Project Description

Places that Have No Names

El Paso to Lynchburg by Train

For the Oxford American magazine


I took the train out of El Paso on a Saturday afternoon in August. After a long stay in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas, I was going home to my Appalachians, the Blue Ridge of Virginia. I could tell you more about that summer—about loneliness, maybe—but this is not a story about that. I could tell you how I spent my days watching storms roll across the high desert in sheets of blue, how the Mexican hats were blooming, exuberant, and the red flowers of the spiny cholla unfolded like roses. And that, though I was lonely, there were the flowers and the storms, and long narrow canyons in which I could lose track of time, and I did not want to leave and go home. I could tell you a lot, but instead I’ll just say that I walked into the cool marble station and checked my bags at the ticket counter. I waited on one of the long wooden benches that was like a pew in an old church, where motes of dust were drifting in shafts of soft light while the Sunset Limited was readied for departure.

In late afternoon, I boarded. As the train began to roll, I felt the weight of it on the tracks, felt the tracks beneath us. As we pulled away from the station, El Paso from the window was desolate, monochrome desert. Hard brown earth. Red graffiti on silver boxcars glinting in the sharp sun in the rail yard. The train rolled out through El Paso, past the used car and auto-parts lots, handwritten signs in Spanish fastened to chain-link fences. It rolled out past that border city that looks down into Mexico. Rolled out into the desert. Cactus, rock, yucca. The emptiness, the color. I listened to the sound of scraping rails, flinty, like the cleaning of bone. The whine and high whistle as we passed towns and crossings, pulled into stations.

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