Then, amid all these natural curiosities, my eyes suddenly fastened upon a man-made one several miles to the southwest: a long, dark freight train underscoring the emptiness as it headed west. I could have continued in the same direction on I-40, in hopes of getting closer to the progressing freight, but I was also approaching an exit marked “Los Lunas” that connected to a road that seemed to head due south and directly toward the railroad, so I took the latter.
After a couple miles the two-lane highway, Route 6, curved sharply east at a derelict and apparently out-of-business structure called the Wild Horse Mesa Bar. Before I knew it, the deserted highway was paralleling two railroad tracks, and a thundering eastbound freight train was overtaking me. I identified the railroad immediately, not that it was difficult: the train’s four locomotives were blue and gold and each bore the huge gold letters that spelled “Santa Fe.” My memory of this design dated to the 1960s, when, in our New Jersey basement, I lost myself in my American Flyer model railroad. While my toy locomotives bore the Texas and Pacific Railroad colors and logo, the Santa Fe locomotives appeared in the form of photographs on the cover of a Santa Fe Railroad Annual Report I had lovingly nailed to the basement’s wooden stairway beside my toy setup. My father had received the report in the mail as a result of purchasing─for my benefit, he said─some shares of stock in the railroad. At that age, I knew little about stocks, but enough to know that I had a tiny stake in that far-away, colorful railroad. (I never knew what became of those shares.)
Accelerating to sixty miles per hour, five miles above the posted speed limit, I approached and kept pace with the train’s locomotives churning and faintly smoking on their gradual descent to the Rio Puerco basin. Peering into my rearview mirror, I tried to make out the tail end of the train, but failed; the train must have been a mile long or more.
I watch railroads the way many people watch rivers. A passing freight is as mesmerizing to me as a flowing watercourse. Hopping a freight train, I imagined, is like floating on a steel river. Even an empty track holds my attention as I imagine the simple yet sublime engineering feat of flanged wheel clinging to steel rail. I’m awed by the power of locomotives. I like their smoke: mixed with plenty of fresh air and vast spaces, diesel smoke is perfume. Most of all, I love a procession of freight cars. I know most of them are destined for grimy sidings in crowded cities, where their steel walls are subject to the tags and frivolous “artwork” of punks with spray paint, but between the cities they often pass through some of America’s least inhabited country, and they carry the scent of that country─in Frank Waters’s words, “always so redolent of the far off, romantic and unreal.” Freight cars have a brute and indifferent nature that is strangely wild, and an untended nature that is welcoming; they seem to beg a man to climb aboard and wait. Paused or in motion, a long freight train is a wilderness of steel.
Meanwhile, the landscape through which we both advanced was unrelentingly desolate, and lovely. A long reef of rock stood to the south. To the north, two mesas, one black, one golden, cradled a shallow canyon at the bottom of which wandered a primitive dirt road. I knew immediately I’d be out here again, and probably often.
After some ten miles, the Santa Fe freight and I, running shoulder to shoulder, reached the Rio Puerco, crossing our respective bridges. Here the Puerco was no more of a river than it was fifteen miles to the northeast as it intersected I-40. Several miles later, the tracks carrying the train curved sharply southeast, and the freight was slowly consumed by a crack in the land, the last I saw of it that morning.