Last Days in the Empire of High Hopes

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.

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.

Derelict passenger and freight cars mark the site of Colfax, N.M., once the junction of two railroads.

Saltpeter Mountain rises to the north of Colfax, N.M. in October 1995. The Rocky Mountain & Santa Fe Railroad approached over the horizon from Raton and crossed the Vermejo River here. Warning signals on the highway mark the former Dawson Railway still following the river to Dawson and York Canyon. Photo © William P. Diven (Click to enlarge)

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Dying for a Breakfast Burrito in Albuquerque

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.

Car hits girl crossing street.

The driver and witnesses comfort a girl hit while running across a street in Las Cruces, N.M., in 1973 as the ambulance, a pickup truck with camper, approaches. She survived. © William P. Diven. (Click to enlarge)

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New Mexico: We’re Not Canada, But What The Hey, Eh?

New Mexico is almost a foreign country anyway, so if the election of Donald Trump motivates you to become an ex-pat without actually emigrating, we’re here for you.

Monsoon rainbow behind the Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque, N.M. Photo © William P. Diven

Monsoon rainbow behind the Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque, N.M. Photo © William P. Diven. (Click to enlarge)

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.

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American Fall 2016: Tough Times in November

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.

War protester Gary Werner marches in parallel with ROTC cadets. New Mexico State University, early 1970. Photo © William P. Diven.

War protester Gary Werner marches in parallel with ROTC cadets. New Mexico State University, early 1970. Photo © William P. Diven. (Click photo to enlarge)

 

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Trainspotting With The Man Who Runs Amtrak

When I bumped into Amtrak President Joe Boardman outside Albuquerque’s faux-adobe station, his wife scanned the trackside vendor tables stocked with jewelry, souvenirs and burritos.

Amtrak President Joe Boardman in Albuquerque.

Amtrak President Joe Boardman in Albuquerque, Aug. 5, 2016. Photo © William P. Diven. (Click to enlarge)

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.

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Rambling The West Coast By Rail

Railroaders operate by a minutely detailed rulebook with one unwritten rule strictly enforced: Late trains get later.

That describes Amtrak on a 2015 roundtrip from Albuquerque to Oregon by way of Los Angeles. But not in this summer of 2016.

Instead two trains covering 2,201 miles on one-way tickets reached both destinations early with only a little fuss along the way. It’s how America’s private passenger rail system operated into the mid 20th century and still does when everything clicks. No ailing equipment, decrepit track, disruptive passengers, dangerous weather or lame dispatching by a host railroad blew up the schedule with hours-late arrivals and missed connections.

Breakfast on the northbound Starlight in 2015 came with a view of Mount Shasta. Photo © William P. Diven. (Click to enlarge.)

Breakfast on the northbound Starlight in 2015 came with a view of Mount Shasta. Photo © William P. Diven. (Click to enlarge)

The worst to be said of travels this July is the Coast Starlight café-lounge ran out of Scots whisky before we reached Los Angeles. That’s what I told Amtrak President Joe Boardman when we met trackside in Albuquerque a few weeks later. I also said I owed him a positive story and now had the material to post one. Continue reading

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Peace, Play and ‘Questionable Amusements’ on Phantom Lake

As I packed to leave Phantom Lake YMCA Camp at the end of the 1968 summer sessions, I told more than few co-workers, “See you next year.” A false statement, I would discover, although not intentionally so as these were times of many surprises.

What looked to be a fun summer on a Wisconsin lake began with a predawn wakeup in New Mexico on June 5 for a trip down Interstate 10 made anxious by my pending first time in the air, American Airlines El Paso to Chicago. I preferred trains, but after solo rides the two previous summers, the Santa Fe that spring annulled our passenger train after 87 years.

As my mother cruised past a commercial truck mangled overnight in the median, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy lay on a surgical table in Los Angeles with bullet fragments in his head. I only learned of this latest political shooting after a 100-mile bus ride from O’Hare to where a cousin from my Illinois hometown could pick me up. By then Kennedy had only hours to live.

Counselor Keith Christensen on the ground and Phantom Lake YMCA Camp director Sir Gerald Carman on the ladder place the canvas top and sides on a new tent floor and frame. Summer 1968. Photo © William P. Diven. (Click to enlarge)

Counselor Keith Christensen on the ground and Phantom Lake YMCA Camp director Sir Gerald Carman on the ladder place the canvas top and sides on a new tent floor and frame. Summer 1968. Photo © William P. Diven. (Click to enlarge)

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Fear For Sale; Get Yours While It Lasts

That giggling you hear is terrorists watching our public discourse stampede us off a cliff like so many frightened sheep.

Given our paranoid past, we should know better after banning Chinese in the 1800s and rounding up Reds in 1919, drinkers in the ’20s, wanderers in the ’30s and citizens of Japanese descent in the ’40s.

Photo © William P. Diven

Photo © William P. Diven

In the ’50s we hunted communists under our beds while suspecting the folks next door. In the ’60s Abbie Hoffman’s threat to levitate the Pentagon spun J. Edgar’s FBI knickers into a twist. Popular belief in the ’70s, at least in my circle, held disco would trigger the apocalypse.

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Reefer Madness And The Bootlegger’s Grandson

My companion’s eyes bugged out in a Looney Tunes SPROING!! when we stepped into a Colorado marijuana store with product samples arrayed across the counter.

This can’t be legal, she said. Ah, but it is.

I was less thunderstruck having seen something similar while on assignment in Amsterdam where sidewalk shop windows display sex for sale while the scent of craft buds pools behind the doors of coffee shops across the city.

Not bird seed but 62 kilo bricks of marijuana ready for the federales' bonfire in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Photo © William P. Diven.

Not bird seed but 62 kilo bricks of marijuana ready for the federales’ bonfire in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Photo © William P. Diven.

A few months before the trip to Colorado, we were visiting the west coast of Oregon on the day recreational marijuana became legal there. You could now have 8 ounces and four plants at home and 1 ounce on you while out and about. Voters in a statewide referendum made the change effective July 1 although it took a little political magic to start sales in October instead of sometime next year.

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Spinning U.S. History Until We’re Dangerously Dizzy

Symbols do matter whether it’s the flag of rebellion or the swastika of genocide. Take it from someone who’s been on the losing end of one of those arguments.

History matters as well, and we place our country at risk without consensus on the facts and meanings of our shared experience in all its glory and pain.

Our-heroes

Confederate generals (from left) Stonewall Jackson, P. G.T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee in “Our heroes and our flags,” Southern Lithograph Company, ca. 1896. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, reproduction number LC-DIG-pga-03338. (Click image to enlarge)

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