Tracks of Time

Following forgotten railroad lines offers a tour of Texas's train whistle past.
By Bill Thomas
Sunday, April 27, 2008

"WHERE YOU TWO GUYS GOIN'?" a U.S. Border Patrol agent wants to know. The shotgun propped up in the front seat of his cruiser says we better have a pretty good answer. Which we don't.

"El Paso," I tell him, offering a dog-eared railroad map as evidence that we're not taking the usual route to get there. Slight problem: We're two miles from Mexico; our rental car is heading east -- or is it south? El Paso is due west.

"You American citizens?"

A simple "yes" is apparently enough to convince him. And after we promise to reverse direction, he lets us go with a friendly warning to be on the alert for anything out of the ordinary. Actually, that's what we've been doing for the last several hundred miles of zigzagging across Texas back roads.

My friend A.L. Freed is behind the wheel. I've been speaking at his public policy seminars since the early 1990s, and for the past decade have navigated our occasional out-of-town business trips, although "business" may be the wrong word, because the trips themselves are purely for fun, an excuse to forget about work for a few days and hit the road. On the first one, we drove a Land Rover from Omaha through the Sand Hills of northern Nebraska to a seminar in Denver, following railroad tracks the whole time. After that, whenever a program is scheduled outside of Washington, we fly part of the way then drive the rest along whatever train tracks we can find, some of which haven't seen a train in years.

Normally the shortest distance between two points would be a straight line, but dotted lines are what we always look for. On railroad maps, dotted lines indicate abandoned tracks, often just mounds of overgrown dirt where tracks used to be, and those can lead to some fairly incredible places.

A.L. and I had been talking about the Texas trip for weeks. Our ultimate destination is a Capitol Hill workshop for government scientists in Las Cruces, N.M., roughly a five-hour plane trip from Washington. But getting there in a hurry -- or even knowing how to get there -- isn't the idea.

IT'S EARLY FEBRUARY, and we're tooling along Fort Worth & Western tracks going to Brownwood, Tex., 150 miles southwest of Dallas. A.L., a former pro on the North American rally circuit, likes to drive, which is fine with me. In 10 years of traveling together, he's compiled an impressive record: no wrecks; only one speeding ticket; and we've never been stuck in the mud. After a recent trip through the Mississippi Delta, fishtailing over rain-soaked farm roads, we returned our car caked with dirt and debris.

"Where've you all been with this?" asked the rental agent.

"A White House seminar," A.L. said.

Settling in for the ride to Brownwood, I notice someone's left a CD in the glove compartment: "A Month in the Brazilian Rainforest." I pop it into the player, and the car fills with sounds from the Amazon jungle. No Al Gore speeches or meaningful native music -- just crickets chirping and tree frogs croaking, all recorded live on location. It doesn't take long to get hooked. Maybe we should be listening to Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson, but in the bone dryness of central Texas, the rain forest CD, stirring up memories of humid summer nights back in Washington -- makes the perfect soundtrack for our expedition. An hour later, not another car or truck in sight, we spot our first freight train two or three miles down the road. When we're side by side with the lead engine, I lower my window to get the full impact of the deafening roar. Combined with the CD, it produces a weird, possibly never heard before, sonic mix: six 3,000 horsepower diesel locomotives and 10 million Brazilian crickets blaring in unison over the Texas plains.

IT WAS A.L. WHO GOT ME INTERESTED in using old train routes as a way to see the country, particularly places that trains used to pass through -- and most highways bypass. A.L. worked his way through college as a brakeman and a locomotive engineer on the old Penn Central. The experience clearly shaped his outlook on travel. "If you want to discover the real America," he says, "all you need is a pre-World War II railroad map, a detailed road atlas and a durable one-way rental car."

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