Texas Eagle, Train No. 21
Morning began with a suggestive gray light. Then the sun streaked the horizon with turquoise, crimson and carrot-colored orange. Having passed through parts of Missouri and Arkansas at night, we were entering the state of Texas. Pastures for grazing, bounded by fences, had replaced open Midwest cropland.
I sipped a two-dollar cup of coffee and listened as the conductor made a good morning announcement: “Welcome to those who boarded overnight. A safety instruction card is available at your seat describing emergency exits. Shoes must be worn. Escort your children at all times. The rest rooms are in the lower level. No smoking. Next stop, Marshall, Texas.”
My hunch that everything would be big in Texas was immediately put to rest as we passed the Piney Woods of East Texas. The young woman seated behind me complained to her boyfriend, “These pine trees are skinny, not like the ones we have in Michigan.”
This is what Texas looked like to me from the train – Head Hunters taxidermy, fireworks stores, green pastures, Route 80, Valero gas station, Coastal hay for sale, BBQ, peach tree orchards, Southwestern Christian College.
In the dining car I was seated with a man named Ed. He couldn’t see any of what Texas looked like because he lost his eyesight at the age of nine. He was with his Golden Retriever service dog and a woman named Bo, who was his wife. His dog laid down under the table on my feet. “I hope he isn’t bothering you.” A dog owner myself I assured him, “Not at all.”
Ed’s sunglasses wrapped around his eyes past his temples. They were not dark glasses, but gray colored. “When I called Amtrak the first woman I talked with said I could travel with my dog. The next woman said she wasn’t sure, but when I got here they let me on.”
The couple had traveled by train from Cleveland to San Antonio then back to Austin. From there they were making their way to Tucson. Friends had told them to come visit in the spring before the weather got too hot. They talked of their other trips – to Europe and the Middle East. I was curious and asked Ed, “So much of travel is visual. How do you describe where you’ve been?”
“I think visually,” he said. “I love to design stuff. When traveling I might recollect what it felt like. There’s a spatial quality to places. I remember certain smells and sounds, including music. I know if the people are friendly or not.“
A second marriage for both of them, they exchanged wedding vows in Switzerland.
“Why Switzerland?” I asked.
“Because of its role in establishing a training school for guide dogs,” Ed said. Bo talked about the beauty of the country and the people.
I asked if I could take their picture. The man who had no idea what I looked like, only what I sounded like, removed his sunglasses and posed with the same vanity we all do. Bo smiled broadly; confident she had found a gem of a man.
I went back to my seat and shut my eyes. I wanted to experience the train ride in the way Ed might. The rumble beneath my seat sounded like two people on a treadmill running in unison. Above me a whisper of air circulated. My shoulders rested between the wings of the chair. Its polyester fabric pin-pricked my skin. I heard the crinkling sound of a package being opened and then smelled a whiff of potato chips. A lawyer talked on his phone incessantly.
I put my ear buds on and listened to Van Morrison sing Bright Side of the Road, then Bonnie Raitt, I Will Not Be Broken, and The Lumineers singing Bob Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather. My eyes-closed session ended with Sheryl Crow and Sting singing Always on Your Side. At will, my eyes opened to the sights of Texas. And it was amazing.