1. Janet Guastavino September 13, 2017 @ 8:34 pm

    So, what was the weather like in Raton; what is it like year-round? After hearing your tale of Kenny Cruz and the World Journal, I’d like to visit Raton. I even checked out the World Journal and did a little real estate sleuthing. By gad, it’s cheap to buy and rent there. What’s the catch—P-O’d guys waiting for bus connections?
    Your tale of a Bourgeois Tragedy in Two Acts is basically about your being cramped and confined physically and metaphysically from Kansas City to Colorado. I got increasingly claustrophobic reading it. By the time I was through I felt beaten down. I can imagine how much worse it was for you—you endured it and lived to tell the tale!

  2. Risa Aratyr September 14, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

    The afternoon we were in Raton, the weather was perfect. Year-round? I cannot resist a chance for a bit of quick research – click HERE to learn all there is to know about Raton’s yearly weather cycles. I doubt P-O’ed guys are the catch. I expect it’s the same catch we encounter when contemplating moves to the Gold Coast or the San Juan Islands or Co. Clare or Catalunya — how are you going to make a living out there?
    And yes, claustrophobic. Exactly. I could’ve just said that and spared everyone the gi-normous read. :/

  3. Declan Kenny September 14, 2017 @ 8:26 am

    “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” – Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad.
    Or something.
    In any case, you survived to tell the tale ;-)

  4. Risa Aratyr September 14, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

    “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
    ― Mark Twain

Riding the Rails – A Bourgeois Tragedy in Two Acts

Write-Minded Comments (4)

Program Notes

For centuries it was theatrical doctrine that while ordinary folks could be the subject of comedies, only those born to the uppermost classes suffered deeply enough to be the subject of tragedies.  Except for a few 17th century outliers (maybe four plays, five if you count Othello), it was well past the Enlightenment and decades into the 18th century before the idea of an average-Joe protagonist caught on.  Intended to bridge the gap between noble tragedy and rude comedy, bourgeois or domestic tragedy is about middle-class Jacks and Jills struggling to overcome middle-class problems (social injustice, abuse) with middle-class values (integrity, humanity, virtue).  Another switch – in bourgeois tragedies, the hero usually gets a happy ending, instead of ending up dead.


ACT I – Kansas City to Ratón

Our e-ticket said we’d be departing Kansas City, Missouri on Saturday night at 10:45pm and arriving in Raton, New Mexico at 10:56am Sunday morning.  No surprise, the Southwest Chief pulled in late to Union Station, and so was late pulling out.  Eager to get moving again (and get to their own beds), attendants hurried coach passengers to their seats and sleeper car passengers to our prepped compartments.

Having the beds set up in the sleepers may have made the boarding process easier for the attendants.  It made it harder for us.  As previously noted, the Southwest Chief is a Superliner, and a Superliner roomette in “night-mode,” provides barely enough room for one person to stand upright.  This photo gives a real sense of the close quarters, which Amtrak falsely advertises as ample for two adults and two standard suitcases.  The pic was taken from outside the compartment; that horizontal bit of pale blue above her head is the upper bunk, the vertical swath of dark blue at the left is the curtain that hangs at the doorway.

Nelson Notes:  (Marianna Nelson, photo by Bruce Nelson)

We managed, of course.  We stuffed a large suitcase, a small case, a backpack, a big handbag, and two not-petite people into a space that was already at full capacity – meaning it held two bunks.  Roy took off his pants, I slipped out of my skirt, and we climbed (Roy) or climbed/squeezed/scooted (me) into our berths.  And tried to sleep.

Not sure how well Roy did with that endeavor.  I didn’t manage at all.  As noted in Riding the Rails – A Primer, America’s railway infrastructure is in general need of an overall, and major sections of track are in very poor condition.  Perhaps the KCMO to Raton stretch is particularly rough?  Seemed so, and our roomette’s location compounded the problem.  Folks who fly all the time know that seats over the wings provide the smoothest flight.  Likewise, folks who ride trains regularly surely know roomettes at the far end of the sleeper-cars catch more noise from the wheels, the communicating doors between cars, and the cars’ connecting mechanics than do other compartments.

We didn’t know, and hadn’t yet had an occasion to learn – beginner’s luck, I suppose.  Evidently, our luck had run out.  Instead of the gentle rock-and-roll, easy jounce, and soothing clackety-clack that had lulled me to sleep on the Silver Star, I was alternately slammed into the too-close wall of my coffin-berth or pitched into the canvas safety net as the Chief lurched and careened down the track, wheels shrieking at every turn, and brakes squealing at every planned (depot) or unplanned (sidelined for a freight train) stop.

We . . . hmmm, can’t say “woke” . . . we roused early, because why not, and caught that magic moment when the flatlands

transformed into something more picturesque.

Considering how things had been going, I elected to skip the breakfast provided and make do with the trail mix and snack bars we’d brought along.  Good call.  Roy was able to shrug ruefully about it, but his dining car breakfast companions had been folks from, shall we say, the other side of the political tracks?  Riding through the tRump-loving Rust Belt on the Capitol Limited,

we’d been meal-paired with couples who shared our views.  This was our first on-board encounter with people who were all smiles about the Spray-Tan White-Man in charge and how he was taking care of business.  Our first, and not our last.

Relieved to have dodged that uncomfortable bullet, I focused on the ever more beautiful view as we curved through the southeast corner of Colorado,

dropped down into New Mexico,

and pulled into tiny Raton.



Only five passengers de-trained.  The car attendants hopped off just long enough to help with bags, accept tips, and make sure no continuing travellers de-trained with us, thinking Raton a smoke-stop.  All clear, the whistle blew, the attendants hopped back on.  In moments, we were alone on a completely deserted platform,

at a completely deserted station,

in what was, apparently, a completely deserted town.

And my heart was singing.

Quietly.  I wasn’t really listening.  Initially, I attributed the slight increase in my lightness-of-being to being off that gol-durned train.  Took me nearly a quarter of an hour to realize my happiness was geographical in nature.  That I had once again and instantly fallen under New Mexico’s spell.

New Mexico’s prosaic tag, “Land of Enchantment,” comes from a 1948 educational film (click HERE, if you’re curious), and was adopted as the official state nickname in 1999.  Despite its origins, it’s not PR, not hyperbole, no lie.  They say NM owes its charm to the low levels of particle pollution and ground-level ozone it is able to maintain – thanks to a sparse population, limited industrial activity, relatively strong environmental regulations, and millions of acres of forest – and to the luck of the geological draw.  Say what you will, New Mexico’s incredible skies, sweet air, and scenic beauty are literally enchanting; palpable magics that invigorate the body, delight the spirit, and open the heart-mind.

Of course, NM’s wonders are not homogeneously distributed.  Most of the high mountains, national forests, wildlife refuges, and First People’s reserved lands are in the western half of the state.  Eastern NM can be just as flat and dreary as flat-and-dreary West Texas.  (No offense, W-TX, but in all fairness and despite your Big Sky . . .)

I wasn’t looking to find NM magic in a dinky north-east border town.  I was looking for the bus.  Our itinerary gave us a 2-hr layover in Raton, and we had arrived nearly 2 hours late.  By the clock, we had minutes to make our connection – but where were we supposed to connect?

There was no station attendant in sight to ask, but neither did we see a bus, so clearly there was no need to panic.  I thought this had the appearance of a bus stop (the pic is from later in the day; that’s me in blue in the middle arch),

and headed that way.  In fact, all five Amtrak-ers ended up there, arriving via different routes.  Mine led between the station proper and a (locked and deserted) ticket office, around a small (locked and deserted) shop/information center, and finally to the shady (and deserted) bus stop.  Probably.  Oh, surely it was, and if it wasn’t, it was still a fine place to camp out and wait for a bus.

Roy’s journey took him through the station.  Deserted as well, he reported when we met up at the presumed bus stop, but it did have unlocked restrooms.  I left my bag with him whilst I hit the loo.  It was then, strolling to the station under this sky,

drinking deep of the crystal-clear air, feeling the cool breeze and the warm sun on me, a Southwest-style Main Street on my right, green trees, rolling fields, and buttes on my left . . . it was then I heard what my heart was singing.  “New Mexico – Blesséd Be!”

I was in the ladies’ maybe two minutes.  By the time I returned to the bus stop, this elven creature had magically appeared, out of nowhere, it seemed.

I am devastated I cannot remember his name – probably because we never used it.  From the get-go, Roy called him Abuelito (little grandpa), and that’s the name that stuck.

At first glance, I thought the little guy was a local, slightly eccentric train aficionado.  “Little” is no exaggeration.  I’m wearing super-flat flats in this pic, standing 5’6”/1.68m tall.  If Abuelito removed his cap and I lifted my head a smidge, I could tuck the all of him neatly under my chin.

As for the aficionado part, who but a railroad geek stops by a train station wearing a pristine model-railroad conductor’s kit and rocking neon footwear?

I had it all wrong.  On second glance, I realized that was a genuine Amtrak logo on his jacket and on his cap, bracketed by medals.  Abuelito was the real deal, the official station attendant.  He’d come by to welcome us and let us know the bus was running late.

The news did not go over well with the 30s-something guy and 20s-something gal who had just made it to the bus depot.  In fact, the guy was major tweaked and about to be seriously bent out of shape over it.  I could feel it.

As this is a long Intermission (in real time maybe 4 hours), let’s take a moment to discuss empathy.

Empathy gets good press.  Folklore abounds with ordinary peeps whose empathic instincts propel them into becoming heroes.  The central character of the New Testament is nothing if not sensitive to the plight of others.  In “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759), Adam Smith proposes that sensory experience alone isn’t enough to inspire us to engage sympathetically, that this level of morality requires we imagine ourselves in someone else’s place and become, to some degree, one with them.  Our last Prez cited it as the hope of the world; our current one is constantly reamed for his “empathy deficit.”

Empathy is defined as the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within that person’s frame of reference.  The objective/subjective flexibility of this definition is brilliantly inclusive.  “I feel you” is an expression of empathy, but so is “I get what you’re feeling.”  Empathy may be visceral, or it may be a compassionate, intellectual grasp of someone else’s visceral state.

Who hasn’t on occasion entered a room and felt tension so thick you could cut it with a knife?  Whose heart hasn’t ached with a friend’s sadness?  Who hasn’t basked in the euphoria of a delighted audience or caught the giggles from a giddy toddler?

We are all affected by the emotional currents flowing around us.  We are not all empaths.

Empaths get good press, too.  Well, these days.  Since Star Trek and role-playing games (RPGs) made “empath” a thing.  Fictitious empaths dispassionately understand other peoples’ feelings even while sympathetically experiencing them.  Finely-tuned, walking-talking emotional radar, they have no problem living and working in constant, close proximity to others because they can deactivate their emotion-sensors at will or set them to “low.”  When triggered by a nearby emotional storm or switched on for investigatory purposes, their superpower enables them to detect and identify complex emotive states, pinpoint the exact source of the disturbance, and resolve even the most overwhelming emotional issues through judicious application of their profound empathic wisdom.

Not bad.  Only it doesn’t work that way.  The glaring fallacy of the scenario above is that it takes a cerebral, rational, self-aware, intellectual approach to what is inherently a non-cerebral, irrational, subconscious, intuitive sensitivity.

As a child, my susceptibility to other’s emotional states was occasionally commended (when I expressed beyond-my-years compassion for someone who was feeling low, for example), but more often was viewed as a character flaw.  If I was moody, upset, stressed, or anti-social “for no reason,” or if I complained it was hard to be around people, especially some people, especially when they were distraught, angry, hiding their true feelings, or speaking in a way that contradicted what I was sensing from them, I was basically told to stop.  Stop being over-sensitive, stop being so dramatic, and for heaven’s sake, stop letting other people affect me so much.  I had to learn to control my feelings.  End of story.

I tried control; it was a disaster.  Over time, I learned to express my feelings more effectively, apply my intuition to keeping things tolerable on the job and in social situations, truly be with friends/loved ones who were going through hard times, and keep at least some of the madness at bay by avoiding crowds and seeking solitude.  Far from foolproof, but it gets me through.

Anyway, this guy in Raton.  He was pissed they didn’t have us de-train in Trinidad, as it’s that much closer to Denver – not realizing Trinidad (this according to the official Amtrak website) is a “platform only – no shelter/no restrooms/no lounge/no WiFi/no pay-phone” depot.  Trinidad:


Oh, another minor detail, the only way to get from the Southwest Chief to the city of Denver is on the Thruway bus, and the bus doesn’t stop in Trinidad.  One bus a day on a loop-route, stops in Raton-Pueblo-Colorado Springs-Denver.  Only.

Abuelito thought there might be a gas station open at the other end of town; Roy took off to see if he could score us some water.  The fifth connecting passenger made it to the depot, took the late-bus news in stride.  Nobody liked Pissed-Off Guy’s tone or choice comments regarding the late train, late bus, and Amtrak’s incompetence, but the only one seriously bothered by the prospect of spending the next however-many hours in the vicinity of his foul temper was me.

Then again, it was just this one guy.  Well, him and the woman, who was starting to catch his bad mood.  One-on-one, moods can be lifted.  One-on-one, emotional tides can be turned.

“Yeah, waiting is no fun,” I said.  I nodded like I was agreeing with him, but I was also smiling and leaning back easy against the arch.  “Good thing we’re stuck somewhere nice.”  Then I took my attention completely off him, shot the woman an even brighter smile, and asked where she was headed (small-talk, not my forte) – showing them both there was another way to handle this.  Holding the lantern aloft at the crossroads.

Well, in a hot minute she’s rambling on about her fiancé and showing off her ring.  An appreciative “ooh!” was all it took to put her in fine fettle.  I could feel the confusion on P-O Guy.  I had affirmed his perceptions, but declined to share them, and now his comrade-in-ire had come over to my camp.  He was tempted to follow, but switching from high dudgeon to lovey-dovey was too great a leap.  He was poised on the brink, I was out of ideas . . .

And then, Kenny Cruz appeared.   A gift from the Gods.

Abuelito was looking out for us with a good heart, but showing up was his job, after all.  Kenny Cruz showed up because five strangers temporarily stranded at the station was the most interesting thing happening in Raton that quiet Sunday – and Kenny Cruz has a nose for news.  He’s a reporter with the local paper, a print/e-periodical with the proud title of World Journal.

Even without P-O Guy to deal with, chatting with an easy-going, gregarious, super-informed, native-son storyteller would have been a pleasure.  That the man saved my personal day was the icing on the cake.

I plied him with questions; Kenny obliged by regaling us with tales of Raton.  The tracks and adjacent parkland mark a social/racial divide that has split the town since forever.  Willow Springs, a stop on the historic Santa Fe Trail, was dubbed Ratón (Spanish for “mouse”), after soldiers encamped on this side of the high pass were kept awake all night by hordes of mountain-dwelling rodents.  When Roy got back, we learned Kenny and he had both been in ‘Nam, and Abuelito was a veteran of three American wars.

From the fascinating history of the abandoned mercantile across the street to the current exodus of young folks seeking better opportunities in bigger cities, Kenny brought Raton to life.  I was in heaven.  Visiting friends and relations is grand, but the real magic of a journey lies in chance meetings that allow you to see new places through new eyes.

P-O Guy’s umbrage didn’t stand a chance against my genuine delight in Kenny’s company and conversation.  By the time our intrepid reporter took off to attend to other matters, the wait-station was a mellow place filled with calm, good cheer, and patience.  P-O Guy’s crabby mood was so long gone, he had to give it up for lost.  Left to our own devices, we killed time each in our own way – reading, napping, playing on smart phones.  I walked up the road a tic to an empty, asphalt-paved parking lot and practiced Tai Chi Ch’uan.

Some time later, Kenny returned, bearing gifts.  Bottled waters, a huge bunch of grapes, and copies of the World Journal for every one.  Magic, did I say?  Welcoming weary travellers, quenching their thirst, sending them on their way with a bit of food in their pockets . . . this the stuff of fairy-tales.


ACT II – Ratón to Denver

I’m not just an empath.   I’m also an introvert.  Wonderful as Raton had been, it had taxed my social resources to the max, and I was headed into a 5-day stretch with a major social agenda.  When at last the bus hove into sight, I was glad to see it.  A long, quiet ride had real appeal.

The depot at Raton, New Mexico
Photo by Tim Keller, www.TimKellerPhotography.com

I mounted the bus feeling full-blessed by NM’s enchantments and the unconditional kindness of Kenny Cruz’s generous heart.  By the time I’d found my seat, that feeling was gone entirely.

As the conductor periodically reminded us over the next nearly six hours, the bus was at full capacity.  Fifty seats, and every seat taken.

Not just taken.  Taken by people who were tense, angry, frustrated, and worried about making their connections.  And some were more than that.

Despite the conductor’s repeated admonitions that – for our safety and the safety of others – everyone must stay seated at all times while the bus was in motion, the gray-haired gent two rows ahead of us could not sit still.  Every few minutes he’d pop up, stand in the aisle, make a miniscule adjustment to the pack he’d stashed overhead, and sit down again.  The young woman semi-sprawled in her seat across the aisle from us was disturbed:  extremely anxious and somewhat paranoid.  A significant portion of the journey was spent listening to her rant and wail (she had been abused by the driver (or a previous driver?  it wasn’t clear) because he’d kept her ticket, she needed her ticket to get her suitcase, she couldn’t afford another ticket, she was never going to get her suitcase) or listening to other passengers (ourselves included) attempt to reassure her and calm her down.

Remember that room I mentioned, the one filled with tension you could cut with a knife?  You can leave a room.  You can step into the backyard for a breath of air.  You can hide out in the bathroom or kitchen.  You can ease out the door saying, “Oh, did I come at a bad time?” and head for the hills.

You can’t leave a bus.

And remember my empathy diatribe?  The irrationally-distraught girl, the pop-up man, the noisy mp3-playing teenagers, the cramped quarters, and the time-pressure got to everyone.  Nobody wanted to be on that bus, nobody was having a good time.  But while the ride was universally difficult, annoying, unpleasant, and nerve-wracking, not everyone was literally stewing in hot mess of stress-and-crazy for six bloody hours.

I did my best.  I took the window seat and used Roy as a small love-barrier between me and the madness.  I gazed at Colorado sweeping by outside the window.  I breathed.  I wrote.  But I couldn’t keep the ambient emotions from permeating my being, and I couldn’t keep those feelings separate from what I was feeling myself.

One-on-one, moods can be changed and emotional tides can be turned – even when those tides are triggered by a lunatic moon or truly trying circumstances.  Against a bus-load of angst and irritation, I was helpless, and helpless to know how helpless I was.

The long ride was made longer by Denver-area traffic.  Catching sight of the city was a plus,

and pulling into the bus terminal a relief.  Well, almost.  Our incipient arrival triggered a fresh and by far the worst bout of paranoid anxiety from the troubled young woman.   When we stopped, all but three of us got off in a desperate hurry and crowded around the luggage compartment in the bus’ belly.  And waited.  And waited.  And waited for the Greyhound luggage inspector to come and release their bags, so they could make their connections.

It was the last straw.  The crowd’s anger upped to fury, and the young woman got hysterical.  Finally, breaking protocol and, I’m sure, a gazillion rules, the driver opened the bin and starting handing out bags, giving the freaked-out woman hers first.  I got off, too, watched to make sure our cases didn’t accidentally get unloaded with the rest – not recognizing that my paranoia wasn’t my own.

Three of us went the last leg to the train station.  Union Station.  Of course.  The other guy was the one catching the Zephyr; he took off like a shot.  Roy and I paused to send some praise and thanks the driver’s way.  I’d had to sit in a tin-can of emotional trauma, but he’d had to drive it, and he’d done a great job.  Hope he didn’t get in trouble about the luggage.  It was so the right thing to do.

The horrendous bus ride behind him, Roy was free of it entirely.  Eager to see Lila, his adored niece, he headed off in assorted directions (except for the right one – the one I suggested)

looking for Wynkoop Street, where she was picking us up.  I adore Lila as well.  She’s one of my favorite people on the planet, but the last thing I wanted to do at the moment was see her.  I didn’t want to see anyone.  Or talk to anyone.  Or be near anyone.  Oh, well.

If I were a sci-fi/RPG empath, I would have articulated my needs.  I have to go into the station and sit down, I’d have said.  I have to be alone for a while.  I have to de-tox from the strain of a sleepless night, an emotional close-call in Raton, and these last six hours of empathic hell on the bus.

I’m an everyday, real-world empath.  It had taken all I had to endure.  I didn’t have the energy or self-awareness to analyse my feelings and identify my emotional needs, let alone advocate for them – especially in the face of the tsunami of joy and excitement that was carrying Roy into Lila’s arms.  All I had was a seething, tumultuous, bad feeling . . . and a helluva lot of guilt about feeling that way at “hello.”

As the protagonist of this bourgeois tragedy, I did get my happy(ish) ending.  Lila and Brad’s gracious welcome, a divine dinner on the patio, a delicious beer, a chance to do laundry, a massive and affectionate dog, and our spacious, private, way comfortable accommodations held me together through the evening.  And the major meltdown I had late that night not only helped me sort out the emotional puzzle of the day; the day gave me insight into the emotional puzzle of my life.

I’m glad we had those few hours in New Mexico.  I’m grateful for the empath-epiphany the tortuous journey to Denver bestowed.  The riding-the-buses part of riding the rails, though . . . not for me, no.  Never again.

Risa Aratyr @ September 12, 2017

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