Train Travelogue – Part III

Time for reflection and stimulating conversation

4:00 PM, Wednesday, April 13, 2011, near Raton, NM 

We’re approaching 9,000 feet as we climb to Raton. These are the first pine trees we have seen on this trip. I’m beginning to feel some shortness of breath climbing the steep stairs from the rest rooms. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, even alarming. Airplanes pressurize their cabins to avoid this problem. My normally low RBC count doesn’t help. I get a bloody nose from excessively dry air at high altitude. I begin to think I’m in trouble, and wonder if the conductor has oxygen tanks, after I see an old man in the lower level with a nose hose from one of several tanks at his feet. He is gasping for breath and I alert the conductor to keep an eye on him. We’ll be at high altitudes till way past Flagstaff, so I have concerns for my own condition. I once had altitude sickness on Palomar Mountain at 5,000 feet and would not want that scary experience again. Deep breathing doesn’t help.


4:30 PM, approaching Raton, NM

These are vast, unpopulated highlands as far as the eye can see, not a house in sight, only a two-lane road. We’re rolling on a single railroad track, requiring precise coordination with opposing trains. One coming in the opposite direction must stop in a side-rail bypass that is satellite automated. I don’t want to think about what would happen if an electronic switching device failed to operate or a satellite decided to shut off. That would be the equivalent of an operating engineer falling asleep in the head locomotive.

The tracks are old and the coach rocks and rolls. It’s tough to write in this journal without distortion. Maglev trains would never touch the rails, levitating above them. Then I could write legibly without ripples.

A few ranging cows are in the distance. Three wild antelope leap across a ravine. I see no people, trees, or birds — just high desert native grass ― not quite a barren desert, but close. Wouldn’t want to be stuck out here in a train accident.


5:00 PM, Raton, NM

We are on the border of Colorado. There’s increased density of homes and trees. Minor mountains surround the community. I don’t see any lakes or streams, though.


5:31 PM, east of Raton

I sit across from a marketing consultant in his seventies. He asks what I’m writing, and I share one of these entries. He remarks at how well I am able to capture concepts from conversation. I tell him it is an acquired talent from my efforts at poetry and stage play dialogue, both of which require the compression of ideas. “Nature compresses its concept of a sprawling oak tree into an acorn.”

I explain how scientists do the same. “When I was attending engineering school (Worcester Polytechnic Institute, W.P.I) back in the 1960s, our new computer room was about 40 by 40 feet, wall to wall steel main-frames filled with vacuum tubes and button indicators flashing everywhere, vitally cooled by an air conditioner. Nowadays, far more computing power can be employed by a laptop or in a smartphone held in the palm of your hand. Science poetically compressed its concept of a sprawling computer into a microchip smaller than an acorn.”

He raises his eyebrows in thoughtful reflection but says nothing more. Maybe he thinks I’m nuts. Perhaps his mind is a dry and infertile soil, which has grasped nothing of what I said. I doze off, fatigued by my effort to communicate.


7:30 AM, Thursday, April 14, Kansas City, MO

It has taken us ten hours to travel through Kansas. I’m told we didn’t miss much in the dark. We’re entering Union Station, Kansas City, Missouri. With a 40-minute stopover, I take the time to wander about this remarkable station, recently renovated, with its soaring chambered halls embellished with colorful murals, molded ceilings, and huge chandeliers. It’s has the ambience of a cathedral. I study wall photos of passengers from 1915. Soon, I too will be among the dead, forgotten but for a yellowing photo in some dusty family album.

This train station was and still is a major crossroads of America, being located right in the middle of the continent. So great have been the number of travelers through this cavernous place, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me they were hastily born right here on this wooden bench I sit upon.


8:15 AM, departing Kansas City, MO

Back on the train, as we wait to pull out, I think I have both seats to myself — a great convenience for sleeping, if that’s what one can call curled up in a fetal position with constant discomfort, noise, and lights on. At night, passengers are constantly passing through pressure-released doors between coaches that hiss on opening and closing. Aisle and overhead seat lights glare throughout the night. The constant lurching of the coach is disruptive. I consider this “cruel and unusual punishment,” presented to the American public as a deluxe, super-liner experience.

If America had spent a trillion dollars on dedicated Maglev tracks across the country (as China, Japan, and Europe now enjoy), would we need sleeper cars at all? Traveling at 300 mph from Oceanside, CA, we would be in Washington D.C. within 10 hours. Our dumb politicians spent it all on guns and war machines.


I’m wrong about having the seat all to myself. A man takes the seat next to me, and the train is now crowded. Finally I have a seatmate after some 2,000 miles. Craig is in his mid-sixties, with handsome Dutch features, slightly balding with gray hair, ruddy skin, heavier built than me. He’s worked as an ecology engineer and is now in retirement with his own consulting business. We discover that we have similar perspectives on life. As a long-term resident of Kansas City, he often interrupts our conversation, like my own personal tour guide, pointing out salient features as we travel east.

“So what’s your specialty as an environmental research consultant?” I ask.

“I work mainly on soil issues. See that flood plain running alongside the Missouri River there. Farmers section it off with those piled-up banks of earth. Corn and soybeans are about to be planted, but not if the river keeps rising. If those flat areas get flooded, they’ll be useless for spring crop, and a waste of good seed.”

We discuss our mutual interest in organic farming.

“Few realize how much agribusiness has denatured the soil in the last 50 years. Vast acreage now depends on expensive, polluting petrochemicals for every aspect of farming, from fertilizers to insect repellants to preservatives.”

“So what are all those chemicals doing to the soil?”

“Worms and beneficial bacteria don’t do well in toxic soil, and can’t bring vital minerals to the roots. That affects the nutritive value of crops. Organically grown corn has far more antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins.”

“Worth the higher price?”

“Depends on your attitude. If you’re anxious about the planet, you’ll pay more for organic foods. Petrochemicals pollute with nitrate runoffs that cause coastal dead zones and algae choking our lakes. If you’re only into getting vitamins and minerals, swallow a handful of supplements and forget about “organically grown.”

Two lean Amish couples enter our coach and sit down a few seats from us. Jerking his thumb toward them, he says, “Of the many Amish on board, I haven’t seen one of them obese.”

“Now that you mention it, they’re all slim!”

“They’re used to hard manual labor, composting mulch, growing their own vegetables and fruit trees, building fences and barns, milking and herding cows and sheep, feeding chickens and gathering eggs, or tilling their farms with horse and plow. They don’t watch TV, and get plenty of exercise so they don’t need gyms with fancy treadmills. They’re early to bed and early to rise, and eat a hearty nutritious breakfast. That’s how they stay fit and trim. Now, look at the secular folks sitting along this coach aisle.”

“Pudgy and tired-looking, most of ‘em.”

“You’re being kind. The Ugly American is more like it.”

“But the Amish on board have a lot of their own health problems. They’re  returning from treatment at a Mexican clinic in Tijuana.”

“There’s a big difference between random accidents and degenerative disease. Genetic defects, cracked molars, and broken limbs are not in the same category as alcoholism, obesity, and diabetes prevented by the Amish lifestyle.”

“I don’t think we can turn back the clock.”

“We don’t have to abandon technology, but exercise more and eat well. Most people know what it takes but are too lazy, addicted to labor-saving devices and convenience foods. Meanwhile, our personal health insurance premiums keep skyrocketing to cover 250 million couch potatoes, spoiled rotten by sloth.”

As we’re passing a large coal plant with two enormous smoke stacks, he points to it. “That coal plant has been belching toxic pollution downwind much too long. Soon, you’ll hear of new legislation. I helped draft a bill that will regulate those carbon emissions with a tax-credit system.”

He says no more about it, and we sit quietly for a while. I happen to be carrying samples of my writings. So I show him a magazine article I wrote after the Columbine school massacre (“Childhood Violence: Could Malnutrition Be the Cause?” Wise Traditions, July 2002).

“I know the Weston A. Price Foundation and Sally Fallon, its founder,” he says, “from my volunteer work with commune food groups I helped get started in Missouri.”

He promises to mail me his own published report on economic cycles. Three hours pass while we address a wide spectrum of topics: our ecological sins, climate change, bizarre weather cycles, obesity in kids, same-sex marriage, marriage prohibition in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and test-tube designer babies. Our discussion has been a unique experience, one that Ralph Waldo Emerson would describe as “Man Thinking.”

I can hardly contain my excitement after meeting this like-minded fellow, and I hope to capture it all in my journal. Invigorating encounters are few and far between. The probability of meeting up with such a man with interests converging so closely with mine would be much less on a short plane flight with assigned seating.

We have a one-hour stop in Chicago and plan on lunching together. That should be interesting.


To be Continued in part IV…

Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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