-wheel trips, Americans playing hard in their two-week vacations. Ghetto blasters raging in the camp-grounds till after midnight, sounds of drunken arguments centering on concepts of manhood, fights over fender benders in overcrowded trailer parks. I put in my brakeman’s earplugs and sleep next to my car. I still feel peeled. Way too vulnerable to be in a herd of yahoos having fun. I want a library-like silence stretching from the Rockies to the Sea of Cortez. I find such a haven in Tucumcari, home of 2,000 motel rooms and 4,000 souls.
Tucumcari stands at the beginning of the panhandle and the end of the canyonlands, where the erosions and canyons are shallow but still rust-colored, where there is more flatland and grasses and less gorge and riverbed. The Canadian River borders the town, forms amiably into man-made lakes, and continues as a warm desert stream, spending most of its energy underground. Cottonwoods and humidity mark its presence in the landscape. It being summer, the sky is dominant with thunderheads and dark slanting bridges to the earth, seen a few miles off but gone when you get there. Only a transitory dampness sinking into the fragrant sand. It can rain a few feet away, as you stand dry in the raincloud’s cool shadow. The rattlesnakes thrive and grow long and fat with eating prairie dogs and mice.
Everything in the town was falling down: paint peeling, adobe crumbling, phones broken and unrepaired since Mountain Bell moved to Clovis. I found the dusty station and ghostly freightyard baking in the 100-degree heat and met the new trainmaster, a huge man bumped to this outpost as punishment and marking time until he could take his pension. His look was long suffering, but he was trying to change it into the hostility trainmasters were supposed to project. It didn’t quite come off. It was just too hot. He went through the usual harassment interview and handed me the two-hundred-question rules exam. After I had sweated through it one more time, I marked up as a Tucumcari brakeman on the extra board.
For the first time in my life I was really alone. I checked into a seedy motel and paid by the week. The manager was an alcoholic who had come out here with his wife to try to make something work out. This was their retirement move, and they had taken on the motel sight unseen, with just as assurance from the owner that Tucumcari’s fortunes were on the upswing. The second week I was there, a drunk driver drove his car into their living room while they were eating breakfast.
“It’s a good thing it happened when it did, because any other time I’d a been sitting there on the couch watching the TV, and he’d have hit me sure as taxes.”
The manager looked at me resentfully as if all this was somehow my fault. If only he had charged me more rent, his life might be better. I thought they were ripping me off as it was. My room was a dump, and I only spent two nights a week in it anyway, but I could tell that they resented my being there at all, using the swamp cooler or turning on a tap. They probably resented my being young and having a good job and having the freedom to turn up in a place like Tucumcari and leave again.
I didn’t have a phone and couldn’t get one unless I was willing to wait a month and pay an outrageous fee. And so I used my trainman’s right to be called by a callboy who would knock on my door an hour before they needed me. I phoned Naomi every week from the only working pay phone in town, outside the 7-11 store. It was kind of beautiful sometimes, talking outside when summer thunderheads would come sweeping by in the late afternoon and dump a few feet away, filling the air with the smell of wet dust and static. Since there were three phones in a row you could also eavesdrop on other people’s lives–one of the only sources of amusement in Tucumcari. The eavesdropping was different here than in Utah, however. There wasn’t that disapproving edge, that stiffening moral cloud hanging overhead. Folks here were just plain nosy. They didn’t want to be the only ones with their laundry hanging out to dry. The Tucumcari laundromat or beauty parlor was a hotbed of information.
“Did you say you worked for the railroad, honey? Why that other girl that does–you know Sandy Burnett–just bought a house on the eastside, you know the one. I gave her a perm just the other day, looks right nice on her. Look good on you too. Say I heard she had some trouble the other night, was drinking and driving that car of hers too fast through town, gave the trooper some lip, too, I heard. Don’t tell her I said so, but you know this is a small town and not much gets by. Not much at all. Where you from, honey? What does your boyfriend think about you bein’ way out here?”
The railroad small world did me one favor out here, though, when I recognized Cadillac, the old head I worked with in El Centro, climbing off a caboose in the Tucumcari yard. Although I hadn’t realized it then, he had impressed me because he was a sober man. Impressed me and made me feel slightly uncomfortable. Now I was just glad to see him, as if a cobweb feeling had been brushed away.
“I saw your name on the extra board. I figured it was you.”
“Well you look right at home here. I thought you had a horse ranch and everything in El Centro.”
“Decided to move it on out here. Say, I heard one of them Louisiana boys talking about you, saying women don’t belong on the railroad. I told him the way it was. That he ought to be glad we got one that does her work. And that’s just the truth.”
“Well, these old boys here don’t seem to want me to do any work. I had a conductor the other day order me to sit on the caboose. Said his wife would kill him if she heard he made me walk the train. I wanted to get off that crummy and get away from his foul cigar.”
“Yeah, I know the one. God I hate a cigar.”
The mainline run from Tucumcari was to Carrizozo, a distance of 180 miles. The tracks ran along the ridges of the Sacramento Mountains, averaging 6,000 feet. It was a roller coaster run, a hoghead’s show to handle the air on a long train over such undulating territory. A lot of the new engineers weren’t up to it, and it was common for trains to break in two because of problems with slack. This provided the train crew with their only exercise on this run–changing knuckles. There were no industries to spot, no cars to pick up, and the snakes were so bad that trainmen didn’t usually walk their trains at every siding. They just wandered off a little into the desert and turned off their light, or hunkered down behind a tumbleweed and smoked. When the slack started to run, signaling she was starting to pull, the rear man would appear about twenty cars up the train, and swing aboard. When they had the Navajo track gangs in to replace the ties on this run, they spent more time killing rattlers than they did laying rail.
For a trainman, this run was a twelve-hour stretch of trying to stay awake and keep the hoghead awake. Since business was booming, you often got only eight or ten hours off between runs. As soon as you had your “rest” you were back on a train. Never the same hours of sleep, no pattern from day to day, week to week, month to month. Once on the train, there was no place to take a break, no stopping for coffee or meals. And nothing but darkness and desert to look at. Under these circumstances, people doze off occasionally. I was having additional problems with the schedule. I used to use alcohol to get to sleep immediately after a run, but now my body was on its own. Often I couldn’t sleep and would end up having to stay awake two days or nights at a stretch, until I could collapse at the appropriate time for the railroad’s needs. Railroad accidents get blamed on alcohol, but the true culprit is lack of sleep. The newspaper never reports whether the engineer tried to lay off and was refused, or how many twelve-hour days in a row he had put in. It was not uncommon for crews to work steadily for months with no days off–no time to get fully rested, pay bills, do laundry, put gas in the car. Legally, you die on the federal Hours-of-Service law after twelve hours, but there is no regulation about how many of those days can occur back to back. Twelve hours from midnight to noon is a long time after a month of it with short sleep at the home terminal and disturbed sleep in the substandard company dorms at the change point.
The company lodging at Carrizozo was a case in point. The buildings had been thrown together in two weeks, using the cheapest possible materials. The walls were so thin you could hear trainmen snoring in adjacent rooms, and when a crewcaller came to pound on a door to give someone a call, the whole row of rooms shook. Since this was happening at intervals all day and all night, it was hard to get undisturbed sleep. They had located the dorms, moreover, four hundred yards from the mainline which was on a grade. All day and all night you heard ten units of power opening up to pull out of town, it often seemed, directly through your room. The walls would vibrate with a continuous diesel throb, chug-a-chug-a-chug-a whirr, chug-a chug-a chug-a whirr, hmmmmmmmmmmm, varoom. Objects would dance on the window baseboards. There were two ways to sleep through it–get dead drunk or get completely exhausted. The union complained about the noise level, and the Feds came by with a noise-o-meter and pronounced the levels acceptable. I couldn’t imagine when they had done the testing. When there were no trains around, obviously. Or did this say something about all the levels the Feds say are unharmful?
At any rate, I wasn’t drinking, so I had to get frazzled before I could sleep. And other than sleeping, there wasn’t much for a sober person to do in Carrizozo. It was a mountain town of about 2,000 people and four eating establishments, two of which weren’t open much. The other two catered to rails and were primarily bars. One of these was subsidized by the railroad to provide an open restaurant for crews at any time of night. The owner took the money and invested it in enlarging the bar. He was no dummy. He made a lot of money off the rails. Well, what were the choices? No moviehouse, no library, no gym, no twenty-four-hour coffeeshop, no bookstore, no pleasant place to hang out in at the dorms–just one big rec room with one TV set tuned to a sports or soft-core violent porn movie channel. No place to store bicycles or play an instrument or work out. Of course people went to the bar. You couldn’t even listen to a radio in your room without waking up the whole row. And when the railroad decided to get punitive and crack down on drinking, did they stop subsidizing the bar? provide recreational alternatives? open a decent meals-only restaurant? Hell, no. They just hired spotters to hang out in the bar they subsidized to turn people in. The owner provided both the finks and the booze. Sober in Carrizozo, I sat in my room and read. I took up jogging and ran the dirt trails leading towards the base of the mountains. I played my flute over the hum of the laundry machines, sat on the fresh towels and tried to carve out some good space for myself, space that would bring my strength back, something that seemed far away and long gone.
The only benevolence around was what came from New Mexico itself, the landscape I passed through at different times of day or night. I can only say that it was never the same picture. I never got tired of it, I never felt I had been there before. It was the quality of the light and its constant subtle changes. I got lost in it the way I got lost in Monet’s Water Lilies in its serene room at the Museum of Modern Art. Here ranchos needed thirty acres to feed one cow, and the land was for the most part undivided by fences, and the fences themselves were only wire stapled to mesquite posts, collecting tumbleweeds and blown debris. The small towns we ran through–Santa Rosa, Vaughn, Corona–were poor. But commonly a run-down stucco house or beat-up trailer would have a brand new horsetrailer in the yard, and beautiful animals munching hay under a lean-to. Their houses weren’t much, but the horses traveled first class. The air was filled with the scent of pinyon, juniper, and mesquite, sometimes in bursts of fragrance released by a sudden rainstorm. A high-moving cloud would darken the greens of the trees, and the red-stippled soil would saturate and blacken. Then patches of light and dark would dance on the amphitheater of the rounded mountaintops.
It was looking out on this panoramic emptiness from the window of a moving train that I began my slow understanding of what serenity could be. My mind was a whirlwind, a spinning vortex of resentments, anger, and fear. These psychic tornadoes could spin themselves out here without encountering traffic jams or social relations. The other rails thought of me as antisocial. Aside from the small twelve-step meetings I attended in Tucumcari, this was true. It seemed like Tucumcari only had about six people in the program, and a lot of them were as new at this as I was. I went places with these people occasionally, and once I went out on the town with the other woman brakie, Sandy. The bar scene, however was too overpoweringly unattractive. No beautiful people in the fast lane here. Just balls-out, roaring, fighting drunks. Sandy and I tried to be sociable and picked up some construction workers from the project out at the dam. Like everyone else in the bar, however, they were too drunk to dance or talk. I got vertigo, wondering if I was going to get puked on in the middle of a two-step. And so I mostly visited the library or drove maniacally up and down Tucumcari’s main street between its two poles of commerce, K Mart and Thrifty’s. Peace came sometimes on those long mainline runs into the desert or when I was too exhausted by the crazy hours to have insomnia. Peace did not come naturally. Not for a long time.
I also developed a strange compulsion to buy things. I got fixated on what Texas Monthlyrefers to as the crowning achievement of Western civilization–the cowboy boot. I made a mental connection between this obsession and quitting drinking, but I thought of it uncritically in terms of expense.
“Well, I’m saving two hundred dollars a week not drinking, so I can spend that money on boots.”
I didn’t think, “Well, I gave up one obsession, so I better replace it fast with another so that I don’t have to look at what’s really bothering me.” I hadn’t gotten that far yet in self-understanding. So I bought boots.