Encino to Willard
West of Vaughn, the geography and geology become quite interesting. The Transcon runs on a relatively flat grade until turning downhill and ducking under US Highway 60, dropping about 150 feet in the process. To the north and west are the Pedernal Hills, which have always looked to me like the remnants of ancient volcanoes. The following source, however, indicates that the hills are likely "a remnant of the ancestral 'Rocky Mountains' and are seen today as gently rolling hills of eroded Precambrian rocks."
Later in the text, though, the authors propose the hypothesis that portions of the Pedernal Hills "probably represent part of a submarine volcanic field" active long before the formation of the ancestral Rockies. So maybe my intuition is not totally mistaken. In any event, I can find no map of New Mexico volcanoes that includes the Pedernal Hills.
As we move west, annual precipitations lessens. In Encino, average rainfall is about 13.5 inches per year, which means this country is just above arid or desert status. (Ten inches or less of rain per year means you are living in a desert.). The one constant I notice about life in this part of the world is dust. When the wind blows, which is most of the time, the air is thick with it and can quickly contaminate camera gear. In this country, I always cover my camera and the top of my tripod with a towel while waiting for a train.
|Photograph 21: A westbound grainer has crossed the Vaughn flyover and is headed west toward Encino, New Mexico. Soon the tracks will turn downgrade and drop about 150 feet as they duck under US Highway 60, from which this image was taken. The winter grass has turned bright yellow and the January sun hangs low in the southern sky.|
|Photograph 22: Westbound stacks are gliding downgrade, preparing to pass underneath US Highway 60.|
|Photograph 23: In this image, the photographer is standing at the top of the hill in the image immediately above, looking west toward the Pedernal Hills. A bit of snow remains from an overnight dusting as the train struggles into the grade.|
|Photograph 24: Two stack trains meet at the US Highway 60 overpass. Photographer is looking east, as in photograph 22.|
|Photograph 25: Trains meeting just east of Encino, New Mexico, with Manzano Mountains in background. These mountains overlook the valley of the Rio Grande River, and the Transcon passes through them in Abo Canyon.|
West of Encino, the Transcon turns hard to the southwest and passes the ghost town of Lucy, which once contained a school and two churches. When the climate dried during the Dust Bowl of the 1930's, literally everyone moved away. The only things left today are a few isolated ranch houses.
Beautiful golden grass covers the valley now, obscuring for the most part ancient lava. I have searched high and low but can find nothing about this particular location, probably because New Mexico is covered with far more dramatic lava flows, including the one at El Malpais National Monument, which occurred about 3,000 years ago. The lava at Lucy is barely noticeable and barely raises an eyebrow in this country.
|Photograph 26: An empty coal train meets westbound stacks (pulled by NS power) across the ancient lava field at Lucy, New Mexico, with the Pedernal Hills in the background.|
|Photograph 27: Eastbound stacks at Lucy.|
West of Lucy, the Transcon enters the Estancia Basin, which today contains the salt flats and remnants of two lakes that filled and then evaporated over several thousand years. The basin initially formed when the Sandia, Manzano, Manzanita and Los Pinos Mountains were uplifted during formation of the Rio Grande rift about 15-20 million years ago. During the last ice age (between 12,000 and 24,000 years ago) a large lake filled the basin, about 40 miles long and 23 miles wide. Today, it would cover the towns from Estacia to Willard with about 100 feet of water. At the end of the last ice age, the lake dried up. Then as the climate grew wetter, the lake filled again, and this newer reservoir has been dubbed Lake Willard by geologists. Over time, since the newer lake had no drainage to any river, the water became heavily saline. When the second lake also dried up, left behind were a residue of salt, sodium sulfates and magnesium sulfates. The following aerial photograph shows the salt flats, which US Highway 60 and the Transcon cross at Silo.
|Photograph 28: BNSF 5160 East is climbing through the salt flats east of Willard, New Mexico.|
|Photograph 29: An eastbound Z-train at Silo after a light snow.|
|Photograph 30: Westbound stacks have come down off the salt flats and are approaching Willard, New Mexico, from the east.|
|Photograph 31: BNSF 7527 East has just left Willard. The photographer is looking west toward the Manzano Mountains.|
Following is the Wikipedia entry for Willard, New Mexico, as of December 31, 2018: "Willard is a village in Torrance County, New Mexico, United States. The population was 240 at the 2000 census. It is part of the Albuquerque Metropolitan Statistical Area. The village is not experiencing the same extreme growth that towns farther north in the state are. A wind farm has recently been constructed upon the mesa just south of the town. It provides power for about 25,000 homes in Arizona."
It is not my intent to overly analyze an entry from Wikipedia, but several things from this quote are interesting. First, including Willard in the Albuquerque MSA is amusing, to me at least, because the two towns are separated by a mountain range, visible in the image immediately above.
Second, to say that Willard is not experiencing "extreme growth" is somewhat misleading. Willard is not experiencing any growth at all. A drive through town on US Highway 60 will convince you that what is left of the tiny settlement could blow away at any moment.
Finally, although I am not an electrical engineer, I do understand that generating stations, whether coal-fired or wind-driven, feed electricity into the grid and are generally not dedicated to a specific location. So I wonder, perhaps pointlessly, why a wind farm in Willard would send dedicated power to Arizona? Doesn't Albuquerque need the electricity?
|Photograph 32: This image, taken in the center of town, gives some idea that Willard is not experiencing "explosive growth."|
|Photograph 33: In railroad circles, Willard is probably best known for the huge curve just west of town. Above, stacks and trailers are negotiating the change of direction on a hot day in July.|
|Photograph 34: A westbound manifest has just come off the big curve at Willard. In the distance stand the Pedernal Hills -- above the motive power.|
Mountainair to Scholle
At the village of Mountainair, westbounds turn downgrade and begin the long descent through Abo Pass into the valley of the Rio Grande. This is the only easy passage from the high country of eastern New Mexico through the central mountains. The original AT&SF line to Albuquerque surmounted both Raton and Glorietta Passes, each with grades of three percent that proved operational nightmares, so eventually the Santa Fe constructed the Belen Cut-off to circumvent those grades, passing far south of Albuquerque, crossing the Rio Grande at the hamlet of Belen (Spanish for Bethlehem).
Today, Belen contains a major BNSF yard. All eastbound and westbound trains stop for crew changes and inspections of motive power and rolling stock. To reach this town, the Transcon winds through wide and relatively unchallenging Abo Pass surrounded by desert cacti and mesas, eventually approaching a narrow crevice in the mountains -- Abo Canyon. This section of our Transcon survey covers the line from Mountainair to Scholle, the eastern mouth of the canyon where (before the widening project in the early 21st century) double-track turned to single track for a narrow passage through canyon walls
|Photograph 35: An eastbound mineral train is climbing the grade to Mountainair.|
|Photograph 36: A loaded coal train passes a manifest at Abo, New Mexico, which was once a small station and settlement on the Belen Cut-off.|
|Photograph 37: An eastbound manifest climbs the grade at Abo, New Mexico.|
|Photograph 38: Westbound grain at Chilton's Crossing.|
|Photograph 39: Eastbound empty coal at Chilton's Crossing.|
|Photograph 40: Westbound autos are gliding downgrade through Abo Pass.|
|Photograph 41: In one of my favorite locations in the pass, which I've heard called Abo Curve, a westbound stack train is headed toward the narrow confines of Abo Canyon. This was before the canyon was widened and double-tracked in the early 21st century. The exposed sandstone, schist and clay show the enormous climatic changes undergone in this region in the past 300 million years.|
|Photograph 42: Eastbound trailers struggle into the grade as they approach Abo Curve.|
|Photograph 43: Westbound stacks have entered the single track at Scholle, with a late afternoon thunderstorm in the background. This image was taken before BNSF widened Abo Canyon and installed a second track.|
|Photograph 44: An eastbound manifest is leaving Abo Canyon after a heavy January snow. The train is on the original narrow track through the sandstone and limestone. The near track was added by BNSF when the canyon was widened.|
Almost since the beginning of the AT&SF and Burlington Northern merger, Abo Canyon has been heavily monitored for trespassers. I have thus never obtained an image of BNSF power in the canyon. Shortly before the merger, however, in 1995, when Santa Fe was still running shiny new warbonnets, I made a trip west and obtained my last photographs in the canyon, some of which I present here as penance for my failure to obtain BNSF images. The images are arranged from east to west through the canyon.
|Photograph 45: A westbound merchandise freight is entering Abo Canyon from the east. In the background is the US Highway 60 overpass. The second track through the canyon was constructed to the right of the track in this image and cut a huge swath through the surrounding sandstone and limestone. If I were to hike today from the overpass to the location where this image was taken, I would be immediately accosted by BNSF personnel, who would not be friendly.|
|Photograph 46: Eastbound stacks and trailers are preparing to exit the canyon near the location where the previous image was taken.|
|Photograph 47: A westbound intermodal is photographed from the same location as immediately above, only looking in the opposite direction.|
|Photograph 48: Eastbound trailers are emerging from the cut visible in the rear of Photograph 46.|
|Photograph 49: The camera is looking into the cut at the rear of Photograph 48. When this image was taken (1995), the Santa Fe freely allowed railfans into the canyon for photography. All you had to do was show up at the Belen office and sign a release. Then you could drive all over the place. If you look closely in this photograph, you will see a white vehicle parked to the right of the last unit. The photographers were two young men in Bermuda shorts who spent the entire day racing back and forth through the canyon like disturbed gerbils. I stayed above in the hills and enjoyed the show.|
|Photograph 50: One day in the canyon, I stumbled across a group of what I believe were bighorn sheep. My identification my be wrong, because I am not a zoologist, but this image shows a portion of the herd, which was led by the male in the center of the picture with his back turned. I think they smelled me before they saw me, but eventually they recognized danger and began moving lower in the canyon. When they neared the Santa Fe tracks, the male climbed up and looked in both directions, checking for trains. They he went back and led the females, other males and adolescents across, one-by-one, until everyone was safe. Then he crossed, and they disappeared into the mountain cedars. No one believes this, but it is absolutely true.|
|Photograph 51: Westbound stacks cross the last bridge on the west side of the canyon.|
|Photograph 52: Westbound stacks are exiting Abo Canyon at Sais, with the Los Pinos Mountains in the background.|
Rio Grande Valley
After the Transcon exits Abo Canyon on the west, the tracks run downgrade across the remarkably wide valley of the Rio Grande River. The land slopes steeply from the waters' edge to the base of the Mazano Mountains, and trains crossing this arid country look like black threads on white cloth. At the bottom of the valley sits Belen, New Mexico, a division point and major yard.
|Photograph 53: A westbound coming out of Abo Canyon meets an eastbound climbing the grade out of the valley of the Rio Grande River, with the Manzano Mountains watching silently in the background.|
|Photograph 54: Two BNSF freights meet on the upslope of the Rio Grande Valley. The horizon accurately shows how the land tilts upward toward the Manzano Mountains, giving some idea of the tectonic forces at work.|
|Photograph 55: Eastbound stacks are climbing toward Abo Canyon beneath the Monzano Mountains. This image was taken in December, when the sun is low in the southern sky.|
|Photograph 56: Eastbound stacks are climbing toward Abo Canyon beneath the Los Pinos Mountains. This image was taken in mid-June, when the June sun rises north of due east.|
|Photograph 57: Eastbound stacks are climbing the grade out of Belen, New Mexico, toward Abo Canyon at sunset.|
|Photograph 58: Belen, New Mexico in 1995.|
Thus ends Part Two of the journey across the BNSF Transcon from Kansas City to Cajon Pass.
This is great! Grew up in the area and would take passenger trains to Vaughn and Clovis and then back to Belen. This fills out the details of where I was.ReplyDelete