I recently took the Amtrak Southwest Chief from Albuquerque to Chicago. I was excited because it was my first time on a train and the possibilities for meeting people seemed endless.
While I was waiting for the train in Albuquerque, I heard a soft voice say something about standing so close to the tracks, and how dangerous it was. It was Reba the baggage handler. When I assured her that I would move before the train arrived she relaxed and we introduced ourselves. My journey was off to a good start.
Once the train pulled in, the activity on the platform increased: people arriving and departing, hawkers selling southwestern doodads, and the car attendants and conductor directing people to their seats. My excitement about the trip was not because I am provincial; I have travelled quite a lot by plane and by car, but flying is so impersonal and efficient and driving rarely takes me off the beaten path. Taking the train, on the other hand is a mode of transportation that invites interaction with others while affording the opportunity to engage the landscape (even if it is a fleeting engagement).
Along the route, we passed through small towns situated at the edges of the so-called modern world, towns with no big box stores and no motel/restaurant franchise row. The people who live in these places, live life at a slower pace where the most excitement they might have is watching the train come into the station. Lamy, New Mexico is such a place; the last census reported that 237 people lived there. And, even though it is less than twenty miles from Santa Fe, the feel of the place is definitely backroads, small-town.
There are memorable characters to be found just about anywhere, and the train was no exception. Clarence introduced himself to me not more than a minute after we left the Albuquerque station. He noticed my camera and informed me that he had been a photographer for Life magazine. As the trip progressed, I also learned that he was a CIA operative as well as a mortician. It was near the end of the journey when he appeared in this getup and soon had the entire car singing Christmas carols. Clarence didn’t know more than a few words of each song, but that didn’t stop him, he just hummed his way through until he came to a part that he knew.
I was surprised to see a fairly large number of Amish riding the train. I asked one of them about this and was told that they are not allowed to travel by air, so they do their long distance traveling by rail. I photographed this young Amish man along with our train at Union Station in Chicago.
I had never been in Union Station before and as I began making my way up through the bowels of the building to find my connection, I saw a sign that pointed the way to The Great Hall. I followed it and came into this wonderful space. At one time it was the center of activity in the station; now it is used for events and as a tourist attraction: several movies have been filmed there and the architecture is breathtaking.
I was drawn to the stairs that descend from street level. If you have seen the movie “The Untouchables”, you may recognize it as the stairway from the baby carriage scene. As you proceed up the stairs and out onto Canal Street, you will find yourself in this beautiful portico. The lighting was too much to resist.
The next leg of my journey was by bus and I was suddenly back in the rat-race: people plugged into their phones or staring at their computer screens as we crawled through Chicago traffic.
Here is my wish for all of you, now and in the new year.