A pink tinge sits on the horizon as I pull the curtain back to check my watch. 8 o’clock? Did I sleep that long? I check my phone - just to be sure and sigh with relief that it shows that we lost an hour overnight and that it is really 7 o’clock.
Outside is desert. For as far as I can see the treeless plain outside extends right up to where the land meets the sky. But true to form in this wondrous country of contrasts, it takes just a few minutes before the Colorado town of La Junta appears and we spend the next fifteen minutes or so changing drivers, engineers and all those people who make this train function mechanically. Our service staff will remain onboard until we arrive in Los Angeles.
Leaving La Junta heralds a change in landscape. I see cows in the distance chewing on sagebush or whatever beige-coloured sedges and grasses appeal to their appetite. It’s a tough existence for anyone living out here, but possibly tougher for the animals. By now, I had expected to see more snow, but this year has been particularly mild and I’ve worn a coat on just a few occasions.
One of the things I love about travelling through America is the speed in which landscapes change. I am not going to see the desert for days on end despite travelling through some of the driest, harshest landscapes in America.
As we merge into the semi-arid terrain where more plants and even small shrubby trees appear, I notice a blue shadow on the horizon. Mountains. A forlorn group of houses in various states of disrepair appear. Close to the railway line, two Mexican-style concrete buildings, one was once a grocery store, stand; neglected and abandoned, loneliness exudes from the walls. Perhaps this was once a thriving village and maybe trains stopped to take passengers to carry out their daily businesses. Perhaps.
It's easy to capture the scenes through the window of the train as it is now moving extra slowly. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the shifting sands beneath the railway lines threaten the safety of train. It doesn’t matter to me – I have nowhere else to be!
As the mountains loom larger and we travel slowly toward them, a gulch of yellowing cottonwoods grows in abundance, and then I see a whole line of snow-covered mountains hiding behind the peaks of the lower mountain range. The land is much richer here, green paddocks and piles of hay bales abound. I still wonder how anyone can eke a living out here though, or do they supplement their income by working in the nearby and sizeable town of Trinidad, Colorado?
The sun is shining on the dirty windows of the train, so it’s difficult to get decent shots as the train travels through the landscape.
The mountains are now closer than before and I see more fir trees. The contrast between the happy golden cottonwoods and the dark green of the pines is startling and very beautiful. Trinidad has now been left behind as we begin our ascent through the mountains. The snow-covered ones have long disappeared and I assume are somewhere on the other side of the train, but I am satisfied with what is on my side of the train as it takes the gentle curves that provide the means for trains to travel through mountain ranges.
We are now travelling through the lee side, where last night’s snow has turned to ice and hasn’t yet melted. I love the slow pace of the train today because I can enjoy the vista. As we climb slowly higher, more snow, shorter trees, but a contrast in colours as more russet-coloured trees, no higher than 60cms, grow on the higher slopes.
Then four large deer appear. Did they race across the railway tracks in front of the train before climbing the hill and hiding behind the trees? I am in luck as I capture the fleeing animals.
Tunnels blasted through the mountains many decades ago provide an easy route through the ranges. We have traversed the Rattan Tunnel, which is the highest in the Santa Fe Mountains. Perhaps we are now in New Mexico as we start our downward journey. Here there are fewer fir trees, more deciduous; the burnt-orange colour of the vegetation provides a contrast to the white snow and the black tips of the trees that have already lost their leaves look like bony fingers pointing skyward.
The mountains are behind us now as we make a stop in Raton, New Mexico. I get off the train during the ten minute break to gulp fresh air, whilst three or four smokers fill their lungs with chemicals and pesticides. It’s cool, but not cold and the fresh air is welcome.
As we clear the mountains, the terrain falls back into a semi-arid landscape. Copses of cottonwood and other deciduous trees in varying states of autumnal leaf fall gather along tiny water courses and dry creek beds, whilst hawks circle hoping to find a small animal hiding beneath the trees. We are heading for Las Vegas. New Mexico, that is. I drove through there in 2019 on my way to Roswell. It doesn’t remotely compare with THE Las Vegas in Nevada.
We pass a tableland; grass or other vegetation sits close to the surface. A lone cow grazes on whatever food is available. Where are the rest of the cows? Surely a whole flock must exist somewhere.
This is Billy the Kid country. He is buried somewhere between Las Vegas and Roswell and the whole area is filled with stories of his life and the terror invoked at the mere mention of his name in these parts.
The flat ground comes alive; sparkling as if someone has left thousands of multi-faceted diamonds lying in their wake. It is ice, still unmelted from last night’s freeze, glistening in the sunlight.
By lunchtime, we are moving towards more mountains; hills compared to the ones I saw this morning. The greyish-yellow sand is left far behind and replaced with red volcanic soil. I’ve just met an elderly couple; this is their first visit to the interior of the United States. I am quite surprised and yet, both seem unenthused about their trip. They will be getting off in Flagstaff this evening. So, when the gentleman asked me why I thought the Grand Canyon was so good, I had been taken aback. Do they not realise that the National Park Service in the USA is far superior to anything you can find the world over? That the Grand Canyon is a magnificent example of erosion on a grand scale? I truly hope that they see it for what it is and not just a big hole in the ground (which is what I suspect they think).
We are travelling through natural pine forests. Millions of pines, I’m not too sure what type of conifers they are, cover the hills and the land below – not plantations, but naturally-forming forests. There are a few leafless deciduous trees, but no autumn colour breaks the green coloured landscape. Trees grow taller here, so presumably, there is more water somewhere beneath the ground.
We pass the station at Glorieta. This train doesn’t stop here. The mostly Mexican-style architecture is shabby and is in need of brightening up. Just outside of town, large red rocks have dislodged from the sides of the cliffs. This is a recent rockfall and like this morning, we are travelling very slowly through this pass to provide enough time for the train to stop, should rocks be seen on the tracks.
We leave Albuquerque in the late afternoon. We have traversed the entire state of New Mexico during daylight hours and it has been a treat to travel through so many different landscapes. Tonight, during the hours when it is dark, we will travel through Arizona and California, reaching Los Angeles at 8:00 tomorrow morning. As the sun slips down toward the horizon, it bathes the yellow landscape, turning it the colour of precious gold.
Although completely different to the journey I made in early October on the California Zephyr. It’s been a wonderful trip and I will certainly travel on Amtrak again in the future.
Quote: 'City of New Orleans' Steve Goodman