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Riding the Rails in Mexico (part 2)

 

The yard worker tells me there's a freight headed west out of Chihuahua city every night at three in the morning. That's a pretty awkward time. Either rent a room and get up really early, or stay out late sitting around the freight yard and hope not to miss it. It's about three miles from downtown to the yard, too. I decide to ride the cushions back into the canyon country - it's just more reliable.

Crossing bridge westbound on the cushionsCrossing the same bridge westbound on the cushions

The Clase Economica Turistica pulls out of the station at seven in the morning. The First Class leaves at six, and the only advantage of it is the extra hour of daylight in the real scenic sections of the trip. I think that's outweighed by the disadvantages - you can't eat in the cars, you pay twice the price for the ticket, and you're stuck with a bunch of rich white snobs. Both of them are nice though for standing in the vestibules, leaning out the windows, enjoying the crisp morning breeze and the phenomenal countryside.

I won't bore you here with all the details, just the basics. I rode west to Temoris, a station that's about ten kilometers by road and some thousand metres vertically away from the village of the same name. It's the site of an incredible feat of railway engineering - a 180-degree loop inside a tunnel, followed by a horseshoe curve over two large trestles. I'd been there before, but wanted to go back and take some photos.

So I spent a night there, then caught the cushions back to Creel in the morning. It's a nice spot, and the gateway for lots of remote canyon villages. I spent a week there looking around, then caught the second class west to San Rafael, which is the only division point on the whole ChePe line - a trip that takes about twenty-two hours from Chihuahua to Los Mochis.

Workers and jigger at TemorisWorkers and jigger at Temoris
As soon as the passenger trains left (one in each direction) I checked out the scene. You can be pretty bold about talking to workers - they'll help you catch a ride. One told me the next eastbound would be at midnight, close to the same time as the first one I'd ridden from San Blas to Chihuahua ten days earlier. It was 3:00 now, so I had some time to kill.

I scoped out the yard a bit first - it's just small, but it has a wye and some servicing facilities. There was a freight on the siding, and three engines idling, but I trusted the worker that it wouldn't be going east. Sure enough I saw it go west later in the evening.

I walked out of town to the west just to look around and kill time. It wasn't long before San Rafael was in the distance, as you're out in the countryside within a mile. For a while I sat by some weather-sculpted rocks, reading a bit, writing a song about riding the rails on the ChePe, and generally killing time. When the sun started to dip I packed my bag and started walking, further down the line, to keep warm.

Work train at bottom of hill at TemorisWork train at bottom of hill at Temoris
There was a tunnel - I think it was labelled number 37. It wasn't too long, so I walked through it. Not far past the other end there was a second tunnel. This one was marked as being over 400 metres long, and it curved sharply. That would take about five minutes to walk through, in the pitch black - a bit beyond my limits of risk.

By the entrance to the tunnel there was a nice little glade of pine trees, up against a cliff, and just right for waiting on a train. There was lots of wood around too, which is rare near settled parts of Mexico. I got a fire going, and really settled in, reading, letting the sun go down behind me, and once in a while stomping out the fires that started in the dry pine needles. I had a couple beers and it was really a pretty comfortable way to spend the early evening.

Well after dark there were footsteps on the tracks, and I shut off my flashlight. He obviously would have seen my fire, but I still tried to avoid drawing his attention. Strangely enough, the footsteps just kept going, right into the tunnel, never losing a beat, and gradually fading away in the distance. At this point it was dark enough outside the tunnel that I couldn't see him, and he went inside. Not too long after that, the train that had been parked in San Rafael went by too, following the invisible man westward.

Work train at TemorisWork train at Temoris, site of a 180 degree loop inside a tunnel and another on two horseshoe trestles. Note monument to completion of ChePe railway (locomotive blasting out of a wall of hoppers) and higher level of track continuing east through tunnels to Chihuahua
When I ran out of beer I walked back to town. It was maybe 8:30, and I hoped to find a place to eat. The prospects looked dismal in this dark village of empty mud streets, but continuing through town paid off - there was a house that served food in their living room (advertised as a restaurant) that was still open on the east end of town. The mother cooked a great dinner, and pulled her daughter away from homework to serve it.

I spent as much time there as possible, since it was getting cold out, but eventually had to go, back down to the yard, to scope a place to try and get a bit of sleep.

There was a little shack with a security guard, but he wouldn't care about me, especially since I saw his girlfriend show up by flashlight to keep him company. Still though there was nowhere very discreet to have a nap, and it seemed like every dog in town was barking at me.

The spot I settled in was in the shadow of a pile of rails, and I somehow fell asleep there, to the sound of at least three dogs barking at their echo under a full moon.

I woke up to a low rumble, more surprised to have slept than anything. Without getting my hopes up too high I checked the time - almost midnight. The rumble was, to my practised ear, most likely a train in the distance, but I couldn't be too sure because it would sometimes cut out completely. It took nearly half an hour, but finally that sound became visible as the bright lights rounded the curve into the yard. The reason the sound kept cutting out was that tunnels mute the engines' roar completely.

First class eastbound climbing out of Temoris past ChePe monumentFirst class eastbound climbing out of Temoris past ChePe monument
I caught a grainer maybe ten cars back when the train stopped. It seemed like it wasn't at the station yet though, and sure enough it just pulled forward and stopped a second time. This time I walked towards the rear, looking for an open boxcar, but not wanting to be too far from the grainer, which was a sure thing. There didn't seem to be anything else back there, and when I heard voices I got onto a different car - maybe twenty back.

At San Rafael they do an inspection of the train. Workers checked brake pads, air lines, hand brakes, and some guys even walked the roof, looking into the hatches on the grain cars. I hid out in the hole and watched all this from the shadows, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have cared if they'd seen me.

Finally the whistle blew and we were off, picking up speed almost immediately. Full moon overhead, but it was too cold to watch the scenery. As soon as we started to move I could feel the biting chill. My feet got cold and I stomped them on the steel for a while so they would at least be a bit warmer before trying to sleep. I'd bought a Tarahumara blanket that morning in Creel, and it was better than nothing, but it's not that warm.

I settled down in the hole, cramped in there as usual, trying to use garbage to insulate the cold steel. I had all my clothes on - boots, gloves, toque, coat - but still I froze. I managed to get some sleep I guess, but was grateful for the first light. I got up and started stomping my feet, which I couldn't feel at all.

Engines idle on the wye at San RafaelEngines idle on the wye at San Rafael
This trip it warmed up a bit quicker in the morning than on my first ride to Chihuahua. There was ice everywhere, but the sun worked a bit harder. We stopped at the same grain loading facility near Cuahtemoc, too, and again I got my bags ready in case they set my car off. Standing there with my bag on my back and blanket over my shoulders, and freezing, wishing they would move out of the shadow of a string of freight cars on the siding, I was totally humbled. A man came from the back of the train, stumbling a bit, and visibly shaking. When he got to me I said something about the cold. "Si," he said, then picked up some cardboard and lit it with a lighter. As it burned he threw on a bit more, and tried to warm his hands and feet over the flame. He'd been riding the same train overnight, but while I was freezing in all my layers of clothes, here was a guy who'd toughed it out in a ball cap, light jacket, no gloves, and sandals.

He walked up the train and got on the car in front of mine, bringing some more cardboard to burn along the way. We picked up a few cars from the siding, then aired up and were off. The only other stop was just east of Cuahtemoc. The other guy had climbed off in town, either to warm up or maybe that's where he was going. We picked up some cars near the sewage treatment lagoons, then waited a few minutes for the westbound First Class.

Front of freight in the hills between Cuahtemoc and ChihuahuaFront of freight in the hills between Cuahtemoc and Chihuahua
Again the scenery in the little pass between Cuahtemoc and Chihuahua was the best part of my freight ride, and I made sure to get some pictures on the big curves. The crew that was painting one of the trestles on scaffolding my first couple trips through didn't seem to be there this time, but we crawled across it anyway, giving me a good look at the twin bridge a ways down the valley.

After slipping through the slot canyon and the last two tunnels, I laid down on the deck and basked in the sun. I fell asleep right away, but it didn't last long. There was one more discomfort to endure, and it didn't show itself till we hit the wide open plains near Chihuahua: when the train really got moving (maybe fifty miles an hour) the car I was on started to rock - like a speed wobble. You could see the wheels wobbling on the rails, and it shook so much it was impossible to lie down. Mostly it was just annoying, but I was thankful it wasn't like that the whole time. As it was I willed the train to slow down, to end the agony.

We hit Chihuahua around eleven in the morning, and again I jumped off at the passenger station. This time some workers asked if I had just come in on the train. I told them yes, and they said I better not walk through the yard, since there were guards there. Sure enough, as I left from the west end of the yard there was a guard. They might be a little more serious around the passenger station than in the freight yards, but this guy had no problem.

I walked into town, heading for the first taco shop I could find. A woman asked for my help carrying car batteries from a shop out to her car. What I remember most though is the blissful warmth of blood pulsing through my feet for the first time in ten hours as I walked down the city streets, back in palm and cactus country, with the hot sun high overhead.