The Cascade Range of southern Oregon is not bashful about rejecting the railroad carved into its flanks as it dares men, women and machinery to conduct business as usual. Looking out from Amtrak’s southbound Coast Starlight in August 2019, the right-of-way reveals fallen trees sawn to logs and shunted aside, boulders kicked away, shiny new utility boxes and dented old ones, and freshly scraped two-tracks squirming into the forest. Propane tanks lazing here and there await the remote call to ignite railside jets when sodden snow fouls connections between the main line and passing tracks.
If Mother Nature feels petulant, she turns these mountains into a formidable adversary. Most days the railroad — once Southern Pacific, now Union Pacific – negotiates for at least a draw and minimal drama beyond the effort needed by cab crews, distant dispatchers and maintenance teams to keep freight trains and Amtrak moving. On other days one of the 20 or so tunnels may collapse as halted traffic for weeks in 2018. Snow falling as white glue last year downed timber isolating the Coast Starlight and refusing to release nearly 200 passengers and crew for a day and a half. Travelers described their experience a nightmare, hell and surreal while also relating kindness toward each other and heroes among the Amtrak service staff.
To say this high forest inland from the coastal mountains is unforgiving is a truism given the limit on mistakes can be zero. There is a friendly side as well although complicated by human imprints farther down the line.
For those around in the 1960s, American cities aflame with outrage, tear gas and National Guard troops are nothing new. While police brutality struck many of those matches, the fuel was and is injustice.
The roadshow that is Donald Trump’s re-election campaign rumbled into Rio Rancho with a pitch to Hispanic voters to flip New Mexico into the Republican column.
“We got a lot of
Hispanics,” the president said during a 95-minute speech, reported to be his
second longest since taking office. “We love our Hispanics. Get out and
Trump also told the Rio Rancho crowd how thrilled he was to be in Albuquerque.
The Sept. 16 speech didn’t start until after 7 p.m., but by the time the doors to the Santa Ana Star Center opened at 4 p.m., the line of people bedecked in Trump campaign caps and T-shirts snaked around one side of the building, then back on itself and up and around the property. A fortunate few had Trump-branded and other umbrellas offering relief from a relentless sun.
I find some relief in there being no photo of me in
blackface. Even if such an image popped up these many decades later, I was 12
years old then and not the governor of Virginia.
Lost from that Halloween of 1963 is who among three grade-school pals suggested it would be fun to shade our faces with burnt cork to trick-or-treat as poor black kids. Regardless, the candy haul met expectations, and no one in our small-town county seat in northern Illinois objected to the costuming.
Concepts like cultural appropriation and white privilege certainly weren’t on the local agenda as the national civil-rights movement warmed toward a full boil. Neither were Halloween warnings to college students about costumes being insensitive if not demeaning and racist. Rare in 1963 would be the white person not exposed to blackface in media or live entertainment while laughing, applauding or ignoring it in mindless acceptance. That it was a racist power play was lost on us but not on others who saw it corrupting even black entertainers.
Shaggy clouds brush South Dakota’s jagged Badlands as our pickup crosses tracks left on a Christmas Eve long ago by people seeking safety but trudging toward massacre.
Bighorn sheep ignore the spits of rain annoying tourists already grumbling about the vigorous wind and the lack of postcard light on the raw colors of Badlands National Park. At a pulloff a plaque in seven sentences plots the Big Foot Trail describing the flight of Minneconjou Sioux.
Here the chief, known to his people as Spotted Elk and whites as Big Foot, rested ill with pneumonia during the hours spent molding a sharp descent off the Badlands Wall into something passable for hundreds of men, women and children. This was two weeks after federal Indian police sent to arrest Sitting Bull instead killed him and perhaps a dozen others on the Standing Rock Reservation.
Word of the killing sent Spotted Elk south toward the snow-covered valley along Wounded Knee Creek on the Lakota Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge.
The trail he followed, and the path we soon chose, led down a dark alley of Manifest Destiny.
When her train clattered over the Vermejo River, 12-year-old Martha Betty Putnam stopped briefly at Colfax, N.M., a town boasting two railroads and 100 or more people wishing coal to be big business again. Here she crossed the Dawson Railway, a steel river of coal flowing from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains toward distant copper smelters. The raw beauty of northeast New Mexico — tall timber on her right, infinite range on her left — awed the Illinois girl aboard the Rocky Mountain & Santa Fe Railroad as the steam engine in front chuffed along the Santa Fe Trail toward Cimarron, once the seat of empire. From there staccato exhaust echoed into the Sangres before Martha Betty stepped down at the year-old Cimarroncita Ranch Camp for Girls to spend the summer of 1932.
The predecessor railroad boasted Pacific in its name, envisioned Ute Park a mile beyond the camp as a destination resort, and blasted a tunnel higher up for its next move into the Moreno Valley. With abundant timber, coal and other natural resources ripe for exploitation, boosters in the Cimarron News and Cimarron Citizen in 1911 crowed, “There does not seem to be any way to keep the Cimarron country from becoming the Florida, the southern California, and the Klondike of New Mexico all rolled into one.” Instead the railroad ran short of cash and ambition at Ute Park dashing the steam-driven aspirations of hopeful Taos 40 twisted miles farther west.
The bicycle commuter cruising toward downtown Albuquerque on a pleasant April morning hugged the curb as he slipped into the shadow of a tractor-trailer rig slowing in traffic. As the bike reached the cab, the trucker on a delivery route suddenly turned right toward a Safeway loading dock granting the unlucky biker barely time to blink before he lay crushed on the pavement.
And that was that. The cyclist became a statistic, one of seven of what the feds call pedalcyclists killed in New Mexico that year, a low number but given our small population placing our rate of bumping off bicyclists among the worst in the country, where it remains. Regardless he was dead, and I was hungry.
No passport needed even though Spanish words and names spice up everyday life. In no time rolling off your tongue will be pollo asado, Cuyamungue, chimichanga, Guachepangue, posole and el baboso no está mi presidente.
You’ll feast on wondrous scenery, relish cuisine infused with red and green chile, discover there’s more to tequila than Saturday night shots, revel in diversity of art, country and culture and discover the borderlands are friendlier than clueless politicians back home claim.
I’ve reached the point of alternating between active partisan engagement and deep, dark depression. And that’s just with the Cubs.
Then along comes Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, an articulate if misguided soul, who blames the rise of Donald Trump and the current sad state of the country’s politics and society on Baby Boomers. To invoke a term of my Boomer compatriots, that’s a mind-blowing claim while casually dismissing with a single passing reference the ill-conceived and fraudulently peddled war in Vietnam.
Business is good for those New Mexico entrepreneurs when Trains No. 3 and 4, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, are on time leaving Lamy, the rural stop for Santa Fe, and Gallup in the red-cliffed Indian Country almost to Arizona. With timetables padded to help maintain the schedule, on time at Lamy and Gallup usually means early into Albuquerque in late morning going east and late afternoon chasing the sunset.
That gives passengers from Chicago, Los Angeles and 31 big and small places in between an hour or so to walk around as the trains take on fuel and change crews. At the moment the only customers are a few would-be Amtrak passengers and a handful of people off Boardman’s special train, and he’s wondering where both of his Southwest Chiefs are. They should have been here by now with one of them already long gone.