Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Traveling from Wet to Least

The past two days I made the journey from LA to L.A. It took me two days just to expunge two periods. The vehicle for this odd odyssey was Amtrak train #1, the Sunset Limited, which I enjoyed end for end—all 1995 miles from New Orleans to Los Angeles (half of it traversing Texas). Although the route nominally runs from East to West, it can also be viewed as running from Wet to Least—if you think in terms of rainfall instead of longitude.

I offer you a play in five acts.

Act I: Louisiana
Monday morning we pulled out of the rain-washed streets of Carnival-besotted New Orleans (think king cake, pop beads, and street-grade sippy cups filled with watered-down daiquiris), and began to chug across southern Louisiana, where spring is already quickening as evidenced by the chartreuse yellow leaves of willows, and the gaudy red blossoms on a swamp-loving something-or-other tree that doesn’t grow in the Midwest. My eye was also caught by the vibrant lemon yellow of wild mustard in full bloom.

Traveling orthogonally to the drainage, our advance was periodically punctuated by estuaries and boat channels featuring huge derricks capable of managing the cargo of salt-water container ships. Often there would be an egret standing sentinel atop a piling as we lumbered by.

We rumbled through small towns sporting steeply pitched spires that marked the location of a brick-built Catholic church beneath. Rural housing was most often characterized by rusting metals roofs covering single story bungalows with pastel clapboard siding build on concrete blocks. The dominant greenery of February was alternately supplied by the waxy, dusty leaves of live oaks and long-needled pines.

While there was no sign of farming activity, the unplanted fields revealed the vein-work of deep ditches used to manage heavy rainfalls.

Before boarding I had fortified myself for the 46-hour sojourn with a muffaletta to go and a two-part dinner where I downed three dozen fat oysters in the prime of the season. I was so full of bivalves that I passed (reluctantly) on both shrimp étouffée and red beans and rice seasoned with tasso. You just can't do everything.

Act II: Texas
Our first stop in the Lone Star State was Beaumont, hard on Port Arthur (the birthplace of Janis Joplin), where the grass was greening up nicely and it was a beautiful day for after school soccer.

The pastoral scene featured black Angus cattle, sod farms, and the sinuous beauty of laser-planed rice fields. Along the tracks there were still swampy sloughs.

We eased into Houston at sundown (the first sunset on this limited-to-two journey). So endeth the wet day.

Somewhere in the dark, about halfway to San Antonio we fell for the old broken-down-freight-train-in-front-of-you trick, necessitating backing up and wyeing the train to find some alternate tracks (that didn't contain a broken down freight train). Perhaps that's why they call this route the Sunset Limited.

By first light we were chugging toward the flag stop of Sanderson, and already we were in country too dry to farm. It was all scrub vegetation and rock—not a tree in sight. In the night, somebody pulled the plug and all the moisture that we had traveled through the first day had been drained away.

The ground was not necessarily desert flat. Where it wasn't, there are numerous washes, or arroyos, that indicated where water flows on those rare occasions when it rains. The colors were muted: the gray/green of sagebrush, the white/tan of fractured sandstone, the yellow/green of prickly pear.

Just east of El Paso, we rolled by miles of nut tree orchards with geometrically precise plantings and completely barren soil (during the growing season water is supplied via concrete-lined irrigation ditches). Weird. It's scary to think what chemicals are used to eliminate any trace of green—even in February.

Act III: New Mexico
The Land of Enchantment is sparsely populated, and most of that is in the north (Albuquerque and Santa Fe). The train had flag stops in the sleepy little towns of Deming and Lordsburg, bypassing Las Cruces, Roswell, and Alamogordo.

There was still not enough water to spit.

Act IV: Arizona
Clacking along into the afternoon, it was on to Benson and copper country. Almost as soon as we crossed the state border mountains started replacing hills, as we threaded our way through the southern remnants of the Rockies.

Our second (and final) sunset occurred in the desert. The sun was spectacularly framed now and then in the notches between peaks. Auspiciously, the first clouds of the day (I'll bet there was moisture there) appeared in the western sky, offering us a rosy band above and alpenglow on the hills behind us. The mountain ranges on the western horizon turned to blue before we lost the browns and greens of the near foreground. Lovely.

We followed the last light into Tucson, where we gassed up, changed crews, and paused 90 minutes in front of the Maynard Market, a local watering hole.

So endeth the dry day.

Act V: California
This all unfolded in the dark. We glided by Palm Springs, Ontario, and Pomona, passing wraith-like among the palm trees and neon, stealing into Union Station before dawn. As we crawled through the city on our final approach, we crossed the completely canalized Los Angeles River. It's trickle at the bottom of a huge concrete causeway was the first running water I'd seen since Houston.

I'd worked up a powerful thirst traveling through so much dry country. The first thing I did when I got off the train was buy a cup of coffee.

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