Natures Ride the Rails for Your Pleasure and Sorrow

In many places, especially in the West, Amtrak leaves behind paved roads and the manmade landscape. © William P. Diven (click to enlarge)

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.

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Protest and the Cost of Forgotten Lessons

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.

Anti-war demonstration at New Mexico State University, October 1971. © William P. Diven.
A peaceful anti-war protest at New Mexico State University in October 1971 contributed to a national movement but drew neither police nor tear gas. Nearly 50 years later, a new movement fills the streets. © William P. Diven. (Click to enlarge)
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Blackface ain’t the Song and Dance of Decades Past

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.

Blackface minstrel poster ca. 1900.
Billy Van, the Monologue Comedian, ca. 1900, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. (Click image to enlarge)

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.

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Exiting Devil’s Tower into an American Abyss

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.

Bighorn sheep, Badlands National Park, South Dakota
A bighorn sheep takes a break from browsing at Badlands National Park. © William P. Diven (click image to enlarge in new tab).

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.

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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 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.

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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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.

Veteran and 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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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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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.


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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Bashing the Bearers of Bad News

While I miss some aspects of the 1970s, my hair and the Allman Brothers Band, for example, the Nixon zombies roaming Albuquerque City Hall are not welcome here in 2015.

Spiro Agnew (left), Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, image No. T25035c1-27; John Mitchell, photo by Steve Northrup in Time Magazine, April 30, 1973, author's collection.

Spiro Agnew (left), Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, image No. T25035c1-27; John Mitchell (right), photo by Steve Northrup in Time Magazine, April 30, 1973, author’s collection.

Among the undead is Attorney General John Mitchell, part of the team that shilled for President Nixon by attacking enemies real and imagined in and out of the news media. He’s the one who said Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham is “gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer” over exposing a connection between the Watergate burglary and the Nixon re-election campaign. By that time, Mitchell ran the Committee to Re-Elect the President, wonderfully known as CREEP. Continue reading