As we glide through the Rocky Mountains on the Amtrak California Zephyr heading for Chicago, I realise how fortunate I am to bear witness to a view of North America that is only available to those travelling by train. This is a view that is at the same time magnificent and terrible, awe inspiring yet desperately sad.
We travel through beautiful, hidden areas, the black and red rocks of the Rockies with its wilderness of plants and animals that have lived together for millions of years. From the viewing car, phones and cameras snap and click at the scenery. I join in but soon realise that I simply cannot fit the vastness and beauty into a picture.
As night falls the atmosphere in the viewing car begins to change with the drama of the mountains gradually smoothing out into the lowlands.
The following day, we wake to a different landscape, the topography flat and far reaching. The boundaried edges of human habitation on first sight look like the British countryside, like home, but on closer inspection this is very different.
All of this, while an amazing experience, is well documented and to some extent exploited, not least by tourism. Amtrak sells itself on vast landscapes and impressive vistas. But there is another side of this stretch of our adventure from Grand Junction to Chicago that has left a deep mark on me. These are memories we take away that no one planned for us to have, that the posters with the faces of happy travelers at the Amtrak stations fail to show: the signs of climate change and the neglected communities of America..
We see dead cows dumped at the edge of a field where the farmer no doubt believed they would go unnoticed. In this far corner of his world, the train track cuts a scar through his fields allowing our mode of transportation, a line of connected metal boxes, to lumber across his property. A dinosaur in the transport history of America. What he forgot is the many faces peering out from behind the tightly sealed windows, witnessing the corpses of his secret.
The houses where the occupants are lucky to have a roof over their heads, or what remains of one. Back yards filled with broken children’s bikes and old rusty cars, a tarpaulin that once covered a valuable item, now ripped and flapping in the breeze. Items that have been abandoned, forgotten or ignored. I wonder if this is how the occupants feel about their lives; abandoned, forgotten and ignored by society. Perhaps this is the America that had hoped to be made great again.
For the populations in the towns we pass through, this metal dinosaur cannot be more than an annoying clatter interfering with the television. I know with time, even this will melt into the noise of everyday life. For some the track may represent a way out, a promise of a greater life somewhere other than here. I hope they succeed, everyone deserves at least one chance in life. For a few the way out could have a different meaning.
At 4.30 am last night I woke to the train screeching on the tracks as it came to a shuddering halt. Soon blue and red flashing lights surrounded the front of the train. The victim was a young woman who in the middle of the night found life too unbearable and stood waiting for this dinosaur to smash her into oblivion. Her way out.
A couple of hours and we were on our way again. With a somber surrealism the Amtrak commuters, met for breakfast. The conversations skirted around the question we couldn’t bear to ask: how do we carry on with our lives, when hers is scattered behind us? The devastation for the train driver and crew were an easier conversation to have. It was removed from our own pain.
Did this young woman realise the lives that would be impacted? I doubt in her desperation that this entered her mind.
As we bump along the track, the day dull and grey, a feeling of inactivity permeates me, with little energy I struggle to move or find any reason to do so. These types of days, when the sun seems not to exist, are days that go nowhere no matter how fast or how far we travel. On days like this my thoughts go deep, they search for meaning, drifting in and out of possibilities. The memories we have had so far on this adventure are projected onto the screen of my mind.
We had planned to arrive at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) at a time when the spring flowers were in full bloom and pollinators would be busy accumulating pollen while searching for nectar. But as we prepared to leave the UK, we received an email with the news that a succession of unseasonable snow storms had covered the road to our destination and had made the passage impossible.
Plan B had quickly been activated by Nick and Mary, the friends and colleagues we were visiting. The decision was made that we were all to stay at the Rockey River Resort in Gunnison.
The snowstorms were the first evidence we noticed of the effects of climate change; unreliable weather, more extreme, hot or cold. As a novice (it’s my husband who is the scientist in our relationship), I have often thought that it isn’t so much a matter of us trying to coerce nature back to what we know it to be, but to become aware of the consequences of our actions and take responsibility; take action no matter how small they may seem. Adapting to fit in around nature, and not get in her way.
Gazing out of the window in our cabin, I remember a conversation I’d had as I sat watching the river which ran through the resort. The river was visibly swelling as the snow in the mountains melted in the day’s sunshine, the water running down, gathering speed and volume as it went. Dani, who owns the resort, sat down beside me; I was pleased for her company and her local knowledge.
“This is amazing, I don’t think I have ever seen anything like it.” I was loving being an observer of this powerful force of nature. Twigs as big as small trees making their way downstream, unruly twisting and turning. The water frothing around rocks that apparently were not part of the river only a few days before.
“Last year it was so dry there was hardly a stream to paddle in.” Dani has been here since her early teens, when her dad bought the resort, rescued a dozen or so 1950’s log cabins from an area that was doomed to be dammed, and placed them on this piece of land. Here they still stand in more or less pristine condition, having been cared for and lovingly maintained by her dad and now her husband.
“The villagers further down have had flood warnings n’ they’re sand bagging their homes in preparation. There’s still a lot more to come.” She looks upstream as if expecting a wave of water, a tsunami. I realise that while I am in awe of this amazing sight, an act of nature, for others this could be a matter of homelessness.
Unpredictability and extreme weather. That was part of the prediction for climate change and it is clearly visible from where I am sitting. It is a cold realization that as a tourist I see only the pretty snap shot, the holiday photo, and a take away memory. For the locals this is a story unfolding that they play a central role in, yet have little if any control over. I wonder if they are about to become climate refugees in their own country.
On the fourth day at the resort we got news that the road to RMBL had been plowed and was passable again. Mary and Nick packed for their journey up into the mountains, but it was too late for us. We packed the rental car and set out for Grand Junction.
Instead of driving straight there, we took a diversion through the mountains, via the Black Canyon route. It took us through some truly astonishing landscapes, the type of which I wanted to devour so they would always be part of me. The drama of the clouds gathering around the mountain tops and the breaking of thunderstorms, fork lightning the likes of which I haven’t seen even in the tropics. Perhaps the heat of the sun and the rise in altitude had an effect, but the intensity of this experience was beyond anything I had imagined.
The vertical cliffs of red and black rock sprouted pine trees whose roots had forced their way into tiny crevices, holding on tightly, allowing the tree to grow, precariously perched. Not many of them here were tall, but they were strong. Could this be a metaphor for our life now? Forcing our roots deeply into culture, holding on tightly and maybe we’ll survive, even though the future looks volatile and uncertain.
My thoughts come back to the views from our compact, airless train cabin. The sun has once again appeared in a sky that is now splattered with white puffy clouds. It’s time to move, stretch our legs and find a different environment.
The viewing car has gathered a wonderful selection of people, the buzzing of talk interspersed with laughter and the squeals of children. As we settle into a couple of seats, my mood begins to lift. A ‘Hi’ across the room to people we talked with over last night’s dinner, a restricted wave and a solemn nod to our comrades from breakfast.
A conductor has stationed himself in the middle of the cart with a portable intercom, the crackling occasionally broken by an official sounding voice. He must have been there for a while as we seem to have joined in the middle of his commentary.
“… and if you look to the left, you will see the result of the rain we have had over the last few weeks.” I didn’t realise; this is a guided tour through the flooding of North America. The car goes momentarily quiet, the atmosphere changes as we all reach to gaze out of the windows to the left. The devastation is clear; where there once were fields of wheat and corn, the river Platt has spread to at least twice its size. Climate change; the phenomenon that tourism hasn’t yet found a way to exploit, though the conductor is setting a superb example for this to be developed further.
Photos are taken. I’m not sure if it is with incredulity or sensationalism, but I do see the scuffle as some passengers climb to get the best picture.
A short while later, the river Missouri comes into view and the story is the same here; the flood has devastated a business park where the plan is now to ‘let it go to nature’, as the conductor puts it. A village which had been sitting prettily at the edge of the river was now under water. House owners had been told they could either sell to the Government or endure crippling insurance fees after the cost of rebuilding their homes. There would be no guarantees that flooding wouldn’t happen again in a year, a month, a week or even days.
Farm houses stranded on mounds, now surrounded by moats that didn’t exist before. Cattle feeders laying on their sides having been pulled over by the flow of the water. An elderly lady sitting next to me, leans over to say “those poor people, I can’t imagine what they must be going through.” I empathize together with her, though wonder what we will do with this experience. Are we facing hopelessness, and is humanity placing itself on the track with its back turned to the train of climate change, not wanting to face reality as it hits?
We are the fortunate who, for now at least, have homes and communities to go to. I cannot help the disgust that rises in me: we are mere climate tourists, taking in the visual destruction in pictures on phones and in memories, to share in awe with friends and family. But how much do we really understand of what has been lost, what has been destroyed?
Homes, yes, that is obvious. But what of the animals, farm, pet or wild? What of the biodiversity? What of the communities? The livelihoods? The families?
As we sit here bearing witness to the views that keep passing by, I feel so small and insignificant, like a flea in the scales of this metal dinosaur. Looking out, seeing it all, but powerless to the force of it. We collectively are just another train lumbering through on the same old track, aiming for a time to be in Chicago.
As we step onto the platform at Grand Union Station, a light wind plays with my clothes and I breathe in the station air. It isn’t what I would call fresh, but it is a welcome change from the stagnant air conditioned atmosphere we have been breathing for the past 36 hours.
The devastation we passed through is momentarily forgotten as we realise we have arrived just as the Chicago Blues Festival has begun. It is light relief from the helplessness that had enveloped me, but I know I will not forget or ever again question the force of climate change and what it means for people, their communities, and nature.