Riding Amtrak is what public space is all about: democratic and full of surprises. On the trip from LA I sat next to Raul, a retired nuclear engineer headed to Albuquerque to spoil his grandkids. [Note: I didn’t prompt any of what follows]. The waste problem makes him conflicted about nuclear energy–pack pools with radioactive spent fuel rods and wait hundreds of thousands of years? What really keeps him up at night is why we’re “committing collective suicide” with extractive energy. “Don’t people care about their grandchildren?” he asked. At his recommendation, I picked up The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight.
Across the aisle, an obese young mom fed Cheetos and back-to-back movies to her two adorable children, no older than five. She alternately smacked them on back of the head and tenderly tucked them under a pink fleece blanket. “Dad always did that when he was drunk,” she said loudly into her phone to a sister, perhaps. “I can’t believe Felipe” (a brother?) “is doing the same thing now.”
David, a college student with a backwards white ballcap, crossing the US on a “Free Hugs” tour, lent me his Samsung for a wifi hotspot so I could send some documents off. He gives a good hug. People have told him he’s saving lives.
These trips are taking on a familiar pattern. Last fall en route to Walla Walla I remember waking up under a big leather coat as we rolled through pine forests along the river. My seatmate, an older gentleman, had noticed my goosebumps as I slept curled against the window. On one trip back to Tucson through the wind turbine country outside Palm Springs, a little girl of another angsty young mother crawled into my lap and colored for an hour.
People’s smiling eyes dart together when the conductors get on the intercom, cracking themselves up with the same grand announcements and hyperbolic praise of the dining cart. Through the overhead glass of the viewing car, I’ve seen desert thunderstorms whip lightning onto jagged mountain profiles. Triple rainbows as dessert. Expanses of desolate grazed scrublands baking under the sun. Graffiti-lined corridors of coal and gas freight trains in waiting. Herds of thin wild horses galloping across undulating hills of dying piñon pines. I’ve criss-crossed the Central Arizona Project canal and blinked as its angular snakepath flashes white with the passing sun. The ripples of the LA “river”–half trickle, half green slime–lap thinly through the concrete tube car racing scene of Grease as we approach Union Station. Time to roll out of town.