Back on Mountain Time is Mary Miles’ first piece for Cult of Americana
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have had a time change. Local time is 8:46am. I repeat: 8:46am Mountain Time.”
Mountain Time. I breathe in and settle back in my seat as the Southwest Chief draws toward the station at Gallup, New Mexico. I have about another eight hours to my destination in the far northeastern corner of the state, but it feels good to be back in this time zone. It means I’m getting close. The buildings we crawl past appear to be frozen in time. “Hotel El Rancho” boasts “Charm Of Yesterday – Convenience Of Tomorrow,” while the Best Western down the street seems to have missed at least the last five logo updates. The little adobe-style buildings labeled as pawn shops, trading posts, or all-you-need ammunition stores feel somewhat surreal, though that’s hardly a surprise for a lady from the northeast who flew in from Germany less than three days ago.
I get only snapshots of the landscape as we pass a freighter heading in the opposite direction- one of countless we’ve passed since leaving Los Angeles yesterday evening.
I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed this red clay dirt, the scrubby trees, and especially the vast, endless sky that I remember from the last summer I worked out here, two years ago. Even looking at my own photos, it doesn’t seem real. But here I am, rocking along through the shadows of dusty mesas, and the past year I spent in Europe takes on its own surreal quality. Now, I’m here. Now, I’ll be starting work in two days as a Ranger in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Now, I watch a hawk soar over the pale green and tan sea of desert plants, looking for prey.
Yesterday after we left L.A. and the conductor came through the car to scan our boarding tickets, a man sitting in the seat ahead of me asked “if they still pick up all them Scouts in Raton.” The conductor laughed and said “Sure do,” and I smiled and mentioned that’s where I was headed, to work at Philmont Scout Ranch for the remainder of the summer. We ended up chatting for a half hour. He was on his way to Kansas City, and all his friends thought he was crazy for taking the train. Before I could say it myself, he shook his head and simply stated: “Those are two different kinds of people. People who are gonna fly just want to get to their destination. They won’t look at you twice. If we were flying, we probably wouldn’t be talking to each other right now. But on trains…I mean, we’re on here together for the next day, two days. On the train you talk to people, share tables, you meet each other.” All I could do was nod. I mean, I’ve met people on long international flights too, but there’s something special about taking the train in a country as big as ours. For one thing, you have to be pretty patient, because it’s nearly always late. But at the same time, you don’t have to stress out alone. There’s a beautiful sense of community you have the opportunity to enter every time you step onto a long-distance train.
You’re about to sleep next to a stranger, eat next to a different stranger, and ask yet another stranger to watch your bag while you go stretch your legs outside during a long stop. But you know what? When you leave the train in eight, or twelve, or forty hours, none of those people will be strangers anymore.
While living in Germany through this last year, the majority of what I heard from the States was related to politics or administration, and few things were positive. But sitting here, cradled in the arms of a gently swaying coach, I can’t help but feel there is hardly a better way to be welcomed back to this nation than to be right here, reminded of the patience and goodness and community that are possible within it.