Borderlands Day 1: Sunset Limited

Posted on November 21, 2018 by noraspicer

This post is part of a series on Nora and Andy’s scouting adventures for Borderlands Education, Nov. 20- Dec. 20, 2018

Journeying from Charlottesville, VA to Tucson, AZ by train, Nov. 17-20, 2018

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I have only to say that the light is dimming, just getting more bleak in the swampy landwaters of southern Texas. Some time in the night we will get to Houston, then San Antonio, then somehow, somewhere, the soggy puddle vastness will become the desert. How? This will most likely happen as I sleep, the machinations of the train window world will rearrange themselves into the desert like behind a curtain or during a vast, incomprehensible scene change.

Some things I’m thinking about traveling:

Going fast is privilege. This train doesn’t go faster than a car, and at most it goes almost the speed of a car. The train through the southern states was old and crammed and sticky, and my seatmate was very kind but we were also jammed, and it seemed dim even in the daytime. There is more newness on Texas’ train. There is a dining car with two different sittings, there is a cafe with a ridiculous conductor. There is a glassy observation car which makes me feel like we should be watching the alps go by rather than the soggy landwater of industrial southern Louisiana. It feels like getting off the bus from Ramallah at the first possible street corner at the end of the line of the Jerusalem light rail, and suddenly everything was quick and there was a clear automated voice and people were solemn and hopeful rather than wrung out and beholden. Can I even make this comparison? Is this an ok thing to say? I mean only that a piece of this reminds me of a piece of that. The train was held in Washington DC so the passengers delayed in Chicago could make their way down the eastern seaboard. But what about the next passengers, waiting for five hours in Greenville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Meridian? The train is necessarily a legacy, a legacy of who is waited for and who waits.

It’s so much more possible to go when you know what’s on the other side. At the rupture, there’s a sense of forsakenness, of being left at the gate, of not knowing how to proceed, or what it means to proceed, or who will meet me if I turn a different way. It is all routes and paths and entrances, all invitations and expectations. What difference it makes to know that there is one person who has acquired for me permission to pitch a tent for $5. What does it mean to go somewhere where someone is awaiting you?

People come and go on the train. Especially on the Crescent, almost no one starts in Washington and ends up in New Orleans. It is a train, in its spirit of disruption, that expects its populace to constantly change. Some people even get on just before the train arrives in New Orleans, apparently unaware of the long and weary voyage they are boarding. The knowledge of locales changes. ‘Oh, I’m just going to the next stop’ brings with it a sense of expectation, as though one should always know at least the breadth of the next stop.

I’m interested in how people’s local knowledge is splayed across geography. Are places held to each other locally, bound by each tie of expectation of what’s around the next bend? The train is a different way of knowing space. It will proceed whether or not its passengers have tethers of expectation. It knows it is going far. In New Orleans people are impressed but not surprised by the ones going to Los Angeles. The train has priorly delineated the breadth of the way, it already contains what’s coming. It’s different from the bike trip where the way unfolds as you probe the scope of each person’s local knowledge along the route. On this train, the local is already the transcontinental.

I wake up surrounded by different neighbors. We stopped in San Antonio, crouched between freight crates and a floodlight, between 11:14 and 1am. Somehow this train can change its clothes in the night, and still be in some ways the same thing. In Beaumont, TX some of the conductors got off and they called goodbye to each other based on their places of providence, ‘bye Mississippi, bye Alabama’ Maree called from the platform as two conductors rolled their bags away from the train. ‘G’bye California!’ They called back.

This must be one of the very few places where a train hurtles towards the border; all through the night, we approach Del Rio. It takes a full night of sleep to get there from San Antonio. How did the too-wetness become the scrublands of southern Texas? I almost wish the journey were slower, that the world became less different during the times we’re asleep. There is a sudden vastness, the space we awaited when we were ringed in by the leafy fall of Alabama and the leaning eeriness of the bayous.

Once away from the shorelines their difference became writable. The Superdome in New Orleans by the train station that housed many displaced people during Hurricane Katrina, the massive steel railway bridge across the Mississippi, the constant bayous, the sunken trees alongside the track, sugar cane and flooded rice fields.

People shuffle by on this boat of a train and Elwood makes his creepy dramatic comical morning announcement from the cafe car. We pass through the ranges of Alpine and Marfa, north of Big Bend, where the jagged peaks constantly surge upwards. In these vast lands of western Texas, the scrub proceeds widely, bison or cows intersperse the grazing lands. An aerostat is tethered to the ground: this blimp that can see a jackrabbit running, used for patrolling the border. It’s just like the blimp that flew over East Jerusalem on shabbat which I was told on the Ir Amim tour could count eyelashes.

My heart leaps to be in El Paso, where we disembark to buy homemade green chile burritos from a lady’s cart, Trans Mountain is many-colored and majestic, Juarez’s iconic red X sculpture stands with hands splayed. A passenger asks for my help finding the stairs back on the train saying she has lost her eyesight, and thanks me by telling me I have a beautiful face. We cross the trickling constricted Rio Grande and rattle right along the border fence before opening out to New Mexican vastness south of the Gila Mountains.

What does it mean to be traveling to the border? Not as a point of passage, but as a site of confrontation. The surveyors of the western border never expected this terrain to be a site that would draw not only migration but commerce and community. A member of the Joint United States and Mexican Boundary Commission described, ‘much of this country, that by those residing at a distance is imagined to be a perfect paradise, is a sterile water, utterly worthless for any purpose than to constitute a barrier or natural line of demarcation between two neighboring nations.’ The fact of border drew settlement, and the railroad’s route at the edge of the border is no coincidence. This route for a southern transcontinental route was part of the impetus for the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. In 1877 the Southern Pacific Railroad crossed the Colorado River at Yuma, and reached Tucson in 1880. Rachel St. John writes in Line in the Sand, ‘On the site of the western border there had simply been no ‘there’ there before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo’

After 3 days of travel by train, my gut flops at the thought that Tucson is four hours away, which feels imminent. In the observation car I read Adrienne Rich’s lines that Hannah sent me, ‘O you who love clear edges/ more than anything…watch the edges that blur.’

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November Newsletter: 89 Places

Good News! It turns out that taking the train across the country gives an extraordinary amount of time for writing, AND I have plans to prolifically share updates along these upcoming adventures, without concern for writing vastly. To start, here’s an update on recent movements:

It’s cloudy this morning in New Orleans and I’m on the second floor of the Sunset Limited train, getting ready to leave the station. The Crescent train arrived here last night at 1:15am, and I slept a few hours in a spunky hostel. I got on the crescent in Charlottesville the night before last, after a frenzy of preparation for this upcoming Borderlands trip with Andy, who awaits me in Tucson.

The Borderlands project is an idea for an expedition-based semester program traversing US-Mexico borders. It asks how we can teach social justice through the moving body, transforming our understandings of belonging, citizenship, boundaries, and home through the routes we choose to travel– crossing or following current geopolitical borders, historical borders, cultural and ecological borders. How we are oriented in relation to each other (politically, religiously, by gender and sexuality, by citizenship status, and more) is mapped by the directions that our bodies travel in and the directions where we place our attention.

I began thinking about borderlands education through conversation with my students on the Ecuador Semester Program one year ago at this time. Last January, I wrote up a set of curriculum outlines for four experiential classes– Water (natural science), Movement (adventure education and political science), Family (social studies), and Dreams (literature). In February, I traveled to El Paso and Big Bend National Park for an Outward Bound staff invitational– an amazing week-long backpacking trip with Outward Bound instructors from around the country, where we hiked and climbed right along the Texan border. In El Paso, I met a borderlands history professor, the El Paso public schools bilingual education coordinator, and visited El Paso’s neighbor city Juarez. In the spring, I taught a section of the Kroka Winter Semester Program on Lake Champlain, and focused on borderlands as a curriculum lens– between Iroquois and Abenaki, Granite, and Slate, French and English, New York and Vermont. Lake Champlain’s Abenaki name is ‘Bitawbagok’, The Waters In Between. What is borderlands education? I asked. What does it look like to educate ‘in between’ (languages, places of access, cultural and political and ecological differences)? Over the summer, I communicated more widely with academics, activists, and outdoor educators interested in the potential of a Borderlands semester. I was moved by how many of these folks identified as women, and how powerful the borderlands of gender are within this project.

This fall season, I have been diving into the first stages of borderlands investigation, beginning with what’s closest– the experience in my own body of encountering and traversing borderlands, accompanied by the companionship of friends.

I recently returned from five weeks in Israel-Palestine, where I went to reunite with Alma, my life’s first friend, who is Israeli and lives in Tel Aviv. My travels were humbling, tender, provoking, eye-opening, isolating, enraging, expanding, loving. My time included many visits to Jerusalem, political tours with Ir Amim in East Jerusalem and Breaking the Silence in the South Hebron Hills, several days in Ramallah in the West Bank visiting the Quaker school, and a few days in Bethlehem, also in the West Bank. I hiked in the Ramon Crater and considered the relationships of political and geologic borders, at the Syrian-African fault, and at the point of division between water flowing to the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea. I am working on a longer piece of poetry and nonfiction tentatively titled after Yehuda Amichai’s lines… ‘We were together in my time, in your place/ You gave the place and I the time.’

I say ‘first stages’ of borderlands investigations, because I increasingly recognize the ways this project calls towards a creative writing project, a course of graduate study, a series of expeditions, or/AND an educational program. It’s my intention to place value on HOW the project comes about, through meaningful connections and experiences.

In Tucson, our intention is to connect with individuals and organizations already doing amazing work in borderlands education. Andy and I come from a background of transforming content areas into an experiential course of study, and we’re curious about how the intersection of methods of expedition-based education can enrich education work happening on the border. It’s an open question!

Andy and I will share Thanksgiving at the NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) branch, stay in a strawbale guesthouse offered to us by members of the Cascabel Conservation Association, volunteer with the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen, Tucson Samaritans, and Humane Borders, and meet individuals involved with education, watershed management, permaculture living, simple homesteading, and radical biking! Our route-finding (by bike!) will include portions which run both perpendicular and parallel to the contemporary geopolitical border, as well as parallel to the pre-1848 border (the rio Grande running through what’s now New Mexico).

So far this year, I’ve slept in 89 unique places (now you know the title, if you’ve read this far!). The past several years have been about coming to a place of choosing what I had taken for granted, and feeling that I am living a life that I chose to live. What I begin to yearn for now are things that I had the privilege of not being able to see as subjects of yearning– to have a durable dwelling with walls, for people in my life to know where I am, to have one address and state of residence, to build routine, to say ‘was that this Tuesday or last Tuesday? it all blends together.’ At one point when I was leaving Alma’s apartment for Jerusalem, I tore at my chest and told her ‘I just have this thing of feeling such tension between being on the adventure, being out on the road, and being at home.’ She said ‘that’s not just you, that’s people.’ I’m learning how understanding borderlands is some about movement and transience, but is truly also about being rooted in place, the embodied feeling, experienced or longed for, of being settled.