Friday, December 4, 2015

Loma Alta, Lucy and the New Mexico High Plains

At Loma Alta:  Westbound stacks In Foreground, with Another Westbound Intermodal on the Southern Loop about Seven Miles Distant

The high plains of eastern New Mexico are sparsely inhabited and little understood.  If I say "Great Plains," most people think of Nebraska or Kansas, and if I say "Llano Estacado," most people think of nothing at all.  The New Mexican plains are part of both, however, and comprise some of the most fascinating railroad geography in the United States.  If you have not visited this area before, or even if you have, come with me on a journey that will likely surprise you.
Meet on the Climb out of the Pecos River Valley Approaching the Llano Estacado east of Fort Sumner, New Mexico
Let's start with the Great Plains, which lie north of the Rio Grande and run all the way to the delta of the Mackenzie River at the Arctic Ocean -- about 3,000 miles, the distance from London to Baghdad.  Their western border are the Rocky Mountains, while the eastern border varies widely from south to north, generally running to the edges of the great eastern North American forests.  Older geographers called this area the "Great American Desert," but this name was more descriptive of their lack of knowledge than of the area under discussion.

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
For this reason, I prefer to think of eastern New Mexico as part of the Llano Estacado, or "Palisaded Plains," some of the flattest land in North America, covering about 30,000 square miles along the Texas/New Mexico border, elevation 3,000 to 4,000 feet, bounded on the north by the southern escarpment of the Canadian River valley, on the east by the Caprock escarpment, on the south by the Edwards Plateua and on the west by the Mescalero Ridge overlooking the Pecos River.

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
As the Transcon climbs out of the valley of the Pecos River, the tracks run generally westward but first curve south out of the valley, then west, then north, then south again, then west again in a series of huge arcs across the incredibly broad and open landscape.  If the Llano Estacado is as flat as a butcher's knife, then this area of central New Mexico is the worn wooden handle.

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
West from Fort Sumner and the Pecos River, the first gas station appears in 60 miles at Vaughn, population about 400, where the Transcon crosses over the old Rock Island Golden State route to El Paso, now part of the Union Pacific.  The next gas station is another 60 miles at Mountainair.   Estancia, the county seat of Torrance County, contains about 1,500 people (on a good day) and lies about 10 miles north of the Transcon on New Mexico State Highway 41.

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
Much of the territory west of Fort Sumner is fenced only in the most general sense of the word. The dirt roads that wind off U.S. 60 traverse mile upon mile of open range.  Cattle cross the roads at various intervals; a driver not paying attention may come to an abrupt halt.

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
The U.S. Army conducted an expedition in 1852 to explore the headwaters of the Canadian and Red Rivers, and Captain Randolph Marcy stated in his report:  "It is much elevated . . . very smooth and level.  The almost total absence of water causes animals to shun it; even the Indians do no venture to cross it except at two or three places." 

Even today, when crossing the Llano Estacado, one feels completely isolated, cut off from civilization and the rest of the world.  When I am driving through this country, I try not to think what might happen if my Jeep breaks down.

Eastbound Stacks West of Vaughn
The few mesas in this area stand out like pimples and can be seen for miles.  
Pimple on New Mexico High Plains

Loma Alta
One 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
I search in vain for words to describe the size of this country.  Metaphors alone give some sense of the vastness.  If these lands were the pages of a book laid end-to-end, then the "book" would include multiple volumes like the reports of the United States Supreme Court or the Encyclopedia Britannica.     

Westbound in Foreground With Another Westbound on the Loops Southeast of Loma Alta
Meet Southeast of Loma Alta

Westbound in Foreground With Eastbound in Distance

Even when only a single train is in the photograph, the view is breathtaking, as the line of sight stretches unbroken by trees, hills or any structure.  As a general rule, the distance to the horizon is approximately 1.23 miles times the square root of the height of the eyes in feet, minus the height of the horizon above sea level (assuming the ground is level).  Loma Alta is approximately 5500 feet above sea level.  The land immediately below Loma Alta is about 5200 feet above sea level.  Thus, if the land here were level, the distance to the horizon in these photos would be approximately 21 miles.  However, the ground here slopes downward from the west to east, so the elevation at the horizon is approximately 5,000 feet above sea level, making the distance to the horizon 27.5 miles!

In addition to vast distances, the other constant on these plains is wind.  If you drive or climb Loma Alta, you should expect the wind to howl.  Every time I have taken photographs from that location, I have been forced to use my Jeep as wind break so that long lens shots will have some chance of being stable.  Be warned:  in the winter, the winds atop Loma Alta can overwhelm you, even if the temperature on the flatlands is moderate.

Eastbound in Foreground, Westbound Approaching in Background

Westbound Autos

Loma Alta overlooks a vast cattle ranch.  Some outbuildings and bunk houses are visible from the hill.  The main ranch house sits on the flatlands about ten miles to the southeast and is easily visible.  The ranch hands are universally friendly and have never interfered with my photography, though some have been more than a little puzzled by it.  

Westbound Stacks With Microwave Tower, Cellular Tower and Ranch Quarters
Westbound from Atop Loma Alta
These high plains were the last refuge of the Kiowa and Comanche who did not wish to be caged on reservations in Oklahoma.  The Federal Army was relentless in its pursuit of Native Americans, and I sometimes wonder if someone less belligerent could have found a more amicable solution to the clash of civilizations.  

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
The water seen on the high plains today is pumped out of the Ogallala and other smaller aquifers.  There are no nearby sources of water, and rainfall into the ground does not, to me at least, appear to be sufficient to replace the amount being withdrawn.  Before European settlement, there was a permanent oasis at Monument Spring, not far from Hobbs -- a pile of caliche raised by the Comanche as a guide to the location.     
Westbound at Dusk With Another Westbound Visible to Left of Train, Also Taken Below Loma Alta
On Loma Alta stand several large tanks where water is pumped from an aquifer below, held for storage and then distributed to the cattle and ranch buildings.  In the summer, which can be very hot, I much enjoy sitting in the shade of one of the tanks, waiting for trains to appear on the horizon.  To the west, if you position yourself properly, you can see the Transcon run southeast and then northwest along a line of hills all the way to Vaughn, about 18 railroad miles away.

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
Immediately below is an image taken from U.S. Highway 285 southeast of Vaughn of a westbound stack track.  On the horizon to the left stands Loma Alta, over 17 miles away!

Eastbound from Loma Alta

One does not need to reach the top of Loma Alta to take shots of the full lengths of trains.  A short drive up Loma Alta Road, but well below the summit, will reveal plains dotted by cacti, stretching to the horizon as the Transcon curves in the distance.
Westbound Taken Below Loma Alta
But my favorite shots in this region occur when three trains appear in the photograph.  Because of the enormous lines of sight, this is not as rare an occurrence as you might think.
Three Westbounds Awaiting Clear Boards

During the morning in high summer when the sun rises north of due east, one can take photographs looking west with Loma Alta in the background.  This is open range country, and cattle may wander close at any moment.  When these images were taken, my dog Bear (aka Mighty Dog) was with me.  On a good day Bear weighs about ten pounds, but he likes to bark at cattle.  Some follow his advice.  On this day, the cows paid no attention to Bear at all, as the photographs indicate.
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.

Eastbound Empty Coal Train at Lucy, New Mexico

Pushers on Same Train at Lucy
My fraternal grandfather moved with his father, mother and three brothers to eastern New Mexico and attempted to dry-land farm in the early twentieth century, but when the weather turned dry, his family lost everything, abandoned their homestead and returned to Texas.  I suspect that the few residents of Lucy suffered a similar fate.  The post office and AT&SF depot closed in the 1940's.   Today, almost all the old structures are gone.  The last time I was there,  I spotted the remnants of a house recently burned in a fire.  The cemetery is still standing and appears to be maintained by someone.

Westbound Stacks
Eastbound Empty Coal
Westbound Stacks

Drive south on Lucy Ranch Road in the winter, when the sun is low in the southern sky, and you will find wonderful shots of trains running on the Transcon in both directions.  To the northwest rise the Manzano and Sandia Mountains overlooking the valley of the Rio Grande.  In the flatlands around Lucy, everything is quiet and deserted, but when the wind blows, I sometimes think I hear voices.

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