Friday, December 28, 2007

Santa in Train Heaven

We have finished our second weekend of running the Polar Express Christmas trains, with Don playing Santa and myself as Mrs. Claus. Someone asked me what Mrs. Claus’ first name is, and I answered Daisy. So know you know, spread the word.

This is the biggest part of the fund raising for the museum, people pay $30 bucks a head for this. We will use the money for the various repairs that must be done, mostly keeping the rolling stock and the engines running, an ongoing process on older equipment. Some goes to fix the buildings too, and we are rearranging the parts department which is an incredible and enormous collection of bolts nuts and unfamiliar metal widgets. And of course, continuing the tedious restoration work on some of the really old cars. For anything that goes with trains, ending up here is truly heaven, where a core of dedicated railroad nuts drive, or repair the trains so people can ride them. If the trains could talk, they would be praying.

The script for the Polar Express starts with the people at the depot who park and hand out the reserved tickets to some 250 people, kids over 6, parents and grandparents. The stationmaster runs the gift shop and supervises. Earlier in the day, 300 cookies are fetched, donated by a nearby casino. Vast tubs of water are heated to make cocoa, and the trains are cleaned and stocked. For the 5:00 departure, the engine starts up about 3:30 and begins to get the 6 cars hooked up, and the lights and brakes organized. We have decorated the cars with lights and ornaments and the engine wears colored lights too. The crew consists of the engineer, a brakeman and two conductors. (Because we run our trains on a regular, real world rail line, all these people have to be federally certified to do this, including a written test ) The rest of the cast consists of droves of elves from the local high school and some grownups to supervise, two Santa and Mrs. Santa teams and a hobo bumming a ride on the train (This is based on the Children’s book, The Polar Express). One Santa team hides in the baggage car, back stage and in the middle of the train, and Don and I get to go up to the North Pole and meet the train.

There is carol singing and dispensing of cookies and cocoa and someone reads the Polar Express story on each car on the trip up. Meanwhile, Don and I drive up to a flatish place where a scene of the North Pole is mounted on two trailers, a workshop, Santa’s tiny house, and a sleigh with reindeer running up the roof. All this is lit up by a generator, and since it is dark, nothing is visible outside the train until it pulls up and slowly goes by this merry cheerful theater set with Don and I sitting in the sleigh waving while elves dance around and lights twinkle. Don does his “Ho Ho Ho” as the train goes by and kids and grown ups lean out the windows waving and shouting to Santa.

We climb down and board the train into the baggage car, and the train starts back. We have to double team the next part or we would never get done, one Santa goes north, the other south, and visits with each child, posing for pictures, and the usual, while I follow along and hand out silver sleigh bells.

I think the grown ups are more excited than the kids, the camera action is constant, and then at the end we pose in the last car, a fancy private car with staterooms, for yet more pictures. The kids put up with the photo ops with pretty good patience, although some of the littlest are flat out terrified of the man in red and white fur that everyone is making such a fuss about. They all seem to know what the bells are about, if you can hear them ring it means you believe in Santa, and they are thrilled to get their very own bell.

At the depot everyone gets off, waving goodbye and the grown ups all saying thank you thank you, I guess they know we are all volunteers. Actually a couple of people asked Don if he was a professional Santa, yes he really is that good!

The cast and the backstage crew ride the train back up to the car yard and we have to clean up and wash up and then eat our dinner.

I’ve never been a big fan of the piles of toys and Santa side of Christmas, it often looks like a festival of greed instead of light and joy. But watching Don with the children is pretty magical. He gives each child a moment or two of absolute attention, sometimes asking what they want for Christmas (they usually forget in the excitement) or high fiving them, or returning a hug. The kids are incandescent with wonder, and the parents are pretty excited too, scrambling to catch it on film. It is pure theater and wonderment on an old train, in the dark, out in the desert, a tiny mirror of the bright star in the east.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Border

On the TV in the evening, Lou Dobbs rants on about the illegals, they must be removed, they are lawbreakers and worse, why can’t the gumment do something. He fluffs up his feathers and gets cranky and self-righteous about it, shouting down his “guest” if disagreed with. Or worse, if the guest points out some of the realities of patrolling a border that is 1500 miles long, or the difficulties of rounding up 11 million people (how do they know how many?) and throwing them out.

It reminds me of language in the Alien and Sedition Acts of1798*, of Bostonians taking against the Irish, of the Irish Troubles, and that song that ends, “ And I don’t like anybody very much.

Here in SoCA, and in Texas the border is a joke. There is a 10’ metal fence on the more accessible area here in Campo, but the rest is just a bulldozed fire line. The Rio Grande in Big Bend was not secured either. Where there are main entry roads, there are processing areas, and inspection stations on the major roads, and the border patrol patrols. But there are miles and miles of rough country where there is nothing. In spite of stories of people rounded up or dying in the desert, and coming ashore with sad boats into the arms of the Federales, 11 million people had no problem hiking in, flying in or floating in.

This morning a group of trainees came through the train yards, learning how to search a train. The majority of the Border Patrol that I have seen look to be Hispanic which is ironic until I remember that they were here first, by centuries. I suspect that there are Hispanic families who have been around here since before the Mayflower, and have pedigrees that are more impressive than that lot of desperados.

When we pass through the checkpoints on the highway, I get a little tickle of fear. The BP guys just look at the old fart, the old bag, and the old dog in our white pickup, and wave us through. The massed police muscle of vehicles, weapons and possibly over zealous personnel gives me a moment of understanding how it must be to look Hispanic, or indeed to be any color besides WASP white. Will there come a time that WASPs are the minority? Will the majority of non whites decide to deport us as old, useless drains on their tax dollars, that refuse to learn their language and still insist on English in school?

I heard on the TV that a big lettuce producer here in SOCA has moved his operation to Mexico because it is getting harder and harder to find laborers to work his fields. It has been my experience in many places that the horrible jobs that producing food requires are done mostly by people who are Hispanic, and probably not legal. In ND and in KS these workers were clearly not local, and the language and cultural differences made the locals nervous. But when the only employer in the area depends on the illegals, making a scene about them is probably not sensible. Only folks who live away in the big cities and luxury suburbs, who don’t know who’s in the kitchens or in the trenches of our food chain can remain unaware of this.

Taking our jobs: Hardly, these jobs are minimum wage or less, physically strenuous and dangerous. And often seasonal, requiring a migrant population. And for all the mutterings I hear about people today being lazy and greedy, I have done some of these jobs and they are not something I want to do.

Filling up our schools: Since the illegals get a paycheck and the taxes are taken out, they are paying for school and any other services they might need. Not to mention the economic value of their labor to our economy, both local and national.

Illegals are criminals and terrorists: Known terrorists seem to have gotten into the US legally in many cases, and I doubt that the percentage of criminals among illegals is any higher than the poor and dispossessed who are “fortunate” enough to be US Citizens.

The real problem I suspect is fear aka racism. We can’t understand what they are saying, and their skin is so dark we can’t tell if they are dirty. And we don’t like Catholics very much anyway. I’m either too naive or have traveled too much to be afraid of people who are not WASPs and don’t speak English. The only way I can understand the fear is to think about how I feel about bears. I’m not afraid of the woods or animals, but bears, I don’t know about, and I don’t like them.

The other part of the problem is the gumment. 9-11 was a terrible thing for all those directly affected, but the secondary and probably more dangerous result is that in the US we now have first hand knowledge of what everyday life is like in most of the rest of the world. Bombs happen, and we don’t like it. After the initial shock wore off, we turned to the gumment and wondered how they, in their infinite wisdom and power, could let this happen to us. Lest we find out how incompetent the Feds really are, they mounted a wave of visible strategies in Airports, public buildings and on our phones to lull us into believing they are protecting us. And, having done their homework in Machiavelli, they invented a war to distract us from their incompetence.

* From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

“The Alien and Sedition Acts were four laws passed by the Federalists in the United States Congress in 1798 during the administration of President John Adams, which was waging an undeclared naval war with France, later known as the Quasi-War. Proponents claimed they were designed to protect the United States from alien citizens of enemy powers and to stop seditious attacks from weakening the government.”

Sunday, December 02, 2007


We are way up in the mountains. The area is called the Mountain Empire, and the lightly brush covered mountains are everywhere. Their peaks are in the 5,000 foot range, not very big as mountains go, but since you can be at sea level in 50 miles straight west, they are still impressive. So far it has not rained at all here, except for some half hearted spitting, and when the wind blows, sand and dust get everywhere. The landscape is full of ground features that would have washed away or eroded long ago if rain was common. There are embankments and drop offs that haven’t seen any reason to slump, places that would be a serious mud problem but aren’t filled up or drained, and the rocks under the mountains still have a covering of sandy soil and scrubby brush to hold it. Some of the steeper sides have been washed clean down to the tan granite, but most only have rocks showing in a few places.

This area was settled by Texans looking for ranching areas. There are nice flat areas in the dry creek bed areas that might be good grazing if it ever rained. It is pretty drought stricken right now, although there are supposed to be winter rains. The sage brush is everywhere, and its pungent smell, as dry as the plants are, is released by even a good wind. In the bottomlands there are live oak trees, and a few other shorter weedier trees, but the rocky hills have only low brush that is a sort of dark olive green right now. There are also Manzanita trees, well shrubs as they rarely get taller than 5’ They have red trunks and branches like bonzai and have so far kept their leaves. I don’t seem to have much interest in identifying the plants, partly because we haven’t gone geocaching and I haven’t walked in the wilds. The standard yard here is just dirt, grass would be hopeless. We stopped off at a store in San Diego and walked across a strip of grass, and I actually paused like a horse before stepping on it, what is THIS?

We took the standard train ride that goes just to the tunnel that is the border with Mexico and returns. Nice views of the mountains, and glimpses of peoples’ yards. Adults pay $15 to take this 2 hour ride, I won’t pay that, but then I have done a lot of riding on trains so it isn’t a treat. We also went on the train to Tecate, Mexico , a trip they do once a month or so.

Tecate has suffered from the “closed” border, it used to be a more tourist oriented place. The train depot itself is very spiffy, and the town is a quiet shopping location for the outlying areas. It was a Saturday when we went, so everyone was in town. We walked to a place that supposedly had arts and crafts for sale, but it only had one rather sad store, and then we walked back up to the main square for lunch. There are vendors here selling things for the locals, and several outside restaurants. We sat and ate and watched as people visited with their friends and the kids ran all over. We are on the border, but this town would more likely be somewhere in southern Europe than on the edge of the US. The size of the stores, the size of the vehicles, the whole scale of the place is different, and charming. But poor, we can see prosperous houses up on the hills around town, but along the RR tracks, it is pretty desperate. We are cautioned not to buy candies to throw from the train at the children lest they fall under the train.

One must do stop in Tecate is the bakery. I wouldn’t have believed there were enough people within driving distance to make this place stay alive. There was a mob scene inside, some of which were the people from our train, maybe 100 of us, but the locals were in there too, buying cakes they had ordered and stocking up on an astonishing variety of cakes, buns and breakfast pastries. Perhaps this only happens on Saturday and all this fabulous stuff is for Sunday brunch. There were literally 100s of types of pastry and sweet breads, and 100’s of each kind all lined up on racks ready to fly out the door. We stood in a long slow line and bought a sampling to tide us over on the way home. In general, the goodies were not as sugary as in a US bakery, less frosting, less gooey fillings, but yummy all the same. Waistlines aside, it would be nice to make a trip here every Saturday and have a long continental breakfast of strong coffee and these very tasty confections.

The big thing to do in Tecate is to take the brewery tour where they make Tecate Beer. We passed on that, but most of the other passengers went on it, and one young group clearly went on the tour two or more times for the free beer. They were very rowdy and loud.

The shopping was a little disappointing, Don did buy a large black cowboy hat that makes him look very dashing. I am hunting for something made of the primitive punched tin that is so Mexican. So far what I have seen is cast or very ornate and upscale, not the simple quaint look I’m after. Don says, wait until we get to Tijuana. There is a lot of lively pottery in bold patterns and colors, which is tempting, but I worry a bit about the glazes having lead in them. In any case, collecting heavy terra cotta ware is not a sensible RV’er hobby.

The border crossing business consists of the train stopping on the way in to pick up a Mexican train crew, who are let off again on the way back. When we get to the depot at the museum, 6 border patrol agents get on and we are funneled through the baggage car where we declare our purchases and show photo ID. The baggage car is pretty spare and run down, so the whole affair has a spy movie quality to it.


We left Yuma although Cal Tran (California Transportation) had only reduced its wind closure of I-8 to a warning. The wind was no where near what we drove in front of from Show Low.

Yuma seemed to be one RV park after another, tastefully interspersed with RV Dealers. Lots of small housing developments, lots of strip malls. Maybe there is a downtown, with a park. Maybe being warm and dry is enough. The water is so full of minerals you can’t wash anything with it, or drink it.

Next event on the way west is the Imperial Dunes, great sand dunes drifting over the road. Where are the camels? Twining through the dunes is the All American canal, a 30’ wide channel of blue water. We passed other canals, and soon the great open air greenhouse of the Imperial Valley was on all sides. Big hay fields, other fields of unrecognizable vegetables, some corn and cotton. We are at or slightly below sea level here, and it is flat flat flat. No need to contour either the ditches or the fields , so it is all a big Mondrian painting of different greens, with some browns of newly plowed areas. We can see people running machines or just hoeing, or waiting for the next job.

In the distance, a solid chain of mountains draws closer. They look impressive, and they are really big, we climb to nearly 4,000 feet. These are the Valecito Mountains, almost entirely piles of roundish rocks, some smallish and some elephant sized. The rocks are all sandstone and have weathered smooth. It looks like a gravel pit belonging to giants running trucks and conveyors and crushers that we can’t see. Part of the pass is called Devil’s Canyon, a common name, but I would say that this place in 115 degree heat would be enough to reform any sinner.

After our climb, we stay up pretty high, 2-3000 feet, and our new home has rocky hills and some nearly green valleys. It is pretty hot and dry, and there are very few people. What towns we pass along 94 are hardly more than a gas station/post office store, and glimpses of some homes.

Campo is a big depot center for the Border Patrol. We see a lot of their vehicles, white with a green slash (sort of like the coast guard slash) some are pickups with tall caps on the back, a few are vans and there are a lot of jeeps in the yard. There is also a big county highway CalTran depot here. Other than that, we have a post office (and a PO box of our own) one rather dismal store, a gas station down the road, and that’s all I’ve seen so far. I love it already, we really are in the absolute middle of nowhere.

The railroad museum is a vast collection of aged steam engines, cars, a crane and absolutely everything that a railroad buff would want to collect. The museum is the end result of fundraising and collecting by a group of train besotted San Deigoans. They crank up trains on the weekend to go 10 miles up and 10 miles back. The rest of the time they are closed. The people here all the time are Bill, a volunteer RVer who works off his site, Robin a hippie Santa wannabe who runs the gift shop, also in an RV, and a lady in the farthest trailer who is the docent of the museum building. She is terrified of the fire and has left. Her trailer isn’t going anywhere, Robin’s looks like he is here permanently.

We are parked on a rise overlooking a big field, probably the campo (field in Spanish). The little depot building is to our left, and the big tin museum and even bigger machine building are away out of sight to our right. We only have to put in 10 hours a week, and have full hook up. I suspect that our presence here, watching the place is the most important part of the job. Getting my trailer in was a trick, and getting it out will not be easy, but with Darth in 4wd it will be OK.

We drove into San Diego to do some shopping. The highway goes over rocky hills and down and back up to 4,000 feet and down again, big peaks, all stony with a minimum of bushes on them. As we get closer to town, the hills are still there, with more and more people’s houses on them, and the highway still goes down down, curving around the hills, and leaping the canyons. Then we join more freeways that braid themselves in the air and then we are at the Pacific where finally things settled down, hill wise. We go up to La Jolla, where the cliffs meet the ocean in postcard fashion. There are sea lions sleeping on the rocks, and because it is Halloween, a lot of grownups in costumes. The strangest thing is the trees and shrubs that have been planted here, Australian pines, blue gum trees, and other plants I have never seen before, tropical, exotic. Bougainvillea and plumbago are tumbling all over the place, and oleanders. At the foot of the path by the sea, masses of ice plants, elderly jasmine trees, and other plants some even flowering on Halloween. And of course palm trees of every imaginable type. I have learned that there is a native CA palm tree, and they are here.

We visit Old Town, where some of the original Spanish style buildings and some reconstructions are set in a state park, lots of restaurants and gift and craft shops, only a few interpretive buildings. We have lunch at the most famous of the restaurants, in the classic courtyard with fountains and vines and shaded by canvas strips on sticks. Lots of good places to look for Xmas presents!

Shopping is still shopping, although I do get to visit Trader Joe’s a big favorite of mine that I have not been anywhere near since I left MA. Sort of a cross between your local health food store, and your local coop store but with someone looking for serious bargains in food to pass along. They are all out of the ginger granola that I adore, but we stock up on some other treats.

Back up into the hills again to the quiet and remoteness of Campo. There are people who live here, and in the small towns and villages nearby, but it is very isolated and peaceful.