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.

Continue reading

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)
Continue reading

Trump Rouses His Fans: The Prez Pays Us A Visit

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 vote.”

Adoring fans wave and record as Trump strolls in. © William P. Diven. (Click to enlarge.)

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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)


Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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)

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading