Sunday, November 10, 2019

But for the railroad

Abandoned gas station, Vaughn, NM.

When I finished with photographing lovely Encino, I continued on US 285 to neighboring Vaughn, NM. That’s 16 miles that follow the course of the BNSF Railroad. Unlike Encino, Vaughn is still breathing. There’s a gas station and convenience store, a Standard Oil bulk plant and a thriving burger joint, the Chuckwagon. Compared to withering Encino it’s the picture of life. It lies at the junction of the BNSF and the Union Pacific Lines and boasts a population of 400 isolated souls. It was 888 when the town was founded by the railroad in 1920.

The shuttered auto repair shop that adjoins the station.

The Standard Oil bulk plant in Vaughn. A bulk plant is a distributor of petroleum products.  

To my delight Vaughn has its share of derelict buildings. The discarded buildings aren’t old by New Mexico standards and seem mid-century modern with a southwestern bent. The architecture suggests that Vaughn’s heyday was the 1940s and 1950s.

Later, I back tracked on 285 past Encino where the BNSF railroad tracks cross the highway. I turned southwest toward Corona and on to Carrizozo, Tularosa and Alamogordo. In the postage stamp village of Corona alongside the railroad tracks is the shell of a handsome general mercantile store.

The old general mercantile store in Corona, NM

The connecting thread of these villages is the railroad. It’s no revelation to recognize that the iron horse really did build the American West and by extension America itself. When you drive just a few of the blue highways of New Mexico and West Texas as I have recently done the importance of the railroad is writ large. Even Marfa, the hipster haven, lives in the middle of no damn where, began as a water stop for the Texas and New Orleans Railroad. Today the Sunset Limited passes through Marfa three times a week but doesn’t stop.

The railroad connects far flung communities that have few residents across great swaths of prairie. Marfa is two hours from El Paso, the nearest real city, and 20 miles from Alpine where there’s a an honest to God supermarket. Neither Encino or Vaughn has even a mom and pop grocery store. As far as I can tell you have to drive to Roswell 70 miles distant to find such a treasure. Talk about a food desert. And to think we besmirch rural Mississippi.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

The more things change

First sighting, Encino, NM, 2019

When I left Rudy Mauldin at the ranch I was totally exhilarated by my good fortune to meet the gentleman cowboy at the side of the road. The encounter proved, I thought, that hitting the road and being a vessel for whatever comes your way is a key to finding stories, maybe even life. My chest was full of high desert air and Rudy's story launched me full tilt toward the adventure just around the bend. I can't express how alive I felt in that moment. I haven't found the words though I've written and rewritten them in my mind all week long.

It reminded me that the most memorable moments in travel are those where you connect with another human being. Certainly, the thirty minutes with Rudy were the highlight of my four-day photo safari through southeastern New Mexico and far west Texas. The handful of images that are keepers pale compared to meeting him and learning his story. It's the people that make the memories.  Like Mimo, our world wise driver in Rome during our inaugural trip to Europe or Carolina, the owner of Por Que No the tiny bar near my Spanish school in Antigua, Guatemala. Her rags to riches tale enriched my life. That she greeted me like her long lost uncle after a three years absence is the foam on the cerveza obscura that I happily quaff. The bonds we make leaven the bread of travel and keep us hungry for more. Or thirsty, for that matter. Without them a trip is just trip.

I stayed on US 285 and crossed I-10 at Cline’s Corner, the big sign for the storied truck stop looming above me to the right. I followed the highway south to the fading railroad town of Encino where I lingered for at least an hour photographing the residue what once was. My search for the forgotten and forlorn continues. And I’m not even talking about photography.

Good Luck, Keeler, CA, 2005

There’s not much left of Encino. It's nothing but a tumbledown railroad siding built by the BNSF that's hanging on by the thinnest of threads. There are no retail businesses left in Encino. There is a church and a high school. I didn't see a soul. I photographed on US 285 which is Encino’s Main Street. Then I drove every single street in the burg in search of my relic del dia. Two blocks north sat a promising aluminum trailer. Trailers, as you know, loom large in my pantheon of pathetic objects. One of my trailer shots in fact, the one called Good Luck from Keeler, California is one of my top five selling images according to my ever present abacus. So, I am understandably drawn to the metal clad dwellings.

Trailer, Encino, NM, 2019

Terminus, Encino, NM, 2009

Terminus and Tree, 2019

I wandered west a couple of blocks where I met this school bus for the second time. In the ten years since my last encounter with the vehicle a tree has grown beside it. This exemplifies that subjects don’t have to be new to be worthwhile and that capturing the evolution of something is worthwhile, too. Several years ago I heard from a west coast photographer who told me that all that’s left of the trailer captured in Good Luck fourteen years ago is the facade of the poor thing. So, corollary to observing change and really knowing a subject is the maxim that photographing the subject in the first place is a good idea. It may not be there the next time.