Matt Potter 8:15 a.m., Dec. 11
I started the year twenty-ten at midnight, with a short glass of chartreuse, a greasy burger, and a friend. The tug of the full moon was strong, and after three-odd hours of restless sleep I abandoned post and prepared for grand adventure. Some apparition of my past had put in my mind the notion that what one did on New Years Day would be what one did all year long. Willfully ignoring reason, I’ve oft used the superstition as an impetus to do something I’d like to do more of in the coming year, and at the very least make sure that I’m not arguing with a girlfriend about something unimportant. After adding a three-dollar burrito to the caustic combination brewing inside of me, I set out eastward from San Diego without a clue about where I was heading. Had I waited any longer, I would’ve surely succumbed to the latter in the tug-of-war between the moon and my bed.
Three hours of driving placed me as a high-functioning catatonic at the end of a ten-mile dirt road where the Dos Cabezas Wash crosses the tracks of the San Diego & Arizona Eastern railway, at the easternmost boundary of the Anza-Borrego Desert. Four years prior, to the day, was the first time I’d walked these tracks out to the Goat Canyon Trestle; at one time it was the largest wooden trestle in the world, and is still high in the rankings. That trek marked a personal rite-of-passage, further exacerbating the ever-widening divide between “relationship me” and “sovereign me” by opting for adventure over another wine-soaked gathering on the arm of my sweetheart. Thus it was no mystery why the path of least resistance led me here, four years later, to purge the residue of a subsequent and extremely toxic relationship. For 365 days prior, I was in a beautiful place, arguing with a girlfriend about something unimportant, and that set the stage for what would be the worst year of my life.
Two hours of walking, a handful of tunnels and roughly five miles of track separating me from my vehicle placed me at the trestle at sunset. From there, the tracks lead only to the north and south, and the east-to-west gorge that the trestle spans across makes for a dermal exfoliation by means of rock and cholla, in a scramble to nowhere. Yet it was at this point that I reached a crossroads. While this hike to the trestle had, in previous visits, satiated my thirst for adventure, it had now become a predictably good time. Standing midway upon the 200-foot tall wooden lattice-work of the trestle, I knew that I hadn’t come this way, on this day, for a “good time”. My legs already wanted to give out on me for trudging through those last miles of rocky ballast, but my heart wasn’t being fooled by this now-familiar “day hike”. More immediate considerations began weighing in, helping to reduce the argument to fundamental logistics: unless I planned on spending the night on this trestle, there would be a five-mile northbound walk back to my truck, plus tax. The tax of dissatisfaction. Conversely, walking southbound along these tracks for another nine or ten miles would put me in the border town of Jacumba, where I could catch a comfortable night of sleep at the Inn, soak my aches in a hot tub filled with effluent from a nearby sulfur spring, plus benefits. The benefits of adventure sought, experienced, remembered. The benefit of a new story to tell. With the last glint of the sun-star falling behind the mountain to the immediate west, I made a secret pact with my brain to obscure the facts from my legs. For the next five miles they wouldn’t know which decision had been made, and would thus have no choice but to comply. At mile six the truth would be exposed, but at that point it would be a choice between “ten miles back” and “five miles forward”, and my legs would be left without a leg to stand on.
With the first tunnel south of the trestle, the true adventure began. New vistas, new rusted blasting powder cans, new general rail refuse, new barrel cacti that were bigger than the ones dotting the miles behind me, even if just by their newness; a tunnel so long and straight that standing on one end you can see the daylight on the other end like a solo porthole in the titanic blackness. Ten solid minutes of swift-paced walking found me on the opposing end, emerging into a world of red skies and twilight. The next tunnel must have been the same length, for it took just as long, and when I emerged from it my flashlight stayed on. Its beam caught some reflectors up ahead, and the apparent motion amidst the darkness startled me. Pressing forward cautiously, the beam began to illuminate the space between the reflectors, and I was no less startled. And odd section of passenger rail cars and an antagonistic caboose with busted out windows screamed of violence in its monolithic stillness.
This train was Mexican by origin, as evidenced by the fading paint on the side of the caboose that read “Tren Turistico del Noroeste”, serving as a reminder that these tracks crossed into Mexico about ten miles from here. One interesting quality that comes into play when plotting the course of a rail system, are the considerations that must be made when taking into account the gross weight of a loaded freight train, which could be thousands of tons. Part of what makes a rail system efficient is the relative lack of friction between the smooth steel wheels and the smooth steel rails, and thus two miles worth of rolling stock can tail behind a couple few locomotives using relatively little fuel once the momentum has been established. However, this very lack of friction causes concern when the train is required to ascend or descend a grade. Consequently, rail system engineers examine the topography between A and B, searching for the path of least resistance. Like any snaking river, this path is rarely a direct line between A and B, and so we find countless cases where the tracks divert deep into remote and scenic territory that the highway system, with it’s glass-impregnated concrete and steel-belted radials, need not go. In the case of the San Diego & Arizona Eastern line, it must have been more feasible to dip the route into Mexico for quite some length before reemerging at the San Ysidro – Tijuana border just south of the city of San Diego, as opposed to the feats of engineering that would be required to keep it exclusively domestic soil. It is also probable that at the time these rails were laid, the concerns surrounding the US-Mexico border weren’t quite as paramount.
Exploring the exterior of the alien-looking train (this was no repurposed Amtrak, but rather some completely foreign design whose likes I’d never seen before, exhibiting an unusual lack of detail and resembling what it might look like if a model train were enlarged to full scale), I pondered what variety of northbound foot-traffic I might encounter on this trek, and couldn’t help but wonder if any of them might be holed up in these very railcars, hearts racing in hopes that whoever was wielding my flashlight would fail to land it’s light upon them. Rather than investigate, I just kept walking, beam affixed upon the train until it didn’t matter anymore.
A few short tunnels later I stopped for a moment and turned off the flashlight to get a feel for what I could see without it. Ironically, the flashlight was an afterthought as I left the house, and the condition of the batteries that had long been residing inside of it was an assumption, at best. I carried no spares. The full moon had occurred the previous night, and so I could expect a nearly-full moon to rise from the eastern horizon about an hour after sunset. But because these rails were on a mountainside excavation, and the mountain itself was just footsteps to my east, any moonlight would be obscured until it was almost directly overhead, which wouldn’t be until around midnight. It was currently about seven o’clock. With the flashlight off, the distant glow of cities to the west cast a silhouette of the mountains across the canyon, though they remained otherwise featureless. As my eyes adapted to the darkness, I began to recognize the ground surrounding me, and could detect several nearby rock outcroppings. Whifflettes of cool air skirted the up the mountainside from the canyon floor, it’s friction upon my ears breaking the silence. If the flashlight batteries failed, I’d have no choice but to stop and wait for the moon to rise above the ridge, but my little experiment assured me that the wait would be a worthwhile experience of its very own.
It was only a matter of time before time was no longer a matter. With each monotonous crunch of the ballast beneath my feet, I was hypnotized into the luminous tunnel that lay perpetually before me at my own lazy discretion, and carried on this way for miles. The trance was only broken by the subtle observation that the delicate-yet-consistent incline that had began many thousands of paces prior at the desert floor had tapered to level ground. Like a waking-state, my senses sharpened to near-maximum acuteness, and the environment spoke to me. The sensation of a vast expanse all about me had subsided in exchange for a much closer and contained resonance, and the air was still and cool and carried the essence of swamp water. The tracks intersected a small, snaking creek several times, and the reeds sprouting from it’s bed, twenty-odd feet below, still towered over me as I carefully navigated each plank of each narrow bridge. Distant sounds of large trucks compression-braking became increasingly prevalent before the highway could finally be seen. And when I was standing immediately beneath it, I was back on the map. I’d driven over this length of tracks many times, and had traced them with my eyes in both directions from the roadway, in passing. Though I’d never walked them before, the tracks ahead would carry no surprises; the smooth and easy “glory lap” on my triumphant arrival to the town of Jacumba. A status-check over a few swills of water and an aspirin had my legs and feet resisting every step, and a rash forming on my upper-inner-thighs from chaffing. My ankles were behaving like drunks due to the baker’s-dozen miles of uneven surface behind me, and if I was skilled in walking on my hands I would’ve seriously considered completing the trek in that fashion. But with respite so nearby, each fall forward was good enough for me.
By the time the highway was a distant anachronism, I could look over my shoulder to see the moon rising well above the mountains I’d just walked out of. Diffused by a gossamer scud, it cast enough light for me to put my flashlight away. Just beyond the lights of Jacumba, I could see the flickering lights of La Rumorosa, a Mexican town across the border, though only accessible via a long dusty road eastbound out of Tecate. The presence of La Rumorosa reminded me of where I was, geographically, politically, and helped to influence my character into something less suspicious, should a US Border Patrol agent decide to investigate the stumbling infrared figure making it’s way down the remote set of tracks within eye-shot of the border fence. But it was the coyotes that detected me first, with an inquisitive yip, followed by an annoyed cackle before the all-out howling began. Their noise segued seamlessly with that of the dogs in the backyards of homes on the outskirts of town, and before too long I was the most interesting thing happening in Jacumba that night. When I reached Railroad Avenue, at the old Jacumba train station, I cut left from the tracks and put my aching feet on pavement long overdue.
It was roughly 9pm on New Years Day when the clerk at the Jacumba Inn informed me that they had no vacancy for the evening. Some deeper querying and a full disclosure helped to employ the man as a collaborator in my conundrum, but the best solutions we could come up with involved bivouacking in the parking lot or convincing one of the locals drinking at the bar to float me a ride down the hill into Ocotillo. Because I carried no bedding or shelter whatsoever, and the clerk didn’t offer any forward, the former option seemed strange, though it was appreciated. Because there was a Border Patrol checkpoint between Jacumba and Ocotillo, and because it was New Years Day, and because the majority of bar patrons that I’d passed on my way in were visibly intoxicated, there were several factors that made the latter less than a viable option. And because the Jacumba Inn was literally the only place open in town, if not simply ‘the only place in town’ period, the clerk and I came to the conclusion that I should sit down and have a burger and a beer and rest for a bit, so that is exactly what I did.
At the restaurant at Jacumba Inn, I pulled a chair up to a table of women at the request of one of them. An acquaintance had been researching spa culture for her master’s thesis at UCSD, and often used Jacumba as her home base, in part because of its rich history as a retreat for mid-twentieth-century Hollywood celebrities. It was no surprise to me that she was there, but it was surely a pleasure. Despite having literally just crawled out of the hills, I engaged in delightful and fun intellectual conversation with interesting new people over that burger and beer. The five of them had rented a one-room suite for several days straddling the New Year, and it also happened to be my acquaintance’s birthday. When asked about where I’d come from, I made light, and obscured any concern about my temporary predicament in order to avoid inadvertent impositions upon them. After about an hour of dining and socializing I felt much better, but knew that the night’s journey was not over. Like a gentleman and an idiot, I bid them adieu with the last swig of my beer.
Mere footsteps off the property of the Jacumba Inn, the efferent liveliness of the party I’d just left dissipated back into oceanic darkness, and a few footsteps later it was just me and the moon again. Rather than taking the tracks back the way I’d came, I hit the pavement in hopes of catching a ride down the highway into Ocotillo, from which I could then walk a different section of the same tracks to where my truck was parked. The highway was a few miles away, but there was a gas station and an onramp there that could aid me in caffeine and communication, and the aching of my muscles wasn’t being as exacerbated by the relatively solid surface of the paved roadway. But within minutes my mood began to shift. Each Blazer that roared past was a threat to my experience, and evoked the latent animal reflex inside of me. Bigger. Brighter. Louder. Run! As a civilized human of the modern era, I felt like I would’ve known better, though I probably shouldn’t have. By the time I arrived at the gas station by the highway almost an hour after leaving the Inn, I knew that I’d made a bad choice by coming this way. I bought a coffee and conferred with the cashier about catching rides. Her optimism inspired me, but it was unduly matched against reality, as the traffic through the gas station was unsympathetic. The downtime only made the aches worse, lactic acid coagulating in every muscle in my legs, them quickly retiring into the notion of a “job well done” for the night. I brought us back up to idle by walking up the eastbound onramp, and continuing onto the highway shoulder. One thumb went out, and the other did its part in clenching the coffee cup while I walked backward with my face to traffic. I’d been a hiker, then a diner. Now I was a drifter in the eyes of all passersby. And I was asking for their help. With every viable ride that passed me came a rejection, first indifferent, then bitter, then downright spiteful, as I swore that the drivers were spewing mechanical noise from their vehicles at me, on command.
I’d nearly committed myself to walking the highway shoulder down the long grade to Ocotillo when my cell phone chimed with the alert of a new text message. I raced into my pocket to fish out the phone, and all but completely ignored the new message while I navigated my way to the phone’s GPS mapping feature. For, at every prior point on this journey, I’d either been outside of a service area or accidentally intercepting Mexican coverage at rates equivalent to international piracy. My return to civilization (albeit still standing on the littered should of a high-desert interstate at midnight) brought me new insight: my plan to walk the tracks from the town of Ocotillo to where my truck was parked at the Dos Cabezas crossing would gain me no ground whatsoever. That is, the distance from town to truck on tracks was the same distance as it would be if I were to simply turn around in my current position and walk the tracks back the way I came. This equidistance also meant that catching the elusive ride down the hill was no longer necessary; an epiphany that was very relieving, since my relations with mankind had degraded significantly by this point.
Marching headlong against traffic, adamantly westbound along the shoulder of the eastbound lanes with the explicit ferocity expected of whatever madman would be in my specific location at that specific moment in my specific shoes, my eyes beamed straight back at each set of shadowed figures hiding behind each set of oncoming headlights. Another half-hour of walking and a scramble down the embankment had me back on familiar ground again, where the highway passed over the tracks that had led me into Jacumba. With each step away from the overpass, I was restored. My saturated rods could once again see more and more of the ground beneath me; my tightened stapedius muscles loosening to hear more and more of the subtle stirring of crickets and lizards and rabbits about me. My disposition recovered just as quickly, and I was seeing this familiar terrain now for the first time under a wash of full moonlight. And when the highway was once again that distant anachronism, I stopped to rest on a large set of boulders that strangely resembled a sacrificial altar, adorned with stenciled “private property” warnings that were sprayed in yellow paint directly upon the rock surface itself. I watched the sky, sprawled across the gentle dome of the boulder that still held onto the last traces of the warmth of the day, and my rest became slumber. But the dormancy subjected me to the falling air temperature, which became my alarm clock, and before long I was moving again.
Having traversed all of them only hours earlier, the tunnels were no less disturbing the second time through. And in one, the longest one, I roused a vulture that had taken up residency in the rafters for the night. He wanted nothing more to do with me than I wanted to do with him, but this stopped neither of us from making our own brands of frightened fuss as we flailed away from one another. And five minutes later, as I exited the tunnel, he was there again, ten feet above my head, broad wings flapping and a guttural squawk that had my nerves convinced that he was coming for me, so much that I turned to punch the air all about me until it was clear that he’d once again retreated.
Looking to the north and with the moon directly above, I could see land for a hundred or more miles at one vista, where the canyon cut straight all the way to the desert floor, and dissipated into horizon. The detail about me was almost as clear as in daylight, in its fleeting shadowless state, making the baron infinity across the canyon and beyond appear like a vintage Hollywood backdrop in its fixed inseparability. Even the formerly unnerving Mexican railcars seemed somewhat hospitable under this new light perspective, and when I reached them in near exhaustion, I sought out a place to sleep inside the formerly antagonistic caboose with the broken windows; broken windows through which I was conveniently granted access beyond locked doors. By design, the caboose is essentially a clubhouse for crew members who are off-duty during long hauls. The typical caboose is adorned with several bunks, a bathroom, a small galley, and a common area, and this one was no different. The first bunk was directly in front of the broken window I’d straddled through, and it was strewn in shards of broken glass. The second bunk was a sheet of cold steel atop a footlocker of sorts, and after a brief trial I determined that amidst this silence it might be like sleeping on a large drum that doubled as a frozen lake. Feeling a tad like a post-apocalyptic princess, squabbling about her insufficient, pea-riddled options in a castle where the odd piece of cardboard might make for luxury, I settled on the common area; a “crow’s nest” atop the caboose, accessible by ladder, and furnished with several padded bench seats that faced each other. Appearing clean and secluded by comparison, I distributed myself across two of the benches and prepped for sleep. Desperately tired and physically drained, it was no great task to fall into slumber. But every few minutes, some nearby pop or creak would snap my eyes back open. Even after loosely checking the passenger cars for other souls, I wasn’t totally convinced that I was alone, and even entertained the idea that there might be someone on top of the crow’s nest, as a few of the sounds were coming from above. But in the end, it was the chalky dryness that was accumulating on my tongue that spurred my return to the tracks, as I came to realize that the appearance of cleanliness on the benches was actually a uniform layer of thick desert dust, which I now carried upon my surfaces.
Before long, I was back on the trestle. It was two-thirty in the morning, and I knew the terrain back to my truck at the desert floor well enough that it would make every inch of it painfully slow in its complete predictability. I knew that this tunnel would empty onto that stretch before turning this direction into that tunnel which was still several tunnels away from the final one. But despite the physical suffering that each step brought with it, I knew that perseverance would mean that I was going to be at my truck in about two hours, and most importantly, in my bed in a little over four. Punctuating each quarter-mile jaunt with a five-minute rest, I made surprisingly good time, though it was only perceivable this way from a clock-face perspective, as it was otherwise purgatory. And whether or not this would be logged as an experience that I wished to have more of in the coming year, I crawled like vulture-fodder out of the desert and into the humanity of my truck, where I parked it roughly 33 miles ago, at four-thirty in the morning, on the second day of January, twenty-ten.