We were rolling away from the train station in Austin, Texas, where no one bothered to yell “All aboard,” when the intercom crackled and the disembodied voice of Big John announced his presence in the snack bar.
Passengers were fiddling with their carry-on luggage, steadying themselves as the train swayed and rumbled down the tracks. Through my window a young guy was leaning on the hood of a maroon Mustang, packing his cigarettes and waving goodbye.
“Good morning, good morning, food and beverage, food and beverage,” Big John said.
The conductor came on.
“Remember, friends don’t let friends fly,” he said.
As we approached our first stop in Taylor, one of those faded former cotton towns on the Texas prairie, the conductor began to regale us with trivia.
Austin is home to Lance Armstrong!
The Texas Capitol building is taller than the U.S. Capitol!
In 2004, the Taylor Cafe was ranked by USA Today for the No. 2 sliced-beef brisket sandwich in the state!
This was my second time to ride Amtrak’s Texas Eagle train. The first time I was in a train wreck. No, seriously. We didn’t jump the tracks or anything like that. We slowed to a stop, on a rail somewhere in the Piney Woods of Northeast Texas, and word trickled back that a car had tried to beat the train, and it had lost.
The passengers hadn’t even felt the impact of the collision. But when the crossing was cleared and we started rolling again, we saw the ambulances, emergency responders, and the vehicle crushed into the shape of a U. According to the next day’s newspapers, a mother and her child had been killed.
The next time a rode an Amtrak train was a spring morning in 2014, and I was heading home to the Longview area. My Jeep stays about half broken down, and I had left it at my brother’s auto shop for repairs.
We saw the backs of buildings, piles of industrial supplies and agricultural equipment, and outside of town the landscape stretched across flat disked fields of green. Near Granger the conductor pointed us to an enormous house in the middle of a field. The building was supported by five two-story concrete pillars.
That is the home that was used in the filming of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
The elderly woman sitting behind me was less than impressed.
“In Austin it was bats on the bridge. He’s going on and on and on,” she said.
“He’s trying to keep it interesting,” said the young man sitting beside her.
The woman spoke with a thick Texas twang. The young man had dropped out of welding school. He was going to visit his grandfather. I half-listened to the conversation and watched the landscape pass by. I am a sucker for Texas pastoral views, for verdant fields of waving winter wheat enclosed by fences of post oak and barbed wire. Old white two-story farm houses were set among wide-open acres of rich black soil plowed and ready for planting. Although the weather was fairly cool, in the mid-50s, two people were wading in the chest-deep water of the San Gabriel River.
Once again, ladies and gentlemen, Big John is down in the house waiting for you to come down and make that food or beverage purchase. We are also offering souvenir-related-type items.
Another attendant named Michael greeted the passengers who boarded in McGregor, a town I had never heard of.
You may be seated next to a stranger, so say hello, be nice, look at the cows, the cactus, the grass, make conversation, do something.
The land turned hilly and rocky, and the sotol, cactus and juniper crowded steep hills. Big John announced he was closing down to take a lunch break in fifteen minutes. Then he whispered the words “Fifteen minutes.”
Then he whispered again.
Then he whispered a third time.
We crossed the Brazos River.
The Brazos River was originally named the Brazos de Dios, as in the arms of God, the left arm, the right arm.
After Fort Worth I was getting stir-crazy so I got out of my chair, staggered up the aisle through a couple of coach cars and reached the Sightseer Lounge Car, where people were sitting at tables and a few young guys were debating the intricacies of the marijuana trade. My boy is doing a three-year bit over seven dollars. Chicago is rough, bro, like when you’re in the hood. I gotta get a few tattoos covered. I probably have fifteen or sixteen. I rolled with the Aryan Brotherhood for a few years.
By late afternoon a wall of impenetrable East Texas forest had constricted our pastoral views. The restless passengers were fidgeting in their seats, and a few were getting to know each other. We stopped for half an hour to yield to a Union Pacific train. A woman was talking loudly on her cell phone.
If you want to hang up on me I can play the same game. Well, you are also drunk too.
Freaking six dollars and twenty-one cents for a pack of Marlboro Blacks.
I saw a dun mare and her matching dun foal running side by side, their manes dancing on their necks. I saw pretty, blue lakes that cannot be glimpsed from highways. I saw two red-headed twerps flipping the bird at us. They looked to be in middle school. When one of them reached into his shorts and grabbed his crotch, I turned away.
It took nine or ten hours to reach the Longview station. The drive would have been half as long, but the train ticket was cheaper than the tank of gas my Jeep would have burned through. I got some work done, saw a few sights, and when I bought a sandwich and a Pepsi in the snack bar, I finally met Big John. He really was big.