I woke up just before the sun began to light up the eastern horizon, at first almost pitiful against the deep blackness of the rest of the dome of sky. I watched Colorado greying into colour. Flat like Iowa, but more rugged and less fertile-looking, with patches of snow lingering in sheltered hollows. As the sun gained ground, blue mountains appeared in the west. The guy from Chicago I’d met in the dining car the evening before said the highest ones reached 14,000 feet. Even Denver, sitting on the edge of the plains, is a mile high. The bare landscape became increasingly populated with houses and we passed an enormous oil refinery, followed by what turned out to be stockyards – rough wooden fences squaring up against each other, but all empty. We were seated with a tiny old woman who was off to visit her daughter in Boulder, whose house had “exploded” in a fire storm two years ago and has been in therapy ever since – she and her husband had to literally run for their lives, leaving their home behind to be engulfed in flames. No one died, though a huge area was devastated.
From Denver, it was 35 minutes to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. A woman with hair dyed red and three inches of grey roots sat at the table opposite me with her grandson, a very sweet-faced boy who hardly said a word but who nodded his head with an enthusiastic smile when his grandma asked him if he was having fun. She was taking him to Grand Junction, on the other side of the Rockies. We passed square pools of standing water – reservoirs, worryingly low, with large patches of exposed ground at one end. “It hasn’t rained,” explained the woman, “there’s been a drought for two years now.” The lack of snow was unusual for this time of year, and there had been a lot of wildfires. She told her son this was this boring bit, chugging out of Denver, and I said we’d seen a huge oil refinery on the way into the city and I hadn’t realised this was an oil-producing area. “Oh yes,” she said, “and they seem to be drilling everywhere these days”. She seemed mildly pissed off, as if they were cluttering up the countryside. The boy got tired and they went to have a nap.
The lounge car filled up to the seams after the conductor said there would soon be great views of the mountains. An elderly man in a light blue shirt asked if he could sit at my table. “I’m Billy O’Reilly a retired teacher from Roseville California travelling with a group of senior citizens organised by a group called America by Rail”, he announced precisely, with no punctuation. He was a little hard of hearing but very talkative. Born in Oklahoma in the 1930s, his dad lost his hand working the oil derricks in Oklahoma and Texas. World War II started and they joined the wave of migration to Los Angeles to do war work, where his parents laboured in ship-building – his mum used to cut sheets of metal with a blowtorch. The parts would be manufactured in Pennsylvania then assembled on the west coast into “Liberty boats” – not battleships but vehicles to take supplies across the Pacific. Billy’s brother was old enough to fight but he was only 17, so earned pocket money selling newspapers when the shifts changed at the shipyards, which used to run 24 hours a day. After the war ended his family remained in California, not feeling the need to return back east: “There’d been the Dust Bowl, you might’ve heard of that, we weren’t farmers but…” He didn’t continue but I sensed they had felt there was nothing to go back to.
Billy has been on lots of train journeys and he strongly encouraged me to visit the railroad museum in Sacramento. He was awed by the railroad through the Rockies: “This isn’t a twentieth-century construction, it was the nineteenth century and they didn’t have the machines they have now, they had picks and shovels. Some of the route, they shaved just enough off the mountain-side to fit the railroad on, and they got all these Chinese workers over here and they’d be hanging off the cliff, drilling holes and filling them with dynamite”. The train was snaking up and up, elegant swoops of railroad falling behind us, and beyond that was the flat land we had crossed overnight. The skyscrapers of downtown Denver were already dusted over with the particles of the intervening air. We gained height astonishingly quickly, the gentle hillsides becoming ever more jagged.
We dived into tunnels in the red sandstone. The blond woman at the table behind me poked me and told me to take pictures of a dam that had sprung into view. Billy and I were joined by a doctor’s wife and her grandson, while steep slopes rose up on either side of us, forests of pine trees clinging improbably to the rocky ground. I asked the woman why many of the trees had no needles and she told me it was a new disease that had struck mysteriously, which they were only just bringing under control. Beetles, she remembered. I later checked and found out this is the most extreme infestation in US history, partly due to recent relatively warm winters allowing the pests to flourish and attack trees at higher altitudes. The situation is worsened by decades of suppressing wild fires, which leaves more trees vulnerable. Ironically, once the trees have been killed by the beetles, they become giant matchsticks, dramatically increasing the danger of fire.
The pine beetle woman had spent time in Europe when her husband was posted in Germany as an army doctor. She like Germany and Belgium, but thought the French were rude. “Which is odd, y’know, because we’ve helped them out so much. Why would they not like Americans?” “It’s terrible, agreed Bill. “You give them money and they turn around and give you a slap in the face.” He looked disgusted. The land was a dry orange. We reached the highest point of the journey, a tunnel at around 9000 feet that took us under the continental divide (rainfall on one side ends up in the Atlantic, rainfall on the other side drains into the Pacific). When we emerged on the Rockies’ western face, it was winter. Up to our left, people were skiing. It began to blizzard, and everyone cheered – quite a few of them with relief because they’d brought their skis, others because snow means a water supply. It was a stunning shift in season, as if Jadis had flown out of Narnia and cast her wintry spell here.
We descended slowly, giving me time to take in the spectacular scenery. Chicago, eat your heart out – skyscrapers are nothing on these precipitous canyons created by years of patient water-work. Layer upon layer of deep red rock, cuboid outcrops, sturdy and grounded yet precariously tall. We were tiny, following a river downwards. At the top, the water had been so cold it had snow floating on its surface, even as it tumbled over jagged boulders. Further down, the snow had disappeared and the water was a glacial blue, rolling over rounded large pebbles in a widening channel. We sometimes saw cows grazing on bits of flat floodplain – areas that resisted the general trend for perpendicularity. By now I had been joined by a grandpa, dad, and son trio, who were looking out for bald eagles. We didn’t see any eagles, but we did see, far up the slope above us, a white car wreck shrunk by distance, which had plummeted off the highway even higher above us. “Last time we came this way there was a red one,” remarked the grandpa. We played a game of Scrabble on their i-pad.
We passed two or three trains hauling carfuls of coal, which looked like piles of black gems. Pine beetle woman had said there were lots of coal mines in the Rockies – her dad had worked in one, got black lung but lived until the age of 99. But Scrabble man said all this coal was coming from further north – Wyoming – then dragged over the Rockies to fuel Denver’s power stations. We followed the Colorado River down a flat valley with steep red cliffs on either side, about half as high as the gorge but impressive nonetheless, especially when lit up a bright orange by the setting sun, which captured every crevice and mineral vein with its disappearing rays. By evening, the land had flattened out, though it was still hard-edged without much vegetation. It was arid, like a road trip movie – this would be where the car or motorbike would break down and the protagonists would all fall out with each other. I began to feel pre-emptive nostalgia for this travelling community, the unstructured days, the magnificent landscapes, the gentle blowing of the horn, and the sense of movement.
I met a jolly Coloradan whose florid red face and white hair and sturdy moustache matched the snow on the sandstone cliffs of the Rockies. He was travelling five hours to Salt Lake City for a doctor’s appointment at the VA hospital there, because the VA hospital where he lives does not have heart specialists (VA = Veterans Affairs, a US government benefits programme). He’d given up his composting business and started getting treatment for heart disease once the US government had decided that Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War was linked to heart problems. That was two years ago. When he retired, he wanted to sell his business, but the financial crash happened and forced his prospective buyers to pull out. He had lived in Colorado his whole life, except for two years’ military service, and knew the place intimately. He likes to raft down the Colorado River and camp out in the steep-sided valley we had passed through, but he says it’s not the ideal location. When the freight trains roll by at night, first you feel the vibrations in the ground, and then what he described as “shock waves” as the air displaced by the fast-moving weight of iron and coal bounces across the valley from one side to another, trapped by the orange cliffs.