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.

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.