Wednesday, July 6, 2016

BNSF West of Belen: MP 27.8 to 31.9

BNSF 7127 West at MP27.8
I spend much time on the BNSF Transcon, especially in New Mexico, because I am fascinated that anyone ever thought a railroad could be built through this territory.  It is true that this route avoids the rugged mountain passes of Colorado and Montana, but it is also true that the trail across New Mexico involves some of the most remote and inhospitable land imaginable, to say nothing of the weather, which can vary from blinding snow to broiling heat.
Warbonnet 797 West at MP 31.9
The images in this post roughly cover the line from its ascent out of the valley of the Rio Grande to its descent into the valley of the Rio Puerco.  I love that name -- Pig River.  Someone somewhere had a great sense of both humor and geography.  This is the portion of the Transcon that can be accessed, for the most part, only by high-clearance vehicles -- pick-ups or Jeeps.  When it rains or snows, four-wheel drive is an absolute necessity.  This is the route that the railroad surveyors chose out of the Rio Grande Valley, also the route of the National Old Trails Highway and US 66 (before it was realigned due west out of Albuquerque).  Today, it is isolated and barren.  Where most of the images in this post were taken, one cannot obtain a cell phone signal, even though I-25 is only about 10 miles away!
Eastbound Merchandise Freight Ascending From Valley of Rio Puerco
On this portion of the Transcon, trains run on the left-hand main, because the original line was single track, and the subsequent track, the left-hand main for westbound traffic, takes a more circuitous route, with a shallower grade, out of the valley of the Rio Puerco to the west.  The train immediately above is climbing out the the Rio Puerco Valley and headed east toward the summit above the Rio Grande. This location can be accessed either by a moderate hike or by driving along a minimum maintenance road in a Jeep -- not too far from New Mexico State Highway 6 (the original route of old US 66). 
 Eastbound About Halfway Between MP 27.8 and 31.9
Amtrak No. 3 Beneath Manzano Mountains
BNSF 6639 East Descending in Rio Grande Valley
In this image, we see an eastbound double-stack train heading down the hill toward Belen.  In the far background are the Sandia Mountains, which tower over Albuquerque like an irritated master over her Chihauhua.  In the near background stands the remnant of the Los Lunas Volcano, part of the Cat Hills Volcanic Field and actually two different volcanoes that erupted millions of years apart.  A trail begins at the base of the mount just off Highway 6 and offers some wonderful hiking and spectacular views.  From certain locations, you can see the Transcon in the distance, but I have never attempted to take any shots, because the line is too far away.  
Eastbound Stacks from Same Location
DPU on Same Train Gliding Downgrade Toward Belen -- Beneath Manzano Mountains
Belen is Spanish for Bethlehem and gained the nickname "Hub City" because it is a division point and major rail yard on the Transcon.  I have spent many peaceful nights in Belen, which is far enough away from the congestion of Albuquerque to be tranquil and soothing.  Because the air is so dry, houses in this area have "swamp box" coolers mounted in their roofs.  These machines circulate ground water through a radiator which is in front of a fan that blows the cooled and humid air into the rooms below.  A "swamp box" only works in an extremely dry climate.  In an area with any humidity, a swamp box simply pumps more water into the air.

The western ridge above the Rio Grande is reachable only on primitive roads layered with sand that will easily snare any vehicle without four-wheel drive.  The view from the top is so spectacular, however, that I would gladly hike several miles from the nearest road -- if I did not already own a Jeep Wrangler.

An Empty Coal Train Glides Downgrade Toward Belen at Sunset
To the immediate west stand the Manzano Mountains and Abo Canyon where the Transcon climbs eastward out of the valley to the High Plains.  To the northwest lie the Sandia Mountains and Albuquerque.  The river valley is placid and brown, like the cover of a book, except for the small green strip surrounding the water that flows gently north to south.  In the evening just before sunset, everything in sight turns bright crimson.  If anywhere should be named Sangre de Criso, this is it. 
Westbound Stacks Headed Downgrade Toward Rio Puerco
After cresting the ridge, westbound trains immediately descend toward the Rio Puerco, as can be seen in the image above.  To the left of the lead unit is the Los Lunas Volcano, with the Monzano Mountains to the right.  As discussed above, the trains run left-hand main, and because the curves are wide and gentle, westbounders really pick up speed.  The cuts, some of which are extremely deep, demonstrate the soft, sandy soil that so easily snares the unwary motorist.  Yes, I have been stuck in the sand before, though never in my Jeep.
Eastbound DPUs at Same Location
Eastbound with Los Lunas Volcano on Right and Sandia Mountains on Left
Westbound Beneath Manzano Mountains
DPU on Eastbound
As westbounds glide downgrade, eastbounds struggle upward.  The train above is passing MP 27.8 -- one of my favorite photo locations.  Winter is the best time to take images here, because the sun is low in the southern sky, allowing one to set up south of the tracks and look back toward the mountains.  Be aware, however, that winter weather can turn harsh in these parts.  I do not recommend exploration in the snow, unless you know someone nearby who can provide shelter until the "melt" frees your vehicle.
Stacks at MP 27.8
Mile Post 27.8 is in the middle of a large curve through which the railroad turns southwest to northwest.  In the winter, one can stand south of the tracks in the middle of the curve and shoot trains in both directions most of the day.  Honestly, with all the traffic on the Transcon, you can get your fill of trains in this location in a hour or two.

Looking north, you see Mount Taylor gazing over Laguna Pueblo, through which the Transcon runs. This mountain is actually a volcano and the highest peak (11,305 feet) in the San Mateo Mountains.  Named for President Zachary Taylor, the mountain straddles the transition zone between the Colorado Plateau and the Rio Grande Rift.

BNSF 5124 East Leads Stacks Under the Silent Gaze of Mount Taylor
Eastbound Z Train
Geologists estimate that Mount Taylor was active during the Pliocene -- two to three million years ago.  It is surrounded by many smaller volcanoes and a huge lava flow that may indicate many eruptions over thousands of years.  I have read estimates that, at its highest, the mountain towered over 25,000 feet -- about twice its current height.  As you can see, it still presents a majestic figure, especially when snow-capped.
Another Eastbound Beneath Mount Taylor
Westbound Merchandise Freight
Office Car Special
Near Mile Post 27.8, if one turns to the northwest, the view reveals the dark red Mesa Lucero that overlooks the Laguna Pueblo -- one of the most striking sites on the Transcon or any other railroad.  

Eastbound Z Train Ascending Grade out of Rio Puerco Valley
The above image gives some indication of the depth of the river valley and also the vastness of this landscape.  Mesa Lucero dwarfs the tiny train, while between the tracks and the flat table-top stands another ancient volcano -- identified only as "Hidden Mountain" on the USGS map.  This image demonstrates nicely that mesas do not rise up from the ground like volcanoes or mountains; instead, the land beside them erodes away where the rock, over eons, is more susceptible to wind and rain and the river that carves the canyon.   As you can see, the top of Mesa Lucero is relatively flat like the High Plains east of Abo Canyon.  But the Rio Puerco, which today is dry except during heavy rains, has over the centuries scooped a huge depression out of the red earth -- a place the original locating engineers thought would be congenial for a railroad, or at least less inhospitable than the surrounding terrain. 
Eastbound Stacks Beneath Hidden Mountain, With Mesa Lucero Looming in Distance
Same Train
Eastbound Manifest Showing Full Breadth of Mesa Lucero
This area is part of the Lucero Volcanic Field.  An ancient lava flow caps Mesa Lucero at the very edge of the Rio Grande Rift, accentuating the degree and depth of erosion.  In the image above, one can see evidence of erosion of the underlying soft rock, leaving the basaltic lava to clump in organized blocks, forming not only the grand mesa but also the smaller formations beneath it. 

Below is an aerial photograph taken by the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, showing the Mesa Lucero monocline just beyond the lava flows at the west boundary of the Rio Grande Rift.  The BNSF mainline is barely visible in the upper left corner of the image.

Monoclines are folds consisting of two horizontal (or nearly so) limbs connected by a shorter inclined limb.  In the picture below, the fold runs diagonally from slightly above center on the right to slightly below center on the left.  This image demonstrates that the Transcon here runs along the very edge of the Rio Grande Rift.

A Meet Beneath Mesa Lucero

And Another
The maroons and burgundies of this desert are spectacular, particularly with the sun low in the sky.  Then the land reminds one of the closing paragraph of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses:  "The desert he rode was red and red the dust he raised, the small dust that powdered the legs of the horse he rode, the horse he led.  In the evening a wind came up and reddened all the sky before him. . . . He rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west across the evening land and the small desert birds flew chittering among the dry bracken and horse and rider and horse passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being.  Passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come."  
Stacks Meeting on Curve Near MP 27.8, With the Red World Beyond
Eastbound Manifest Showing Both Mount Taylor and Mesa Lucero
Looking West Toward Rio Grande Rift and Mesa Lucero

Auto Racks
Beyond the big curve to the northwest, the Transcon runs along the edge of a small rift before turning due west and diving downgrade toward Hidden Mountain.  Photographic opportunities abound here, but hiking and diligence are required.  Some of the better locations are below track level, looking back to the east.  Westbound trains, which only moments before were struggling out of the valley of the Rio Grande, now race downgrade at speeds that can take away your breath.  Sometimes the traffic is so heavy that eastbound freights line up one after another, waiting for Belen Yard to clear a track.
Westbound Stacks on Right Pass Pushers on Eastbound Stacks, With Photographer Looking Up at Manzano Moutains
Two More Stack Trains Passing Just Northwest of Big Curve at Approximately MP 28.3
As we follow the tracks to the northwest, we notice the land falling away to the southwest and the Rio Grande Rift, opening a series of images of trains gliding into or climbing out of the valley of the Rio Puerco.  To keep the eastbound grade manageable, the railroad makes a big loop around the edge of the defilement.  If you are standing downgrade near the next curve due west, you can hear eastbounds from miles away, grinding up the valley.  Westbounds, on the other hand, sound like wind through the trees as they whoosh down the hill.
Westbound Stacks Preparing to Turn Due West on Descent to Rio Puerco
One reason the valley of the Rio Puerco is so eroded and stark is the over-grazing in the 19th and early 20th centuries after the U.S. Government had driven the Native American population into the mountains.  The Hispanos (descendants of Spanish colonials) immediately moved into the river valley and set up farms and ranches.  As over-grazing grew worse, flash floods became commonplace, and by the middle of the 20th century, the land was virtually uninhabitable.  Today,  almost no one lives in this area except the Native Americans in the Arcoma and Laguna Pueblos. 
 Eastbound Stacks Passing Pushers on Westbound Oil Train
Even though the Rio Puerco is dry during much of the year, come heavy rains the channel carries huge quantities of soil downstream.  I have read estimates that over one million acre-feet of soil have washed out of the river basin since 1885. Today, this river contributes only about four percent of water flow in the Upper Rio Grande watershed but almost 50 percent of the sediment.  On August 7, 1957, the USGS recorded 2,240,000 tons of sediment passing through a stream gage three miles above the river's mouth.

Early Spanish explorers described the Rio Puerco as lined with cottonwoods so numerous that in the early 19th century a legal dispute arose over ownership of the timber.  Today, cottonwoods have disappeared from the river.  In 1692, Diego de Vargas, governor of the New Spain territory of Santa Fe du Nuevo Mexico, named the river La Torriente de los Alamos.  "Alamos" are cottonwood trees, while "torriente" translates itself for an English speaker.  Compare that to the images in this post to understand how drastically the landscape has changed in the past few hundred years.

Westbound Pushers on Oil Train Pass Eastbound Trailers

There is another theory for why the valley of the Rio Puerco has become so barren.  In recent years, geologists have noticed that arroyos don't keep eroding indefinitely.  At some point, tributaries begin to deposit sediment, and the arroyo begins to fill back in.  Over hundreds of years, according to the theory, an arroyo erodes away, then fills back in, then erodes away, and over and over.
I have read articles arguing for fill cycles in the Rio Puerco from about 900 to 1250 A.D. and about 1325 to 1450 A.D., with a file cycle between these two dates.  Between 1450 and 1880, filing appears to have been the dominant process.  The erosion cycle that began about 1880, the results of which we see today, followed a period of about 500 years of fill, close to the average suggested in the literature.  So perhaps the erosion of the past one hundred-plus years was not caused so much by over-grazing but rather by  a natural erosion and fill cycle.
Eastbound Amtrak No. 4 Approaching Big Curve at MP 27.8
Westbound Oil Train on Curve to Due West Alignment
The image above is interesting because in the background it shows two distinct mountain ranges -- the Monzano Mountains to the right and the Sandia Mountains to the left.  These mountains are part of a larger geologic unit known as the Sandia-Monzano Mountains -- a fault-block range in the Albuquerque Basin of the Rio Grand Rift.  A fault-block occurs when there is vertical (rather than horizontal) displacement along a fault.  I went to college at Stanford and vividly remember where a friend showed me a line of trees that had been planted in the late 19th century along the San Adreas fault.  During the massive earthquake of 1906, at the point of the fault, the line of trees was displaced horizontally about nine feet.

The Manzano and Sandia Mountains were caused by a vertical displacement along a fault.  Rather than moving sideways, the ground on one side of the fault moved upwards, creating a mountain chain.  The Manzanos to the south are separated from the Sandias to the north by Tijeras Canyon, through which I-40 today follows the route of old U.S. 66.  This canyon was much too rugged for a railroad line, which is why the AT&SF originally came to Albuquerque from the north and then latter by-passed the town altogether on the Belen cut-off.
At approximately MP 30, the Transcon curves to due west in a location that is easily accessible from New Mexico State Highway 6.  Many times I have set up my tripod just slightly beyond the shoulder of the highway and photographed westbounds roaring down the hill.
Westbound Amtrak No. 3 Passing Eastbound Stacks, Turning Due West Beneath Manzano Mountains

No. 3 West on Another Day
As you can see, the land here is quite barren, and I have spent many hours hiking through this territory, looking for the perfect shot -- which I have not yet found.  I have never had any trouble from land-owners.  In fact, my guess is that the people who live out here don't own the land.  Fee title is probably held by someone in Albuquerque or Denver who never sets foot in this desert.
DPUs on Eastbound Stacks

More Eastbound DPUs
And More
For most of my life, I have assumed that the landscape changes only across hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of years. After reading the literature on the Rio Puerco, however, I realize that significant changes can occur across two or three human generations.  Thus, late in life, I have begun to pay more attention to the geology around me, because I now know that what I am seeing may not have been here a century ago, and may not be here a century from now.  The idea that changes in the earth's geology can occur so rapidly is, to me, astounding, as though someone had told me as a teenager that 40 years hence I would consider all teenagers foolish.  Who would have thought that?
Westbound at Same Curve, With Warbonnet and NS Power

Full Extent of Curve
Eastbound Pushers Approaching Curve Shown Above
As the tracks straighten to due east-west, one can photograph eastbound trains climbing the grade, with Ladron Peak in the background.  Ladron is the only peak in the Sierra Ladrones (Mountains of Thieves).  Despite its conical shape, it is not a volcano.  Instead, Ladron Peak is a single, large massif lying between the Rio Puerco and Rio Salado.  A massif is a section of the earth's crust, more rigid than surrounding rock, displaced (uplifted) as a unit.  The core is Precambrian granite, and the summit is almost 5,000 feet above the Rio Grande Valley, 10 miles to the east.   The mountain supports vegetation and wildlife not found on the desert below.  Pine forests grow on its upper slopes.  Animals living on Ladron Peak include bear, pronghorn, elk and deer.    
Eastbound Stacks Beneath Ladron Peak at Sunset
Another Eastbound at Dusk Beneath Ladron Peak
Westbound Amtrak No. 3 at MP 31.9
Mile Post 31.9 is where we end this particular journey, not because there is nothing more to see but rather because it sits almost on top of the Rio Grande Rift.  From here westward, the Transcon gently climbs the Colorado Plateau to the Western Continental Divide.  I will discuss this section of the line in subsequent posts.

Westbound Autos at MP 31.9
Trailers at Dusk
As you stand south of the tracks at MP 31.9, a one-hundred eight degrees turn late in the day will reveal eastbounds pounding up the grade in the late afternoon sun.  This is one of my favorite locations in New Mexico, and I leave you with these fading images until next time.  Via con Dios.

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