Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Belen Revisted

Many years ago (1931), F. Scott Fitzgerald published a short story called "Babylon Revisted," in which a divorced, recovering alcoholic returns to Paris in a futile attempt to gain custody of his daughter from his deceased wife's sister.  The tale ends in a bar, with the protagonist  reminiscing about the old days (the 1920's) when everyone drank too much and had too much fun.

Recently Bear the Mighty Dog and I returned to Belen, New Mexico, after a several years' absence, to search for new photographic locations accessible only by a four-wheel-drive Jeep.  For some reason, the trip reminded me of Fitzgerald's short story, perhaps because, like the protagonist, Bear and I were seeking to recover something lost.  Our youth?  Possibly.

But as another Fitzgerald character (Nick Carraway) says in the novel The Great Gatsby:  "You can't repeat the past."

Perhaps not, which may be why these lines from "Babylon Revisted" resonate with me:

He wasn’t young anymore, with a lot of nice thoughts and dreams to have by himself.


As I told you, I haven't had more than a drink a day for over a year, and I take that drink deliberately, so that the idea of alcohol won't get too big in my imagination. 

Life for everybody was a struggle, sometimes magnificent from a distance, but always difficult and surprisingly simple and a little sad.


"Belen" means "Bethlehem" in English, and is also used to describe the crib that Jesus was born in, and thus also can mean "Nativity Scene," so Mighty Dog and I were not returning to Babylon; we were returning to the birthplace of Christ.

Yet the trip somehow felt sad, maybe because I could not stop thinking about F. Scott Fitzgerald. 


November 2020.  Bear the Mighty Dog and your author set out for Belen, New Mexico, to revisit old familiar places.  The last time we visited central New Mexico, there were about ten inches of snow on the ground, and we were both younger and spryer.  Near sundown, after driving all day, we stopped along BNSF's Transcon west of Vaughan to photograph this eastbound Z-train in the fading light.

As is often the case on the Transcon, another eastbound was close behind.  Here are the DPUs on that stack train.

A third eastbound was close behind the second.

At one time, people knew all about Scott Fitzgerald and would have understood why I felt sad thinking about him, but in the 21st century, he is mostly unknown; his star has fallen below the horizon and likely will not rise again -- a victim of changing tastes and the simple passage of time.  In high school (1967), I read The Great Gatsby and was mesmerized, both by the prose and by the tragedy.  Although I had not lived in what Fitzgerald called the "Jazz Age" (as had my parents and grandparents), through the novel I felt kinship to that time and place, in part because I knew people like Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Thirty-five years later my son read the same novel and hated it so much that he fell asleep in class every time  it was discussed.  I know, because his teacher told me.  (This is unfair to my son, who reads voraciously, but I like the sound of it, some I'm leaving it in.)

At least my son did not try to hide his distaste, reminding me of Gatsby's friend Nick Carraway:

Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known. 


As you drive downgrade through Abo Pass, the Manzano Mountains frame the view like a skillful cinematographer.  This range is only about 30 miles long, north to south; the Transcon ducks around the southern end through Abo Canyon.  Eastbounds climbing the grade  seem only a stone's throw away from the tallest peak.

This image, like the previous one, was taken after a short hike into the hills above the tracks.  In the not-too-distant past, Mighty Dog would have followed the author, searching madly for food and small critters hiding among the cacti.  But Mighty Dog is old now, spends most of his day sleeping and elected, in this instance, to remain in the Jeep.

Pushers beneath Manzano Mountains.

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, but grew up mostly in New York.  He attended Princeton but did not graduate, instead dropping out and enlisting in the Army.  While stationed in Alabama, he met and eventually married Zelda Sayre, the socialite daughter of wealthy parents.  According to Scott:  "She is the most charming person in the world. That’s all. I refuse to amplify. Excepting -- she’s perfect."

This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald's first novel, was published shortly after his 24th birthday in 1920 and became an immediate critical and financial success, propelling him into the middle of New York social life.  His wife, however, had a few choice words about the book:  

It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and, also, scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald (I believe that is how he spells his name) seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.

As you follow U.S. 60 west through the gap between the Manzano and Los Pinos Mountains, the terrain opens suddenly to the broad valley of the Rio Grande, about 15 miles wide, sloping noticeably east to west downgrade through high desert country to a narrow channel of green water surrounded by an even narrower forest of even greener trees that look as out of place in this dry land as a tuxedo in a foundry.  Your author and Mighty Dog stopped beside the highway to take this image of eastbound stacks climbing the grade toward Abo Canyon.

Westbound headed to Belen.  Notice the stylish graffiti on the third car, a welcome change from the cartoonish script favored by most railroad artists.


Like most of their contemporaries, Scott and Zelda drank too much -- way too much.  

"First you take a drink," Fitzgerald once said.  "Then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”

Ernest Hemingway, another alcoholic, liked Fitzgerald but thought he should devote himself more to his work:

I’d like to see you and talk about things with you sober. You were so damned stinking in N.Y. we didn’t get anywhere. You see, Bo, you’re not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write. Of all people on earth you needed discipline in your work and instead you marry someone who is jealous of your work, wants to compete with you and ruins you. It’s not as simple as that and I thought Zelda was crazy the first time I met her and you complicated it even more by being in love with her and, of course you’re a rummy.   

One cold morning, clouds hugged the peaks of the Manzano Mountains, followed shortly by light rain, the first the desert had seen in months.  Mighty Dog stayed safely in the Jeep, while your intrepid author stood outside with his waterproof F5, photographing BNSF power grinding upgrade to Abo Canyon.

Late that evening, two freights meet beneath darkening skies soon to be black.

Most all of Fitzgerald's fiction involved alcohol -- the drunken parties thrown by Jay Gatsby, for example, or the young married couple who drink all day and night in The Beautiful and the Damned, published in 1922, another critical and financial success.  Yet the alcoholism in Fitzgerald's fiction never seemed a personal indictment.  His characters were generally sympathetic, even when acting their worst. 

In the 1920's, Fitzgerald and Zelda partied spectacularly through New York and Paris.  When the poet and essayist Dorothy Parker first met them, Zelda and Scott were sitting atop a taxi. Parker said, "They did both look as though they had just stepped out of the sun; their youth was striking."

Despite their reputations, neither handled liquor well.  Fitzgerald became extremely theatrical when drunk, as did Zelda, acting foolish, embarrassing friends.

Here is Hemingway's description from A Moveable Feast:

[I]t was hard to accept him as a drunkard, since he was affected by such small quantities of alcohol.

In Europe then we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary, and I would not have thought of eating a meal without drinking either wine or cider or beer. I loved all wines except sweet or sweetish wines and wines that were too heavy, and it had never occurred to me that sharing a few bottles of fairly light, dry, white Macon could cause chemical changes in Scott that would turn him into a fool. [Emphasis added.]

After the tracks cross New Mexico 47, they veer northwest through the valley of the Rio Grande and are accessible on a remote and very rugged road that leads to a cattle ranch.  The Jeep had little trouble on this terrain, though the author carefully avoided the large pockets of sand that showed up from time to time.  Above are westbound stacks heading toward the river and Belen.

Same stacks meet an eastbound Z-train.

After the publication of The Beautiful and the Damned, Fitzgerald's literary, financial and marital fortunes wained.  By the time of the stock market crash of 1930, he was out of money, his wife had suffered a nervous breakdown and his literary reputation was in tatters.  He had written The Great Gatsby while living with Zelda on the French Riviera, at a time when their money was running low, and he was flummoxed when his editor Maxwell Perkins cabled him that the book was not selling well.

Westbound grain.

Another meet in the valley of the Rio Grande.

An entire eastbound Z-train climbing toward Abo Canyon beneath the Manzano Mountains.

"Mr. Scott Fitzgerald deserves a good shaking. Here is an unmistakable talent unashamed of making itself a motley to the view," said L.P. Hartlet in the Saturday Review. "The Great Gatsby is an absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama, or plain record of New York high life.”

H.L. Mencken wrote:  

Scott Fitzgerald’s new novel, The Great Gatsby, is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that. The scene is the Long Island that hangs precariously on the edges of the New York city ash dumps—the Long Island of gaudy villas and bawdy house parties. The theme is the old one of a romantic and preposterous love—the ancient fidelis ad urnum motif reduced to a macabre humor. The principal personage is a bounder typical of those parts—a fellow who seems to know everyone and yet remains unknown to all—a young man with a great deal of mysterious money, the tastes of a movie actor and, under it all, the simple sentimentality of a somewhat sclerotic fat woman.


Westbound potash rolling downgrade.  Because the BNSF patrols this section of the line so carefully, the photographer took this image at the fence line, approaching over the open desert, avoiding the service road beside the tracks.

The potash train stopped at the signal, and BNSF 4613 West ran around it.

A sparkling clean pusher on westbound stacks.  This image was also taken after a jaunt across the open desert, which receives about 7.5 inches of rain per year.  In comparison, the Mojave Desert receives about 2.5 inches per year, so Belen and environs seem almost lush.

Not only did The Great Gatsby flop (at the time of Fitzgerald's death, the publisher still held copies of the original printing in its warehouse), but the four filmed versions of the story have also been critical misfires.   

The 1974 version, staring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, received the following comment:

Every single aspect of the new film is bad. Even Robert Redford, fine actor and attractive man, presents a Gatsby who is a dopey mooner instead of a subtle, large exponent of an American tragedy. . . .  If Redford fails, then failure is too kind a term for Mia Farrow as Daisy, a skeleton in amour; or Bruce Dern as Tom, supposedly a well-bred gentleman who despises his parvenu neighbor but who looks and sounds like a nervous shoe clerk; or Lois Chiles as Jordan, another cover-girl trying to be an actress; or Karen Black as Myrtle, a writhing gargoyle; or Sam Waterston who looks right enough as Nick but whose voice is stultifyingly boring. Since he does a great deal of voice-over narration, Waterston hurts the picture a great deal.  


Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic.


Westbound autos, without a crew, are stopped near the bottom of the grade.

A westbound manifest runs around the auto-racks.

This and other negative reviews mystify your author.  I do not feel competent to comment on the filmed versions (though I enjoyed the two that I have seen) but I find the novel (and the story it tells) magnificent, partly because of its excellent prose.  The novel's ending is representative:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Although generally disliking the book, H.L. Mencken did recognize the fine writing:

The story, for all its basic triviality, has a fine texture, a careful and brilliant finish. The obvious phrase is simply not in it. The sentences roll along smoothly, sparklingly, variously. There is evidence in every line of hard and intelligent effort. 

In the late 20th century, both Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby were critically reappraised and found excellent -- a status much deserved -- but in the 21st century (January 2021), Fitzgerald is virtually unknown to the general public, certainly to anyone under 40.  Could it be because the novel implicitly criticizes the American urge to acquire wealth?  Could it be because Gatsby, a decent man at heart (even though a criminal) loses both his dreams and his life?  Because Tom and Daisy wander off to Europe somewhere without suffering anything at all for their conduct?  Remember:  Daisy was driving the hit and run vehicle that killed a woman and eventually led to Gatsby's death.

Perhaps Nick Carraway said it best:  "There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired."

After leaving Belen, eastbound freights cross the Rio Grande, then make a sharp turn to the south to begin their climb up the grade to Abo Canyon.  Here a short manifest has just crossed the river.

Two freights just east of the Rio Grande.

Fitzgerald sent a copy of The Great Gatsby to Hemingway, asking for an honest opinion.  Hemingway wrote back that Fitzgerald needed to write more about his own life and less about the wealthy people he knew.  If you are familiar with The Great Gatsby, that comment is incredible, since the story involves a young soldier who falls in love with a wealthy teen-ager who will not marry him because he is poor.  That is the story of Zelda Sayre, who initially refused marriage, only to change her mind after Fitzgerald's first novel was published and he became well-to-do overnight.

West of Belen, the Transcon climbs out of the river valley on a northwest diagonal like a sailboat tacking into the wind.  Above are westbound stacks grinding upgrade.

  The terrain here is desert sand, with a thin covering of dry vegetation.  Reaching this location for photography requires aerial photographs and a vehicle capable of handing thick sand.  While spending an afternoon here, your author and Bear saw only three dune buggies raising dust clouds on the southern horizon.  Otherwise, we had the country to ourselves.  Though we could see civilization strung like pearls along the river to the east, we were quite alone.  Had we gotten stuck in the sand, your author doubts that a wrecker could have found us.

DPUs of same train.

Pusher on same train.

The line west of Belen is triple-tracked up the grade.  Immediately behind the stacks was this loaded coal train on Main 2.

Here is the coal train futilely chasing the stacks.

While Scott was writing The Great Gatsby, Zelda began an affair with Edouard S. Jozan, a French pilot, swimming with him in the afternoons on the Riviera beaches and dancing away the evenings at the casinos.  She soon asked for a divorce.  Fitzgerald initially demanded to confront Jozan, but instead locked Zelda in their house until she abandoned her request. Jozan left the Riviera later that year; Zelda never saw him again.

These events are reflected in Gatsby, when Tom confronts Gatsby about the latter's affair with Daisy.  Gatsby implores Daisy to state clearly that she does not love Tom, but she cannot do it.  She loved him once, she says.  Tom shouts that she still loves him.  This is likely Fitzgerald's imagined scene of the confrontation he never had with Jozan.

In the novel, Gatsby and Daisy then leave in Gatsby's roadster.  Shortly thereafter occurs the accident that begins the cascade of tragedy leading to Gatsby's death.

An eastbound empty coal train is stopped on Main 1 while eastbound stacks run around it on Main 2.

At dusk, westbound stacks climb out of the valley of the Rio Grande.

In real life, the tragedy occurred more slowly.  In 1930, Zelda was diagnosed in France as a schizophrenic and placed in a clinic in Montreux, Switzerland.  Later, she moved to a psychiatric facility on Lake Geneva.  Released in September 1931, she and Scott returned to Alabama, where her father was dying.  Shortly before Mr. Sayre's death, Scott left for a screen-writing job in California and was not present when the elder Mr. Sayre passed.  In February 1932, Zelda returned to a psychiatric clinic in the United States.

It is unfair to note that Zelda was a burden in the marriage without also commenting on Fitzgerald's foibles.  In one of his collected letters, he mentioned that Zelda had threatened to leave him if he did not stop drinking.  He then claimed that his wife was the cause of his alcoholism.  "[T]he regular use of wine and apperatives [sic] was something that I dreaded but she encouraged because she found I was more cheerful then and allowed her to drink more.”

In the same letter, however, Fitzgerald also admitted that his drinking would lead to "suffering and death perhaps but not renunciation," because alcohol was "one of the rights of man."

West of Belen.  The desert grass grows in soft sand waiting to snare the unwary traveller.  For some reason, perhaps the law of averages, your author did not get stuck.

In 1932, while receiving treatment in Baltimore, Zelda wrote a novel titled Save Me the Waltz and sent it to Fitzgerald's editor, Maxwell Perkins.  Scott was furious when he read the book, claiming that Zelda had employed biographical material that he planned to use in his next work, Tender is the Night, which would eventually be published in 1934.  He forced his wife to remove the material he wanted, denouncing her as "a third-rate writer."  Her book was published in 1932 to the same mostly negative reviews that Tender is the Night later received.

Fitzgerald spent the remainder of the decade supporting himself by writing short stories and working for a Hollywood studio in a failed attempt to master the art of the screenplay.  Director Billy Wilder described Fitzgerald's foray into Hollywood as "a great sculptor hired to do a plumbing job."  The critic Edmund Wilson suggested that Hollywood sucked Fitzgerald's creativity as a vampire sucks blood.

In 1940 Fitzgerald, only 44, died of a heart attack.  Your author has read, in sources that may or may not be reliable, that shortly before he died, Fitzgerald was drinking as many as 40 bottles of beer a day.

Zelda continued checking in and out of medical facilities and died in a hospital fire in 1948, aged 48.


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