Gifts of the Bird Train

More than just a way to get there

Date June 17, 2009 at 10:00 PM

Categories Lodging & Travel


Every family I know is watching their financial resources dwindle. “What will this economic downturn bring?” we ask anxiously. Everyone is dragging their hard-times ingenuity out of the shed, dusting it off and making changes. Two friends in Cañoncito and their 8-year-old daughter are enlarging their garden, hoping to grow and preserve more of what they eat. Another friend is selling her Subaru and has been relying on her bike to get herself and her two children around Santa Fe. She and her husband are also expanding their garden. After being laid off, my cousin has pieced together three part-time jobs, and I might as well mention she also has big plans for her unbelievably-small-yet-abundant garden. My husband’s childhood friend, his wife and their 5-year-old daughter are fighting tooth and nail to keep their family home.

My family’s changes also involve a garden, but despite these gardens’ insistence on being mentioned here they are not the main thrust of this story. I want to tell you about riding the train.

In December, my husband and I sat down to go over our finances. J.J. is the banker in our family. He monitors the accounts online and pays our bills from the quiet of his office. “It comes down to this,” he concluded. “In this pinch whatever you can bring in helps immensely. Your work at school has been putting the food on our table for the last two months.” This statement surprised me. I’ve been the stay-at-homer for over five years, picking up little scraps of work when I could. Whatever I earned always helped, but, until now, it never felt like a crucial part of the family income.

“But how can I earn more money, J?” I asked, almost pleadingly. Our daughters, Pip and Elena, are in a little preschool two mornings a week while I tutor a couple of high school students. The possibility of putting the girls in school for another morning has come up in conversation before, only to be shaken off as soon as the calculator was pulled out. And doing any kind of regular paid work from home while caring for both children has proved to be stressful, frustrating and fruitless—for everybody.

I started wracking my brain for free childcare resources. My parents work and live two hours away. J.J.’s father and stepmother are, likewise, unavailable. J.J.’s mother, Gramasita Barbara, is semiretired, but she lives in Albuquerque, which is too long a commute…but wait! What if we took the train? I could do my work in a library or café, while Pip and Elena visit with their grandmother. To my surprise, everybody was thrilled with the idea.

So, in January we began a weekly trip down to Albuquerque. Every Friday we pack snacks, water bottles, books, extra clothes, a project or two, my books and computer, jackets, hats and—until we were able to equip Gramasita—even both car seats. I’m not sure if the three of us look more like runaways or pack mules as we arrive at the platform, breathless and encumbered.

I always plan plenty of extra time into our morning but am perpetually convinced we are late and going to arrive at the platform just in time to watch the tail end of the train snaking south. I tear into the state parking lot, and we catapult out of the car and sprint to the station. The result of this irrational anxiety is an anticlimactic 10-minute wait at the platform. The extra minutes feel like an eternity if the weather is blustery, cold or wet. The girls moan impatiently and I stand there wondering why I get worked into such a frenzy just to wait.

Yet we are always rewarded for our wait. It is hard to explain the excitement and satisfaction of watching the Rail Runner roll into the station. First we hear the distant dong of bells as it reaches the Cerrillos/St. Francis intersection; shortly afterwards we hear the train horn blare and see it as it leaves downtown. “Here comes the Bird Train!” shouts Pip. Breeze or no breeze, the train carries a wind of its own; loose hair and coat flaps whip as the giant roars onto the platform. The girls’ excitement is palpable. The Rail Runner’s entrance is so grand we feel like romantic heroines as we board.

Riding the train has been good for the girls and me in so many ways. For an hour and 13 minutes Elena and Pip have their mother entirely to themselves, with no chores, phone calls, or appointments to interfere. Many stories, games of I Spy and clay creations have filled our time.

Also, being in an enclosed public space has made all three of us more aware of our behavior towards each other. Our first few weeks were hard. In January, meltdowns and tantrums during our return trip threatened the whole plan. I quickly learned how not to respond to a tired, overwrought child in such a setting, and the girls have had a chance to consider how other passengers feel when they fight or shriek. We are all considerably better behaved now.

Scolding and ordering the girls has proved to be the least effective means of encouraging civilized behavior. The Bird Train has taught me the priceless lesson of using stories and imagination. For example, a padded caboose has helped us remain tame. If there is any bickering or the threat of a noisy row, one of us will say, “Don’t forget the Tantrum Car.” We have created an imaginary car at the back of the train where the conductor in the red vest drags (by the ear) all shriekers, screamers and unrulies. We have even determined that a large black cylindrical apparatus mounted on the side of one of the cars is where the naughty children get spit out when they arrive at their destination. The girls enjoy imagining other goofy, slightly scary details about the Tantrum Car. Their eyes get wider and wider as they lead each other on. They can’t help but halfway believe their own stories; suddenly they become subdued wondering if the place they’ve created might really exist. We’ll watch the red-vested conductor pass in the direction of another child having a difficult time. “Oh, no! The Tantrum Car!” whispers Elena, wiggling with delighted fright.

The view from the train windows couldn’t be more different from the views allowed from its neighbor, I-25. On its southbound trek the train spills delicately over the edge of the dry, piñon-dotted Santa Fe Plateau and slips 800 feet down La Bajada into the riparian bowl of the Rio Grande. Cottonwood bosques and acequias grace the western side of the tracks, and the Cerrillos Hills, Ortiz Mountains and Sandia Peak rise and fall to the east as the Rail Runner ducks and rolls in and out of depressions in the landscape.

A static-laced voice instructs us not to take pictures as we enter the reservations of Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe and Santa Ana. Off I-25 stand a couple of billboards and casinos bearing these names; other than these passing references there is little to indicate pueblos or people. On the train we see a small, fenced pasture inhabited by only a stocky horse flicking his tail and an horno smeared with the deep black stain of smoke; we pass the rise of a simple, adobe plaza—gazing down on the mosaic of its own reflection in the slow waters of the Rio Grande, we see the rambling roads and soft round corners of the older homes and the hard, crisp angles of new construction; we see backyards and chickens; we see people walking on the streets of their daily lives.

Gramasita says we pass Great-Grandma Tilly’s house in Bernalillo. From the train, she says, Great Grandma Jane’s beloved orchard, garden and farm all can be seen. On this little plot of land, J.J. and Uncle James spent many sun-baked afternoons of their boyhood in the shade of apricot, apple, walnut, cherry and quince trees and in cool rooms filled with the sweet scent of summer melons. Somewhere along the Jemez horizon sits an inconspicuous peak bearing the family name. Pip and Elena love watching bits of their family history glide across the large windows from the upper seats of the Bird Train.

The final gift this strange red-headed bird bestows is perhaps the most precious—the gift of time. Elena and Pip have time with Gramasita, a grandmother who, until January, rarely saw her grandchildren. Now, Fridays are anticipated with the kind of fervor only truly known to people younger than 10. As the mother, I am given time away from the demands of my home, hometown and children. For a few hours a week I am given time and space to focus completely on work I love, work that will bring in a little more of that badly-needed income.

There is no glossing over this economic crisis. J.J.’s company laid off four of his colleagues within the last few weeks, and more jobs are on the chopping block at this moment. Every day J comes home employed, I feel lucky. Other friends are in the same boat or worse. The best any of us can do is plant our gardens, draw together our communities and pray the choices we make are wise. In the meantime it helps me to remember that adversity often yields unexpected treasures.

Nina Bunker Ruiz is a Santa Fe local and a mother of two daughters.

Photos by Nina Bunker Ruiz.