Mata Ortiz Information

Letters to the Editor

Many have asked about the little train serving Mata Ortiz and some of the more distant settlements. We're glad to have the following account from Sandi Casillas, a resident artist in Casas Grandes. -Editors

THE LITTLE TRAIN that goes up into the mountains is now called Aventura Sobre Rieles and has been painted various colors: uva (grape), limón (green), fresa (strawberry), and plátano (banana). The trailer for tourists is very comfortable, but yesterday when I took the trip, they left it off at Mata Ortiz where all the tourists stopped. I continued up into the mountains with the locals in the fresa colored car and a plain old cargo trailer following. The driver, Elías Magallanes, mounted two planks on some buckets of unknown content in the trailer, and people who did not fit in the fresa car rode in the trailer on that makeshift bench along with the cargo. We stayed quite a while in Mata Ortiz, since they had to turn the extra train car and trailer around to have it ready to return to Nuevo Casas Grandes with a train that was coming down from the mountains. And in any event, we couldn’t continue until that train passed us. So I visited with Guillermina Quezada, who gave me some homemade bread she had baked that morning early. It was kind of like bolillo, but a little sweet. It was a good addition to the lunch I had prepared to take with me.
After Mata Ortiz, we followed the Rio Palanganas up into the mountains through
rolling hills with scrub oak. We passed through the semi-deserted villages of Santa Rosa and Rucio, leaving cargo as we went. Someone got off at Rucio, where the railroad worker homes have been stripped of their roofs and windows. The shells of the rooms, painted like the colors of the train cars (fresa, uva,etc.), brought to mind Easter eggs cracked open. The driver of the train, Elías, tipped his hat and made the sign of the cross as we passed the town's chapel with its open door.
The canyon narrowed after that. The walls now were high and of various colors of rock, and the little river beside us was clear and fast running. It being the weekend, groups of people were picnicking or camping under the great sycamore and cottonwood trees. We came upon a group of men standing on the edge of the track, looking into the canyon at a pickup in the river. Elías slowed enough to see if anyone was hurt and told the men we would be returning the same day (usually the train doesn't return until the next day).
Our next stop was at Cuevitas to leave off a large family who had come to visit their mother and grandmother, a sturdy little white-haired lady who lived in the strangest little adobe and rock house right by the tracks and close to the river. A large, old cottonwood branch was supported from the dead trunk to the roof of the little house to hold a rope and a swing made of a piece of tire. I could imagine that the family would have a wonderful time with grandma. The area was well named—Cuevitas—since the cliffs were riddled with large caves, many with rock walls in their entrances. I was told that the Tarahumara Indians sometimes used them, but that they were really homes of the "old ones."
About an hour later we were well up into the mountains. We had passed an impressive old ranch that Elías told me was called Palanganas and was owned by the Navar family. All along the way had been little ranches irrigated by small ditches exiting the river. Now we were beyond the scrub oak. The piñon and juniper were dotted with pine and cedar, but it was not yet a real pine forest. We let off a young girl at one of the ranches, and Elías sent greetings with her to her family. At Aguaje, we let off another family at quite a nice house uphill from the tracks. This area was peppered with houses and ranches, but Elías told me they were mostly deserted; people had moved to the city after the railroad had quit running to La Junta. It was hard now to make a living, and our little train, which normally runs twice a week, was their only lifeline to civilization. The government is expected to subsidize a sotol manufacturing plant soon in Bella Vista, the next town down the line, to provide employment there. Sotol is a sort of white lightning made from a mountain variety of the agave plant.
I was now the last passenger on the train and was supposed to go all the way to Cumbres Pass, where one of General Pershing’s planes is said to have crashed when pursuing Pancho Villa, thus becoming the first American plane lost in a military action. But Elías said it would take two or three more hours to Cumbres, and he didn’t seem to really want to do it. Since I was the boss, it would be okay if I said we needn’t go. So I opted to do that part of the trip next time. A few curves later, we stopped and added two dripping wet girls who had been swimming in the river and wanted a ride. They decided that I looked like their grandmother. Elias informed them that yes, we were going to Bella Vista, but that maybe they would rather go home, since he had just delivered their mother and family from Nuevo Casas Grandes at their house.
Arriving at Bella Vista, we found that it, too, was mostly deserted. We looked it over a bit, and then backed up to Aguaje and Carmela's house. While Elías and Carmela’s husband turned the train around for our journey back, she invited me in to have a cup of coffee and eat my lunch. Everyone agreed that I looked like the deceased grandma, and they showed me her picture. She had been either a Morman or a Mennonite lady with
very little resemblance, but I agreed to be their new grandma. As everyone was asking what she had brought from town, Carmela complained about the problem of keeping food fresh. “But you have a refrigerator,” I said. She laughed and said she kept dishes in it, since they had no electricity. They did have a generator, but because it was expensive, they only used it occasionally.
While we were there, more family arrived and said they had learned that the mother of Rosa, a neighbor, was ill in Nuevo Casas Grandes, and that Rosa was to go to town as soon as possible. We picked up Rosa, after giving her a little time to prepare for her journey, and began our trip home.
All along the way, Elías stopped and gave messages to people, telling someone he had left two sacks of grain for them in Bella Vista and that next trip he would bring the what-ever to their cousin, and so on. A little boy who stayed at Cuevitas with his grandma had left his backpack on the train, and we stopped and left it for him. A bit after that we found a white pickup Elías had been watching for. From the truck, we got jackets for Beto and picked up Rosa and Beto's little boy, who had been picnicking with family.
When we came to the place where the pickup was in the river, the young man whose disaster it was was waiting by the track. He had broken the axle but in the meantime had removed it and now had in his hand. He asked for a ride to town for himself and his family—four children and wife—and also for advice, which we gave in plenitude.
All long the way, we had to stop for calves and colts on the track; strangers who come to picnic on holidays leave gates open, I was told. Elías, a careful driver, kindly herded the assorted animals out of the way with the help of Beto and the damaged-truck man. As we passed the chapel, Elías again tipped his hat and crossed himself. On reaching Nuevo Casas Grandes, I completed the thread of good deeds by giving Rosa and Beto and son a ride to the sick mother's house—thus bringing completion to my aventura sobre rieles. –Sandi Casillas