PRESIDIO, TEXAS, WILL NEVER BE mistaken for the Land of Goshen. Driving down out of the Chinati foothills and seeing this hard-scrabble town amidst blowing dust and tumbleweeds, you would not be surprised if a whip scorpion was the high school mascot, the town ladies wore barbed wire for hairnets, and Jack Elam was voted town valentine.
If anything flowed, it was tequila, not milk and honey.
But from this adobe, sun-baked village and its companion city across the Rio Grande, Ojinaga, begins the most spectacular train trip in North America: The Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad.
Through seven different climate zones, 89 tunnels (one, a mile long, three over one-half mile), 48 bridges and viaducts, traveling in altitudes from 2,700 feet to over 8,500, the railroad winds 569 miles from Ojinaga west to Los Mochis, 12 miles from Topolobampo on the Gulf of California.
During this 22-hour trip, you will see a panorama of natural environments: desert, mesquite-grasslands, mountain peaks and gorges, semi-arid thorn forests, rich coastal plains and broad-leafed tropical forests. Only the Arctic is not represented. Nowhere in North America can you see so many life zones except by walking from the top to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, or by traveling 3,000 miles from the Florida Keys to Hudson Bay.
But the trip begins in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, where it is desert dry and hot, with summer temperatures that frequently exceed 120 degrees.
The passage through Ojinaga is mercifully quick: a rundown, barely awake adobe town which would be more at home hugging the banks of the River Styx than the Rio Grande.
The locals occupy most of their time taking shelter from the sun and from what seems like 12 inches of suffocating topsoil that fills the air when the wind’s up; even the ever-present pariah dog can’t handle it. He scurries across the road searching for a stray scrap and a cool spot away from the dust.
There is no enthusiastic local chamber of commerce pitch by the cabbie until he passes the infamous Ojinaga red light district. Even this is half-hearted. “La Zona Roja está nunca cerrado,” is the highest praise forthcoming and unless you are gripped with a burning, inhuman lust, my advice is to think about something more academic, like Joan Crawford’s shoulder pads or Joe DiMaggio’s lifetime batting average or President Woodrow Wilson’s wedding night.
Better yet, turn full attention to Gluttony, another one of the Big Seven. The restaurant inside the Ojinaga train station has fresh seafood brought in daily from the Pacific. For your late lunch, try the Butterfly Shrimp Dinner with a Margarita to dispel lingering thoughts of Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif plodding along in that desert movie.
At precisely 4 P.M. each Tuesday and Friday a first class passenger train with three red diesel locomotives, five coaches, three pullmans and a diner pulls out of the Ojinaga station, ending up in Los Mochis the next day about two in the afternoon. The train is heated, air-conditioned and very clean, with the major exception of the windows.
It is another one of those ironies familiar to Mexico travelers: build a magnificent hotel at the end of a road passable only by an aged burro; make certain never to clean the windows on the train traveling through the country’s finest landscape.
I had finally found my correct Pullman seat, gotten myself settled, and looked out the window only to realize that either the luncheon Margaritas had given me instant, fully-ripened cataracts or I had mistakenly boarded a train stalled in the Ojinaga fun house. Along with film and guidebooks, you might add “small bottle of window cleaner” to the list of things-to-bring.
Promptly at 4 P.M. the Ferrocarriles Chihuahua al Pacifico pulls out and right away the countryside looks like the national proving ground for Scorched Earth Policy. This is the Chihuahuan Desert, where the successful dwellers are either very tough or very unappetizing or both. A typical shrub is the Catclaw Cactus, 10 or 15 feet high and armed with sharp, curved thorns that look like they could puncture an elephant’s hide.
The creosote bush grows here, always alone, and seeming to thrive off the aridity. Peyote harvests bring the Tarahumara Indians (and others) to the desert, but not much else merits a return trip.
The area impressed me as an awesome, bone-dry wilderness—a moonscape dotted with a few adobe huts, broken corrals and the inevitable church. Impoverished land barely supporting impoverished people. It was the bottom of the Devil’s Punchbowl.
After sundown, the train climbs higher into the Sierra Madre foothills and colors change from the monotonous tan of the desert to the varied shades of greens and browns of the mesquite grassland region. The cactus family alone had relatives everywhere; over 100 species of cacti populate Central and Southwest Mexico, ranging from a plant the size of a bottlecap to the giant 60-foot cardon.
Dinner service on the train begins about 6:30 P.M. and is excellent and plentiful. Your choice is made from sandwiches, fried chicken, Chihuahua Steak or fresh seafood. Again, the seafood is fine, but for a change, try the Chihuahua Steak, medium rare. Cocktails, beer and the usual assortment of soft drinks are available from the diner. There is no club car, but you can make as many trips from your seat to the diner and back as you are able.
Meanwhile, back in the Pullman your bed has been readied and the heavy, dark curtain folded down. If you are a light sleeper, either cheat on the coin toss or grab both straws and take the upper bunk. The rail noise isn’t quite so loud and the gentle rocking side-to-side motion helps to save the Valium for another day.
About 9:30 P.M. the train stops in Chihuahua for 45 minutes. It is a completely modern, progressive and urban city, bearing as little resemblance to its desert namesake as New York City does to New York. Located 140 miles southwest of Ojinaga, Chihuahua is the prosperous administrative capital of Northwestern Mexico and headquarters for the