We’re Going to Chama, Momma, Part III

The moment that we had been waiting for had arrived at last.  The locomotive engine was belching smoke and steam, the conductor had announced that boarding could begin, and we all found our place, whether on a seat inside of one of the three enclosed cars or on the open car in the middle of the train  Brad and Patricia started the ride outside while I sat with Mom inside.  It was still a little bit cool and Mom was more comfortable indoors.  Also, there was no place for Mom to sit in the open car.  The wait was not a long one before the conductor came through each car to announce the wisdom of bracing ourselves and then, with a lurch and a gradual increase of speed, we exited first the train yard and then left the city of Chama behind us;  we were on our way.

This ride was for me a dream come true.  For as long as I can remember I have been in love with trains.  Growing up in San Diego, which had one spur line coming south from Los Angeles, I did not have a lot of home-grown opportunity to witness trains or the people who made them work.  On our many trips across the country however I often saw trains chugging on tracks which paralleled the roads, or sometimes stood in a restaurant parking lot pumping my arm up and down in an attempt to prompt the engineer to give me a whistle.  This exercise was always futile, which annoyed me because it usually worked with the men who drove big trucks.  I later learned that train whistles are part of a complex communication system and are not there for the entertainment of small boys.  Ultimately I don’t suppose that knowledge of this would have mattered much.  I would try it again in a heartbeat.

There is also a melancholy side to the train which somehow appeals to my soul.  On many occasions I would lie in a motel bed and hear the wail of the train whistle as it crawled through town, alerting drivers and anyone else who might be inclined to be dawdling on the tracks at a crossing, that a very big train that is very difficult to stop on short notice was on its way.  There is something haunting about that sound to me.  I seem to see a lonely person standing at a station at night with no reason to stay in one place and no real prospect for anything better to be found in the next, with the lonely train being the last, desperate hope that somewhere along that line something better will be found before the train the train gets to the end of the line, and before the passenger gets to the end of the line as well.

It is just such thoughts as these that a train can bring about in me, but all is not gloom.  The train is big; powerful, and it goes where it will.  Those great strings of passenger and freight cars carry people to exotic places and cargoes from hither to yon.  Railroad tracks snake across deserts and over mountain passes, through forests and across the seemingly limitless expanse of the Great Plains, giving economic life where they go and sometimes denying same where they choose to not go, or choose to leave.  Frank Norris wrote about the bad side of trains and Wilbert and Christopher Awry wrote about the good, with a lot of writers and other artists filling in all of the spaces in between.  Yes, as I wrote earlier, for as long as I can remember I have been in love with trains.

As we chugged out across the valley floor, crossed over wooden trestles and past water tanks and ranch buildings, the docent told us of some of the area’s history, which included many movies being filmed there.  You might remember some:  “Wyatt Earp”, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, “Missouri Breaks” and a host of television movies and series.  The man was a wealth of information but I quickly tuned him out as the magic of that ride began to exert its hold over me.

Mom was going somewhere else as well.  Way back in the early 1930’s she had boarded a train somewhere in eastern Kentucky, probably Hazard where she grew up, that promised to take her away from the depression-era coal mines there to the home of Ernst and Gretchen Blauer, who lived in and owned a drugstore/restaurant in Newport News, Virginia, and needed help.  How Mom and the Blauers became aware of each other is a mystery that Mom never clarified for me, but they were good landlords and employers and Mom continued to visit them from time to time until they died in the 1970’s.  While Mom worked there she met a dashing young sailor, the “handsomest man in the entire fleet” as he styled himself (I saw the yellow, fading note with my own eyes some 70 years after it’s writing), and I saw a photo of Dad from that time.  I believe that he may have been right.  Soon they were married and once again my mother was on a train, this time heading west towards San Diego where my father had been reassigned.  Once again, a train carried a lonely person toward the sunset and hope for a better life at the end of the ride.

Mom and I talked of these things as the train began to climb, and out path quickly transitioned from a gentle rise to a series of switchbacks which seemed to literally hang by a single spike to the sheer face of the mountain as it crawled upwards towards Cumbres Pass, which lies at 10,015 feet above sea level.  That portion of the ride is the shortest but by far the most white-knuckle-producing.  How the weight of the train does not send the whole shooting match crashing into Toltec Gorge is anybody’s guess.  The fact that the railway endures year after year is a testimony to the brilliance of the railway architects and engineers who hacked this rail bed out of the sides of those mountains.

At last we reached the pass and I could no longer remain inside.  Wearing the sweatshirt which Patricia in her wisdom recommended that I buy the day before, I traded places with Brad and Patricia, who retreated into the enclosed car to keep Mom company.  The air outside was cool but not really uncomfortable, and the sun was brilliant and shone warmly on my body.  The thick black smoke from the coal fire occasionally wafted over us and a slight but continuous shower of ashes reminded us that this train was steaming right out of a much earlier time.

I have never been able to stand or sit next to people for very long without striking up a conversation, and this occasion was no exception.  A man standing next to me turned out to be a train enthusiast from the United Kingdom who had ridden such trains all over the world.  He was staring out across a long, deep and magnificent valley, along the rim of which we were chugging at a steady pace.  Far down in the valley we could see dots which represented cattle, and very happy cattle I suspected they were, standing in the deep, lush grass of the valley floor.  A blue-green ribbon of water meandered along the length of the valley and made me wonder if there was a fish or two that might be there to be caught.

“We don’t have anything like this in the U.K.” said my companion.  “We love trains and there are many beautiful rides to be had there, but you just can’t get a sense of being this high.”  I knew what he meant; you really did feel like you were two miles above sea level, and the sky did feel like it was bigger than elsewhere, and you could reach up and touch it if you were just a little bit higher.  We talked about trains and America and the U.K. for a while, speaking slowly and never taking our eyes off of the scenery.  Eventually the train began to slow, and we looked forward and saw that we were approaching a collection of buildings which occupied space by the side of the tracks.

This was where we would have lunch.  There were two trains which ran each day; one which began in Chama and one in Antonito, Colorado.  If you were taking the all-day trip you just grabbed a bite and continued on.  We had the half-day trip so we debarked, enjoyed a leisurely meal and combed the gift store for treasures for ourselves or for junk to take back home for friends.  As usual, there was a preponderance of junk, but I found an item or two to bring back to friends.  I like to bring physical evidence of my travels, lest my friends suspect that I was really just sitting home eating bonbons and watching television.  At length the train that would return us to Chama announced its arrival and we all began to herd toward the platform.

The return train was exactly like that which brought us out in the morning, and once again I found my place inside with Mom.  Something interesting had happened to Mom however.  The age of the railroad, the era to which it belonged and of which it spoke, and the memories that came up in Mom’s mind, all mingled and coalesced into a sort of reverie in which Mom did not need company.  She stared out the window or studied the people around her and seemed to need my presence less and less.  Eventually I left her and returned to the platform and stood with Brad and Patricia, my English friend having proceeded on to Antonito.  “Is Mom OK?” Brad asked me.  “She’s fine” I replied.  “She’s in her own thoughts and doesn’t seem to need any company, so I figured that I would hang out with you guys.”  Brad and Patricia knew that Mom would sometimes retreat into some inner rooms of her mind, and what I said did not surprise them at all.  “I’ll go in and check on her every now and then” said Patricia, and that was what she did.

The docent had set up shop in the open car by now, where the people who most wanted to hear what he had to say had gathered.  This man had more knowledge about trains in general and this train in particular than anyone in the world, I think, and when he found a receptive audience he began to speak in volumes and was doing so until we pulled into the station in Chama.  He was a volunteer and it was as clear as the air in Cumbres Pass that he gave his time for this out of his love for the topic.  I know that this guy listened to Gogi Grant sing “The Wayward Wind” in his childhood, exactly as I had done (“In a lonely shack by a railroad track, he spent his younger days…”), and I know that he was a kindred spirit.

One last bit of excitement waited for us at the end of the ride.  The train was not at the platform – why not I have no idea –  and the passengers had to step down a short ladder-like ramp and make a final step to the ground which I seem to remember as being at least one and a half feet, maybe more.  Brad and Patricia debarked and assumed that I had the Mom duty under control, but in fact I was behind her.  Mom has always been extremely self-reliant, to the point of being foolhardy in my opinion, and she opted to take on this step by her ninety-year-old self.  I saw disaster looming in that sort of slow motion mode in which you see something bad happening and there just isn’t one damned thing that you can do about it.  Brad saw this too and began what would have been a futile rush to reach Mom before she splattered herself all over the coarse gravel surface of the train yard.  At the last possible moment a male passenger in front of Mom turned, recognized the situation, and offered Mom a hand, maybe saving her life for nearly four more years.

We regrouped at the station and then returned to our car.  We were not hungry but knew that there was a long drive stretching out between us and dinner at Gabriel’s restaurant in Pojoaque, a Native American Pueblo a little north of Santa Fe.  We dropped south past the Buck Snort Lodge, through the beautiful countryside of northern New Mexico, past the town of Tierra Amarillo where Reis Tijerina had led an armed assault on the country courthouse to free prisoners who had already been released (the last armed insurrection in the U.S. to date), past Abiquiu, where a Benedictine monastery exists and welcomes weary visitors, Catholic or not, and finally to Pojoaque and a fine dinner of carne adovada.

Another New Mexico adventure was over, and one of the last of any kind with Mom.  The next year she would have a small stroke, a herald of worse things to come, and we would never ride a train or walk a wildlife reserve or eat a meal in a mountaintop cafe again.  For that reason alone this trip would have been special, but there was plenty of special about this trip which allowed it to stand on its own merits.  I hope that Mom is somewhere thinking fondly about that trip, just as I am fondly thinking and writing about it right now.