We began our work on the “Metal Road” interactive documentary in the beginning of May. Dr. Kathleen Ryan is working with Aboriginal Lens and TricksterFilms in beginning to design an i-doc that is both visually appealing and user friendly. Actual construction will hopefully start within the next week. Keep checking in for more “Metal Road” updates.
So if you are wondering who is filming this project that’s a good question. We had two cameras going.
For the R&D we hired Paper Rocket Productions cinematographers Jake and Deidra, part of the team who created a short to screen at Sundance a few years back. Paper Rocket helped us to create real interest in this railroad story with their camera work.
Jake is a solid trooper who is a yes man who probably should be telling me “No, you’re crazy lady”. He totally helped save an earlier film when I asked Jake to jump in a car for 26 hours to film a road trip. So again Jake jumped in a car when I asked to film the drive from Arizona to Illinois.
His objective was to film 9001 and catchup with a new hire traveling solo in Nebraska. The new hire was camping out in his car. Unfortunately Jake never found the new hire to film him sleeping in his car. Nonetheless, together we chased after leads to build a strong 15 minute fundraising trailer. It worked!
From these shoots, we found production funds from Vision Maker Media and our timeline shifted from R&D into Production. There is a thin grey line that separates these stages. We found a schedule to deliver a final film and bought a Canon C100.
The first shoot with Kahlil was a trip out to Greasewood, AZ to film the Long brothers roping on their day off. The wind didn’t cooperate and proved to be too much, yet again for an outside interview. When am I going to learn about the wind? I think the biggest mistake and regret I made on Metal Road was not sending Kahlil out to the reservation on his own. Hands down the worst decision I made.
Because what he captures visually is really art and symmetrical.
Later on I hear that Kahlil is making killer short films for YETI coolers marketing their wild Ambassadors on remote mountain tops and far remote locations. And I was afraid of sending him to spend a quick 48 hours camping out on the Navajo Reservation with no electricity. Sigh.
On this occasion, when the crew arrived in Colorado to unload equipment, none of their machines will start. Dozens of specialized machines are not winterized for the high plains and this stalls production.
The winter weather has frozen the machine fuel lines and prevents many of the track from being unloaded from the train. A long train of machines sit useless until they can be started for this rail-track laying crew.
You see, all the equipment is shipped by train to the next jobsite. The Railroad Equipment Operator (the RRer) drives with their own car to meet at the next location. This could be in the next state or maybe four states over. All of the locations are planned a year out in an advance. But you can’t plan the weather and you only get this on-job-training.
We film all the activity trying to warm up the equipment and the waiting. It’s an incredible sight to see this gang prepare for a long day. Special heaters are set up to thaw the fuel lines.
Once they do start they will remain on the entire week but that is not happening so all production is stalled. We watch as the Foremen try to each get their production group going. Each production group consists of 12 machines.
Valentino is scheduled to begin production group #2 but his machine still has not been started. We catch him waiting on the sidelines for the production #1 in the front of the train to move off.
Every morning before the work day, the crew gathers for an important safety meeting to breakdown the job detail. It lays out the train traffic, possible hazards, and communication channels for the railroad industry.
On this day, the job briefing starts at 4am and the temperature is freezing. We capture the crew getting ready for the day putting on layers at the trunk of their cars. The only source of harsh light are coming from the giant flood lights that are rented from local businesses. I don’t know if we are supposed to be doing this but we are doing it anyway. Two cameras cover the safety meeting and it is glorious.
The older Navajo railroaders on this crew have been here for decades. There are the two Attencio brothers with a combined 75+ years. The Begay father and son with a combined 60+ years. It is incredible to see the families working along side one another.
After briefing, Supervisor Thor Gunderson begins the morning exercises. He lightens their mood and readies them for a long on the tracks. Before life on the railroad, Thor was in the military and leads the crew like a platoon. He called me out in the middle of exercises to scream out the next orders.
In my substitute teacher voice, I call out Ready! Begin! I yell like a mouse, he says. And I give it another go. Inhale cold air and exhale steam. REEEEEEEADY…. BEEEEEEEEEEGIN! I think it echoed in my head. I am nervous and the crew begins to move. 1-2-3-4! 1-2-3-4!
Safety meetings are a requirement for each crew. However, the 9001 closes its safety meeting with a prayer. This is unusual for a railroad crew and makes it unique. Navajo prayers, Christian prayers, Catholic prayers are said in a rotating basis. And these workers are reminded every moment is precious and they want to do the best job they can to be able to return home.
It’s 3am in Sterling, CO and the Eagle Travel Stop gas station is packed. Outside temperature is hovering around zero, maybe just under it.
Windshields are frozen. The cars sit idling outside while the workers are inside filling up their thermos and grabbing gut bomb burritos. Like other wage laborers doing infrastructure everywhere across the nation, the 9001 gang are at the gas station getting their breakfast many hours before the rest of the community wakes up.
Did you know how many biscuits and gravy they pump out at that hour of the night? Before this shoot, I had never seen a gallon of milk sitting on the counter. This the second one of the morning says the service clerk, who could not keep up with the refills.
What I noticed about gas station coffee is it is crucial. More than water. More than a candy bar. For most, it is the least expensive and fastest option for liquid. And it boosts the body with much needed caffeine on the worst of the swing shifts.
We grab some great shots of the early morning rush and head for the jobsite. We jump in the car with the new hire. He is young in the game and doesn’t drink coffee. But he knows enough to buy all his food here before he’s on the jobsite.
Nothing is open at this hour. Gas station coffee is pumping through all our veins. No doughnut shops, $5 cup of Starbucks, or barista to write names on holiday cups. It’s the American gas stations that are fueling workers’ bodies.
The big trip to Colorado was the start of a four day journey following the Long brothers in mid-November. Why are they replacing rails in the winter season in Northern Colorado? I guess we will find out.
A two camera shoot started at Lupton, AZ at 7am. Clifford was packed awaiting his brothers arrival to carpool. We planned to follow them from AZ to Colorado. While waiting to leave Clifford gave us a tour of his house, a really impressive 2-story house that he is building on his days off. You read that right. He is building his own house on his days off from the railroad. Clifford is collecting various tools and materials with every paycheck to build another section.
Clifford explains that very bit of this house was built by him and his sons, with occasional help from his brothers who are trained in different trades. He said they put up the all the walls in one day. Each floor is 1600 sq. feet. When all finished the house will still not have running water because the area is not serviced by Navajo Housing Authority under the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Like many Navajo families, he does not know when running water will come to the area.
But not having water does little to deter Clifford from finishing his house. The stairs were made by taking a sample at Home Depot and copying the design. No one had seen stairs before in the surrounding home, more or less made them, so the problem was solved with a 4 step stair stringer. Then extending the pattern to 16 steps. Done.
When the other brothers arrive, we begin the caravan to Colorado near the Nebraska border. The Long Brothers pile into one car and stop twice only for gas. I can see already you have to trained your body to drive, drive, drive.
The trip took 10 hours from the high desert to high plains without once looking at a GPS. Taking the most direct route is important and that included the back roads. Railroaders have their favorite various routes that cut minutes off their travel and know when to pass through the larger cities on the freeways and when to avoid during rush hour.
But on this voyage, we opted for a two lane highway. We arrive at 9pm because the snow slowed us down. At one point in the drive, there was no visibility on the road.
Call time set for 4am which means we have to be out filming at 2:30am. Here we go people.
You see the tracks, ties and gravel. Every five years all of it has to be replaced depending on the train traffic. Curves wear out the most. This was fascinating.
From that 3am morning Village Inn breakfast in Santa Teresa with the RRers, we were pointed in a new direction: we have to find Tahy, a RRer who works on the UP’s smaller Curve gang that travel more than all the other gangs. He called while we were talking to the tie guys. Tahy said, “We’ll be in Benson for two days next month.” Traveling more than other gangs couldn’t be possible because we are having trouble keeping up but we had to find out. So we targeted a curve gang working just outside Benson, AZ.
Thousands of train murals and artwork in communities across the nation centered around the railroads and its expansion. These images are very interesting to me because I am always curious to know how the Natives are represented.
We spend the day driving to various crossings in the surrounding area but do not have any luck finding the gang. This specialized gang replaces only the curved part of the tracks, over a certain percentage of a bend in the track. So that means these curvy areas of track are far from the towns. We don’t see them driving down the highway.
After an unsuccessful day, we arrive late in the evening to find the RRers eating dinner while standing. This is a common sighting. They eat the quickest meals anywhere.
The curve gang does not stay more than 3-4 days in one location. We hoped to catch the gang loading the buses to work on a curve west of Benson. After a bit of bush whacking, we locate the buses and film from a safe distance.
While the gang worked, an unknown Navajo worker told us about a gang we need to film: the 9001. “If you think this is good, ” he says, “Go check them out because they are something to see.”
Sitting down to dinner in a Mexican Restaurant with mediocre salsa. (I don’t think oregano should be put in salsa because that is a weird fusion.) So we found Tahy and at the table is a new hire, a young worker with less than two years RR experience. We found our young Railroader just starting out for Union Pacific that we are looking for!!
We follow them back to their motel to interview how life is going for this young guy and get more details about the job on a curve gang. We bring them beef jerky for their road trip and say goodnight.
Trip to Santa Teresa to film a tie gang working new the New Construction site was impressive. Jumped on a local flight from Flagstaff to Phoenix to El Paso. I travel alone to southern NM because the Paper Rocket team is busy and we hadn’t booked Kahlil yet. He enters the picture later on in Act II. From the airport I directly go to the job site with loose directions given to me like follow the dirt road until you see us. I find them. It is a large crew of Navajos installing new rails that will probably need to be replaced in 4-5 years.
The workers return to their motel after quitting time and that’s where I catch them outside talking to ask more direct questions about the work. At 10:30pm the Foreman for the New Construction pulls up and says he will talk at breakfast at the Village Inn in morning if I am up then.
When I find him it’s 2am and the restaurant is mostly full of Friday night people returning from the bar. The restaurant is a mix of young crowds totally obvious to the Foreman who sits alone at a table. Then another RRer joins him.
One worker is from Klagetoh, AZ and his name is Darrell Begay. What? Another Darrell on a tie gang. We do a short interview in the crowded restaurant to describe the day’s work ahead.
It’s 2:30am and I forget to turn on the microphone. Take two please! It was a striking image seeing these two men sitting unnoticed getting ready for life on the tracks. They zip out of the restaurant unnoticed.
The tie gang gather for their safety meeting in an empty lot miles away from the city. This is another documentary topic to follow the tie side of the railroad.
We needed to do more research. What other railroads did Navajos work for? Each RR company has its rail corridors and BNSF runs closest to the Navajo Nation.
Section gangs and Regional gangs were just one of many things that we will learn from our production. Like the church denominations that partitioned our reservation, each area of the Navajo Nation was selected by trading post owners to recruit labor for specific RR companies. In some parts it was the ATSF and later the Santa Fe Railways; and other areas it was Union Pacific and Denver Rio Grande Railroads. However Navajo steel gangs working for Union Pacific caught our attention.
Our next trip was to visit a third generation RRer from Tohatchi who is very active in the safety hazmat training for Navajo RRers. We meet Darryl Begaye and his uncle to understand the full life of a Railroader through the eyes of a new hire, middle age, and retiree.
Kenneth Barney is our narrator and my relative (Tsinaajini and Kiyaanii) and from this one interview our story began to take shape in a big way.
He showed me the old, old employment papers used to calculate the years of service. And seeing this opens up a lot more questions.
Nephew Darryl invites me to film his tie gang down near the Mexico border at Santa Teresa. Tie gang? What? We learned that there are many different specialized gangs that work on the RR, not just steel gangs. The tie gang removes and replaces the old wooden ties. Those things are not just for planter beds! There is also gang that only installs concrete ties too. So I agree to meet up in Santa Teresa because why not?