The 6:10 Eastbound is Leaving the Station: A Short Story
Two-hundred tons of metal hums with harnessed power. Thirty-two hundred horsepower, sixty-four thousand pounds of thrust, vibrating, awaiting the push of a button. This ain’t no Tonka Toy, baby; this is an engineering marvel that revolutionized society, spanned continents and propelled commerce from sea to shining sea.
And today it’s my silver bullet aimed at a bulls-eye of adventure.
Step right this way. Up you go, now, careful of that next step, perfect, perfect, now let me see your ticket, right down this aisle, any seat will do, get comfy and we’ll be underway soon, very soon. We hope you enjoyed your stay in the city by the bay.
All aboard the Continental Express, and the whistle sounds off and the horses strain at their leashes, a vibration spreads through the cars, through the seats, whoa, boy, easy, boy, slowly now until we’re outside the station where you can run loose and free.
Kick her in the flank and away we go! It’s time for this boy to experience life.
Purple Mountain Majesty
The sun rises behind them, creating a trick of the eye, green, forested slopes turning purple, shadows spreading west across the valley we now traverse. Through lush farmland we go, slowly gaining altitude, the soil changing beneath the tracks, the air clearing as civilization falls behind and nature dominates the scene outside the windows. Shimmering lakes nestled in glacier-carved nooks and crannies, raging rivers pour from the Sierra Nevada, flowing westward as we push eastward, born in snow-capped wombs at ten-thousand feet, tiny trickles joining millions of the same, brooks to streams to rivers, the life-blood for millions on the west coast.
The lady next to me yawns and stretches, feline movements, graceful, economy in motion, about forty, maybe a little younger, blond hair cascading over her shoulders, a heart-shaped face with ample lips, she grins at me, turns my temperature up, melts me. Across the aisle a young mother has her hands full, two young ones with her, the noise rising with the elevation, it’s going to be a long trip if they don’t settle down, and here comes the porter, tickets please, click, click, check, check, a rhythm developed over years riding this route, good morning, welcome, glad you’re with us, click, click, smile and he’s gone.
We crest one final hill and begin the descent into the Great Basin, pines replacing firs, dryness replacing wetness, into the bosom of a slower pace, a grand place of deserts and scrublands, dust, dirt and doldrums, shimmering golden in the morning sun, the promise of heat to come. This is a land pioneered by hardy stock, never-say-die folks who saw a challenge and said “to hell with it,” rolled up their shirtsleeves and broke their backs taming an untamable land. No water, no problem, change the course of mighty rivers, soak that baked soil, build homes out of mud and rock, find a way to make it work because baby, nothing is free and everything is hard-earned.
Dust-caked steers bellow good morning as the iron horse roars past with a blast, so long for now, catch you on the return trip, wish we could stop and visit but there are even bigger mountains to conquer just ahead.
Down the aisle two old men play chess, faces chiseled like Rushmore, each move weighty, pawns and rooks, knights and kings, bragging rights at stake in this ivory battle, old friends enjoying the interaction, comfortable in each other’s skin. Past them a young man, seeker of dreams and adventure, or escaping busted dreams, lifts a paper sack to his lips and closes his eyes as his liquid lover spreads her loins and invites him inside.
Back in the day of covered wagons, these “sentinels to the west” broke many a back and dream. As the 6:10 begins to climb once again, it is easy to imagine Jim Bridger waving from a distant ridge, talking to his buddy Jedidiah, planning their next trapping adventure, keeping a watchful eye out for Cheyenne and Crow, blood-thirsty bastards intent on holding on to their slice of this craggy paradise. If it weren’t the Indians that got ya it were the grizzlies, or the gut-shot accidents, or dysentery or cliff-falls or a hundred different ways a man could die in the wilderness.
But those days are gone now. The Rockies are as tame as they’re ever likely to be. The beaver are making a comeback, the eagles soar, the deer feed in the meadows as paradise restores itself and now serves as a vacation destination for those looking to escape the insanity of humanity.
The inhabitants of this steel sleeping chamber close their eyes and allow the rocking to send them off to dreamland. The lights dim, the interior matching the exterior, darkness speeding through darkness. In the back two young lovers hold each other, a gentle kiss, smiles of everlasting love, their whole lives in front of them, unlimited possibilities await, for better or for worse till death do you part.
The Continental Divide is crested and the landscape transforms once again. Spread before us are the Great Plains, the breadbasket of America, a thousand miles of checkerboard flatness, constant wind, shallow, murky rivers and dust-caked existence. We all stretch, we all listen to the growl, the rumblies in our tumblies, and we shuffle to the dining room, eggs scrambled, eggs flipped easy, eggs with Benedict, whoever he may be, a side of toast, some meat on the griddle, coffee, God please give me coffee. I nod to the lady with the golden hair, she showers me with the gentle rainfall of her smile, our hunger shifting from food to baser needs.
Waves of Grain
An ocean it is, an ocean of golden stalks of wheat, bending in the breeze, an undulating, living force, planted with care, nurtured, watered, cussed at, prayed over, dependent on the weather, the same weather that can crush dreams with a random funnel cloud, a spring hail storm or drought so unmerciful as to bring the strongest farmer to his knees in supplication. The huge combines roar across the land. The towering sprinklers, like prehistoric monsters, try to provide moisture to a land desperate for it. Farmhouses dot the land, surrounded by thousands of acres of rich, glacial soil, connected by roads so straight as to seem an illusion.
Family farms carved by hand, lost in the Great Depression, re-claimed as corporate entities, still providing food enough to feed several nations, so much wheat, so much corn, so much barley, oats, turnips, onions, lettuce and anything else a hungry civilization desires and needs. This is the America you won’t find in travel brochures, no Disneyland here, no towering skyscrapers of commerce, just dirt and sweat, labors of love and broken dreams, all carrying on traditions now hundreds of years old.
The train toots its horn as it passes silos and enormous barns, small dust clouds swirling in the distance, the sun baking down and the sky so blue as to defy belief. This is the heartland, the backbone, the blood and guts of this country, and as our train approaches the Mighty Mississippi, the spirits of the pioneers bid us farewell. It passes by as I share the lady’s cabin, the gentle swaying an aphrodisiac, tangled in sheets, sweat glistening, dancing a dance as old as life itself. Good morning, America, how are ya, Arlo sings as the steel wheels dance across the steel highway. Her name is Sarah, with an “h” she tells me, an important distinction evidently, but for the life of me I don’t care, can’t muster up a smidgeon of interest in one silly letter when I’ve just experienced her entire alphabet.
The Great River
Late afternoon as the arch appears and the sprawling city on the legendary river spreads before us. Switching trains here, the seven-o-two for Charlotte or the seven-fifteen for New Orleans, don’t make no never mind to this traveler, one’s as good as the other, foot loose and willing to see it all. We depart the steel stallion and are assaulted by the sounds of commerce and the smell of decay, or is that the sounds of decay and the smell of commerce? Somewhere nearby sirens announce misery. Somewhere nearby barges haul the last load of a busy day, not unlike the scene played out daily for hundreds of years prior, same shit, different day, tote that barge, lift that bale, round and round we go.
Commuters rush to their cars, eager to see the wife, hubby, kids, dogs, cats and white picket fences, another day in the bank, another day closer to eternal rest, hustling and bustling, to and fro, a big city shifting down the gears but never finding neutral.
“Where are you headed?” she says to me and for the life of me I have no answer. “One place is as good as the other,” I reply, and our eyes meet and the decision is made, two travelers become one, at least for the next leg of the journey, dancing the mating dance, the loner from out west and Sarah with an “h” heading south on the “City of New Orleans,” leaving the station at seven-fifteen on track number nine.
2015 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
Authors note: my thanks to Arlo Guthrie and “The City of New Orleans” inspiration.