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A view of the border crisis from America’s railroad
A deep and monotonous thumping under my feet gives me reassurance, here in the darkest hours of the night before the morning breaks, that the engine I ride will carry on pounding the rails, come what may.
Creeping ever closer to the border, slowing as we approach the town, winding our way past lines of trailers, shadows of hard brush and hillocks of dust and earth, the mottled and sun-blanched tops of my freight cars sway gently over the joints, the switches and the trestles. Their momentum is terrific, yet they give us nothing but gentle groans and dull clanks of old steel against old steel.
The Mexican border bridge lies ahead, enormous, sharp and ungainly in the shallow landscape.
My Thermos of coffee tilts and shudders as we make our final approach. Here lies the end of the American map, the place where all of our dreams are so abruptly broken off at a crumbled precipice against the brown water. There is an anticipation in the air, despite a numbness in the fingertips from the incessant vibration of the massive motors that have brought us here, and the old flask’s brief rattle speaks volumes of the sensation.
We have reached the edge.
Out there, still shrouded in shadow, almost as though part of the sandy soil itself, lie the men and women, the children and the infants, who have also come to this map edge, but theirs has been a far different journey.
It has been a trek of desperation, sacrifice, violence and danger. Their souls have been stripped bare by the sun and the wind, ravaged by the evils of their predators, until they have nothing left to give.
They will try, now in the hour of their last need, to ride with me.
Anonymous, bedraggled and bruised, they will try.
I’ve always wanted to work for the railroad. I’ve always wanted to be a train conductor. I’m a South Texas native, but I first hired out in a small Montana town during the Bakken oil boom.
The greatest adventure for me beyond Whitefish, Montana, has been the responsibility of working a train through my Texas home town.
A sunrise without snow helps to alleviate that heartbreak of leaving my northern stomping grounds for the territory at the southern edge of the United States.
I wear my worn overalls from Montana; coffee stains tell of long nights delivering empty grain cars to small towns by lantern light. Every star and satellite in the sky has become familiar to me. A woman in Spokane, Washington, whose father did his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio added patches to my overalls as needed. She told me it was a refreshing change from wedding dress alterations. She also told me the grocery store in Spokane would stock Big Red.
My grandfather was a railroader; it was the last thing he remembered after a career in the Air Force. His own father had a caboose assigned to him in Iowa. When I started working, we used one to stay warm in Glendive, Montana.
My grandfather and I have shared the same railroad infrastructure from my time working in South Dakota. In 1909, the Milwaukee Road expanded west across South Dakota. Milwaukee Road’s main line survives in 2022 because of the BNSF Railway.
I’m the man who rides through your town in the dead of night with a mile and a half of boxcars, covered hoppers and scrap-metal gondolas, grinding on relentlessly until I reach the border.
However, with all due respect to friends who work for Amtrak, I had way more passengers last night in Eagle Pass.
Two tracks follow the international bridge from Mexico. Abandoned clothing covers the barbed-wire fencing that shadows the mainline. This is America.
I’ve practiced conversational Spanish to shake a hand with the train crew from Mexico, the men to whom we hand off our train.
I romanticized Canada, living on its border. Maybe one day I’ll collect opinions on cooking from friends who work for Ferromex to Monterrey.
They say the best food is on the border; I’ve lived on both.
The sights and sounds are the same. Creosote is a fragrance I’ll always know. I’ve known it since standing trackside as a child in the shadow of my grandfather, terrified. The scent is unchanged. Texas heat recycles timeless moments of railroading. Generations of workers are connected by sight and smell.
A friendly wave with my lantern at three in the morning accompanies a truly frightening wheel-flange squeal as I push that train into the yard. This time, I’ve been working with everyone’s favorite engineer, a man who’s never given me one knuckle coupler to change and who coaches little league in the Spring.
I double-check the derails and use the ambient light to eyeball our route.
There you are, the huddled masses.
I’ve only known y’all for three miles; that’s the distance from the international bridge. You’ve ridden the beast from Central America, the one known as “El Tren de los Desconocidos.”
My hat is off to y’all. I’m in no position to judge.
You number maybe 30 today; I don’t think the children wanted to ride the roof. I wouldn’t want to ride the roof.
It’s hard for me to understand why you’ve come, why you’re willing to do this.
With my own medical debt, my own daily worries and my own concerns for family and finance, America doesn’t feel to me like the destination that people have romanticized.
I’m waiting to turn my locomotives when the border guards we see each morning approach and make casual conversation. It seems incongruous, just to shoot the bull when there’s so much anguish and hopelessness only a stone’s throw away.
They tell me that a woman carrying a newborn baby tripped as she ran for the train, and that her child was crushed to death on that international railroad bridge. It happened on Mexico’s side; the men could do no more than watch from here.
The coffee flask trembles again. The engines hum. The cab feels warm and safe.
I can only think of you children out there in the cruel morning light.
Jesus Christ, I hope y’all grow up with no memories of this train ride.
*Michael Green is a native of New Braunfels, a 2012 graduate of Texas State University in San Marcos with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science, and has been an employee of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway since 2013. His present range of operations with BNSF is between San Antonio and the US-Mexico border as well as Houston and Temple. Texas is the seventh state in which he has worked for the railroad. His feature appears in the Current this week by invitation.