The $2,300 photograph (Days 2,3,4)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, July 16, 2009

In about half an hour, the mechanic in Las Vegas, N.M., determined there would be no quick, easy fix to my malfunctioning transmission (see "My Star-Crossed Adventure"), and began disassembling it piece by little piece. Watching him work was like witnessing abdominal surgery, what with all those things spilling out. I was determined to get my show back on the road, no matter what. I had until 9 that evening, Day 2, to get 388 miles to El Paso and meet Tom's plane for our train-scouting drive across the West Texas desert to Fort Worth the following two days. So I rented a car, and just after noon, set out for El Paso. I had a vague plan to go back to Las Vegas to retrieve my car by Day 5.
I hadn't gotten five miles out of town before Tom called. The railroad he is top dog of had just had a runaway train. All evidence suggested sabotage. The press was on the phone, the FBI was on its way, and the sheriff was at the door. We agreed he had no business traveling through West Texas while all of this was going on.
So what to do with myself? No sense going all the way to El Paso. But although the little Las Vegas sits on BNSF Railway's original route to California, only Amtrak's Southwest Chief passes through nowadays. There are no freight trains whatever. So after staking out Amtrak 3 near Chapelle, N.M., for a broadside photo, I set out for Vaughn, N.M.
Picture a little village of just over 500 people, once a crew-change point on the Santa Fe Railway's Chicago-Los Angeles Transcon. Now tarnish it until it's a pretty ugly place. Santa Fe began running crews all the way from Clovis to Belen, N.M., Interstate 50 stripped the traffic from U.S. highways 54 and 60, and Vaughn went into what looks to be permanent decline, its former business district in ruins. One friend counted 17 closed gasoline stations inside the city limits. But Union Pacific, whose Golden State (Kansas City-El Paso) line goes under the Santa Fe tracks on the edge of town, made Vaughn rather than Tucumcari its crew-change location and underwrote construction of a modest Oak Tree Inn motel and Penny's Diner that also serve the public. That's where I spent the night.
I wrote recently ("Dog Days On The Desert") about the drought of BNSF trains over the Transcon this year. Not this day! When I got to Vaughn that afternoon, trains were stacked up in both directions waiting to get across a 10-mile stretch of single track, between Vaughn and Caneros, that contains a siding in the middle. At the rate I saw freights going east and then west through this obstacle, this was a 100-train day. The photo above shows two eastbounds stopped near Caneros, while a westbound freight (facing the camera) clears the single track. But of course it wasn't a 100-train day. When I checked after supper, there was no activity at all, on either railroad. As a matter of fact, I didn't see a single UP train that afternoon or evening, or a single UP crew being picked up or delivered to the OakTree.
     I got back to Las Vegas late on the morning of Day 3, to be told that the new parts ordered the day before did not fix my transmission. A new transmission was being overnighted. My car would be ready on Day 4. And it was, at 3 p.m. I paid $300 and Chrysler paid $2,000, to make good its warranty. The way I look at it, that photo I took at Maxwell, N.M., of the Southwest Chief the first day carried a price of $2,300.
     Three days had been shot while my car was on the fritz. I figured that if I drove straight to Pecos, Texas, I'd be only one day behind schedule. So drive I did, into the night. Finally, on Day 5, I'd see some trains. I dreamed of seeing T&P's streamliner, the West Texas Eagle, coming over every horizon. Such an out-of-body experience would really happen a few more days down the pike.

 Fred W. Frailey

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