The Rio Grande.
Who’d have thought the Rio Grande would be a puddle?
Tell me that brown blink-and-you-miss-it pool outside the train window is not the Rio Grande!
And who’d have thought those bright patches of sunlit white at the top of the hills in Arizona really was snow?
For fifteen hours I have rattled my way across the southern border of the United States of America, most of it in darkness bookended by a small brown river and glacial snow.
Everything I know about El Paso I have learned from songs, movies and stories.
In Australia it is a Mexican food line.
In my current reality, perched at the counter at Starbucks milking free internet alongside the locals, it is a wide clean town filled with people who don’t see strangers very often.
I don’t know what it is about me that declares stranger like a neon light, because I haven’t had a chance to open my mouth, but heads swivel on the street and they wave and grin.
I’ve only been here five minutes. I’m exaggerating – I’ve been here long enough for the wonderful Sylvia to cook me a Mexican breakfast and her husband Jim to offer to take me out to a cavern in the desert tomorrow.
Across the fence, and this time I really do mean a stone’s throw away, is Mexico. Lars who invited me to the game last night warned me not to go there.
‘They’ll shoot you just for bein’ white,’ he said.
By ‘they’ he meant the drug lords and cartel hooligans waging a war on the streets of Juarez, apparently one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico.
I was reminded of walking through the Balkans, where we heard different versions of this story from tip to tail, the locals warning us against visiting their neighbours.
On the train back to LA an elderly woman’s eyes just about popped outa her head when I said I was going to El Paso, before she spluttered another warning about crossing the border.
And George, a near blind man who won this year’s LA Times biography prize, seated two seats up on the train that took us through the night to El Paso. He lives in Los Cruces, just up the road, and his last words were a reminder not to cross the border to Juarez.
What’s a woman to do?
I decided to wait and see.
When I was walking through the Balkans my head was wild and my body frozen with stories. It pleases me that fearful stories about other people no longer shape my world.
Ghost of childhood Saturday afternoons spent watching old Westerns on TV.
The train (the Sunset #2 and the Texas Eagle #422 to be exact).
Bandits with red triangles plastered on their faces ridin’ down from them there hills.
It took a while before we left behind those stupid palm trees tickling the sky in southern California – I reckon they’re no more native than the gum trees along the line to San Diego.
The train steams east, retracing the tracks of the pioneers.
People go on and on and on about how internet changed the world like never before. Try tellin’ that to those who envisioned a railroad coast to coast. Or a telephone network hookin’ up the world.
To the people of the 19th century it was just as big. Just as exciting. Just as pioneering. Just as big an opening to a whole new world of possibilities previously undreamed.
There’s big sky out there. Big sky. I’m Australian. We too have big sky.
I try to picture what the world looked like before.
What and where were the animals?
Just like Australia, a history of hate took this land. Yet that is the agony of hindsight speaking, the outcome of a mission that was true not for all, perhaps even not for most.
All I have to do is put myself inside the heart of any human being from any time or culture, native or settler, and I can feel their courage, their spirit, their dreams, their vision for a new world, all layered each upon the other, rights and wrongs and outrageous improprieties committed in the name of righteousness and the need to settle somewhere else.
In this way I can love them all. Well, almost all.
The puzzle of nativity takes my attention as desert plain blazes pink in the dying light.
Who is more native to this land which in the asking raises the immediate question: who is most entitled to his land? Or should that be ‘more’ entitled?
I can see three groups in my ignorance – the native Americans, the Mexicans and the new settlers who poured in from the coasts and before that from Europe.
And what of those whose ancestors broke their backs and their plows turning this land into what it wasn’t, but is now, at least mostly, when it rains.
These thoughts lull me to sleep.
I’m fortunate enough to have two seats to myself and I sleep relatively well, considering.
Only to realise a short time later I am really in New Mexico.
As I stare out the window at the new light sweeping the land, the porter whispers into the PA system.
‘Eggs,’ he whispered.
‘Waiting for you in the dining car.’
Pause to reflect on that whisper. I cracked up.
How many years have the trains ridden this plain? And the stage coaches before them? I could google and find out, but of course the question is rhetorical, a reflection of the layers of human story brought to consciousness. That this is not and never will be all there is.
Oooo, cattle on the plain.
I imagine they are Little Big Horns.
I stare at what must be a ranch.
It is beyond me how one man can walk to a place he likes, claim everything he sees and beyond as his own, stick a few sticks in the ground and call it a fence, and then proceed to tell everybody else there what to do or, more likely, where to go.
The same principle is true for forestry and mining companies – men who claim the Earth for profit and proceed to tell everybody else what to do or, more likely, where to go.
Perhaps I’m being too generous presuming they care where we/they go; probably it matters only that they/we do.
And the biggest question: what happened to the animals?
The train crosses the famous Rio Grande and pulls into El Paso, where straight outa the station I meet my first live Texas pick up truck reversed in to greet me.
And Mexico, in my face.
And there, folks, we have it, the difference between one country’s history and governance and another’s, nudging up against a fence.