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