Trains changed the world, but then cars and planes came along, and they became a tertiary form of transportation, particularly in the U.S. But journalist and Chapman University English scholar Tom Zoellner—who passionately loves trains—believes that they still have the power to transform the world. Zoellner visits Zócalo to discuss whether trains have the power to change car-loving L.A. Below is an excerpt from his book Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World—from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief.
The Mojave Desert is a fittingly apocalyptic place to end an overland journey, a savage expanse of aridity at the hind end of the continent dotted with Joshua trees and creosote, and I awoke to it somewhere west of Needles with a gradual awareness that there was a faint smell of rain. This was unusual on any Amtrak Superliner, where any trace of the outside air is usually smothered in a vague chemical scent. I glanced at my cell phone: 4 a.m.
I lay there in a restless haze until the lights of the station at Barstow invaded the curtains, and I knew I ought to give up. I spread the curtains and looked at the giant sharp-edged Spanish Mission station and the chemical tank cars and the boxcars filled with God-knows-what in the BNSF yard and it hurt my eyes.
I took my coffee back in the compartment and watched the far margins of the urbanized territory of greater Los Angeles emerge, “this baby Italy, more straw than stone,” as the poet Karl Shapiro once put it, and the city and its civic satellites have since grown to contain a population exceeding that of Italy. The Chief went through corridors of shabby houses outside Victorville colored so dull they that appeared to have sprung like plants from the desert caliche. We passed tire emporiums, a Hostess bread outlet, an estate liquidator with boarded-up windows, broken telephone poles with their wires drooping, men stabbing at Russian thistles with long pikes, a cinderblock building with graffiti that said once I was in love/then I decided to live in my own private hell, the early light on the young slopes of the San Gabriels.
I walked with squinted eyes and bed-tousled hair to the dining car and waited to be seated for breakfast, annoyed at the jolts beneath my feet. Though I loved trains, I wanted to be home and knowing Los Angeles was so close made it seem that much further away.
“Good morning,” I muttered to my table companion, an elegant looking woman in her 50s. “Where ya coming from?”
“I’m coming back from the Santa Fe Opera. We saw Verdi.” She spoke carefully, though with a trace of an incipient joke behind her eyes.
“Taking the train to the opera. Very 1890s of you.”
Her name was equally of a different era: Florence Horton. She worked for Sacramento County in an agency that dispensed emergency aid to the homeless and sought to find them transitional housing. Other social workers I’ve known have told me that repeated contact with the down-and-out—especially the accomplished liars—had turned them cynical over time, and I asked if that had happened to her.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Some were very beautiful and kind. Do you know what I saw one day? It was raining and this older man came in, not doing very well. He was staggering, but there was a blonde woman with him. She was very tall and elegant, very Italian looking. They were leaning on each other’s shoulders as they walked. His prescription had run out and he was badly in need of his medication. They had to wait there for a few hours while we took care of it, and they just leaned on each other the whole time. That was humanity right there.”
She told me this story as we wound through the Cajon Pass, one of the best keyholes to the Los Angeles basin in existence. Lt. A.W. Whipple, posted out from Fort Smith, Arkansas, had surveyed this narrow earth-gate for a transcontinental railroad in 1853 and he wrote in his journal: “Proceeding through groves of yuccas beautiful as coconut and palms of southern climates, and dense thickets of cedars, by a gradual ascent, averaging probably 60 feet to the mile, we reached the summit of Cajon Pass.” It would probably not be as expensive to build tracks through here as he feared, though, he noted, he wished it led to a more attractive place than the village of Los Angeles, which was then a flyspecked ranchero prone to seasonal flooding.
I was fully awake now and attuned to the kimono glimpses of greater Los Angeles, which is far more of a blue-collar town than its coruscating image suggests— “The Know-How City,” as Jan Morris puts it. The tracks wound through the trellis that made it all work: fabrication plants, poured-concrete slopes for trucks leading into numbered bays, the hidden assemblies. Outside one dusty shed, a few Jet-Skis poked their rumps out, a taste of the nearby ocean. Sun winked off new pickups in a lot with colored pennants that looked like Tibetan prayer flags. A business advertising “BBQ Islands and Hot Tubs.” A Del Taco advertising crispy shrimp tacos. Behind a wall of condominiums, in a place invisible to the occupants (but visible to us), a few homeless people had arranged a hospitable square of couches. The horn sounded more frequently after we passed the earthen dam that stopped up the Santa Ana River, and then we were into a carpet of Orange County affluence: hillside homes with blooms of bougainvilleas, swimming pools, the lovely diffuse light prized so much by filmmakers. The Chief, late of Chicago, moved through it all like a disinterested party guest shouldering through a crowd.
We called at Fullerton for 10 minutes, our next-to-last stop, which had a café with the Santa Fe’s old cross logo out front and some outdoor tables with umbrellas. I stood on the upper level of the observation car with my hands in my pockets, looking out the window through a few date palms and over the walls of a condominium, but in the flat L.A. Basin there was no view of the fake Alpine peak I knew was just five miles to the south: a marker of the stupendous monument—and secret tombstone—to the American passenger train.