Monday, February 17, 2020

The Only Place I Ever Felt at Home

In December 2019, I spent several bright shiny days driving through and photographing the northwest quadrant of places within a three hours' drive of my home -- Edmond, Oklahoma.  Although I had photographed trains in these areas many times before, I had never combined them into a single trip.  Because the hours of my law practice often fluctuate drastically, I generally take a single day's sojourn to one of these spots, often on the spur of the moment.  But life occasionally works in favor of the unprepared, and in early December, several days opened in which I had neither legal nor yard work.  Because I love gardening, there are always winter chores in my many flower beds, but I was between chores.  And my wife, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, was busy with final exams.  So I decided to visit these places, as familiar as close relatives who talk too much, in one extended trip.  What follows are the results.

BNSF 7868 West beside sand dunes along the Cimarron River -- Curtis Hill, Oklahoma.

Before we begin, here is a map showing the outline of the journey.  

I started north along BNSF's Red Rock Subdivision, capturing images near my home, then stopping at Black Bear Junction, Oklahoma, where BNSF's Avard Subdivision crosses, then back in the Jeep to Wellington, Kansas, and BNSF's Transcon, then southwest along the Transcon to Alva, Oklahoma, then further southwest to Curtis Hill, where the Transcon crosses the Cimarron River, then even further southwest to Canadian, Texas, where the Transcon crosses the Canadian River.  I followed the tracks as far as Miami, Texas, where the Transcon runs through the valley of Red Deer Creek, then headed home at sundown of the third day, arriving three hours later in winter darkness to discover that my wife had remembered how to turn on the Christmas lights.  The world is a strange place; life in it even stranger.  Most of the time I feel not entirely in tune with my surroundings, but that Sunday evening, looking at the Christmas lights, I thought that maybe, for a minute or so, everything might resolve like the Adagio from Barber's String Quartet in B Minor, Opus 11 -- wistfully heartbreaking but resolved nonetheless.  You never know.

North of Edmond

I have been photographing this area off and on for about 40 years and can remember seeing only three other railfans (other than Carl Graves, who photographed here years ago, and Dale Jacobson, who visits from time to time).  This could be a product of my failing memory, but I don't think so.  This country simply does not attract photographers, so I have the field mostly to myself.  The landscape north to Black Bear consists of moderate hills that would provide nice views if not for the timber growing in the bottom land where the tracks run.  These railroads were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when construction techniques were crude and money was tight, so lines generally followed the path of least resistance; they stayed near rivers and creeks.  When the tracks climb out of the lowland, photography is more accessible.

Also, the BNSF Red Rock Sub is not followed for any distance by hard-surface roads.  To photograph the line, one must drive miles over red dirt that turns to goo after rain.  Even my Jeep sometimes labors in the mess, throwing up clouds of burgundy that stick to the bumper and fenders like super glue and, once dry, can only be hacked off with a hammer.  (And if you use a hammer, you are likely to knock off part of the fender, which I did once.  That is why my Jeep is now covered with mud.)  When it has not rained for weeks during the summer, the mud turns to dust that blankets the sky like African locusts.  Photographing this area, in short, is challenging.  Perhaps that is why I never seen anyone.

This image was taken in the city limits of Edmond.  The southbound train is climbing Waterloo Hill and preparing to cross the underpass at Waterloo Road, the dividing line between Oklahoma and Logan Counties.  Forty years ago, this area was completely rural.  Today, there are houses, churches and commercial establishments on either side of the cut.  They just are not visible in this photograph.

Auto racks are rolling south of Guthrie, Oklahoma, the capital of Oklahoma Territory and the first capital of the state.  Shortly after statehood, citizens voted to move the capital to Oklahoma City.  At least that is the story I was taught in school.  I've always wondered if some "under the table" dealings were involved.

Northbound grainer at Seward, Oklahoma.

Southbound grainer at Seward, Oklahoma.

Southbound Q-Train north of Guthrie, Oklahoma.

Southbound stacks approach Mulhall, Oklahoma, on BNSF's Red Rock Subdivision.

Black Bear Junction

At Black Bear, BNSF's Red Rock Subdivision crosses BNSF's Avard Subdivision -- one of the busier junctions in the middle of nowhere. The Red Rock connects Chicago and Kansas City with Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston.  The Avard connects the Southeast with California.  For years, the Red Rock saw considerably more traffic, but today (February 2020), trains are about equal.  On weekends, when transcontinental traffic is heavy, I think the Avard may see more.

On this trip, I took no images directly at the junction, partly because winter is not the best time for photographs, partly because I am growing (have grown?) too lazy, mostly because I wanted to reach Kansas before sundown.  In about 45 minutes, I captured an eastbound, then found one westbound west of Perry, Oklahoma, then continued north.  If you would like to see full coverage of Black Bear and the Avard Subdivision in general, see the following posts:;

Eastbound stacks are crossing Black Bear Junction about 20 flat cars to the rear of the engines.

Westbound stacks leave Perry, Oklahoma, on BNSF's Avard Subdivision.  In the foreground is recently harvested cotton, a crop with a long growing season, harvested in the fall in northern Oklahoma.


Otoe is the first passing siding on the Red Rock Sub north of Black Bear.  Far from any hard-surfaced road, it is a nice location to wait for trains if you don't mind the dust, plus the occasional, leather-faced rancher stopping to ask what you are doing.  Named for the Otoe-Missouri tribes, on whose land it is located, the siding sees frequent meets.  [For a more thorough discussion of the Otoe-Missouri, see:]  Alas, there were no meets the afternoon I stopped.  But I did see a first -- for me, at least.  A northbound BNSF freight was carrying propellers for the giant windmills that dot western Oklahoma like alien invaders and generate electricity so that people like me can waste time on their computers. Personally, I think the windmills are a blight on the landscape, similar to most modern architecture.  If people are around in 500 years, and if any of the windmills still exist, I think the general opinion will be that folks in the 21st century were blind.  Others feel differently, however, and think these power generating monstrosities will save the planet.  I'm not sure a planet covered by these is worth saving.  

The blades on those windmills are gigantic!

Here are the windmills in all their glory -- Avard Subdivision west of Black Bear.

Southbound oil train at Otoe.

Wellington West

We are now west of Wellington, Kansas, a division point on BNSF's Transcon.  The land has flattened like a worn-out hat, and the soil has turned dark brown.  It looks so fertile that a planted hubcap might sprout a Dodge Charger in the spring.  In this small town just north of the Oklahoma border, the Union Pacific's line to Texas (the former Rock Island north/south main) crosses under the Transcon on a grade separation.  I took no images of the UP, because traffic is sparse; also I wanted to concentrate on the BNSF west of town where I had heard some farmers were growing cotton for the first time in almost 100 years.  Wellington is the very northern edge of the range of this plant in the United States.  Seeing cotton bolls in Kansas would be, for me, like seeing a three-legged horse -- not impossible, but not common, either. 

U.S. Highway 60 follows the tracks west of town but generally stays a mile or two north.  A well-maintained dirt road runs directly south of the tracks, sees little traffic and provides any number of excellent locations for winter photography (when the sun is low in the southern sky), though you should probably protect your cameras when the occasional pick-up roars past, raising dust thick enough to feel on your face and arms.  Usually, you can hear trains miles away, but on this particular day in December, crews were harvesting cotton.  

In the days of my parents and grandparents, cotton was picked by hand in the fall.  Cotton bolls are surrounded by sharp, tenacious foliage that can slice open your fingers, so either expert coordination or heavy gloves are required.  Picking cotton in heavy gloves is like eating a steak with a spoon, so in the old days, you just assumed that mangled hands were part of the job.

Today, however, cotton is harvested by giant machines that sound like hippos in heat, scooping up bolls in the front, grinding out the foliage and seeds, then compressing the fibers into large rolls that look like white coiled steel.  When the rolls are large enough, they fall off the rear of the harvester, which then begins another roll.  Two men in two machines can clear a field in an hour or two, a task that once took days by hand.

Eastbound stacks race beside Kansas cotton.

More Kansas cotton beneath faint smoke from a trash fire.

Eastbound stacks beside a fallow wheat field, with one of the few Santa Fe warbonnets left in operation.  In years past, the farms west of Wellington in December would have been covered with green winter wheat, but I saw almost no wheat during my 2019 trip.

Westbound stacks beside a recently plowed field.

Another recently plowed field.

Approaching Wellington from the West.

Westbound stacks are passing a fallow cotton field.


Alva, Oklahoma, sits on the edge of North America's High Plains like a chaperon at a 1960's high school dance.  (Is the word "chaperon" archaic in 2020?).  Farther southwest, the land grows quickly dry and desolate, the place where so many would-be, dry-land farmers came to grief in the dust bowl.  "I am going to watch out for you," Alva tells anyone passing through on U.S. Highway 64, "and if you get yourself into trouble, I will come get you."

Northwestern Oklahoma State University is the center of the small town (population about 4,500), but every time I drive through, I never see any students, even though the campus is on the main highway.  The Salt Fork River runs just north of town and is surrounded by sand dunes that have stabilized in the past few thousand years to support native short grasses growing low to avoid the fierce winter winds of "blue northers" that blow down from Alaska and the Yukon.  If you think I am exaggerating that the cold air comes from such distances, stand outside on the High Plains some late afternoon when the wind changes.  A pleasant winter afternoon can turn brutal so suddenly that all you can do is run for shelter and wait until the trees stop whistling.  (The sand was washed down from Colorado at the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago.)

There is a nine-hole golf course in Alva with a heavy link chain hanging down from the branch of an ancient oak tree, on the trunk of which is nailed the following sign:  "NOTICE:  When this chain is parallel to the ground, it is TOO WINDY to play golf!"

The high school sports teams are called the "Gold Bugs."  I don't know where the name comes from.

BNSF's Transcon crosses the Salt Fork River at Alva, but the bridge is surrounded by private and gated property that does not admit strangers.  I know.  I've tried and failed.  The last fellow who ran me off looked as though he had slept outside since the day of his birth and had not washed his hair once in the intervening years.  When he said I should leave, I left.

An eastbound oil train west of Alva.

Westbound trailers in the valley of the Salt Fork River.

Westbound stacks at same location.

Eastbound stacks approach Alva.

East of Alva, another in the endless stream of westbound stacks passes a private lake.

Southwest of Alva on the High Plains, an eastbound manifest tries to escape the rapidly descending sun.

More stacks beside the private lake east of town.

Curtis Hill

I have written three different articles on Curtis Hill, covering both the Santa Fe years and the BNSF reign:;;

These give complete coverage of the harsh but lovely area of northwestern Oklahoma where the Transcon crosses the Cimarron River.  On my short trip in December 2019, and in this post, I was attempting to find locations where I had not before taken photographs.  Because I have made more than 40 trips to Curtis Hill since my first in the early 1970's, finding a new location proved as difficult as mowing the yard with scissors.  I searched and searched and eventually found one new spot.  The only reason I found it was because the main county road following the tracks was closed for resurfacing, so I was forced onto a detour high into the hills south of the mainline, a narrow dirt road I had not driven before and did not know existed.  As I came across the top of a hill, I saw below a wide valley of red dirt, brown winter grass, leafless trees and green Eastern Red Cedars.  At the far end of the valley stood a gypsum-topped mesa below which ran the railroad tracks.  Beyond the mesa was the Cimarron River, though I could not see the small volume of water in that dry December.  This was a new scene!  I stopped on the side of the road, set up my tripod and waited for the first train, which arrived in about five minutes.

One of the nice things about Curtis Hill, at least to a recluse like me, is that few people live out here. I stood along the road all morning, and not a single other vehicle came past -- no dust, no noise, no people, just the calm December air and the sound of BNSF double-stacks and trailers gliding across the valley.  I took several photographs and present what I consider the best.  The rest of the images in this post more or less repeat what I have done before in previous articles, but if advancing age brings anything, it brings a newfound appreciation of repetition.  Things which once bored me after a minute or so, such as standing beside a deserted dirt road, looking into a valley motionless except for the occasional train, now bring me great pleasure.  Since I am not as mobile as in my youth, I am creating virtue out of necessity, but I am not the first -- and won't be the last.

Taken with a 300 millimeter lens, which significantly compresses the distance.

Mid-trains on one of the phenomenally long (over 10,000 feet) stack trains that BNSF was running in December 2019.
A pair of SD70ACe's grind upgrade toward the summit of Curtis Hill.

More stacks at Curtis Hill.

Sunset at Curtis Hill

Westbound stacks and trailers crossing the Cimarron River.

Canadian, Texas

From Curtis Hill, we follow the Transcon southwest toward the Texas Panhandle.  The climate grows progressively drier; the West is near (or here).  On U.S. Highway 60, you are following the tracks closely.  Then you crest a hill and unrolling before you like a matte painting is the wide valley of the Canadian River, only a trickle, but the valley could swallow a large town.  The railroad turns due south, while the highway continues southwest, and soon you are crossing stabilized sand dunes, remnants of the great flood that washed down from the Rocky Mountains at the end of the last Ice Age.

You have always wondered what the tracks look like in the middle of all that sand, but the railroad cannot be seen from the highway.  Over 20 years ago, you tried to navigate into this no man's land along a railroad service road in a Ford Aerostar van, rear wheel drive, with as much traction as a pair of ice skates.  Once you were thoroughly stuck, which didn't take long, you hiked about five miles to a gas station just outside the town of Canadian, which takes its name from the river, and found a wrecker that could pull you free for about a week's worth of your then  meager salary.  When the wrecker driver asked what you were doing out in the sand, you replied that you had taken a wrong turn.

"Well, I reckon!" the driver replied.

The next time you approached Canadian, over 20 years later, you were driving a Jeep Wrangler and didn't get stuck.  However, the July was so hazy that those photographs of the Transcon soon found the trash.  But now in December 2019 you are back.  The sky is clear.

Here is where memory, or lack thereof, plays a role.  Your mind anymore works like a sinkhole in an active caldera (Yellowstone, for example), mostly bubbling mud to the surface, but every now and then emitting smoke, usually sulphur gas, the equivalent of the occasional cogent thought that appears in your mind, but the bubbling mud is your memory, or what is left of it, a dark mass of undifferentiated detritus, the product of years of maladministration.  If you tried to recreate the location of furniture in the living room of a house you lived in 20 years ago, you would put a few pieces in their proper position.  Others you would place improperly.  Still others would be omitted entirely, while some pieces would be included that actually belonged to a house owned by your parents. 

So you turn down an oilfield service road, then make a left turn on another, because you believe you are headed to a well site overlooking the tracks.  But you drive for several miles, and no well site appears.  You pass a barn and an irrigated field, neither of which you remember.  The sky is bright blue.  You stop the Jeep and roll down the window.  In the distance to the west, you hear a train rushing through the sand on welded rail.  Where in the world are you?

You turn left on another road that quickly dead-ends.  Your turn back and drive another mile or so.  You stop the car again.  You can no longer hear the train.  You can't even hear highway noise.  The thought occurs that you might go back the way you came, but you doubt your ability to retrace the route, so you press forward until you top a hill.  Below is another barn, a ranch house, a corral with six horses and a Chevy Silverado coming toward you will a bale of hay in the bed.

The road is barely wide enough for one vehicle, so you pull to the side in the sand.  The pick-up stops directly beside you, and the driver rolls down her window.  She is short, just barely taller than the steering wheel, and her dark face is lined with wrinkles like rivulets on the side of an embankment.  You roll down your window.

"Can I help you?" she says in an uninviting tone.

You tell her that you are a railroad photographer.  She looks skeptical, so you show her your camera.

"So where do you take railroad photographs?" she says suspiciously.

Sitting beside her is a man that you assume to be her son, with a full beard, weighting at least 250 pounds.  He could snap you in two like a match.

You tell her that you photograph all over the western United States.

She thinks about that for a moment, then says, "Well, you could at least ask permission before you drive across someone's ranch."

You tell her that you did not intend to trespass, that you have gotten lost, that you are trying to find the railroad tracks.

"Back that way," she says, pointing in the direction from which you have just arrived.

You ask if you can have permission to drive "back that way" until you find the tracks.

She nods.

You turn around and in about 45 minutes find the tracks.  Another happy day.

Here are the results, sans captions.  (Because what can you say about stabilized sand dunes?)

Miami, Texas

Southwest from Canadian, Texas, the Transcon follows Red Deer Creek, which carves an enormous valley through the harsh Texas Panhandle.  From the heights of U.S. Highway 60, you look down into a canyon totally out of proportion to the small water course at the bottom, and your initial impression is that somewhere, somehow, you will find a location where you can see the tracks and capture a magnificent view of the Transcon.  But you are mistaken.  No matter where you go, the tracks are hidden by cottonwoods and hills.  The trees are everywhere along the creek, like customers in line to purchase the newest I-Phone.  And there is another problem.  The canyon is striated with hundreds of oil field roads, the only routes in and out.  Driving into this canyon is entering a maze.  The roads turn first one way, then another, then another, then dead-ending.  So you turn around and take another road, then another, and before long it is difficult to differentiate north from south from east from west.  Here is an aerial image of what I am talking about:

Each small white dot is an oil/gas well.  Each thin white line is a dirt road leading to the production site.  (Wells are so close together because Texas generally does not required Forced Pooling, a legal doctrine mandating that mineral owners "pool" their interests and share the proceeds from a single well.)  A few of the roads lead to the tracks, but finding the railroad requires luck, perseverance and stupidity -- stupidity because only someone with deficient mental abilities would drive into such a puzzle.  I did.  Eventually, I located the tracks, and the only image available showed steel rails, cottonwood trees, a pile of worn-out ties and a small bluff.  A westbound was bearing down, so I snapped a quick photo but did not wait for another.  Instead, I turned around and headed back to U.S. Highway 60, or so I thought.  Instead, I drove around in circles for about 45 minutes.  At one moment, I became concerned that I might never find my way out.  Then I saw an oilfield service truck, waited for it to pass, then pulled in behind and followed it back to the main road.

Westbound stacks in the canyon of Red Deer Creek.

All is not lost, however.  If you continue southwest on the main road you eventually reach Miami, Texas, a county seat and, I believe, the only town in Roberts County.  The population is somewhere around 500.

This small village sits in the valley of Red Deer Creek; some houses climb the bluffs to the east.  The courthouse sits back off the highway on a hill and gazes down on the town like a bemused father.  When I drove through in December 2019, the place was mostly deserted.  The gas station was locked, though the pumps still worked on credit cards.  One of the two convenience stores had gone out of business, and the other one did not appear to be open.  I did not see a single person on the streets.  

Southwest of town, the cottonwoods disappear and the valley opens beside the tracks like a window -- one of my favorite locations for railroad photography.  I have devoted an article to it:  I will not repeat the extensive coverage in that post but instead include only some of the images taken on the December 2019 trip.  As with Curtis Hill, I was attempting to find locations that I had not previously photographed.

Southwest of Miami, Texas.

Eastbound ethanol has just crossed Texas FM 2391.

Valley of Red Deer Creek southwest of Miami, Texas.

Westbound grain in the Texas Panhandle.

Eastbound in the Texas Panhandle.

Eastbound stacks.


As mentioned at the beginning, as the sun went down behind Miami, Texas, I pointed my Jeep east and began the three hours journey back to Oklahoma and the oak trees where I feel comfortable.  "Comfort" means different things to different people.  To me it means not having to worry what others think.  Where I live, I can just be myself, and no one cares.  I have lived and worked other places where that was not true.  Oklahoma is the only place I ever felt at home.  I even wrote a bad poem about it:

I will drink to every state in the Americas;
I will drink because the sun rises at dawn,
But I drink to Oklahoma especially because
It's the only place I ever felt at home.

Texas is a lonely state, it stretches many miles.
I have gotten lost in Tennessee.
I broke down once in Mississippi, spent the night in jail,
And I caught chicken pox in Missouri.

California's overrun with people.
Arizona's drier than the sun.
My wife is from Wisconsin where it's 42 below.
Maryland is where Spiro Agnew's from.

I will drink to every state in the Americas;
I will drink because the sun rises at dawn,
But I drink to Oklahoma especially because
It's the only place I ever felt at home.

That's in Guymon, Oklahoma,
And in Duncan, Oklahoma,
And in Guthrie, Oklahoma,
And in Blackwell, Oklahoma,
And in Tulsa, Oklahoma,
And in Claremore, Oklahoma,
And in Hugo, Oklahoma,
And in Poteau, Oklahoma,
And in Wagoner, Oklahoma,
And in Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA.

In the beginning, I also mentioned the Adagio from Samuel Barber's string quartet.  Most know the orchestral version, generally called Adagio for Strings.  This may be the most recognized piece of classical music written in the 20th century, certainly one of the most moving.  I dare you to listen to it and not feel a deep wistfulness for loved ones gone, things unsaid, letters unwritten, opportunities missed, the end of life.  I urge you, if possible, to find a place where you can be yourself, and no one cares.  Find the only place you ever felt at home.

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