We’re Going to Chama, Momma, Part I

A few years before the writing of this story I made my annual trip to New Mexico to visit with my mother, brother and sister in law.  This tradition had persisted for many years and I looked forward to its renewal every late summer.  Before my father grew ill and died I would fly to Albuquerque, and from there my brother and I would drive to Kentucky and back, mostly on two lane roads.  After Dad’s passing my mother moved in with Brad and Patricia and I was able to visit all three of them without leaving New Mexico, and that was just fine with me.  My visits were usually for one week, or maybe ten days, and that time was mostly taken up by eating wonderful food, taking afternoon naps in front of football games, “helping” Brad with his forklift business (mostly by staying out of the way) and chatting with family on the balcony in the cool of the evening while watching the hummingbirds duel for mates and chances at the feeder that Patricia had hung from the overhead.  On many a visit however we would find some interesting corner of New Mexico to go and investigate, and on every such trip I found something new to amaze me even  more about that state.  On the visit introduced in the beginning of this tale we decided to take a ride on the Cumbers & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

The Cumbers & Toltec Railroad is a narrow gauge line which runs between Chama New Mexico, and Antonito Colorado.  Originally the Cumbres & Toltec was part of a large web of rail lines servicing the mining operations of southern Colorado, but as that industry dwindled the railroad became unprofitable and most of it’s holdings were sold.  The stretch of track between Chama and Antonito was saved by a preservation society however, and built into the potent tourist attraction that it is today.  We decided that we would visit the railroad during this particular pilgrimage, and after spending the first few days of my trip lounging around Albuquerque we set off early one morning to do just that.

We left Albuquerque after having our morning coffee, intending to eat breakfast at El Bruno’s in Cuba New Mexico.  Cuba is a small town about eighty miles north of Albuquerque, and the drive passes through hills of gypsum, canyons cut through the soft rock by flash floods which rage towards the Rio Puerco during monsoon thunderstorms, and grassy valleys which become larger and more common as we climbed up from the Rio Grande Valley, which itself lies at 5,000 feet above sea level.  The road is good and not too curvy, and in all it took us about one and a half hours to get from Brad’s condominium to the parking lot at El Bruno’s, which put us there at about ten in the morning.  This was a problem it turned out, because El Bruno’s didn’t open until eleven.

“What do you want to do?” Brad asked me.  Since I was the visitor Brad always deferred to me, and one way or another I would defer right back to him since Brad knew the state like the back of his hand.  “Where can we eat up north?” I asked.  “No place in particular” was the reply.  We had all, with the exception of Mom, set our hearts on El Bruno’s.  Mom never did like New Mexican food all that much.  “It’s only an hour” I said.  “Let’s wait it out”.

And so wait we did, each in our own way.  Brad and Patricia took a walk, as they frequently liked to do, while Mom and I stayed in the car and chatted.  Our conversation required little effort, as Mom was nearly deaf and quite content to do the heavy lifting in any conversation by herself.  I would start out by patiently repeating myself two and three times in order to be understood, but eventually the effort would cause my mind to wander and I would make infrequent and perfunctory comments while Mom chattered on.  Eventually Mom tired of what had become an obvious exercise in futility and lapsed into the silence of her own thoughts.  We did this a lot, and mostly ended up enjoying each other’s company even if communication might be at a minimum.

On this morning as I sat in the car waiting for some of the best food in America, if not the world, I noticed an activity taking place about twenty or thirty yards away from the car under some cottonwood trees along the east bank of the Rio Puerco.  Two large nylon canopies had been erected and underneath them a team of people were busy sorting, cleaning, and bagging up a truckload of green chilis.  I had a sense that I was watching a scene which had been played out one way or another for centuries, if not millennia.  The people working there might have been Hispanic, but I am more inclined to believe that they were Native Americans.  They Navajo reservation is not far from Cuba and the Pueblos and Jicarilla Apache rez are all to be found at a much greater distance, so my money is on the Navajo.  The fact that they spoke in soft tones, if at all, and that the twist of a lip or twitch of a cheek seemed to be a part of the such conversation as I could discern lent support to the supposition that this team was probably Navajo.

The green chili that they were working on is the bedrock foundation of New Mexican cuisine, and whether you live in the south and prefer the chilis from the Hatch Valley, or in the middle Rio Grande area and indulge in the product from around Lemitar, or reside in the north and are more accustomed to the smaller yet still potent fruit of that region, the tasty and oftentimes fiery chili lies at the heart of a great percentage of New Mexico cookery.  The folk whom I was watching were generating a large amount of cleaned and bagged chilis and I guessed that they might be sold to restaurants in the area, although I could be far from the mark on that one.  No doubt the home kitchens of no bigger a town than Cuba (population 734) were fully competent to cook up enough delicious food to use up that mountain of precious green chili in not too much time.

Eventually the establishment opened and we feasted on more exceptional food than three gourmands and one reluctant senior citizen should ever eat.  We were in no big hurry, which could be said of just about everybody else in the sleepy town, and so it was probably another hour before we climbed back into Brad’s vehicle and nosed out onto the road north.

Much of the route from Cuba to Chama runs through upland hills and valleys, over a vast high desert plain dotted with natural gas pumps and the occasional casino, the Jicarilla Apache reservation on the eastern edge of that plain, and then the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  It is a beautiful drive, depending upon how one wishes to define beauty.  The evergreen trees – pines of some sort I think they were – with scant brush or lowish grasses covering the ground in the spaces between them, the flat plains with scrubby growth trying with indifferent success to cover the caliche that formed the floor of that high desert flatland, and the foothills which were clothed thickly with trees of many sorts, and streams issuing from valleys splitting the hills, all have a beauty of their own, if one is patient and willing to look for it.

And patience is a virtue in this timeless land.  Nothing moves all that fast; not the people who go through life in their own relaxed rhythm and at their own chosen pace, not the hills which have been there since time began, not the streams which have cut slowly, layer by razor-thin layer through soil and rock as they alternately rush, gurgle, and meander towards their reunion with the sea which gave them their birth.  Yes, if you come from California or New York or just about anywhere else where time is money and everything should have been done much more quickly than it was, you will probably soon be leaving New Mexico with a curse on your lips, wondering how the people here even survive.  Like the rocks and trees and waters, the people of New Mexico do things in their own time, dancing to their own drummer, and they’re doing just fine.

At length we arrived at Chama, a town of about 1,000 nestled in the Rocky Mountain foothills, which offers a place to stay while you fish, hunt, ride your horse through the pine and alder covered mountains and, if you are so inclined, ride the Cumbers & Toltec Railroad.  We were too early to check into our motel, so we decided to walk around Chama, which did not take a great deal of time to accomplish.  We poked our noses into a few stores, bought Mom a doughnut (one of the true delights in her life), and then poked around the train yard from whence our ride would begin on the next day.  There was a station and the obligatory gift shop, where I purchased a sweatshirt upon the recommendation of Patricia to protect me from the high country cool of the evening and morning.  It turned out that she was right as rain.  I was accustomed to carrying little more than shorts and tee shirts on my summer escapes to New Mexico, with maybe one pair of long pants and a button-down shirt if we would be attending my brother’s very formal Episcopal Church.  Without the sweatshirt I would have had a chilly time indeed in Chama.

In a little time we had taken in all of the sights fit to be seen in Chama and set out on the road again in order to visit a valley nearby where Patricia and her family had spent many summers in her youth. The countryside in this area was gorgeous, with steep tree-covered hills and mountainsides divided by alternately broad and then again narrow grass-covered valleys, divided by rippling streams filled with trout.  The house which they had inhabited was still standing and Patricia shared many stories of riding horses, cleaning fish, and exploring the hills and valleys in ways that would make most modern parents cringe.  It sounded idyllic to me, and as I thought back upon my own growing up in the middle of San Diego, which was not a bad city to grow up in, I could see that there were a great many good things that I had not experienced in my childhood that I wished I had, and I considered Patricia to be a lucky girl indeed.

At last it began to grow late enough to begin our trek back to Chama and check into our motel.  We meandered down the road, paralleling the stream, and parted company with that waterway when we reached State Route 17 and it continued east to join the Chama River.  We had not traveled far before I looked down in the valley where I knew that the river was flowing and laid eyes for the first time on the chugging mass of the Cumbers & Toltec Railroad.  “There’s the train” I shouted, and we all looked at the black, smoking beast that was bringing several cars of tourists back to the station in Chama after an all-day run.  We quickly outpaced the train and soon came to a place where the tracks crossed the road.  We decided to shut the car down and wait for the spectacle to catch up with us.

Several other carloads of travelers had the same idea and soon there was at least a dozen cars and trucks stopped along the road.  There were no “Railroad Crossing” signs, no flashing lights, no barrier arms to descend to block the road of the careful driver or to challenge the spirit of the daredevil.  There was simply a pair of steel rails set in the roadbed over which the train would momentarily roll.  We all got as close as our individual perceptions of safety permitted and settled down to await the arrival and passing of the train.  The wait was not a long one.

In a few minutes’ time the shrill whistle of the train announced its presence, and in short order the engine came steaming up from along the river and around a bend about two hundred yards from the road.  I gasped as I first saw the black steel behemoth rolling steadily, inexorably, towards us.  The great steel cow catcher in front of the engine seemed to be as big as a car and the mass of the engine, which grew as it drew closer, looked to be huge enough to exert its own gravitational pull, and I had better stand back lest that gravity should pull me in spite of my feeble resistance under the bright metal wheels which rolled with only a whisper over the gleaming rails.  We all stood in awe as the great, lumbering iron horse chugged and belched smoke and cinders and whistled by us, seeming to glide like a phantom ebony leviathan across the road, dragging its cargo of delighted tourists behind it.  We waved at the tourists and most of them waved back, and then it was gone; disappeared behind a hill.

With the passing of the train we returned to our car.  It was now past time when we could check into our motel room and we wanted to unload our gear, relax, maybe walk a bit more and then have dinner and settle in for the evening.  Brad steered the car back through town and on to the Elk Horn Lodge,which occupied the southernmost limit of the town of Chama.  It was there that we would clean up, stretch out and enjoy our evening in clean and civilized comfort.  Or so we thought.

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