Riders of the Great Steel Chicken

I stand with one foot on the dimpled yellow caution line. The Rail Runner roars into the station, all made up of clanging bells and rumbling engines. Clever local-themed murals on the walls next to the tracks on the way to South Capitol Station dub this hulking beast the “Thunder Chicken,” and I’d be hard-pressed to disagree. The bell continues to cluck like a hen or a heartbeat as the engine hisses to a stop. The drafts from the brakes send my neighbors on the platform scuttling back, and for good reason.

Not long ago this beast developed a taste for sixty-something women. Whether it was from lack of hearing or judgment, the women were parted by several tons of 30-mile-per hour metal. Perhaps they were fooled. From a distance, this mass lumbers along like the weary cattle we pass on the hillsides. It’s lazy, loping, possibly benevolent. Not in person, though. Ten yards of progress turns that wandering steel cow into a matador’s nightmare; clobbering hooves, raging roars, and hissing breath. The Rail Runner passengers have no interest in running with this bull.

Not me, though. For better or worse, I hold my ground as the great mechanical dragon bears down on me. With the triple headlights filling my gaze, I contemplate if this is the light that they tell you not to follow. The street lamps on the platform rattle, and a threatening burst of air snatches at my coattails. In the second that the metal grate charges me, I close my eyes and take in a deep breath. The roar deafens me to the world and then passes with a purr of engines and brakes. It hasn’t gotten the urge to sample eccentric students yet.

I’ve known this great steel dragon for over a year. I’ve awaited its roaring welcome in wind and sun and snow. When standing on a deserted platform late on fall and winter nights, nothing comes as a relief quite so much as that familiar bell. Once or twice I’ve sprinted to catch it, looking the perfect stooge with lunchbox and untied laces flapping. It left me on that platform once, but only once.

As a regular rider, I’ve earned the privilege of recognition by some of the conductors. A curly-haired woman with a bright disposition loves the smell of the clementines I eat on the way home, and she always grins like I’ve brought her the sun when I pull away the first strips of bitter, tangy peel.

During the four months of 4 a.m. wake-up times for the 5:17 Northbound, I garnered respect from the other night-owl passengers as well. We all grinned and shook our heads at each other in the mornings for putting ourselves through it. Some brought pillows and throw blankets, others tanked around tumblers of coffee like spare tires. In a half-conscious flurry of exam- powered stress, I once jumped on an earlier train. I stood at the bus stop in Santa Fe for 20 minutes of darkness, blinking stupidly and wondering where all the regular suspects had gone.

There were perks, though. Fuzzy moths that would cover your palm perched on street lights and bushes, unafraid of human presence. After weeks of heavy rain, penny-sized frogs with skin like silicone sandpaper filed out to greet me under the buttery buzz of the platform lights. I looked forward to them and once rescued an absent-minded hopper from a more two-dimensional fate when he jumped onto the tracks. The trip to Santa Fe held other natural treasures. I watched calves and foals grow up among the scrappy desert grass and dusty flood washes. Nothing compared to the days when my breakfast of stale cereal bars was shared with jewel-toned sunrises in gold and periwinkle. The hours were hellish, but the living made up for it.

At the same time, there is a certain amount of gamble with the Rail Runner. A dysfunctional engine once resulted in five hours trapped in the dirt pile they call the Land of Enchantment between Santa Fe and the pueblos. Every second was occupied by the company of an all-too-friendly backpacker with a gruesome black eye, a bad temper and a poor repertoire of pick-up lines. The afternoon was a lesson in patience and defensive verbal fencing.

The Rail Runner is a malleable creature. It’s tastes broad. Every day, the 6:33 Northbound is a can of professional commuter sardines. In between are appetizers of stranded suckers with car trouble and street-pickings who have nothing else to do. On their daily routine, coworkers swap stories and gossip over the heads of strangers crammed into corners. Given the proper seat, one could learn the inner workings of any trade from the Legislature to local construction. A fruitful ride introduced me to the head of a comic convention organization for New Mexico and southern Colorado. We struck up a conversation when he began whistling a familiar tune from a Japanese speed-metal band that had its peak in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Above all else, though, the Rail Runner has been faithful: faithful to run, faithful to suck up my monthly fee, faithful to get me there. It’s brash, noisy and acts up in the wee hours of the morning. I’d never ask it to be my neighbor. It does not play nicely with other people on its track. All of this is true, and I’ll be the first to proclaim it.

However, it also shows you rolling hills and sides of the mountains that you aren’t allowed to photograph with anything but your eyes. It brings crisp morning air, flocks of dignified herons wading in flooded fields, and knobby-kneed bison calves nursing from their monstrous mothers. The Rail Runner is a window on New Mexico.

Image of model Rail Runner car from Wig-Wag, LLC