Chapter 40: American Train

All-American Ruins
8 min readMay 23, 2024

Location: Bilevel Metrarail CalTrain

Jacumba Springs, CA

I was told to watch out for border patrol, but I’m far more concerned about stepping on a snake. The seemingly limitless stretch of abandoned train tracks seems to disappear into the mirage of the dry spring landscape. I wouldn’t say the California desert is known for its memorable springtime foliage, but it is the end of March 2024, and I am walking through the desert along railroad tracks, so it is my version of spring.

As I inch down the discarded line toward my destination — an abandoned double-decker passenger train that was somehow popped up, as if out of thin air, near the outskirts of Jacumba Springs — the sun pierces every step I take on the criss-cross pathway made of rusty metal and wet wood. I always feel slightly uncomfy walking down a train track because the spacing between each slat of wood never matches my step, and inevitably, I have to quicken and condense my pace a smidge, so as not to twist an ankle and match each step to each slat.

I pass by a grave, but one of those kinds that you see self-erected by a family, a white cross featuring their kid — their name, sometimes even their picture — who was killed by a drunk driver on the side of any given highway in the United States of America. But we’re on train tracks… huh? What’s THAT story? I wonder. I guess I’m not surprised — in fact, of course that’s something that’s here. Because that’s normal. That’s America.

And yet, so is this strange little adventure I’m on today. There’s something beautiful about the subversive grit, the very humbling human story about things left behind. When I first heard about this Little Golden Book Land-esque double-decker passenger train, I could feel my body enter a euphoric state at the mere thought of it. In fact, I felt called to it, and I knew I had to plan a pilgrimage to witness it up close. “This one will take planning,” I thought. I knew it was going to require a flight and a car and a four-hour-drive from LA into the middle of nowhere with spotty (if any) cell phone service and a limited number (if any) of humans nearby. None of that really mattered to me though because as it turns out, I have three lifelong obsessions: ruins, deserts, and trains.

My dad used to take my brother and me to an active train line near our house in Colorado where he taught us how to crush a penny on the tracks under the weight of the engine and following cars. (I was able to later pass this tradition onto my nephew at the same spot before he, my sister, and mom left Colorado, after my family had been there in some capacity or another for 35+ years.) My brother and I also used to go on scavenger hunts in and around the Tucson neighborhood where my grandparents lived, mini odysseys organized by my grandfather and a mystical treasure map that would guide us to find small, hidden tokens stashed in the shadows of cactus trees near Mount Kimball.

Needless to say, these major impact moments from my childhood activated a full-body excitement when I learned that it was possible for me to take a two-for-the-price-of-one kind of expedition to see this exquisitely unusual site, an abandoned double-decker train in the middle of the desert. Of course I had to go. The question was when.

As fate would have it, just over a year later, I got an email that changed my life. Its contents instructed that I should come to the West Coast, LA. I planned an extended trip to ensure that I could get to this abandoned oasis in the middle of the desert, and I did.

As I inch closer to the six-car train, discarded and forgotten about for some unknown reason, I think about the penny crushings and treasure hunts. It makes me wonder if they’re responsible for the elation I feel in this moment of adventure. Ever since I can remember, I’ve called wanderlust a friend, so it could just be that. Or, it could be one of the reasons that I get the same feeling inside abandoned spaces that I got on train tracks and in the desert when I was kid: in those spaces, I could invent entire imaginary worlds and find sanctuary in the protection they provided.

I round the bend of a tall embankment made of rock and dust where I first lay eyes on the graffiti-stricken beauty. It was no small feat to get here, nearly an hour-long walk without any signs of human life except the distant sound of the interstate, but my heart stops at the sight of it: six cars, back to back, two levels each, surrounded on either side by desert stone and sky. As my pace quickens, I start to hum “American Train,” a song that my Macabre Americana bandmates and I wrote when we first started making music before beautiful babies and a wretched pandemic limited our jam time together.

This train runs on coal
Built by the pockets of American gold
This train runs express
From Camden, east, to Oakland, west

These tracks built by men
Came on board, gonna come again
So strong are those hands
Soaked in earth, they till the land…

I climb into the first car, a relic of America’s economic past. I think about the number of people who have walked these cabins, both when it was active and after it was abandoned. I also wonder about how it got here — and why. I learn later that this was a Metrarail Caltrain bilevel passenger car. I read in the comments on a Reddit post that the trains were supposedly built this way to hold more passengers and employ fewer ticket takers. The upstairs galleries are lined with single seats and a narrow passageway along each side. Minus the boundless graffiti left behind and missing wire lifted by scrap keepers, it’s still in fairly good shape. I admire the narrow, twisted stairways up to the second level of each car. I listen to ghostly announcements from my new imaginary friend, a train conductor named Barry.

“Tickets, please! Tickets!”

Barry has a mustache, but underneath it, he looks vaguely like Gregory Peck, but shorter. I think I have a crush on him, but since we’ve stepped back in time to the mid-1970s, I avoid eye contact at all costs.

“Where you headed, kid?” Barry barks down at me.

“Bakersfield,” I lie.

“I like your shirt,” he says with a wink as he tears a stub and pops it above his head. I can hear Patricia Hitchcock’s character in Psycho say, “He was flirting with you. I guess he must’ve noticed my wedding ring.”

“See ya round,” Barry coos before he heads to collect the next passenger’s ticket.

I stare out the window and think about America, our desire for individual liberty eclipsing our protection of the planet in an ever-evolving age of “progress.” Progress to what end? I fall deep under the spell of the desert glow. It’s so quiet. The silence swarms and holds me as I dream about time travel, back to the 1960s when train stations all over the country began to shut down, leaving a wasteland of abandoned places across the United States. In the small town where I live in the Hudson Valley, the train station shut down after the MTA stopped running passenger trains on the west side of the Hudson River. The High Falls Depot was left to rot before it was restored as a single-family home.

I hop off the train and head up an embankment to see the full scope of all six cars in all their glory. I imagine it through the decades, whatever those were, the waves and flocks of people who used to ride it, maybe between San Diego and Phoenix, on their way to Dallas, to Baton Rouge, to Atlanta, and the way down the Florida Panhandle, to the beaches of the Florida Coast that peer off into the Atlantic, towards Cuba.

According to, as of March 2021, there were over 1700 concentrated abandonments, each one containing miles and miles of track from end to end, thousands and thousands of rails gone to waste. A substantial portion of those lines were abandoned between 1965 and 2005. American train tracks are a roadmap into our past, tracing a thin line of economic prosperity that fell into ruin and never fully recovered. I think about the greed of the airline industry, their bailouts, and how much I wish our country could bring train travel back into style.

If we didn’t have to be so selfishly independent about everything, maybe our collective sense of community would be in better shape. A daydream, to be sure, as I come to, sitting in the dismembered seat that’s been tossed out of the train, laid to rest at the side car entrance of the third car. I look up at the sun and listen for the soft sound of the desert to console me. I pretend that it’s still 1972, and I’m holding a transistor, battery-powered radio and that my favorite rock song just came on. It’s called “American Train.” I hold it up to the sky as I turn up the volume and let the warmth of the desert afternoon swallow me.

American Train coming down the track
The things I say I’m gonna take back
American Train always comes in black
American Train
American, American…