THE TOWN of Snowflake in east central Arizona had a population of about 500.
Bell Siding, several miles to the south, was not even a wide place in the road; it could better be described as a wide place on the railroad tracks. During the war years of the early 1940s I needed to get there to obtain shots for a motion picture I was making. War restrictions made gasoline for my car hard to get; I was traveling by rail and hitchhiking. A train that would get me to Bell Siding was due to leave Snowflake at noon. I hiked breathlessly into town, nearly exhausting myself in an effort to arrive by train time. The tiny station was easy to find.
“One ticket to Bell Siding on the Apache,” I said—partly out of breath—to the agent, after passing the time of day. Then I questioned: “Will it be on time?”
“You’re a stranger around here, aren’t you,” was the agent’s droll reply. “If the Apache arrives the day it’s supposed to, we figure it’s on time.”
I relaxed a little, and put down my camera and gear.
“My name’s Hatch—O.W. Hatch. I’m the agent here; also in charge of the municipal water plant.” Extending his hand in friendly greeting, he questioned: “You like it here in Snowflake?”
Without awaiting a reply, he began a description of the area. “We like it a lot; good place to live. Quite a bit of wind sometimes. A trifle cold in winter. Got down to 36 below last year. Summer’s a little hot. But we like it. Good place to live.”
As I had approached the station, the wind had been blowing so hard I had some difficulty walking against it and covered my camera against the dust. But the town’s pastoral setting, the fringe of cedars scattered to the north, the White Mountains rising far to the south, the ample two-storied brick and frame houses, were all good reasons for his pride.
“We got a fine park.” Hatch pointed it out, a quarter of a mile away, on a hill, where the water storage tank was located. “All kinds of trees planted there. You’ll have plenty of time waiting for the Apache. Maybe you’d like to walk up that way.”
Then, as I started out: “I’d like you to see my place, too. We have two bushes of American roses. If the wind hasn’t blown them off, they are as beautiful as you ever saw. And we have a long-leaf pine—they’re only three of them in town. And tipped spruce. You’d like those.”
I did like them, and the American Beauties and the moss rose in Hatch’s yard. It made me feel that the world was a little more solid when people, wherever they live, can show pride in their communities and their homes.
I liked the town, and I was intrigued by its name, which a friendly resident told me derived, not from frozen raindrops, but from two early pioneers, William Flake and Erastus Snow.
With a visit to the park, a walk along main street with its scattered stores of brick or false-fronted wood, and a session catching up my journal, the day passed as swiftly as the wind. No one was at the station when I returned but Mr. Hatch soon came in. Not in a hurry now, I had a better chance to size him up. He was tall, slender, good looking, with red shirt and western hat, as much a part of this setting as the lusty windmills which I had seen whirring back of nearly half the houses in town.
“Apache hasn’t shown up yet,” he explained, “so I went out to read some water meters. We’ll see her coming over the hill there. Probably she’s pulling too heavy a load and broke down.”
I suggested that I better buy my ticket now, to be ready when the train arrived.
“I been thinking about that. It’s quite a job making one out. An awful job to report it. I’ll talk to the conductor about it when the Apache gets here.”
The wind’s violence was increasing. It whipped the wires strung loosely on the telephone poles; it blasted eddies of dust against an old boxcar house across the street, an orphan of 1918 railroad days. The sun tried to stay above the plains to the west but finally the wind seemed to get the better of it too, and it crept to shelter in the windbreak of the hills. With nightfall, the wind lost a little of its fury. But soon it recovered its courage and started in stronger than ever.
I walked along the darkened, unlighted, unpaved, unsidewalked streets of Snowflake, looking in at the occasionally-lighted windows, wondering about the people there. Inside, sitting at tables near their fires, it made no matter if the wind went crazy outside. Even though there was an electric plant in town, some of the folks were gathered about kerosene lamps.
Far on the hill above town a light blinked. It crept along, barely moving—the Apache.
The light corkscrewed downward. The wind was so strong that it swallowed the engine’s whistle and so without noise—until we heard the asthma of its antique steam engine—the Apache rolled in and stopped.
I was ready to board at once, but Mr. Hatch didn’t even lay down the bill he was figuring. “They’ll be half an hour servicing her,” he said. Smilingly he added: “She came in right on the day, like I said.”
The two brakemen entered the station, along with Shorty Nelson, the conductor. He got on the phone and talked with Flake Willis, the Traffic Manager at McNary. (His mother had been a Flake.)
“We’ve got forty-five cars and the engine just won’t pull the load,” Nelson shouted into the phone. Word came back to turn the engine about, making it pull better on the grades.
Without benefit of a ticket I started back in the darkness for the passenger car at the rear end. It was forty-five cars away and I found it by going along a road, then a path beside the track, finally crawling about the rear end when I arrived. It was completely dark inside, save for what light came through from the moon. But that was enough for me to feel my way about and, to some degree, observe the interior.
The old red wooden car was divided into three sections. One, originally for express, was now empty save for a single leather chair before the wide open door—an observation throne for the conductor as he traveled through his domain. Next was a section with two folding cots, made up into beds, for those of the crew who needed a nap or were caught overnight on the road. The final third, for passengers, had four seats and I felt my way into one. Of the four windows, two had no panes so that the wind whipped in cruelly, rattling the glass in the windows that remained.
In a quarter of an hour, the young brakeman came in and remarked that it was cold. By light of his lantern he found some chunks of wood in a wood box, split them in the aisle with an axe and started a fire in a full-breasted stove at one end. He had some kerosene to pour in and the flames took hold at once, tonguing out toward the ceiling. He put a tomato can of coffee on top, and the fire now put up a fight with the wind, contesting whether the one could throw heat into the car faster than the other could take it out.
There was a spasm of jerking, after which we started to move. The wind had blown the clouds away and the night was clear now, with a good moon. There was a quality of richness and marvelous wonder about it all. The Apache jerked through the night and I looked out into the moonlit world. Mr. Nelson, the conductor, and the two young brakemen—one of whom used to be a sheep herder, so the conductor said—came back and sat in the darkness with me to talk. Nelson said jokingly that the two brakemen, having been in the navy, were used to much air through the portholes, so had kicked out the windows of our car.
We wound past Silver Lake and the moon made the lake’s name come true.
In an hour, at about 10:30 p.m., we pulled into Bell Siding. Several freight cars, including an empty one, were to be switched off at the siding. The Apache brakeman said that empty car would make an excellent place for me to spend the night. With a grunt of the engine and a grinding of wheels, the Apache was on it way to McNary. I heard a good-bye blast of the whistle, and I lay down in the boxcar to sleep.
The Apache crew and I had become friends. A few weeks later, in Holbrook, Arizona, I ran across them again. Train and crew were about ready to depart on the run down through Snowflake and on to McNary. Although I had forgotten the fact, I had apparently told the Apache conductor of my love for trains and expressed a desire, sometime, to ride up in the engine with the engineer and fireman.
“How’d you like to go down to McNary with us, and ride in the engine?” Conductor Shorty Nelson’s question was casual in tone but it shook me to the roots. When the Apache pulled out I was in the lone passenger car but at the second stop, for picking up a few more freight cars, I was escorted up to the engine. A lifelong dream realized.
That, but also more. Unbelievably more. Conductor, brakeman, and engineer were all interested in my motion picture camera and the film I was shooting. At one long straight section of the tracks the train was stopped. I was allowed to get up on a freight car near the front of the train. There I set up my tripod and as the Apache moseyed slowly along I took panoramic shots of the landscape as a field with frightened horses, then barren flats, then open countryside, passed by. My love of trains was being metamorphosed into a world of dreams come true.