Keep the wagons rolling

January 29, 2006

Scotland on Sunday
Sun 29 Jan 2006


Denver station exteriorEVERY American I speak to about travelling by train warns against it or looks at me as if I’m crazy. There are only a few railway lines left in the US, including the Southwestern Chief, which runs, weaves and curves its way south-west from the urban throng of Chicago to the Rockies of the Midwest, through Arizona to the glitzy sunshine of Los Angeles. I ignore the doom-merchants and book a section of the Chief’s route, from Denver to Santa Fe, a journey that will take me from Colorado into New Mexico, running alongside the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

And so it is that I find myself at Denver station at 5.45am, waiting in the dark for the Amtrak bus to Raton, a tiny town on the New Mexico border, where we will join the train and head south. The bus leaves bang on time, and we roll along the freeways as the sun rises and adds a flush to the Rockies on our right. As the road winds higher, the sun rises in the sky, sharpening the outline of the craggy rocks. Already the landscape has an elemental quality of vast and awesome proportion.

Raton hillsideRaton is heralded by the letters of its name marked out on a scraggy hill. The Wild West town’s high street is empty, but the railway is there, tracks stretching off into the distance. Some passengers are going all the way to Los Angeles in the sleeper; others, like me, just have a seat.

Slowly, a great sleek hulk of silver train eases into view. Logo-free and majestic, it has a 1950s look and is much more luxurious and spacious than a plane or car. My seat is on the top deck, and the berths are big, the windows wide and the view huge. We pull out of the station and the sky just opens up. Flat-topped mountains are small against it, and deer and black cows dot the golden grasses. Clouds hang low and still. I really have never seen so much space before.

For a while a road runs alongside and I spot a lone hobo, walking under the hot sun with no sign of shelter for miles. Then even the road trails off, and it is just the train coursing through New Mexican prairie.

New Mexico cowboy

A cowboy sitting on a fence gives us a wave, and then, there’s no one.

To get to the café, I’m told to walk through the viewing car, and am amazed to find a carriage with a glass roof curving down to the windows. Looking out, I feel surrounded by this epic landscape as we move through it.

As we pull into Las Vegas (the New Mexico one rather than its more illustrious Nevada namesake), a faded sign on the wall says, ‘Wools, pelts, hides’ – a ghostly reminder of a time that wasn’t so long ago. New Mexico was under Spanish, then Mexican rule until 1846, when the US declared war on Mexico. The first US governor, Charles Bent, was scalped by a gang of Spanish and Native Americans, and these ethnic groups still form half of New Mexico’s population.

This golden, barren landscape isn’t the America you usually see in movies. There is something special in the plains, rocks and sky. Artist Georgia O’Keefe felt it, and lived and painted here for most of her later life. The small Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe houses a rich collection of her work, and it is also possible to visit her old home, the Ghost Ranch.

Golden New Mexico with windmill

As we get nearer to Lamy, the stop for Santa Fe, the rocks and earth are red. Grasses in various hues of orange and yellow, soft green foliage and pale-purple flowers cover the earth outside the window. I don’t want to get off. I’d rather carry on to Flagstaff, Arizona, and see what lies beyond – it’s the lure of the West.

But there is the friendly clerk who booked my shuttle bus to Santa Fe, and who, when I asked about the one coming back, said, “Hell, let’s get you there before we talk about getting you out again.” So, let’s get me here.

We draw up and I step down on to the tiny strip of station. There’s a peeling wooden sign that reads ‘Lamy shuttle’ and a sheltered old carriage that I’m told is someone’s summer home. I think I’ll be just fine.


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