The horn sounds different every time, just a little more aggressive and desperate. As the train barrels down the tracks, 100 tons, 500 hundred tons, 6,000 tons of rolling metal and steel, I imagine there’s very little else for an engineer to do besides wail on the horn as hard as they can.
Friday, May 10, at 4:26 a.m., I was awakened by such a sound. Later at work I learned local filmmaker Jake Hoyungowa was struck by an eastbound train that morning. He was pronounced dead at the scene near West Route 66 and Beaver Street. (Read more about Hoyungowa’s life on page 18.)
Much of Flagstaff’s history revolves around the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Since its arrival at Old Town Spring on Aug. 1, 1882, the train has been romanticized as a charming aesthetic to our little mountain town. I see children waving to conductors, dazzled by the immense machinery at work, tourists with their cameras looking for the right angles, spectators taking selfies, giving the pull-the-horn signal to the engineer inside the passing train.
Even I was moved by the train. I still am, still amazed by the hulking invention that united the country, Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Where I live, I hear and feel the train dozens of times a day, in my apartment, as I’m walking around downtown, as I’m drinking coffee, talking to people about how the train took their friend.
In high school I used to take the Amtrak from Maricopa to Los Angeles to visit my dad. The train always left around midnight, and I could never fall asleep. Instead, I’d head to the observation car and wait for sunrise. High school, for many kids, is full of transitions, many of which can be hard, as it was for me. My family fractured and half of us relocated from California to Arizona. I’d always felt a little in-between—between identities as a Mexican-American child who didn’t speak Spanish but was just a little too brown for white eyes, between homes in two neighboring states. Home was no longer the waves of the Pacific and it certainly wasn’t in the deserts of the Southwest. Home was sunrise from an observation car, drinking coffee and writing nonsense as I rolled along the in-between.
When I decided to attend Northern Arizona University, I was delighted to discover Flagstaff’s history with the train. Through the railroad and through Flagstaff, people travel to the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert, as well as to Hopi and Navajo reservations. It’s been a source of inspiration, innovation and connection, but the longer I live here, the more I think about death when the train comes a rollin’.
In late 2017, two houseless individuals, Anthony Ortiz and Sheldon Negale, were struck and killed by the train within a few days of each other. The former individual, Ortiz, I came to know through my capstone project at NAU that focused on houselessness in Flagstaff. Almost a year later, Coconino Community College graduate Jason Wygle lost his life when he attempted to touch an oncoming train. NBC news reported that train-related deaths peaked in 2017. According to a safety report released by the Federal Rail Administration, “888 people died due to train-related incidents last year, and 575 of them were considered trespassers.”
Sometimes when I am waiting at the crossing gates while a train blows past, I close my eyes and let the sounds consume me: the screeching of the metal wheels spinning against the track, the rushing wind past the bounding machine. Lost inside the noise, I used to think of nothing and simply float among the sensation. When the train would pass, there’d be a still silence, as if the world stopped moving. Then the crossing gates would rise and the world would move on as though nothing had happened.
When I close my eyes now I think of Ortiz and Negale and Wygle. Hoyungowa, unfortunately, too. I think of the sound I used to meditate, the same sound that signaled the end of their lives with one horrific moment. And when the crossing gates rise, the world will move on again.