(Note: This story is based on my journey on “Aventura sobre rieles” on 21 August 2003. If anyone knows whether this train service is still in operation, please tell us in the comments below. Thank you.)
Ay, the hundreds of sepia photographs of the Mexican revolutionaries. Men in white peasant clothes, large sombreros and bandoliers across chests, riding atop massive steam Iron Horses. The revolucionarias in long simple dresses, a small bundle of belongings bound to their backs with their shawls, perhaps a rifle in hand, hanging out the door of a vestibule.
In that era, foreign companies were the owners of the railroad. In 1880, the Porfirio Díaz government granted them favorable concessions to build this grid of tracks. In 1910, the people had enough of 40 years of Díaz rule, 40 years of foreign appropriations of lands, industries and natural resources. The people arose to reclaim their wealth, so that the majority poor might have. And that Revolution, which lasted until 1917 and had costs 1.4 million lives, was carried upon these rails.
Now, in a pocket of northern Chihuahua state, not too far from where Pancho Villa had invaded the US, a new revolution is happening – and it is carrying the rails.
After checking into a hotel in Nuevo Casas Grandes, I set out to explore the town on foot. Within a block, I encounter tracks paralleling Avenida Constitución. One set is intact. The adobe station, built in 1898, is being renovated. On display is an orange and black Chihuahua-Pacific locomotive. A swiftly running Rarámuri is painted between the CH and the P.
I approach two men sitting on a green bench in front of the station. “Are there still trains running from here?” They motion to another seated in the door of a white boxcar.
That man, don Carlos, and I spend until well after dark talking about this line, which once operated from Ciudad Juárez to here, on to Madera and La Junta. All service – cargo and passenger – ceased in 1996. He’s decided to save at least part of the route, from Nuevo Casas Grandes to as far as Cumbres, 100 kilometers towards Madera. They receive no funds from the federal or municipal governments. When at least ten are traveling, they do special excursions to Mata Ortiz, famous for pottery, and to Cumbres. These runs help to cover maintenance expenses. Also, they run cargo and passenger service for the inhabitants of Ejido Heroínas. No, not all of them used to work for the railroad; some are only now learning the trade.
A young mother and her son walk up to us. A possibility of a train? Indeed, tomorrow, at seven a.m.
They use old, small transport locomotives and open-sided cars with benches. On the side of one of the vagones is painted: Aventura Sobre Rieles. “That’s the name of our company,” don Carlos affirms.
I bid him good night. I feel uncertain about taking this train. An excursion, a tourist train. But he said Mexican families would be riding. Should I go, if for nothing else than the adventure?
I still do not know when I fall into fitful sleep.
I awaken to my alarm a bit after six a.m. Without thinking, I tie down my pack.
The sky is still pink when I walk to the station. I ask don Mario, the guard, if there is a train this morning. Yes, at seven. I run back to get my Rocinante.
And so we wait. The sun is higher. Church bells ring for mass.
Near their pick-up, Ramiro González, his wife, their grown children and spouses mill. Cookout supplies and coolers mound around them. The four-year-old grandson plays on a yellow vagón. León Barriga Ortiz, who worked over 30 years on this line, his wife and their oldest grandson, thirteen years old, stand near the tracks. Both families want the children to experience a train journey.
Soon, young Ramón, our engineer, arrives in a transport máquina attached to a carriage. We load our belongings. He looks back at us with his clear hazel eyes. Just before eight, we are off in two small cars: a green engine and a blue passenger.
Feeling every vibration
through these wooden floors
the open sides
Rattle? Clunk? Clatter?
Through the old rail yards, bodegas and locomotive sheds empty, decaying. We slow for intersections, waving at those automobiles stopped.
Then we gain speed, rocking and jolting past adobe homes, past their apple orchards and cornfields surviving – somehow – in this eleventh year of drought. A man hoes a campo of beans. We slow over a bridge spanning a cracked-mud arroyo.
The Sierra Madre surrounds this
broad plain we
Jackrabbits flee into brush
a correcamino hops atop
A cow, an ancient
into the earth
Everyone we pass greets us, from pickups or milpas, from porches. Dogs run barking towards our trenecito. Dairy cattle water at a green pond or graze along the tracks, lazily moving away from our approach.
In the front car, the González family chats, pointing at the passing countryside: Buttes towering above us. Trees full of black birds. The bitter smell of crushed herbs swells around us.
Into Mata Ortiz. A quick beak to allow us to buy supplies, as there is nothing ahead – no shops, no restaurants, no vendors. When I come back with my meager purchase, Señora González offers me soda and burrito after burrito – tres de frijol, dos de huevo.
On we go, rattling, swaying. The earth ripples around us. Through Santa Rosa, a dozen or so adobe huts, a school and a small church.
The land becomes rockier. We begin to ascend. To our left, smooth-topped hills meet rugged cerros.
Suddenly our solitary rail splits. A tanker rests on that right spur and to the left, boxcars. Here there are a half-dozen or more empty white-washed houses, their windows torn out. Graffiti cover the walls.
This sluice we’ve been traveling along since Mata Ortiz widens to a river, its banks heavy with poplars and willows. We wind now at the base of a cliff.
We stop a ways from a ranch. Ramón calls to someone up there and climbs over the barbed-wire fence. The González family poses for photos. The desert hills are greened and dotted with wild white poppies. We see our maquinista returning. Quickly we reboard as to lose no time.
We rattle further into these mountains. The heat of day grows. That río still rushes and pools to our side.
Slicing through a canyon
wending among trees & boulders
Always that sierra landscape
as we emerge, the wind
whipping our hair
A squirrel runs to a hidden crevice. A mother and child wade the creek to their small earthen home, a tethered buckboard wagon in the yard. Winding. Adobe houses seep into the soil. Zopilotes feast on a dead calf. Bleached bones scatter a pasture. Three great blue herons fly upstream. Through an unposted former stop, boxcars stripped of wood, down to rusting skeletons.
Miles upon miles of this landscape. Boulders and trees, mountains and thin pastos. Birds and butterflies and anthills. Over a river, through a tunnel. That same landscape.
We pause a few moments at a rancho. Ramón’s uncle greets us. His silver pup follows down. As we depart, tío Poncho reads the message delivered to him.
Another trio of garzas cenizas. Two fly off. The other remains, statuesque in the shallow water of that now-weaker stream. Over bridges. Slowing once and again for colts and horses, calves to clear the tracks.
We stop to move another vagón out of our way. A short break to drop off a package of medicine. On that siding, more Aventure sobre Rieles cars. Past houses of adobe, cabins of logs, into Bella Vista.
Further into the sierra we climb, we twist. An almost dry arroyo flows at our side.
The wind-eroded crags
of Las Gallinas
tower into the clouding sky
Wheels upon rails
Pine scent teems
A sheer drop-off, then the last long climb to Cumbres. Don León points out our vía on the other side of the dried river. Deafening clatter, through a tunnel, climbing, winding. Through the sparse forest on these mountainsides we see our tracks further below. Another tunnel. An adobe station melts. Into one tunnel and then a second over 900 meters long.
The total blackness
A toot of horn
the smell of
Then we back out, to the Cumbres patio.
We walk up the torn vía to the old tunnel, over one kilometer long. Don León says he has newspaper clippings of what had happened one fateful day in 1914, during the Mexican Revolution.
The guerrilleros assaulted a carguero and it derailed inside here. It began to burn and fill the tunnel with smoke when …
A passenger train came from behind. Its engineer noticed the smoke billowing out and tried to halt …
But hit the other train and caught fire also.
Over 50 persons died.
Yes, some people still leave offerings.
We enter the black passage, the other mouth small and far away. Our flashlights prance off the still-smoke-charred walls, off the heat-blistered rails. Midways, near the ladder to the upper level, is an altar. Paintings of Niño Jesús, an infant’s boots. Multitudes of broken glass of ofrenda candles, faded flowers. Cigarettes, Vick’s Vapor Rub, a calendar from January – February 1995.
And once we somberly return to our trenecito, Ramón creates a portable roundtable. Don León pulls out his leather work gloves to add his expertise of years on the railroad. The other men soon join in the turning of our cars.
The women watch. Daughters-in-law pick a bouquet of wildflowers for abuelita González.
Before we leave, Ramón tears off limbs of a manzanilla bush. Don León gathers té de milagro (good for the kidneys, he tells me) for a friend. El señor of the other family offers me a pony beer, “Now you don’t have to write.”
I sip that cervecita, watching our descent. Midways, I begin scrawling these words.
Through tunnels, over
The aroma of pine
the clatter of these rails
sun bright off stone walls
A lizard crawls up
speckled with amanita
The sky becomes more overcast as we descend. Along that arroyo, shaded by cedars and álamos, where horses graze and cows laze. Over a bridge, into Bella Vista. Wild ducks bathe in the new-born brook bedded with rocks and plants. A blue heron soars.
At last we stop along the stream’s edge, at Ejido Heroínas. Beneath these poplars, blankets are spread, the grill is fired, lawn chairs set up.
And nothing to do but
feel the breeze
climb the boulders
watch the fish & dragonflies
Ramón leaves a way up to the Aventura taller. After a while he returns with another máquinita, this one magenta, and a compañero. The González family invites them to eat.
Soon we all carry the grill, chairs and coolers up to that trenecito, stowing everything in its place. A white camioneta pulls up, and a woman with two suitcases boards. At four p.m. we depart, the new locomotive in the lead.
Down by the creek, two muchachos search among the stones. In the pastures between there and these rails, horses and burros run. We pause to allow calves to cross. The passing clouds cool this afternoon.
We halt. The engineer has heard something fall – perhaps a piece from the fleche of the magenta máquina. Don León and his grandson, Ramón and another walk the track until it is found. The green locomotive will now take us home.
A quick stop to pick up a shipment of chicken from tío Poncho.
Through a tunnel, the mouth we entered reflecting off the rear window of the wagon in front. A shorter tunnel and over a trestle bridge, along the bluffs. Past a side-less boxcar turned into a pigpen.
A pair of startled garzas
cenizas flies away
an eagle atop a tree
The earth scattered with
rocks & stark bones
a pond’s shores raku
The zopilotes have
abandoned the calf
Through the canyon, along the broadening stream. From stone house to tree laundry dries on a line. Two boys wave at us clattering by. Into a tighter gorge, eroding cliffs rasping the bright blue sky, the sun sinking lower. We are cast into shadow. Slowing for more cows, more horses to leave the vía.
Through Rocío, populated by cast-off railroad vagones and buildings, by a half-dozen and so cattle carcasses.
Those smooth hills roll pale beige, tan, sage towards the brush-dappled mountains of rough jades and rust. To the west, the clouds are thick and grey.
Three vaqueros salute us. Their hound attentively watches us, ears and tail erect.
The land here is dryer, the plants a worn green. Trees become sparser and smaller. Those clouds shield the sun. Nopales, heavy with fruit, are common now.
Santa Rosa. dog chases the trenecito. Shuddering, jerking. The sun breaks free from the clouds – burning hot, bright. Cardenche cactus now frequent.
We pause to siphon gasoline from one to the main engine. Ramón says we are still over an hour from Nuevo Casas Grandes. The González family cracks open their watermelon and shares it with all around. We leave behind seeds that perhaps will take root in this desert.
Back in the country of doves, black birds and roadrunners. Mata Ortiz. Penned sheep and goats, free-roaming burros, pottery workshops. Two boys with bicycles in hand greet us.
Across the broad plain flanked by browned hills. Tumbleweed catch in barbed wire. The clouds still try to corral the sun. The green fragrance of irrigated fields and of herb crushed on rail. On the shores of an irrigation ditch, a mother watches her sun practice his letters.
The sun has escaped, the clouds fall into shadows. Mesquite outlines those sluices and streams. Newly planted orchards. The mountains turn deep grey-purple. A veil of rain falls in the distance. A mutt yaps at our heels, a jackrabbit flees. In the dirt road beside the track, muchachos play soccer. Dust billows with the cooling dusk. A truckload of soldiers wave as we clear the crossroads.
Two kilometers now from Nuevo Casas Grandes. The streets are damp, the air smells of earth. The old locomotive shed, roof caving in. Broken-glass warehouses. Rail yard families sit in doorways. Their dogs bark.
We are home at 7:30 p.m. For almost twelve hours we have enjoyed our adventure upon these rails wending through desert and mountains, through this poetic landscape. The grandchildren have gotten to experience a train journey.
But this was much more than a mere excursion for our pleasure. We have gotten to witness the service of this trenecito to the settlements. No road goes there. Only this rail line. Those people, those families would otherwise be abandoned. They would have no way to receive messages or medicines. Tío Poncho could not get his poultry to market. The woman of Ejido Heroínas wouldn’t have been able to arrive to town.
All of these villages – Santa Rosa, Rocío, Bella Vista, Ejido Heroínas – would be ghost towns, like so many others along so many routes suspended by companies in the push for privatization.
The Mexican government long ago abandoned the ideals of the 1910 Revolution. It adopted free trade policies, giving preferences to capitalists and foreigners over small, local producers and campesinos. Once more foreigners can own expanses of land in Mexico and control more than 49 percent interest in a company. The ejido system is being dismantled. State holdings – not only the railroad, but also mines, telephone, electricity and petroleum – have to be privatized according to the terms of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by the US, Canada and Mexico and which went into effect 1 January 1994).
However, in different parts of Mexico – as in this desert pocket in Chihuahua – the Revolution continues to survive within the blood coursing through the descendants of those guerrilleros and guerrilleras. The rail lines are being appropriated – by the people, for the pueblo. Like the rain that fell that day of our journey, these actions of people’s power are refreshing their lives, surviving the economic drought produced by neo-liberal policies. And if the children, the grandchildren can learn the necessity of these trains, perhaps they can continue for many generations more.
¡Qué viva this new Revolution!