Friday, November 6, 2015

Curtis Hill -- Cimarron River Valley

Sundown at Curtis Hill

This shot was taken of an eastbound manifest roaring downgrade toward the Cimarron River Valley in the winter of 2014.  Winter is the only time when such a shot is possible.  In summer, the sun would set over the lead unit.  I chose this shot for the masthead of the blog because it is moody, like me.

I first visited Curtis Hill in northwestern Oklahoma in 1972.  In those days remnants of the old helper district (for westbound traffic) were still visible in Waynoka, a division point.  A run-down hotel was still in operation a few blocks from the depot, and the few times I stayed there I always saw and chatted with train crews.

In the summer, the hotel was unbearably hot, with no air conditioning and virtually no breeze.  In winter, drafts of cold air were ubiquitous.  The red brick had weathered to almost-black over the years.  The floors creaked as though rotted with termites.  The rooms did not have individual bathrooms, and the community baths on each floor were as grimy as they were malodorous.
Westbound Crossing Cimarron River - Waynoka in Background

In those days, the AT&SF ran approximately 20 trains total per day up and down the hill, and the heavy westbounds really struggled.  Now the hotel has been torn down, and westbound Z Trains race up the hill at fifty miles per hour.   In the summer, the hot wind still feels like the blast from a kiln door;  in the winter, like the open door of a meat locker. 

The image above and several others that follow were taken from the bluffs west of the mainline and the Cimarron River.  A county road climbs the bluffs from the valley, but one must navigate oilfield roads to get near the edge of the escarpment.  Even then, a hike of about a half mile is required before the dwarf trees and tall grass give way to the gypsum outcroppings that supply the name to the formations:  Gloss Mountains.  

Westbound at Heman

Heman is the name of the old passing siding in this location, a point of frequent meets before the line was double-tracked in the mid-1990's.  The grade at Curtis Hill, westbound only, starts at Heman and climbs about ten miles to the summit.  To the left of the train is the escarpment discussed above.

Westbound Stacks Beneath Smoke From Range Fire

This image was taken in winter during a very dry period.  The National Weather Service had issued "red flag" warnings for western Oklahoma, and virtually every county in the state was under a "burn ban."  I don't know how the fire started, but I remember that as I was waiting for this train, the sky overhead began to darken.  Looking up, I saw the smoke which was not close enough to the horizon to interfere with the sun.  This stack train had only a single unit on the point, with two DPUs on the rear.  After taking this image, I called the Waynoka Police Department on my cell phone, but someone had already phoned in an alert.  Within fifteen minutes, local firefighters were on the scene to extinguish the blaze. 
Meet at Cimarron River

Above the westbound stacks on the Cimarron River Bridge you can see sand dunes along the river that are now overgrown with tall grass.  But the grass is thin, and a prolonged dry spell would likely expose the sand again.

Not all of the dunes along the Cimarron River are overgrown with grass.  Some have maintained their desert-like appearance, a rather startling sight in an area that receives about 27 inches of rain per year, more than London.  The difference is that London receives a steady amount throughout the year, while rainfall at Curtis Hill can vary widely month to month; when rain does fall, it can come in torrents.

Sand Dunes in Oklahoma

Sand Dunes Along Cimarron River

The dunes in this picture are a portion of Little Sahara State Park, a magnet for dune buggies, Jeeps and other off-road vehicles.  People travel large distances (from places like Tennessee and Illinois) to try their hand navigating through sandhills hundreds of feet high.  I have never taken my Jeep through the dunes, but I once made the mistake of trying to hike through part of them, search vainly for a shot of the Transcon across the River.  Climbing a one hundred or more feet sand dune is arguably the dumbest thing I have ever done, and I have done some dumb things.  

Sand dunes in Oklahoma occur mainly along the large river valleys crossing from west to east.  Stabilized and active dunes cover over 29,000 square kilometers, approximately 15% of the state's total area, of which about 20.7 square kilometers are active.  Stabilized dunes include the Cross-Timbers forest in the central and east and sage grassland in the west.  Although current active dunes are small, they were much larger during the 19th and 20th century droughts, especially during the Dust Bowl of the late 1930's.  In the past 80 years, large tracts of dunes have stabilized as annual rainfall increased.  Following are three more images of active sand dunes at Little Sahara.
Westbound Stacks Beginning Climb to Summit

Eastbound Stacks at Bottom of Curtis Hill, Approaching Cimarron River Bridge


From the escarpment west of the mainline, one can take a variety of images, especially late in the day.  Because of the large number of trains on the Transcon, you do not have to wait long to get the shot you are hoping for.  Heman, at the base of the hill, can produce any number of nice photographs.

Full Length of Eastbound From Heman Bluffs

Eastbound with Goldenrod

Eastbound Coming off Curtis Hill at Heman
Westbound Crossing Cimarron River at Dusk With Stabilized Dunes in Background

Eastbound Coming off Curtis Hill With Escarpment Across the Cimarron River in Background

It is also not unusual to get meets of trains at track speed at Heman.  The heavy traffic almost assures that the photographer will see one or two such meets during the afternoon.  The trick is to be ready to take the shot.  Sometimes I am, and sometimes I'm not.  Oh, well.

Meet at Heman
Heman Meet
Meet Near Cimarron River Bridge

Another Meet at Heman

Another treat at Heman is to take shots late in the day, especially as the sun is setting.  Again, because of the frequency of trains, one is almost certain to get several images to one's liking.  If you are impatient, the Transcon is perfect for you.

Full Length of Eastbound Intermodal at Heman
Dusk at Heman

Cimarron River at Dusk at Heman
Eastbound at Dusk at Heman

Eastbound Coming Off Curtis Hill at Dusk at Heman

Eastbound at Dusk Approaching Heman
Eastbound Approaching Cimarron River Bridge at Heman

Eastbound Near Sundown With Harvested Wheat Field Beyond Farm Pond
In the spring of 2015, Oklahoma received torrential rainfall in March, April and May.  Often a trickle, the Cimarron River flooded.  Curtis Hill turned green.  The following images were taken in May of that year.  You will never see Curtis Hill any greener.  

Sand Dunes Surrounded by Green

Same Train Beside Cimarron River

Same Eastbound Entering River Valley

Cimarron River

The rains were so heavy that several county roads and bridges washed out.  Red and white "Road Closed" signs were posted all over northwest Oklahoma.  The road leading up the escarpment west of Heman was transformed into the bed of a roaring stream.  Boulders the size of watermelons lay exposed on the dark red soil.  Huge rivulets like varicose veins criss-crossed what was left of the road.  One particularly steep section looked impassible, but I decided to give my Jeep a try.  I shifted into four-wheel drive low and turned on both the front and rear lockers.  We ground our way slowly up the grade, crossing the boulders and gullies without incident.  I was amazed.  Very few other vehicles could have climbed that hill.

In the surrounding greenery, the sand dunes at Little Sahara stood out like snowflakes.  Though the sand was saturated and therefore dangerous, the "dune climbers" were out in force.  As I stood at the top of the escarpment taking photographs, the sound of approaching freights mixed with and sometimes was obscured by the roar of the off-road vehicles across the river, attacking the wet sand.

Same Train Beside Sand Dunes

Same Train Crossing Cimarron River 
Out of the river valley, winter wheat was ripening to gold.  Deep in the valley, one land owner was bringing his field to harvest.  The grain was surrounded by overflowing ponds and the remnants of the flooded river.  Late in the day, hundreds of geese returned to the field and settled in for the evening.
Wheat Field Among Mesas

Same Train at Cimarron River

Flooded Farm Pond

Cimarron River Bridge

Photographing the bridge across the Cimarron River is not easy, in part because the terrain is so rugged.  The first time I tried it, I made the mistake of crossing some of the sand dunes in Little Sahara State Park.  Hiking through sand is taxing -- to put it mildly.  At times, I felt as though I were in Star Wars.  Other times, I completely lost my sense of direction.

There are easier ways to approach the bridge, I later learned, but all involve a hike through a cane forest about fifteen feet high on the east bank of the river.  This, too, is taxing and disorienting.  Photographing the bridge is a little bit like law school.  Once you figure out how unpleasant it is, you've got too much invested to turn back.

Eastbound Crossing Cimarron River and Cane Forest

Westbound Crossing Cimarron River and Cane Forest

Another Westbound Crossing

One of the first things people from out of state notice about Oklahoma is the red soil called Port.  First recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1942, the "Port Series" is the state's most common and can be found in 33 of 77 counties, covering about one million acres in central and western Oklahoma.  Port soil draws its name from the small community of Port in Washita County in western Oklahoma and can range from dark brown, to reddish brown to bright red.  Iron oxide gives the soil its color, the result of the weathering of red sandstones, siltstones and shales of the Permian Geologic Era nearly 300 million years ago.

Following are a few shots from the Cimarron River valley, showing the red soil.

Eastbound in Red Soil of Cimarron Valley

Westbound Beginning Climb up Curtis Hill

Eastbound with Sand Dunes

Westbound in Red Earth

I have sometimes been accused of taking photographs in which, if you can find the train, you win a prize.  Just to show that I can also take trackside shots, I offer the following.

Meet at Heman

Eastbound Grainer at Heman

Eastbound Stacks at Heman

The bluffs surrounding the river valley were created by erosion over millions of years.  The caprock is gypsum which does not dissolve as easily or quickly as the surrounding port soil.  Over the eons, as the port eroded, the gypsum caprock stayed put, creating escarpments.

The most notable example of this process is Mount Heman, where the gypsum caprock has formed a circle about one hundred yards in diameter.  Beside the gypsum, port soil has eroded sharply on all sides, leaving a conical "mountain" rising from the valley floor.  I have tried climbing this landmark, without success.  The gypsum cliffs at the top are about thirty feet of sheer rock, and I lack the equipment, expertise, age and stamina to mount such a project.

The Transcon climbs Curtis Hill beneath a number of such mesas, as the following images demonstrate.

Westbound with Mount Heman in Background

Westbound Struggling Into Grade Beneath Gypsum-Capped Mesa

In winter, with the sun low in the southwest sky, one can stand on the cuts through which the Transcon burrows into the Cimarron River Valley, photographing the parade of eastbounds that often appear near a winter's sundown.  Sometimes the trains will appear one after another after another after another, ten to fifteen minutes apart, sometimes closer.  Eventually, if you still shoot film, like me, you either run out or get tired and retreat to your vehicle.

Eastbound Gliding Downgrade Toward Cimarron River

Eastbound Gliding Downgrade
Another Eastbound

And Another



Big Red
Perhaps the most recognizable geologic formation at Curtis Hill is the mesa around which the tracks curve, allowing eastbounds to turn north as they approach the Cimarron River Bridge, while westbounds running compass south turn west to begin the climb to the top of the grade.  I've been told that this is the longest continuous curve on the Transcon, but I cannot verify that.  I will tell you this, however;  it's huge.  I've never heard or seen a name for this mesa, or the gigantic curve beneath it, and they deserve one, so I hereby christen them, in the dwindling year of our Lord 2015, BIG RED.
Westbound on Huge Curve, Beginning the Climb out of the Cimarron River Valley, With Big Red in Background
Another Westbound at Big Red

Eastbound Curving to North

I have climbed Big Red before and will include images from that vantage point in another post.  I must warn anyone attempting the climb that winds at the top can be ferocious.  I recommend using a tripod for stability, but carrying a tripod makes the climb that much more difficult.  Approach the east side, not the south which you see in the image above.  The red soil on the south face is soft, and your handholds and footholds can crumble before you are ready.  That is no fun.


Meet at Track Speed

As mentioned above, meets at track speed are somewhat common at Curtis Hill.  To take an appropriate shot, you need to be able to pan on your tripod without losing the perpendicular aspect of your camera.  I have purchased special equipment for this function, which makes each of my tripods about ten pounds heavier, which creates difficulties as I age.  But I have my toys.  I have my toys.

Westbound Attacking the Grade

Eastbound Mix With Excellent Warbonnet

Heavy Westbound Grinding Uphill
These photographs of Big Red were taken from the county road running parallel to the tracks.  You can shoot from the side of the road without trespassing or bothering a soul.  When some of these shots were taken, a dog from a nearby ranch wandered over to say hello.  When he smelled the sandwich I was eating, he became even more friendly.  I finally gave him a bite, and he stayed with me the rest of the day.

Eastbound at Speed

Pushers on Westbound Grain

Front End of Same Train

Curtis Hill is certainly not the most spectacular location in the American West, but it does have a certain unique ambiance, created mostly by the red dirt and white gypsum, also by the flood of trains every day.  Monday is the slowest day of the week.  Also, avoid the day after Christmas.  I tried that one year and saw two trains in the daylight.

Westbound Pushers

Big Red

More Good Warbonnets

Curtis Hill is isolated, as are so many great railfan locations, and my wife is always worried that something will happen to me.  Rattlesnakes are common, though they will always give you advance warning.  Summers are hot -- every day.  Winter days can be pleasant or miserable, depending on the location of Pacific storms.  I love climbing the escarpments and peering across the red countryside, listening for the sound of steel wheels on steel rails.  For my money, nothing beats it. 

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