Several hours out of Lamy, New Mexico, where I boarded, we stop briefly in Gallup, New Mexico, unofficial capitol of the Navajo reservation whose vast lands stretch to the west. I get off to take advantage of the Fresh Air Break, not much used now that the train carries fewer smokers, and am warned back into my sleeper by the conductor’s archaic “All Aboard.” We have been warned to take all our belonging when we step off at one of three brief stops in case the train goes on without us. That would mean a twenty-four-hour wait.
Gallup with its low adobe buildings and deserted main street lined with pawn shops, Kitchen’s Opera House, Fastbucks Payday Lending, gas stations and small motels, would have been an iconic Western town for Easterners traveling out to take part in the Indian Tours that would have conveyed them in big touring cars, to the reservations. That was eighty or so years ago, and Gallup has not flourished in the long years since.
As we pass through, I am reminded of my dear friend, Phil Smith, now dead, who introduced me to this part of the southwest. We made three car trips together to the Grand Canyon to go on one of the Colorado River rafting trips I would never have dared to make without him.
Starting out from Santa Fe early in the morning, sharing the driving—he always made sure I had a copy of his car key—we would always stop in Gallup at a big family restaurant much patronized by the Navajo. Navajo craftspeople, largely women, circulated through the crowded dining room, strenuously promoting their jewelry and small pottery bowls. Unused to combining eating green chile and vendors, I was a little abashed, but Phil, used to the situation, dismissed them without hesitation. A great supporter of Native American education and contemporary Native American artists, he felt no particular responsibility for the Gallup vendors. I did, and bought a few inexpensive trinkets.
Now he is gone, and Gallup flies by as the Superchief crosses the western New Mexico desert. It always makes me smile to see that we are moving along about as fast as the giant trucks on I-25, which often runs along the tracks.
At dinner, my companions (being single, I am always seated with three strangers, one of the great pleasures of train travel), a woman and two teenaged children from Milwaukee, gave me several welcome examples of the way the world is changing.
With a Cuban grandmother and a great grandmother who was the first woman doctor in that country, these young people have access to a wider vision of the world. The daughter, going into her senior year at one of Milwaukee’s excellent, underrated public schools (underrated because “they” go there, however “they” in our contemporary mindset might be defined) has made the crucial connection between her passion for music—she plays cello and drums—language, and physics. Having been unable to follow my early love of music and French into this wider field, having been decisively defeated by my semester of physics at Santa Fe’s St. John’s Graduate Institute, I listened to this young woman’s enthusiasm with the exciting sense that the world is changing, after all….But as we left the diner, she told me she is still the only young woman in her high school class who will take Physics 2.
Returning to my dear little compartment, with its sofa that our attending woman will soon make down into a berth, its handy sink and mirror and tiny shower with the advice “You may be more comfortable showing while seated” on the toilet, I’m remembering not only my dear friend and inspirer of adventure but the great excitement of the trains that threaded my childhood:
The troop trains of World War Two, crossing the Ohio on the dark iron bridge designed by a remote relative, now a pedestrian walkway…
The big L&N engines, coal-smoke puffing, pulling long lines of sleepers and coaches and loaded baggage cars across the mountains to North Carolina…
The big East-West lines that carried me to my first semesters at college in Cambridge, Mass, and then carried me home again on vacations, hooting in PeeWee Valley on the long leafy approach into Louisville…
…Adventures that can’t be compared to droning along on throughways or pushing through leaden skies on cramped inhuman airplanes.
Now cries in the corridor outside my compartment alert me to the fact that the water system has failed, first submerging one of my fellow passenger’s bathroom in water and then drying up altogether. A cadre of passengers are sopping up the water with towels while the attendant explains that something always happens to the pipes in Albuquerque…
Ah, the Southwest, always the home of my heart, although it took me most of my life to find it.