Saturday, April 16, 2011

Contemplating Marfa

We're sitting in a multi-bazillion dollar train, 120+ passengers and assorted crew, outside Marfa, Texas. The train can't move forward; the train can't move backwards.

Ahead, somewhere on the other side of Marfa and its infamous lights, a bridge is smoldering after a grass fire, fed by heavy winds that swept through this bleak semi-grassland, burning everything in its path, including the then non-smoldering bridge.

The sun is a pale pink ball descending over Marfa, peering through a pall of smoke that rises in the north like a stationary thunderhead, red and fuzzy at its base, towering to a shiny white snow cap at altitude.

Behind us and before us an undetermined number of freight trains wait impatiently, stymied in their tasks of delivering vital supplies to El Paso, Tucson and points to the east and west. Commerce trembles on the edge of failure.

The conductor says they've sent out a convoy of buses to rescue this human cargo, take us on to El Paso or LA. Of course, the buses have to come from San Antonio, eight hours back down the line, arriving here around 2 AM for us to stumble aboard and take our vastly inferior seats for a fourteen hour ride out of Texas.

At first we were angry and disappointed. Now we're disappointed and resigned to our fate. Perhaps the grief will start somewhere between here and LA, after we've bounced our way over 750 miles of US Interstate Highway.

Before Alpine, Texas, just east of Marfa, we were the privileged passengers, with meals as part of our fare, almost comfortable beds to sleep in, free juice and coffee, showers and a modicum of privacy. After Marfa, we'll all be bus passengers, regardless of how much we paid to climb aboard. The Old Equalizer in this part of the West is a smoldering train bridge instead of a smoking Colt 45.

I'm looking out the window for the Marfa lights. Lots of lights out there, most of them gliding by on the highway in smooth automotive comfort. Some on the horizon twinkle like earth-bound stars. None of them seem to do anything unexpected -- bob up and down along the railroad tracks like the ghostly lantern of a long-dead train brakeman, for instance. We must look as ghostly to the passengers on the highway a quarter mile away. "Look at those lights, Honey. It's a ghost train!"

Our misfortune is no one's fault, of course. An Act of God one could say, if there was such a thing, which there isn't. But then, if human beings didn't feel the urge to travel so much, to always be looking over the next horizon, to live scattered far from family and friends who must be visited from time to time, to be Elsewhere, for whatever reasons, why, a burning bridge outside Marfa, Texas would hardly occasion anything other than mild curiosity among the denizens of this here Texas town.

Freight cars full of commodities don't have to be much of anywhere at any particular time. A siding in the scrub grass and tough Texas weeds is just as good a resting place as a freight yard in El Paso, or a loading dock in San Diego. Freight is not too particular about the view beyond the rails.

Meanwhile, here we sit, well fed, ready to make up the beds to sleep for a few hours until our knight in shining aluminum comes to rescue us from our plight.


The Texas dawn broke clear and bright this morning, just as advertised, to find us still in our sleeping car outside of Marfa, Texas.

In seems in the quiet of the night a crew of able Texas gandy dancers came from parts unknown and labored through the night to replace burned out railroad ties and a small culvert, the blackened impedimenta to our forward progress. After a chorus of whistles and snorts, our train lurched forward and we resumed our western travels, after 17 hours of sloth and self-reflection outside of Marfa, Texas.

We pass the solemn stone gate posts of the Marfa Cemetery, with its tidy rows of grave stones, Hispanic and gringo side by side. Outside the fence an upended reclining chair, three refrigerators and a discarded stove lie together on unconsecrated ground. Rust in Peace.

It's a sobering sight, acre upon acre of scorched and calcined yucca and bunch grass on either side of the train, piles of smoldering railroad ties, the blackened earth. The mind pictures a herd of terrified jack rabbits fleeing over the horizon, smart enough to hop out of harms way before their escape route is cut off. Their tiny paws leave pale footprints in the dark ash, as they jump the shining steel rails of the impotent technology standing useless on the other side of the burned out culvert.

Now we're speeding down the rails, once again, heading for the un-Marfa-like splendor of El Paso.  The journey resumes, the anxieties of the night before a dim memory. We begin planning our next railroad adventure.

Behind us, a scorpion pokes his multifaceted eyes above the blackened rim of his burrow, sniffing the air for a scent of breakfast.

Life goes on.

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