The Last Things They Saw
Houston, I’ve been told, is home to some of the largest people in the world, but personally I found everything there vastly oversized, so it seemed appropriate that I was leaving the city by train.
I’d stepped out onto the platform to be greeted by huge, double-decked chrome carriages that stretched their way down the rails like an overweight subway train. Once inside, however, I easily found my sofa sized seat, clearly designed for those passengers with larger-than-average backsides. I wondered if I’d find any loose change or lost children down the back of it. I was glad to be travelling in comfort, for the journey ahead would take a while.
Train travel, I’d discovered, was probably the cheapest method of getting across the country, but also one of the most time consuming. It would take over half a day to get across Texas, and a lot of that time would be motionless. The large trains seem to object to exercise and spend much of their time standing idle; waiting for freighters to pass or filling up with passengers, before pulling away with all the energy and enthusiasm a four-hundred pound man shows when leaving his armchair.
By the time we had struggled out of the station, the sun had set. The yellow lights of oil refineries twinkled in the distance as though they were waving us goodbye. Our only companions now would be the cacti and the sand. With nothing to see I drifted off to sleep dreaming of
cowgirls and cheerleaders.
The next morning I woke and made my way to the observation car. Free tea and coffee were being offered as an apology for the delays. The train began its journey in Florida and was now five hours late. Its arrival time in L.A. was anyone’s guess. I was only going as far as El Paso. I’d been told there were a lot of cowgirls there, but not so many cheerleaders.
I claimed the only available seat in the carriage and sat down to watch the long shadows of sunrise finger their way across the desert. I was beginning to wonder what I’d do for the next nine hours when a voice beside me decided it for me.
“Are you going across the border?” asked a soft American accent.
I realised I’d taken my passport from my pocket. Sitting in the next seat was a young woman with cocoa brown pigtails, a smile that would have taken years of dentistry to perfect and dazzling jade and hazelnut coloured eyes.
“Yes,” I said. “I am going to Mexico.”
My new-found friend was named Constie, a photography student from Iowa. She was travelling from Chicago to Tucson by train, as she hates flying. Her father and sister are singers, but she prefers art. She demonstrated this by sketching me in biro.
The time and the desert flashed by as we talked about travel, families, music and life. It was more than the usual small talk you feel obliged to bilge out when meeting someone new. Instead, it seemed we were both genuinely interested in learning about each other, the same way you do when you first begin dating someone. The difference was that rather than worry about what we said or did for fear of rejection, we could be comfortable in the knowledge that our relationship was doomed from the start, as I was due to be getting off the train before her.
This is typical of the travelling life. Boy meets girl, girl likes boy, girl gets on an airplane and flies to a city thousands of miles away. Those of us from the microwave SMS generation just don’t have time for the games and formalities of traditional relationships. We want things fast, instant and now. Is it really worth trying to find a life partner when small, nano-relationships are so enjoyable? I was beginning to ponder this thought when the conductor’s voice crackled through the speaker above us. The Challenger space shuttle, he announced, had just broken up during re-entry; there were no survivors.
The Challenger was heading for Houston. It had disintegrated right above our heads. I looked out into the desert to see if I could spot any pieces of spacecraft floating down. I realised that I was looking out onto the same terrain that they would have seen from their windows in the split-second before their destruction. A barren brown desert speckled with prickly pears and Yucca plants, probably not the best image to take with you into the after-life.
This kind of incident makes you realise that you have to seize the moment. We don’t have time for “what ifs” and “maybes,” as you never know what’s going to happen next. Constie passed over a haiku she had written for me. I asked if she wanted to go to Las Vegas to get married. She wanted to know how far Las Vegas was. She then gave me one of her dad’s music cassettes – Greg Brown, Live.
Before we had a chance to set a date, however, we arrived in El Paso. It was possibly the first time in my life I wished a train was more than five hours late. At least our mini-relationship was ending on good terms. There was no nasty break up and name calling, just a hug and an exchange of email addresses. Will I ever see her again? Who knows. Will I ever have a more memorable and enjoyable train journey? Unlikely.