|At Loma Alta: Westbound stacks In Foreground, with Another Westbound Intermodal on the Southern Loop about Seven Miles Distant
|Meet on the Climb out of the Pecos River Valley Approaching the Llano Estacado east of Fort Sumner, New Mexico
Parts of ten states (New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana), three provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) and the Northwest Territories lie within the Great Plains. Elevation rises noticeably from east to west. For example, in my home state of Oklahoma, the Cross Timbers, the westernmost extent of the great Eastern deciduous forests, run almost directly through the middle of Oklahoma City. The eastern side of town is hilly and wooded, while the west side is rolling savanna. If downtown Oklahoma City is the eastern edge of the Great Plains, then elevation starts at 1200 feet and climbs as one travels westward into Texas and New Mexico, where the grasslands along the BNSF Transcon and U.S. 60 don't stop until Mountainair, about 6500 feet.
Because I have lived in this area most of my life, I understand the vast difference in geography between central Oklahoma and eastern New Mexico, though the label "Great Plains" encompasses both.
|Eastbound Stacks Climbing out of the Pecos River valley, Approaching the Llano Estacado
The distinguishing characteristic of the Llano is the Caprock Escarpment, seen most prominently on the north and west sides, a cliff usually about 300 feet high that appears to surround the plain like the fence of a fort. The cliff on the north facing the Canadian River was seen by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1541 on his way east, leading him to name the plateau the Llano Estacado, often mistranslated "Staked Plain."
Coronado described the area in a letter to the king of Spain in October 20, 1541: "I reached some plains so vast that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I travelled over them for more than 300 leagues . . . with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed by the sea. . . . [T]here was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by."
If you are driving west on I-40 past Amarillo, about 12 miles before the New Mexico border, the table land suddenly gives way to a broad valley below. Once you are in the valley, look back to the east and you will see the western boundary of the Palisaded Plains.
The area that I am writing about is west of the Pecos River. and though maps show this as part of the Rocky Mountains, the land here is as treeless and arid as the Llano Estacado, but sloping.
|Eastbound "Z" Train on New Mexico High Plains West of Pecos River
There is no town of any consequence here. Along the main highway, U.S. 60, are a few villages containing mostly abandoned houses. On a clear night, the sky explodes with millions of stars. On a clear day, the sky is a blue as the neck of a peacock.
|Pushers West of Pecos River
Vaughn is one of those Western towns that appears once to have thrived but now to be hanging on by a thread. The primary establishment in town is the Oak Tree Inn for UP crews laying over between runs and Penny's Diner, where the crews and local ranchers eat breakfast, lunch and dinner twenty four hours per day. The rest of the "town" looks as though it might blow away in a strong wind.
On my last visit, I saw a solitary police car and a solitary policeman sitting alone at the counter at Penny's Diner. I could not imagine what use a policeman would be in Vaughn, but the next morning I saw him hiding behind an abandoned gas station on the highway west of town, waiting for speeders, and I realized he was the primary revenue generator for the community.
|Eastbound in Open Range Country
From many locations, one can stop one's vehicle and peer across the unbroken landscape to a freight train in the distance. It is quite easy to see the entire length of a train. Sometimes, one can see the entire lengths of two trains, one running in each direction.
|Westbound Oil Train on New Mexico High Plains
|High Plains Eastbound Empty Coal
|Pimple on New Mexico High Plains
Loma AltaOne of the most prominent mesas in this country is Loma Alta, just south of U.S. 60, about 20 miles west of Fort Sumner. The summit is reachable on a primitive road. From the top, one can see enormous distances, the line of sight broken only by the earth's curvature. About six miles southeast of Loma Alta, the Transcon divides, with the southern track looping over a mile south to maintain a shallower grade. From Loma Alta, if one is fortunate, one can catch trains on both tracks simultaneously, giving the appearance of two completely separate railroad lines. In the photo below are three trains!
|Westbound in Foreground, Eastbound in Middle and Another Westbound on South Loop
|Westbound in Foreground With Another Westbound on the Loops Southeast of Loma Alta
|Meet Southeast of Loma Alta
|Eastbound in Foreground, Westbound Approaching in Background
|Westbound Stacks With Microwave Tower, Cellular Tower and Ranch Quarters
|Westbound from Atop Loma Alta
The Kiowa and Comanche, however, were migratory, moving north and south with the Bison herds, and the migratory lifestyle was incompatible with the European concept of the private ownership of property. So something had to give, and something did give, but when you look at these photographs, you can see that a small band of migratory Comanche, even today, would hardly constitute a dot on the landscape.
But the bison would. The BNSF could not run the Transcon through herds of untold thousand of bison. So the Bison are gone. And so are the Kiowa and Comanche, except for their few descendants, some of whom live with the rest of Oklahomans in small rural towns, others of whom live in small Indian settlements that shun whites.
A good solution?
|Westbound With Another Westbound on South Loop
|Westbound About Ten Miles Away, Taken from Below Loma Alta
|Westbound at Dusk With Another Westbound Visible to Left of Train, Also Taken Below Loma Alta
|Looking West From Loma Alta, with Eastbound Intermodal About 10 Miles Away -- Vaughn Sits at Base of Mesa in Upper Right of Image
|Westbound With Earth's Curvature Just Apparent on Horizon
|Westbound Taken Below Loma Alta
|Three Westbounds Awaiting Clear Boards
|Eastbound Beneath Loma Alta
|Westbound Beneath Loma Alta
|Eastbound Train and Cow
|Westbound Train and Eastbound Cow
|Eastbound Coal Meeting Westbound Stacks at Lucy, New Mexico
West of Loma Alta is the ghost town of Lucy, which can be found by turning off U.S. 60 onto the appropriately named Lucy Ranch Road. The original town name was Lucia, changed in 1914 to Lucy to honor the wife of someone important in the AT&SF. Some stories claim it was the wife of the chief civil engineer; others say Lucy was the wife of a company attorney. Since I am a lawyer, I prefer the latter version, though I have to admit that no town has been named after my wife Alexis.
|Eastbound Stacks at Lucy
In the early twentieth century, Lucy had a school, an AT&SF depot, a post office and a general store. The town supported Baptist and Methodist congregations, both of which met in the school house. During the dust bowl, homesteaders began to leave Lucy. Some disappeared in the night; other sold to ranchers. The school closed because of lack of students.
|Pushers on Same Train at Lucy
|Eastbound Empty Coal
To see my photographs on Flickr, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpwalters/.