Along the Iron Line, there’s more to repairing the damage left by vandals than simply cleaning up the mess they left behind.
The monsters never build up much steam as they travel between the Western towns — 40 mph is their top speed, but they usually go between 20 and 30. We who live on these behemoths don’t require that they get anywhere quickly. We only require that the realms through which they rumble are mysterious and lonely.
Tourists accept that with alacrity. They like that about us, though the lives they live back East are the opposite of ours. In the Northeast, they’ve got the Silver Lines to speed them through metropolises that stretch across entire states, at close to 200 mph. In the Southeast, the Steel Lines still use coal in burners that are much more efficient than those of their ancestors. I hear that in Florida and the coastal cities of California, they’re building the Carbon Lines, which are elevators rather than trains. They will go up to and down from low orbit.
We on the Iron Lines use steam to power our trains, and though our predecessors would be dazzled by the process we use to generate that energy, our lives resemble theirs much more than they do those of our cousins on the other lines. We are mavericks and nomads. Many of us are hermits. Ninety percent of our land is untrammeled by anything other than boots or hooves. Our cowboys are mostly Navajos, Hopis, and Apaches; and Indigenous people own 60 percent of the Iron Lines. Most Easterners don’t know that, but you’d damn well better believe — we do.
I’m the descendent of white train engineers who lost most of their money in the Great Market Crash way back in the 20th century, so basically I’m a working stiff. I’ve found courtesy and respect to be good default settings, regardless of whom I encounter, so I was already on good terms with Nelson Begay when he sat down on the bench next to me in the Panorama Car. I knew he didn’t require a greeting or even an acknowledgement. If he wanted conversation, he would speak first — and that’s what he did.
“You have a good reputation,” he said.
“I’m glad to hear it.” I didn’t look directly at him. Easterners will stare right into your eyes and wonder why a Westerner flinches from that intrusion. They think you’re weak if you can’t look at someone directly. Our white ancestors used to think the same thing, but they learned the hard way that the shy people who were already living here were anything but harmless. We eventually adapted to their ways. Respect goes a lot farther than bluster.
“Got a job for you from the Allies,” said Nelson, meaning the Allied Indian Nations of the Southwest. The Allies take a lot of flak from First Nations people for using Indian to identify, but the Allies ignore it. Disagreement was the norm between tribes before white people got here. I suspect it’ll be the norm long after we’re gone.
“They need a good sweeper?” I did my best to mimic the neutral tones that came more naturally to Nelson than they did to me.
“That’s exactly what they need.” His tone didn’t change, but I could tell I hadn’t fooled him. He knew I was puzzled. There were plenty of good sweepers cleaning the Iron Line. Plenty of bad ones too, but everyone knows who they are, and it’s easy enough to get a good job done if you need one. “It has to be a foreign woman,” he said, “and she has to have respect.”
I didn’t take foreign woman personally; he simply meant that I wasn’t Navajo (or Tohono O’odham or Yavapai, or whatever the client turned out to be).
“I’ve known you longer than anyone else,” he said. “I can recommend you.”
Nelson and I had known each other since kindergarten, when we started at the same boarding school. Unlike most schools, ours was mobile — it was on a train, and we traveled with it from place to place. We had been very proud of that fact, and we had felt lucky. Later we found out how mixed that luck was, but I still didn’t regret going to that school, and I suspect Nelson didn’t either, despite the price both of us were still paying.
“I’ll do my best,” I said.
“I know,” he replied.
After that, we continued to sit together and watch the scenery. Ancient volcanoes had shaped Arizona, creating rich mineral deposits. Our train huffed and puffed through the mountains near Bisbee, past the mines that had long since ceased operations and become tourist attractions. We passed derelicts of those old times, some of which dated back to the 1880s. We had voted to keep those artifacts in place, so we could see where our ancestors rolled, and on what precarious machinery they had done it, and what a wonder it was that they had done it at all.
Nelson pointed at the wreck of an ore car with his lips. “My great-grandfather died on one of those. Got between the cars when they were fully loaded.”
“My great-grandfather was a lineman,” I said. “They busted him down from engineer. He broke his back and then drank himself to death.”
“Plenty people still do that,” said Nelson.
Plenty did. Not Nelson, and not me, but we both had family who ended that way.
“In Prescott,” said Nelson, “I’ll introduce you to Russel Tsosie. He’ll tell you what to do.”
After that we sat quietly together, just as we had done all the way through boarding school, Nelson and me, side by side. The Iron Monster would have a lot of territory to climb between Bisbee and Prescott, through mountain ranges, descending to 1,500 feet above sea level and then climbing again to 7,000 feet. Most of the Easterners sitting in that car with us would get bored long before we got there.
Nelson and I outlasted them all.
Russel Tsosie might have been about 50 years old. The way he was dressed told me he wasn’t a townie, but he also wasn’t a train dweller. That meant he was one of the tribal people who lived in the Wide Open, herding sheep and cows and farming. Easterners are often surprised by how much silver and turquoise people like Russel display on their fingers and belts and around their necks. They don’t realize that tribal people own all the land and all of the associated leases in five states. Russel might ride a horse when he was tending his land, but he drove a top-of-the-line ATV or a fully loaded truck everywhere else.
“Somebody made a mess” was the first thing he said to me. The quiet authority in his voice told me something else about him — he was a medicine man.
I blushed. If he was telling me about the problem, it meant white people had probably caused it. “The mess needs to be cleaned up, then.”
“Yes,” said Russel, “but you have to get to it first, and there are some obstacles.”
What are the obstacles? a person from back East might ask. A townie would be just as likely to make that mistake. Ask a question like that to the wrong person, and you are going to get your answer way later than someone who has the courtesy to wait for the speaker. This was a lesson I learned back in kindergarten, so I exercised a bit of discipline.
“I need you to wear this,” said Russel, handing me a woven tunic and a sash. “It’s okay to put it on over your other clothing.”
Fortunately for me, that was just jeans and a T-shirt, so I wouldn’t suffocate in the extra layer. I slipped the tunic over my head and tied the sash as well as I could, expecting advice from Russel about how that should be done — but he kept silent.
“Walk over here,” he said when I was done, and I followed him off the train. We disembarked onto the main platform in Prescott, into a crowd of people enjoying a book festival (also a balloon and a food festival, depending on whom you asked). We ambled along the sidewalk in the sunshine, smelling the cooking odors from food booths and listening to the townies talk too much about nothing. A lot of tourists swelled the crowd, but plenty of local people milled around too, including Indigenous people who lived in Prescott. Those were the people Russel paid the most attention to. Finally he pointed with his lips. “Walk through those women and see if they’ll let you pass.”
“Okay,” I said. “What if they don’t?’
“Then come back here and see me. I’ve got a backup plan.”
I started out with some confidence. The women in question were Indigenous and were wearing fine clothing by Native American designers. My simple tunic looked pretty humble in comparison, so I thought maybe they wouldn’t notice me. After all, there were several white women milling around in the crowd near them, and the fashionable women seemed oblivious to anyone who wasn’t Indigenous. That’s not an uncommon behavior along the Iron Line — people can be pretty tribal around here — so I didn’t take it personally. I even thought it might work to my advantage. But then a young Navajo woman looked directly at me and stepped into my path.
“Why are you dressed like that? You’re a white woman.”
I thought about saying, Russel said I could! but that sounded pretty lame. Her calm, confident tone made me feel tongue-tied. Finally I said, “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to.”
An elderly white woman stepped into my space. “Ignorance is no excuse. If you can’t be bothered to educate yourself, don’t appropriate clothing that belongs to other cultures.”
“Okay,” I promised. “I won’t do it again.”
“You need to take that off,” said the Navajo woman.
She was so disapproving, my hands shook as I untied the sash. I pulled the tunic over my head and then tried to hand it to her, but she just stared at me as if I were a bug. Finally the elderly white lady took pity on me and grabbed the clothing. “I’ll find out where this belongs,” she said, with considerable authority, and she wheeled and marched away.
The Indigenous women stared at me until I backed up and scurried back to the train. Russel was waiting for me.
“They made me take off the clothing,” I said, feeling as if I had already failed him. “Those women were furious. They said I had no right to wear those things.”
“That’s what I needed to know,” he said.
“So — you’ll need to find someone else?”
“Nope. I needed to see if they knew what they’re talking about. They don’t know. That tunic was made for a foreign woman. You were supposed to be dressed that way. These people who live in the towns are the ones telling people what’s right and wrong around here, but they don’t know what that is. They’re so focused on the damage in one place, they’re not seeing the damage in another. You still willing to do the job?”
I didn’t have to consider for long. My curiosity was stronger than my common sense. “Sure.”
“We’ll wait for those women to go inside. They’ll be too busy to pay attention to you. You can walk right past them.”
Turned out — he was right about that.
Most tourists never venture beyond the narrow towns along the Iron Line, which were first built to accommodate miners, railroad workers, and traders, and later to appeal to travelers looking for the sorts of things they were accustomed to seeing in adventure magazines. We have plenty of saloons, trading posts, hotels, and museums, and that’s where most people visit.
We also have natural sites that outsiders are allowed to visit. We have many more that people are not allowed to visit, and what I found at Red Rock Natural Park reminded me why that tends to be true. Most people are respectful when they visit our wild places, but some people are not. When I climbed out of my ATV, the damage was apparent.
I said a little prayer. I don’t intrude into the religions of the tribal people, but sometimes they tell me general stuff. If you’re visiting a place that doesn’t belong to your ancestors, you need to apologize. You need to ask permission and show respect. So I put my hands together and inclined my head.
“Spirits,” I said, “I want to repair the damage the bad people did. Please give me permission to enter. I will do my best.”
Silence is the answer to any prayer, but you can read a lot into it. I lifted my head and turned a critical eye on my surroundings.
The sandstone rocks for which this park was named had been laid down millions of years ago, formed from dunes that had once stretched over the entire Colorado Plateau. Their petrified outcrops loomed over the Eastern horizon, a six-mile hike away — a fortuitous arrangement, since people would have to walk for a while before they could disfigure the rocks. Most vandals aren’t that energetic, and those that are would be likely to run into rangers once they reached those outcrops. This near edge of the park was relatively flat, a woodland of cottonwoods and willows, next to a creek that would eventually empty into the Verde River. Birds chattered at me and ground squirrels spied like nosey neighbors. Usually, it was the sort of place that should heal your soul.
The people who had invaded that refuge had partied like people who are trying to prove they’re better than the people they’re visiting. They had smashed their beer bottles and thrown trash everywhere. It made me mad — but it was your basic clean-up job, and I knew a little elbow grease would go a long way, here.
I had to laugh. Was it my good reputation that got Nelson Begay to recommend me?
Well, sort of. It was my good reputation as a sweeper. I’m very thorough. And thorough is what I believed the spirits in the place wanted from me. I rolled up my sleeves. Then I picked a spot and got started.
Maybe you think that job was about the trash, but that was only half of it. The paper and plastic would have disintegrated — even the glass would have disappeared as sand and grit blew over it, or water washed it into basins. It was the disrespect that bugged the spirits of that place.
It’s the disrespect that bugs me, too. So I zeroed in on everything that didn’t belong, plucking it off the sacred ground with my grabber, sweeping and raking, dumping the debris into bags that I loaded onto my cart. I worked until the light was fading. I would have worked until the moon came up, if that had been necessary, but eventually I could look around me with satisfaction and believe that the mess had been cleaned up. All traces of the disrespectful aliens had been obliterated.
I was about to leave when a feeling came over me. I put my hands together one more time. “Thank you for letting me be into this wonderful place,” I said.
I was talking about more than just that holy spot. In my mind and in my heart were the wide open spaces, the red and gold rocks, the crooked trees that bent over the canyons like tourists trying to get a good photo. I loved those places so much I could scarcely express it. I had to settle for a short prayer.
Maybe the spirits like them short and sweet, because the birds sang me out of there like a happy ending.
I understood why a foreign woman had been necessary for that job. Sometimes it’s not enough to clean up vandalism. You need to apologize, and you need to mean it. The vandals never would, but no one expected them to. I and every other person who lived on the Iron Line had a price to pay for our passage. It was that simple.
“It’s done,” I told Russel. His sharp eyes missed nothing as he assessed my sweaty and dusty condition. Hard work done outdoors leaves its marks.
“I’ll tell your bosses,” he promised.
When I smiled, he smiled back at me, and I knew I had done okay. My paycheck would reflect the extra work. My reputation would, too.
I was happy to get into the shower, once I got back on the train. An Indian taco filled up the hole in my belly better than just about anything else you could imagine. Night was well advanced by the time we got underway again. We steamed toward Grand Canyon, with a blaze of stars overhead. I sat in the Panorama Car and waited for the Milky Way to wheel into sight. After a while, Nelson joined me.
Nelson and I may have more in common with each other than we do with our respective clans. We are train folk. We live on the Iron Monsters. We’ll die there, too.
Yet between Nelson and me, there’s a little more than that.
“You know those old movies where the Indian boy and the white girl fall in love?” Nelson said, after a while.
“Yes.” Because I hadn’t just watched those movies, I had lived a few of them.
“There they are, at the edge of a canyon,” said Nelson, “and he’s trying to tell her how he feels, but he doesn’t have the words. And she tries to bridge the gap between them, but she doesn’t know how. And your heart breaks for them, because you know their worlds are just too different, even though they live in the same place.”
“I know,” I said.
For several moments, we simply watched the landscape crawl by. I thought he might be finished talking, but Nelson spoke again. “When you’re young, all of that seems so tragic. Then you get older. You realize how happy you are just sitting in the same car with her.”
I smiled. “Maybe you decide love isn’t that heart-stopping place at the edge of a canyon. Love is that comfy seat in the Panorama Car, where you can watch the world go by and talk about old times together.”
“Maybe you decide that,” said Nelson.
Together, we watched the Milky Way rise over the Iron Line, and counted our blessings. You wouldn’t know it to look at us, but they outnumbered the stars.