Fushan kids back in bus

California ZephyrMay 2011:
Cross-Country Reality Check



Finally we make the descent but we don't come into any idyllic valley of my imagination. We come into the flatlands of Nevada. It is almost like a desert now, with only little tufts of vegetation. Is it green or is it brown? Does it exist or do we just need to wipe our glasses to make it all go away? It is like the badlands of the old John Wayne movies. It makes you want to own a gun. But perhaps I exaggerate. A closer look at ground level would probably reveal great ecological treasures. It is hard to see them from the train, however.

At this point we had picked up more passengers along the way, and there were the inane cell-phone conversations to put up with. The louder the conversation, the dumber, of course. Fortunately, the coverage is not too good across Nevada, which made it tolerable. If one thing I have learned in my travels, it is this: He or she who has the least to say is usually the loudest talker and the longest. It is as if by saying much and and saying it as loud as possible, some content may emerge. It doesn't. But the rest of us have to put up with this or move. I have become quite adept at moving, always spotting alternative space in my environment. It is important to spot different spaces within the same environment—front, middle, or back of observation car, for example—and completely other environments—cafe, restaurant, lounge ... but even then you can't always evade such people.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are some extremely nice people you meet on the train. They are usually quite types and always they are thoughtful. An older guy named Arnold comes to mind. I don't remember exactly where on the train we met. We may have both been escaping a cell-phone user when we moved to a booth in the back of the observation lounge.


Time to move.

Arnold grew up on a farm in Arkansas. He told me how the different farm families used to share almost everything they grew. They didn't have much, he said, but they always seemed to have an excess of milk. They saved it in cans and a guy came around in a truck and bought it from them. The little extra money they got from that was welcome. Later, he told me, he drove trucks cross-country. In fact, the reason he was taking the California Zephyr was this: He had driven the same route many years and was curious to see what it looked like from the train. He had the route memorized and could tell me exactly where we were at any point in time and where we were headed next.

He was slow-talking, humorous, and intelligent. Hi eyes danced with light when he spoke. We was also a "lefty" from way back. But it wasn't really politics per se. It was the way he grew up and what he had come to believe in.

He told me the story of when he made a run to Juarez one time to pick up vegetables. When he got there, there were no vegetable to pick up.

"The company had decided it was cheaper to ship them by train," he said. "So the Mexican truckers blew up one of the trestles along the route."

He said the next time he made the trip the vegetables were there, packed and ready, courtesy of the Mexican truckers.

Arnold was not a guy who believed in blowing things up, mind you; but he was sympathetic to someone who was trying to earn a living and getting screwed by those only interested in the highest possible profit.

Arnold and I had other little talks along the way.

It turned out he was married and the wife was along. They had rented a sleeping car and she was sleeping her way to Chicago. He referred to her as "my sweetie." From time to time he would say, "I think I better go check on my sweetie." I only once met her. She was a short, stout little woman with wiry gray hair like springs—hardly your image of a "sweetie." But then I noticed her smile and the twinkle in her eyes. She was constantly poking fun and joking with Arnold. It was flirting at its best.

Wiry springs for hair,
flabby arms and big buttocks,
she's my sweetie!


In My Own Backyard