It began this summer, when we slept with our windows open. The first time it happened, I awoke in the middle of the night not knowing what I’d heard. It sounded like loony laughter from a dozen different souls, some of them clapping weird noisemakers, before their demented hilarity abruptly ceased. Moonlight streamed into the room. The Catahoula at the foot of the bed listened too, eyes shining and ears pricked. The train’s horn blew from the tracks a mile away, a winsome four-blast call: “I’m here; I’m here; here, I’m here.” Immediately the party erupted again, but now, with my wits about me, I recognized the troublemakers. Coyotes. Coyotes howling and yipping in answer to the train.
Why these coyotes accompany the train’s wail, I do not know, but they’ve continued in the months since, always in the gloaming or cloaked by night, sometimes quite close to the house, which sets the Catahoula to lift a lip and rumble meaningfully. A strange, long string of interspecies communication has thus evolved: the train warning people of its approach, the coyotes calling to the train, the dog cautioning the coyotes that home, this place, is off limits, while I lay a comforting hand on the dog’s paw in the dark.
Our place is at the edge of Marfa, where the highland plain rolls out beyond our kitchen door, but for many years we lived in the center of town. The railroad tracks bisect Marfa, and no one who lives here is far from them. The old house was one hundred yards from the tracks, and, as people do, we grew so used to the train and its horn that we didn’t always consciously hear it and certainly didn’t wake to it. “What the hell,” a wild-eyed first-time houseguest greeted us one morning. “What the hell was that train that went straight through your living room last night?”
Train horns have blared in Texas for more than 160 years, and the history of the state’s railroads begins with an infant republic. In that wild setting, with bad roads, few deepwater rivers, unpredictable weather, and endless open country, getting cotton to market went as quickly and easily as an ox team could travel, which is to say not quickly or easily at all. The railroad represented a path to economic development and settlement; wherever it went, commerce bloomed. Early legislators saw the railroad’s promise, and in 1836 they chartered the construction of rail lines during the First Congress of the Republic, only a decade after the first commercial railroads were chartered in the East. Launching a railroad where none before existed proved difficult, and the first few ventures failed. It was 1853 before the state’s first rail line—a twenty-mile run south of Houston, between Harrisburg and Stafford’s Point—was finally inaugurated, making it just the second railroad west of the Mississippi.
Much more rail construction followed, picking up steam in the decades after the Civil War. Houston to Palestine. Hearne to Austin. Fort Worth to points west. Short lines connected rural towns to larger cities, opening up commercial possibilities and, by extension, connecting rural people to their big-city brethren. Longer rail lines connected Texas to the West Coast, the East Coast, and the Midwest. Being isolated suddenly wasn’t so isolating anymore. Marfa’s existence, like lots of places, was initially due to the railroad. This spot was merely a railway water stop and freight station in 1883, when it was named. By 1887 a stately courthouse had been built a few hundred yards from the tracks, and the town grew up around it.
The train is Marfa’s oldest resident of sorts, a familiar neighbor in the habit of dropping by in a big rush before hurrying off again to visit someone else. Waiting to cross the tracks at the post office, there’s time to study the train. The voice of the horn, for instance, is not a single note but more like three notes blaring at once. There’s also the bass drone of the yellow Union Pacific engines’ relentless surge, followed by the ringing metal roar of the boxcars hurtling past. Then there are the colors: silver automobile carriers, white tanks of orange juice, and sturdy container cars stacked two-high in thoroughly pleasing blocks of kelly green, royal blue, orange, sooty red, olive. Our family jokes that certain aluminum works by the late Marfa artist Donald Judd—colorful, horizontally stacked rectangles informally called the Swiss pieces—were informed by seeing the container cars go by. Probably not, but maybe.
Arguably, the best place to see the train is in a vehicle, driving the flat between Marfa and Alpine, where the driver can calibrate her speed to that of the train and passengers can argue about the best boxcar graffiti: the classy Gothic letters of someone’s “SUVE” tag, outlined in silver, or the impish cartoon snail or the less aesthetic “Trump sux,” whose thin, crooked lines imply urgency in its application. And who was Donna, of “Mike loves Donna”? Was she aware of his public proclamation in her honor? Did they last? Or did she love another?
It would seem, given their rush to get photos of it, that many tourists in Marfa have never been close to a passing train. To be fair, even to those of us familiar with the train, it remains thrilling to see it bear down on the crossing at 60 miles per hour, and when the sleek Amtrak passenger line speeds through, I often raise my hand to those in the observation car. Hello, stranger, and now goodbye.
Steve Wilcox watches trains pass too. A burly Marfa resident in a tie-dyed shirt and bib overalls and with a crown of white hair, he started hanging around his hometown depot in Ruston, Louisiana, when he was nine years old and was hired on as a control tower operator and depot agent while still in high school. Wilcox spent 43 years working on freight trains, many of those as a Union Pacific engineer. “I love everything about the train,” he says. “I’m fascinated with how it works, the smell of oil and metal and creosote. The train moving—that’s a form of art. And the people who do it—that’s all live art.”
Typically, freight trains are staffed by only two people, an engineer who runs the controls and a conductor who communicates with dispatch and hears instructions. An average freight train, according to Wilcox, is about 6,500 feet long, about a mile and a quarter, though they can be much longer. One freight train can effectively take several hundred eighteen-wheelers off the road, lessening congestion and transporting commodities with astonishing efficiency. A single gallon of fuel moves one ton of freight nearly 480 miles. Cat toys to Poughkeepsie. Toyotas to Ohio. Crude oil to the East Coast. Chlorine gas to California.
The experience of piloting a locomotive is different than that of, say, flying a plane or driving a car. As the train motors down the track, it hops around, rocks, or shimmies, depending on its length and whether the cars are loaded or empty. “It’s like an animal,” Wilcox says. “It seems alive.” Freight trains must pull over on sidings and wait, sometimes for hours, if another train has priority. But when all the signals are green and the weather and track conditions are good, “the faster you go, the more you like it,” Wilcox promises. “You put the locomotives in throttle eight and go seventy miles per hour. Whoo, that’s a rush.”
From his perch high above the rails, Wilcox has seen wolves and deer, turtles and snakes, and the nighttime starry skies. One thing stands out, from the engineer’s perspective. “The world is small and fragile and so are its people,” he says. “That train is heavy—six thousand to eight thousand tons, moving forty to seventy miles per hour, depending on cars and freight. These six-axle locomotives are two hundred and ten tons apiece. The public, they come up to the crossing and they want to beat the train.” It can take two miles to fully stop a freight train; emergency braking exists, but derailment is possible. “Hitting a car is like you crushing a Coke can,” Wilcox says. “Beating the train is not worth the risk.”
It’s said that railway brakemen, known for the red signal lanterns they carried, would sometimes seek the company of a prostitute during visits to early railroad towns. Their lanterns, the story goes, were often left on brothel porches, giving rise to the term “red-light district.”
A small memorial next to the tracks downtown marks where a Marfa teenager was struck several years ago while walking and wearing headphones. A quarter mile to the east, another marker was laid for a woman who was killed by the train in an apparent suicide. Train crews must be vigilant at every crossing, on every trip, watchful for errant people and dangers on the track, and responsible, too, for the safety of their freight and these machines, all worth millions. “You take your time and go by one hundred percent of the rules, and that’s how you handle it,” Wilcox says. “You do exactly what you need to do.”
Train passengers have the chance to chase the sun west or east in these parts. Passenger service hasn’t been offered in Marfa for decades, but Amtrak’s Sunset Limited stops in Alpine. One night in December, my son, Huck, who is seventeen, and I climbed aboard, bound for Fort Worth, where my husband waited. Though it wasn’t late, most of our car seemed bunked down for the night, reading or already asleep. It was impenetrably dark outside, nothing to be seen but our own reflections in the windows, and soon enough we joined the sleepers.
The train’s full palette of humanity became apparent the next morning. Many still slumbered slack-mouthed, flung sideways or ramrod straight, with fingers laced across the chest. There is a certain lawlessness to train travel that’s appealing. You can walk from car to car. Take off your shoes. Sit playing cards while wearing a Snuggie. Talk to yourself, if you want. Hum loudly, that’s okay too. Veteran passengers took out sandwiches from Tupperware and read Kindles. Every stop more than a few minutes long sent the smokers bolting outside to puff furiously next to the train. Over in the observation car roamed a skinny fourteen-year-old boy wearing giant fuzzy fox ears and, inexplicably, a fuzzy foxtail on the back of his jeans. Huck looked at me. “Train people are a different breed,” he said.
It was airy and sunlit in the observation car, and while there was plenty of room, it was impossible not to hear the conversations of others. The content often sounded important, though the context was lost.
“She’s started that new treatment.”
“Yes. She’s got it bad.”
“I don’t care what Sharon said. She’s jealous of what we have.”
“Do you imagine that she’s got a sugar daddy?”
Mostly, though, we watched the infinite gorgeousness unfurl outside. Round bales of last year’s hay melted by weather to a shape and color reminiscent of a line of elephants. A strong-running creek sided by large oaks and small limestone cliffs. A fine place to grow up, I thought. A whitetail nibbling forage in a mauve field the same color as the sky. Islands of green winter grass among the yellow fields. Skewbald goats standing atop their little tin houses. Ruins of a cabin collapsing upon itself, a fraidy hole keeping it company. Rich, furrowed blackland prairie. A circle of roan Longhorn cows, meditating. Silos, taco trucks, gins, and cemeteries. Barbershops, water towers, faded Victorian houses. The mighty Brazos, wide and muddy.
It’s interesting what folks want you to see and not see. An impossibly tidy brick-fronted home on a ten-acre lot with a big ornate gate announcing the entrance. We are orderly, sensible people, the scene seems to say. We have pride in our place. It means a lot to us, and so we built that gate.
Some things behind privacy fences you couldn’t see unless you were in a train or had a ladder. A sad pit bull chained, nose on paws. A wondrous parade of white socks and undies hanging on a clothesline. Fighting cocks. Busted trampolines, retired from service. Homeless camps, not quite hidden in winter thickets.
Toward journey’s end, we stopped on a bridge in Fort Worth, not half a mile from my parents’ former house. The skyline loomed, and I saw the glass tower that for years housed my father’s law office. The smoker across the aisle groused loudly about the delay, out of sorts for wanting a cigarette. Outside, a kid on a bike noodled figure eights in front of his house. The train lurched forward with a great clunk, and the kid stopped to look up at the noise. I raised my hand to him and he raised his in return. Hello, stranger, and now goodbye.
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Lines Through the Sand.” Subscribe today.