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The Train to Texas

By | April 15, 2011

Thursday, April 14, 2011
El Paso to San Antonio by train

Anna was so generous as to drive me to the train station in El Paso at 5:30 in the morning so I could get there early to box up my bike. I will miss her!


They had a bike box reserved for me, since I spent quite a while on hold with Amtrak two days ago making sure that, if I showed up with my bike, I would definitely be able to get on the train. FYI, even the local train station number, which I had to get from the national operator, goes to the national operator. Then the national agent had to call the secret number, I guess, and speak to the El Paso office while I was on hold to verify they had bike boxes available. They put my name on one, so the agent was waiting for me when I arrived this morning.

It was super easy to turn the handle bars. I had wrenched the pedals off the night before. One came off easy and the other took brute force. Then you just roll the bike right into the box. You don’t even have to take the wheels off. I had a imagined quite a project, but it really would have been easy to ride up to the station, put it in the box, and go from there. But it was still nice to drive with Anna.

Waiting at the station, I met a wonderful couple. Joe, a retired customs officer with thick, eye-magnifying glasses and a stout cane, wheeled a cooler with his backpack in it. “That’s for all the fish he’s going to bring back!” Judy told me. He was on his way to meet his four brothers for a fishing trip at private lakes near Laredo. His wife, a retired ESL teacher from the University of Texas-El Paso, was seeing him off. Diminutive in a faded denim hat with an old silk sunflower pinned to the front, she exuded outsized joy.


They told me all about their five acres of land out in the desert. They have lived there in a trailer for many years, renting out their home in town, but for the last five years, Judy has been been building their house, and she is determined to be finished by June. Her next project is to tile the bathroom floor. She figures, after hanging all the sheetrock, she can do anything. Using a lift to put the sheetrock on the ceiling was one of the only things Joe helped her with.

She’s using low voc paint, and as many reclaimed materials as possible, both to be green, as well as to keep the cost down. She is making one bathroom sink out of an old Singer sewing machine table, the kind with the wrought iron. For another, she is hollowing a spot for the basin in an old tree trunk she found at the dump years ago. Some cabinets are out of condos in Vegas. They found the wrought iron staircase, which Joe buried seven feet into the ground and welded to metal beams in the ceiling, in the neighbor’s yard and bought it for $150. Judy chiseled off every last bit of cement the previous owners had used to repair the steps, and Joe built new, expertly fitted wooden steps to revive it.

The two by six framing keeps the house quiet and well insulated in the desert. The windows go low to the ground so they can check on their desert family, the wild animals they share the land with.

They told me about the two coyotes who used live under an abandoned van two lots down. The coyotes used to sit there and watch them. You could tell. They told how the quails run around with their tiny quail babies, and the babies run just as fast as the grown ones. There’s a desert cardinal, grey except for his red underbelly, who taps at the window when Judy goes into the house.

Joe built a bird hotel, with four holes on each side. Eight birds promptly moved in, and a territorial Thresher, with a long skinny beak, would pull their stuff out and throw it on the ground. A Thresher would go after a hawk! But when the fierce bird would go around to the other side of the hotel, the others would pick their nesting materials back up and stuff them back in!

The dancing rabbits, as they call them, jump into the air when they’re startled. They twist and turn, as if they don’t know which way to go. Sometimes they play, scaring each other on purpose. Some jackrabbits out in the desert stand as big as a dog.

Joe and Judy have tricycles out in the desert, and Joe’s been trying to motorize Judy’s to make it easier to get around in. Ben picked up a similar contraption recently, and it sounds like he can never get it to work quite right. Joe sent Judy’s back and forth to the manufacturer for a year to get the electric engine to work, and he finally gave up, and is now looking into a one-stroke gas engine.

Judy’s looking forward to being able to ride it the twelve miles to church someday, with a change of clothes for choir. If he can’t get hers to work, she says, maybe he can hook up a trailer to his tricycle, and tow her along!

Judy didn’t say anything to me about traveling alone, besides admonitions to be safe, but when I got up to throw out some trash, I’m pretty sure she told Joe to sit with me on the train.

Waiting for the border patrol to finish checking so the train can pull away, Joe points out which buildings we can see are in Ciudad Juarez, just over the border in Mexico. Anna pointed out how Juarez is the murder capital of the world. They average eight murders a day, more than any city outside of a war zone. Sometimes bullets bounce off the El Paso city hall, which sits close to the line between the two cities and the two countries.

Of course on the train I wonder who everyone is, where they’ve been, where they’re going. I imagine my friends Marie-Pierre or Kristin, both tremendous photographers, documenting their portraits, like the brown-skinned woman in front of us. Most of her front teeth are rotted away, and she’s nervous when the border patrol asks her questions. Later, when we’re moving, she’s friendly but belligerent when she finds they’ve left her suitcases on the ground, and a little unzipped. Joe asks her about the large tattoo peeking out above her collar. It’s for her favorite band, the Sevenfold Avengers. She’s slightly obsessed, she says. The one on her spine hurt the worst, and she has a star for each child.

“I have thirteen holes in my face alone,” she tells us, “and fifteen in my ears. One piercing for everything I’ve let go.”

“It lets it out?” I ask.

“It lets it out.”

A young woman with long blond hair and a dark black eye behind her glasses walks by. A large woman whose black pants taper down to her narrow ankles struggles unsteadily up the narrow stairs. “Is hard to get up,” she tells us, sitting at the top of the stairs, with a trace of an accent. Two boys with some kind of mega Lunchables box, stuffed with what looks like trash to me, pass the trash can and return quickly to their seats.

So much of their stories could be the same, but I know there are big different parts.

Joe mentions that his son hitchhiked from Houston to San Diego. “Dad,” he told Joe, who worries as he went along, “you wouldn’t believe how many friendly people there are!”

Judy teaches a creative writing class to seniors, and that made me think of the main themes of literature I learned in high school: man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. environment. We organize our world by telling stories, and when we organize our stories around conflict, of course we see conflict in the world.

Is there a difference between a problem that needs to be solved, and a solution that needs to be found? Could we distill themes into new categories, such as friends, family, society, nature, or communication, responsibility, stewardship, creativity? What would our world look like to us then?

Joe tells me he saw the woman with the tattoos taken away in handcuffs when she got off the train.

Patti, my roommate from my China trip, and her husband Dick, are voracious travelers, and every day on the road, she tells me, they like to see who is the most interesting person they meet. In truth, being kind of shy, I thought I’d probably keep to myself, that meeting people would not be much of a focus on this trip. But today, I met two incredible people, and before eight o’clock in the morning! Every day, I meet more amazing people, and this journey wouldn’t be the same without it. Astute observers are particularly fascinating to talk to. A customs agent who can pick out the body language of a smuggler in a crowded train, and a writer. What a bounty!


Becca on April 17, 2011 at 8:56 am.

My favorite part about this post (and all the others!) is knowing that you are one of the interesting people in the mix, and how many cool stories and fond memories are being shared about you and your adventure. Good on ya, Jenny!


Patti Christensen on April 22, 2011 at 9:55 pm.

Jenny, Ms. shy woman, you are so wonderful and brave, it doesn’t surprise me at ALL that you have been meeting so many interesting people….and I agree, you are one of the most interesting people around. We continue to know the truth that you are safe and will meet such delightful people in your travels,just as we have.

Keep up the good blogging!!!! I love to read these great posts, and see your photos! Hugs! Patti


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