In 2000, your author spent a week in Colorado on the BNSF line from Trinidad north to Cedarwood, a location that feels as remote as the back side of the moon but is only about 10 miles from Interstate 25. Those 10 miles can feel like 1000, however, especially when the weather turns nasty, as will be discussed below.
BNSF was still in transition in 2000; its motive power was a colorful jumble of various Santa Fe and Burlington Northern paint schemes, combined with several new BNSF paint schemes. It took a while for the railroad to find its footing, and the color of its locomotives was no exception, especially in the mountains of the American West.
Those mountains run north-south through central Colorado, and the BNSF line follows them like a centipede slithering along the edge of a cracked sidewalk. The tracks run up and down, left and right, up and down, left and right again. When the photographs in this article were taken, loaded coal trains ran south, empties ran north; both struggled against multiple grades of over one percent. Not too long after these images, however, BNSF began running loaded coal trains over the Boise City Subdivision, which lies east of the Raton-Clayton volcano field, thus avoiding the serial undulations north of Trinidad. So the images herein of loaded coal trains are historical; there are no loaded coal trains on this line anymore.
From Trinidad to Walsenburg, Interstate 25 and several county roads run near the tracks. Photography is easy as long as you don't mind driving through Colorado dust. North of Walsenburg, the tracks turn east and become progressively more remote as they then revert back to the north. Here and there a dirt road approaches the tracks, but Cedarwood is the first location where one can really see the railroad, its width and breadth, from tall bluffs. Your author does not know what lies north of Cedarwood, but he hopes to find out someday.
A note for those who have not visited this country before. The line north from Trinidad is located over 6,000 feet above sea level. The high altitude can lead to some incredibly rapid weather changes. Spring and fall can turn to winter here as quickly as a resting dog can jump after a squirrel, as quickly as your author can forget why he just walked into the kitchen. (A snack? I think it was a snack. What time is it?) And summer in this locale is often just a rumor. The one constant is wind -- wind that can roar off the mountains and across the High Plains with the force of a Pacific tsunami. More than once have BNSF trailers been blown off their trains along this route.
As I write, my home in central Oklahoma is experiencing the earliest and most severe ice storm in history -- by far the earliest and most severe. It is the earliest because it is only October 27th, 2020. Ice here is usually polite enough to wait until December or January. It is the most severe because leaves are still on the trees. The air aloft is October warm, but a small pocket of cold air has invaded the surface, rolling down east of the Rockies from the Arctic. The precipitation falls as rain, but objects such as trees, power lines and traffic signs are all right at the freezing line. Raindrops hit them and slowly begin to solidify, like stalactites in a cave caused by the drip drip drip of underground water. Slowly throughout the night the ice grows thicker, while the streets remain only wet, because the ground temperature is well above freezing. But the ice is relentless.
The date is astounding -- October 27. The leaves on most trees have not even begun to turn but are now coated with ice, increasing the weight exponentially. This morning the strain on the ancient oaks surrounding my property grew unbearable, and the majestic trees began to explode like canon fire. One huge tree would crack, then another, then another, and on and on throughout the morning. The window to the room in which I write is now blocked by the bulk of an oak that has fallen like a dying whale. The Foster hollies surrounding my house have bent over to the ground like supplicants. Their roots have popped free of the soil, exposed to the elements. Every five minutes or so, another huge limb explodes and crashes to the ground. And the rain keeps falling, freezing, and the trees continue descending.
Following is an image, taken with the author's iphone, of one tree in front of his house.
This ancient oak stood hundreds of years before the house was constructed. It is but one of many that have succumbed to the elements this day.
The sound of each cracking tree is as painful as losing a close relative, and your author is fearful that something will fall on his house. If he did not before, he certainly now knows a thing or two about violent changes in the weather. But we plunge forward, mindful of life's inequities and iniquities, because we have nothing better to do -- at least until it stops raining.
The images that follow run from south to north and are conveniently (the author hopes) located on a map that follows each section.
From Trinidad north, the BNSF tracks run along the shoreline of an ancient sea that geologists believe covered eastern Colorado to the edge of the Rocky Mountains during the Cretaceous -- about 100 million years ago. The sea was shallow, and the shoreline expanded and receded, expanded and receded, again and again and again, over millions of years. Each oscillation represented thousands of years. The water deposited shale saturated with marine fossils. As the giant lake withdrew to the east, it left behind thick layers of sand and dead coastal vegetation like that seen today along the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. Over time, sediments covered the vegetation, eventually producing coal, natural gas and oil -- depending upon the amount and duration of heat and pressure applied.
Turning to stone from the same forces, the sand preserved tracks of the animals living along the shoreline -- dinosaurs, for example. The Comanche National Grasslands in southeastern Colorado are home to such remnants. The Withers Canyon trailhead, about fifty miles northeast of Trinidad, will lead you into the canyon of the Purgatoire River, which also runs through the middle of Trinidad and originates in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In Withers Canyon you will find dinosaur tracks left by a variety of long-necked herbivores and the T-Rex-like Allosaurus.
|Dinosaur tracks preserved in sandstone. The fate of these huge creatures makes the decimation of the oak trees on my property seem a little less tragic, although your author is still seriously depressed as he writes this.|
Running across gray Cretaceous shale, the tracks parallel a juniper-covered escarpment of Cretaceous sandstone, much higher and therefore younger than the shale. The two rock formations intertwine back and forth from south to north, the result of changes in the shoreline of the ancient sea.
Behind the escarpment to the west is a plateau of more Cretaceous sandstone and shale. The abundant vegetation that grew along the water's edge formed coal seams, many of which were mined from the mid-19th to mid-20th century. Trinidad owes its existence to those mines, all of which are now abandoned.
|2 -- A fresh crew boards a northbound empty at Trinidad.|
|3 -- A very low priority manifest heads north from Trinidad Yard with Johnson Mesa in the background.|
It is night now. The rain kept up all day, though the ice stopped as the temperature rose. But now the temperature has dropped again, and the entire sordid process is repeating itself. As I write, ice descends again on my house and the surrounding woods. My wife just sent a text message to some friends who live about five miles away. They texted back that their power went off about three hours ago. My outside thermometer is registering 33 degrees. It will be difficult to spend the night in this weather without heat. Our friends have been looking for lodging that will accept two adults, two children and two large dogs. Unfortunately, every motel within about 100 miles is booked for the night, so our friends go to sleep with a mutual friend who lives with herself and one daughter and who owns a house with four bedrooms and still functioning electricity. Our house has only two bedrooms, though the power is still on. As I completed the preceding sentence, a huge tree limb crashed near a wall of windows in the den. The glass remained intact, however, but it is difficult to sleep in these conditions, so I continue typing. I wonder if there will be any trees left at all when the sun rises tomorrow.
|4 -- A southbound coal load prepares to enter the yard at Trinidad. The lead unit sports one the of new BNSF paint schemes, virtually identical to the Grinstein behind it.|
|5 -- A northbound empty coal train is passing one of the many roads that lead to abandoned coal mines.|
|7 -- DPU of same train.|
We were going down a trail on the mountain side above the tent city at Ludlow when my chum pulled my sleeve and at the same instant we heard shooting. The militia were coming out of Hastings Canyon and firing as they came. . . .Then came the killing of Louis Tikas, the Greek leader of the strikers. We saw the militiamen parley outside the tent city, and, a few minutes later, Tikas came out to meet them. We watched them talking. Suddenly an officer raised his rifle, gripping the barrel, and felled Tikas with the butt.Tikas fell face downward. As he lay there we saw the militiamen fall back. Then they aimed their rifles and deliberately fired them into the unconscious man’s body. It was the first murder I had ever seen, for it was a murder and nothing less. Then the miners ran about in the tent colony and women and children scuttled for safety in the pits which afterward trapped them.We watched from our rock shelter while the militia dragged up their machine guns and poured a murderous fire into the arroyo from a height by Water Tank Hill above the Ludlow depot. Then came the firing of the tents.I am positive that by no possible chance could they have been set ablaze accidentally. The militiamen were thick about the northwest corner of the colony where the fire started and we could see distinctly from our lofty observation place what looked like a blazing torch waved in the midst of militia a few seconds before the general conflagration swept through the place. What followed everybody knows.
Chairman Walsh: “You say you tell your father of the progress of the industries in which he is interested. Did you tell him that when your men were out in the canyons that Christmas, your officials were shipping in these foreigners and negroes to take their places and forcing them to starvation?”Mr. Rockefeller said he could not remember as far back as that and added that his father lived out in the country and he saw him as often as he could and probably he had seen him that Christmas.“Well, what did he say about this situation? Or did he just laugh at it?” fiercely demanded Mr. Walsh.“It is difficult for me to recollect,” said Mr. Rockefeller.Mr. Walsh brought up Jeff Barr and his employment of 328 special Deputy Sheriffs who were gunmen and thugs, he said, recruited from all parts of the country, and the shooting of a miner at Forbes as he lay in the tent.“I can’t vouch for the account of that,” said Mr. Rockefeller.. . .As the hearing was adjourned “Mother” Jones, who for several days occupied a front seat in order to be present to hear Mr. Rockefeller’s testimony arose and tried to address Chairman Walsh.“We cannot allow the hearing to be interrupted,” exclaimed Mr. Walsh, “and we have adjourned.” Mrs. Jones explained afterward that she desired to ask some questions.
We were so afraid you would kill our children,
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,
Carried our young ones and pregnant women
Down inside the cave to sleep.
That very night your soldiers waited,
Until all us miners were asleep,
You snuck around our little tent town,
Soaked our tents with your kerosene.
You struck a match and in the blaze that started,
You pulled the triggers of your gatling guns,
I made a run for the children but the fire wall stopped me.
Thirteen children died from your guns.
. . .
I never will forget the look on the faces
Of the men and women that awful day,
When we stood around to preach their funerals,
And lay the corpses of the dead away.
. . .
Our women from Trinidad they hauled some potatoes,
Up to Walsenburg in a little cart,
They sold their potatoes and brought some guns back,
And they put a gun in every hand.
The state soldiers jumped us in a wire fence corners,
They did not know we had these guns,
And the Red-neck Miners mowed down these troopers,
You should have seen those poor boys run.
We took some cement and walled that cave up,
Where you killed these thirteen children inside,
I said, "God bless the Mine Workers' Union, "
And then I hung my head and cried.
|11 -- Ludlow, Colorado -- June 2000.|
|13 -- Southbound load at same location.|
If you are driving west across the High Plains of southern Colorado, on US 350 or Colorado 10, the first mountains you will see in the far far distance, like twin fists rising above fog, are the Spanish Peaks. For my money, these are the most distinctive formations in Colorado, more distinctive than Pike's Peak, more distinctive than Mount Elbert (the tallest in the state), more distinctive even than the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, though many will argue that the Black Canyon is more spectacular. But you don't see the Black Canyon from one hundred miles away. The Black Canyon does not stare at you like two eyes in an empty skull.
The Spanish Peaks are two gigantic masses of igneous rock that melted and then rose like molasses probably during the Eocene (34 to 56 million years ago). The molten rock may never have reached the surface, instead simply pushing skyward the ground above it, though that ground long ago eroded away, exposing the rock beneath. Both peaks are probably significantly eroded from their original height, which is a little hard to believe. Molten rock squeezing through cracks in the surface that opened around the rising mountains later hardened into what geologists call radiating dikes, some as wide as 100 feet, most running east-west. Much more erosion resistant than surrounding sediment, many of the dikes still stand today like the walls of a fort. One crosses I-25 north of Walsenburg and just south of mile post 56.
To some degree, the rising molten rock was the reverse of the cold rain that is still freezing on what remains of the trees outside my house. I think I can survive the freezing rain. I doubt that I could have survived the creation of the Spanish Peaks, which in any event would have taken far longer than a single human life.
|14 -- A loaded southbound coal train passes the Spanish Peaks. The western peak is on the left and behind the eastern peak on the right.|
|15 -- DPU of the same train.|
|16 -- A Santa Fe warbonnet beneath the Spanish Peaks, a sight you definitely will not see again.|
|18 -- Northbound manifest beneath the west Spanish Peak.|
|19 -- Northbound empties beside the west Spanish Peak.|
|20 -- Another Santa Fe warbonnet and a B-unit beneath the Spanish Peaks -- another sight you will not see again.|
|21 -- BNSF 9988 rounds the big curve beneath the west Spanish Peak. When this image was taken, SD70MAC's were quite new and sprinkled liberally across this southern Colorado coal line.|
Loma Solitaria is the name I have given to a favorite photo location a few miles from Walsenburg. County Road 330 runs south of town until the tracks swing into view from the west like a rattlesnake appearing suddenly out of the grass. (Bear the Mighty Dog, my railfan companion, has sniffed out more than one rattler during our adventures together, for which I am seriously grateful.) The railroad in this country is incredible, climbing up and down the repeated hills and valleys created by the oscillating shore of the Cretaceous sea. Standing on the roadside along the tracks, I feel as though I can see the changing landscape over the millennia -- water, sand, palms, dinosaurs, land, sediment, more sediment, oil, coal, natural gas -- fantastic time-lapse photography, and in the last frames, humans appear, confused, struggling, always struggling.
Loma Solitaria, which your author believes is one of the radiating dikes from the Spanish Peaks, rises on the west edge of the tracks, an easy climb to the top, from which one can look south along the Cretaceous sandstone mesas standing above the High Plains. If you know where to look, you can see Fisher Peak, about 30 miles away.
My reverie is broken by the sound of more trees crashing to the ground outside my window. My mind grows numb at the thought of trying to clean up the mess I know awaits me when the rain and ice stop. They will stop, won't they? Right now, they are relentless, as relentless as my wife when she wants me to do something, like a boulder rolling downhill, or a freight train cresting a summit, or a dog with a bone, or, well, you can come up with your own simile -- at least if you are married.
|23 -- Warbonnets and Cascade Green lead a manifest south past Loma Solitaria. Photographer is looking northeast.|
|24 -- Loaded coal.|
|25 -- Northbound empty coal is passing Loma Solitaria along the shore of the ancient sea. Photographer is looking southeast.|
|26 -- View from Loma Solitaria of a northbound manifest.|
As the BNSF tracks approach Walsenburg from the south, they turn due west for almost a mile, then turn back to the northeast. If you are ambitious, or perhaps just bored, you can walk across an open field from County Road 330 and take photographs with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background.
While researching those mountains, I came across the following on the internet:
"Sangre De Cristo - The Trilogy Of Terror" is a of a trio of distinctively different and very cool short animated horror stories from our award winning Sangre De Cristo vampire hunter universe. Each story also showcases the artistic design work of a different up-and-coming young female Thai animation artist." http://www.worldfilmpresentation.cn/film/sangre-de-cristo-trilogy-terror
I am 70 years old (November 2020). I am an old man. I realize that. I exhibit all the characteristics of an old man. When I bend over to pick up something from the floor, I groan. I pass gas at awkward moments. I walk into a room and forget why I walked into the room.
But I once thought that humanity might be progressing toward some goal, like the title of Flannery O'Connor's short story, "Everything that Rises Must Converge," based on the philosophy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit, author of The Phenomenon of Man, which describes the unfolding of the cosmos from primordial particles to human beings and finally to the "Omega Point," when everything will return to God.
Although I am not a theist, I once was attracted to the idea of a moral arc to human development. Now I'm not so sure. For the two or three people who may not know, "Sangre de Cristo" means "The Blood of Christ." That phrase was well known and highly treasured by Spanish priests proselytizing throughout North America. According to legend, "Sangre de Cristo" were the last words spoken by a priest killed by native Americans in the shadow of the mountains named for that phrase.
We have traveled from religious icons to vampire hunter animations in about 300 years. I am sorry, but I simply do not see a moral arc in that progression. I'm not suggesting things are getting worse, but I'm also not seeing the world focused on a final singularity of glory. Instead I see people struggling, always struggling, telling the same lies, fearing the same fears, fighting the same fights, over and over and over again -- to no particular end.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued in the 18th century that while the universe is composed of nounema, what Kant called "the thing in itself," humans can only experience phenomena, the thing as it appears to an observer. In other words, humans do not have direct contact with reality. Instead, humans experience the world through a priori concepts "hard-wired" into their brains. (The term "hard-wired" is my own, not Kant's.)
This idea might lead one to argue, like Bishop Berkeley, that only observed items exist. Or to put it another way, there is no "material substratum" supporting the senses, to use Locke's phrase. (Berkeley believed that God observed everything, which solved, at least for Berkeley, the problem of existence.) Kant did not follow this approach. Instead, Kant argued that the noumenal exists, whether observed or not, because our ability to reason and act as moral agents makes no sense without it.
Many philosophers, including the German idealists who followed Kant, found his concept of the "thing in itself" problematic. They did not believe that a noumenal world, not perceivable by humans, existed. They believed that humans have actual contact with the "real" world.
I believe, however, that Kant was correct in arguing that humans do not experience the universe directly. Instead, we experience what might be called an "illusion created by our brains." Many studies have shown that we see and hear things on a delayed basis caused by the time it takes our brains to create an image that "bubbles" into consciousness. I believe that we do not, and in fact cannot, experience the "thing in itself."
But I do not agree that "practical reason" demands that a noumenal world exists. Nor do I agree with Berkeley that God's observation means that everything we experience actually exists. I rather agree with David Hume that the existence of a world beyond our perceptions cannot be demonstrated. Such a world may be out there, but we have no way of proving it.
I myself feel the tension between what I sense and what may or may not lie beyond what I sense. Is something out there? Like Hume, I believe there is no way to find out. I wonder if others feel frustrated by this inability to "find out." I wonder if, because we are imprisoned inside the illusion that we create for ourselves, we cycle endlessly through the same actions over and over, from generation to generation. I wonder if that is what it means to be human. (By the way, I don't think that Bear the Mighty Dog feels this, because I don't think he wonders if anything lies beyond what he senses.)
|28 -- Southbound coal load beneath same.|
|29 -- Sangre de Cristo.|
North of Walsenburg
Through Walsenburg, the BNSF tracks run southwest to northeast. A few miles outside town, the line makes a long ninety degrees turn back to the northwest and is approachable on County Road 114. Here trains run through a wide valley. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains watch intently from the west, rising above their domain like robed judges, solemn and composed, as though they have seen everything the world has to offer and are impressed by none of it. There is no appreciable grade in either direction; trains make good speed, though in the 21st century you are not likely to see any southbound traffic.
It is now very late. I have been working on this article for many hours, hoping against hope that the rain will stop and the trees outside my house will stop exploding. But my eyes are growing heavy and my sight dim; I have to stop for the night (apologies to the Eagles).
Now comes the dawn. I don't really want to open the shutters and peer outside. I am like a dog refusing to look at the scatological present he has left on the carpet. But I realize that I cannot live the rest of my life indoors with the shutters closed, no matter how much I may wish to. Hesitantly, like a man peering at the finger he has just lacerated, I open one shutter about one inch.
The first thing I notice is that the rain has stopped. The second thing I notice is that a huge tree in my backyard has bent over from the weight of the ice and is now almost touching the gutter on my house. The third thing I notice is that an even larger tree has lost its crown. All the top branches have splintered and crashed to the ground where they now lie like fallen soldiers. I can barely see the grass, so covered is it with broken wood. I tell myself that it was a mistake to open the shutter.
The Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, one of the longest on Earth, stretches from Poncha Pass in central Colorado to Glorieta Pass near Santa Fe, New Mexico, and contains ten 14,000-feet peaks and more than two dozen over 13,000 feet. These are fault block mountains, meaning that they were created when a portion of the earth's crust rose in relation to other portions that either "stayed put" or fell along the fault lines, which run on the east and west sides of the mountains and, in places, through them at right angles.
Like all fault block mountains -- such as the Grand Tetons and the Wasatch Range -- the Sangre de Cristo lack foothills. The highest peaks rise abruptly, like huge vertical fences, in some places 7,000 feet in only a few miles. The faults remain active today; the mountains are still rising.
|30 -- More loaded coal beneath the same mountains. Trucks on Interstate 25 are visible in the distance. Behind the trucks is a radiating dike from the Spanish Peaks. Beyond that the mountains rise straight up out of the ground along the fault.|
|32 -- Southbound coal.|
|33 -- More southbound coal.|
Cedarwood lies due east of Colorado City, Colorado, and can be reached on County Road 342, about 10 miles from I-25. It is possible to drive from the bluffs down to track level, but the best images are taken looking down on the railroad in the afternoon from the heights, with the sun in the western sky above the mountains. The day your author drove there, the sky was clear and the wind calm. But as I parked my vehicle and began looking for photographic locations, the wind began to blow from the northwest, not a gentle breeze but a blast, as though I had opened a window in the middle of a thunderstorm. But the sky was clear; there were no clouds or rain in sight.
I have lived almost my entire life in Oklahoma, but I have never felt the wind blow as fiercely as that day on the bluffs above Cedarwood. It blew so hard that from time to time I feared that my vehicle might roll over. A couple of times, I thought the wind would blow me off the bluffs and down into the cedars below. Photography would be impossible. There would be no way to keep the camera steady.
Nonetheless, because I did not want to waste the drive, I fastened my camera tight to my heaviest tripod and opened the aperture wide to allow the fastest shutter speed possible. Then I used my vehicle as a wind-break, but that wasn't enough, so I climbed slightly down the bluffs into the dense cedars, where the wind was not quite so fierce. Dust was beginning to swirl in the valley below, but two trains came rapidly in opposite directions. After taking the shots, I quickly packed my equipment and jumped back in the car. I later learned that the strongest wind gusts that afternoon had been 80 miles per hour and were caused by cold dry air from the northwest gaining speed as it roared down the mountains.
|34 -- Cedarwood, Colorado. This image gives no idea of the fierceness of the wind.|
|35 -- Nor does this image.|
The rain and ice have stopped. My yard looks like a Civil War battleground. The days ahead will be spent clearing brush and looking for a chain saw. But consider this. If Kant was correct, I have no direct contact with whatever has covered my yard. All I have contact with are the sensations that I experience in my mind. And if Hume was correct, I cannot even be certain that there is anything out there at all. Maybe there isn't.
Dr. Johnson kicked a rock and said, "I refute Berkeley thus!" But maybe it wasn't a rock. Maybe those aren't gigantic limbs strewn across my yard. Maybe it isn't even a yard. Hume said I can't know for sure.
In any event, if I tell my wife that I won't clear the yard because the limbs may not really be there, her look will illuminate a reality that I do not want to have any direct contact with.