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.
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.
There was the gentle knock at the door. Older brother quietly saying “Sis, I don’t want you to freak out but its 1:38AM.” Aaaaaah!
In a panic I pack and on the road by 1:45AM. So much for waking up at 1AM to make coffee, quietly pack, and get on the road. Note to self: it is not a great idea to a book a 6AM departure when it’s a three-hour drive to the airport.
0 HRS Leaving Bar Harbor, ME at 1:45AM.
3 HRS drive to the Portland Airport.
11 HRS later arrive in ABQ. This is a quick Chevy Chase tour of the Southwest. ABQ – WR- FLG then back to Portland, ME. Ready, Set, Go! Ramona Emerson and husband Kelly Byars meet me at the baggage claim happy and cheery. I like her already. They greet me ready to stop at the first Mexican Restaurant but first I say let’s fix my broken back. We head straight to her house in ABQ to fix my back on the inversion table set up in the backyard. Yes, I say.
Next stop is the Pueblo Cultural Center for lunch. We have the Pueblo Feast with green chili stew. This is not the time to education on the importance of Red & Green Chili, but my gosh it is fantastic and I fantasize about whether it should have carrots.
15 HRS Hotel check in and Ramona will return to pick me up at 5pm for our screening.
18 HRS into the trip I am at a pool hall and I see Ramona has dorsal fins. This duo really knows how to play.
19 HRS the screening at the KIMO Theatre begins at 6:30pm. New Mexico PBS did a great job running ads all week to promote our screening. The crowd has positive response to the films. During the Q&A, the kids from Mayors of Shiprock joined us on stage. Thank you Vision Maker for teaming me up with Ramona Emerson. Wheel Museum for allowing us to film our interviews in your building. Thank you storyteller Sunny Dooley for taking the train to see the screening and introducing new story ideas to me as the daughter of a Railroader. And also to fellow artist Monty Singer for your support.
22 HRS time to sleep
33 HRS Rental car is picked up and we are on the road driving three hours to Window Rock, AZ. We drive past the To’hajiilee exit that has the best mutton sandwich stand in the Land of Entrapment. We missed the mutton sandwich. My back still hurts even with the IHS 800mg Ibuprofrin given to me, but it’s not going to slow this operation down.
35 HRS We arrive in Window Rock, AZ. We have some technical difficulties with the equipment setting up at the Navajo Nation Museum. Note to self: We need to bring HDMI connectors of all shapes and sizes. Pack it next time.
36 HRS Ramona’s mom artist B. Emerson Kitsman arrived and saved the day! She returned forgotten screeners mistakenly left at Crownpoint earlier on. It was such a pleasure to meet her and partner Joseph. They presented me a gift of Navajo Herbal Tea and sage she picked herself. (Google Navajo Tea because I don’t know what it is.) Double thank you ma’am. And thank you Navajo Nation Museum for opening your doors.
The show started right at 2pm as advertised. Navajo Historian Dr. Jennifer Nez Denetdale was in the audience. It was such an honor to get to see her again. We interviewed Dr. Denetdale to provide the historical context for our railroad story. This interview will be available on the iDoc. Thank you for coming, bringing your family, and supporting our tour. It was an honor to have you there.
40 HRS We arrive in Flagstaff, AZ at 7pm for the last leg of the tour. It’s Ramona’s turn to go straight to the hotel while I stay at home. We are both pretty exhausted from the zipping around.
56 HRS Why not? It’s time to bake a cake while at my dad’s house. Note to self: When baking a cake at 7400 feet and higher elevation, you have to add more liquid and omit the baking powder. Good to know I says. Cake is done and time for the last screening. It was a delicious pound cake.
64 HRS We arrive at the NAU Native American Cultural Center. Did we think we were just going to be able to show up? The tour gods clap back. We are met with yet again equipment problems. Now the projector bulb is broken. Dozens of vertical lines mark half the projection screen. We polled the audience and they still wanted to continue with the screening. We went across the street to the Cline Library but that was not an option with its doors closing at 7pm. We returned to the half screen projection room.
Two filmmakers Jake Hoyungowa and Deidra Peaches came to our screening and both worked on our films. I liked learning that Ramona makes a special effort to hire female filmmakers on her production shoots.
Special thank yous Carissa Tsosie and Ora for inviting us to screen and troubleshooting the projector at Native American Cultural Center. And we all agreed to bring us back in the fall to do another screening with a working projector.
Note to self: Bring projector.
67 HRS Ramona and I say goodbye for now. My favorite part of her movie was the wood gathering scene. Hope to bring my little one on the next trip!
78 HRS Watermelon juice from the drive up Tacos Los Altos window in Flagstaff. Driving 2.5 hours to the Phoenix Airport. It’s 114°F when I enter the leave the desert.
81 HRS Boarded the plane bound for the East Coast. I wish there was flight from Sky Harbor to Bar Harbor. There is a flight. Maybe if the tour gets crowd funded…
93 HRS Touchdown in Portland, ME with yet another 3 hour drive home. Rolled into bed at 1:45AM.
Note to self: Better Travel itinerary and don’t forget Ramona’s maple syrup.
As we started this project, we were looking for answers to questions we did not know how to ask yet. Taking an existing film and turning it into an interactive experience that is both accessible and yet intriguing. Interaction between user and the content is in the foreground of taking film as a medium and creating immersion, combining multi-media content into one complete package that is engaging, educating and entertaining. Slowly, we are building up to ask the right questions. What is interesting as additional content outside of the frame of the PBS broadcasted version of the film to an audience? How does choice affect the story telling and the overall atmosphere of the experience? Who, when, where and why are certain key moments important? The result is a prototype that looks like a giant spiderweb, interconnecting stories, background and characters that make “Metal Road” the engaging narrative it is.
We are very excited to move into the next stage and start decorating our spiderweb with visually endearing, multi-media content and get one step closer to create a platform that brings the engaging story of the Navajo railroad workers to the computer, tablet and smartphone screens across the globe.
I wanted to make Metal Road to shed light on two related, yet often hidden issues: manual labor in the US and Native American Histories. Laborers are often the most economically oppressed people doing infrastructure jobs, but the workers are strong and resilient. My hope is their labors will not go unnoticed any longer.
In making Metal Road, I gained a better understanding of work ethic and loyalty that lies dormant inside some of us, particularly in Navajos who live in areas with very high unemployment rates. When given the opportunity, they prove themselves to be skillful additions to any workforce. I have an admiration for the individuals with the commitment and raw will that it takes to be a laborer. I can’t do it; compared to the men and women in the film, my focus and will power are fleeting. It was brutal filming them prepare to work in the freezing temperatures at 3AM. So in making a film about railroader life, I wanted to reconcile our Native histories with contemporary Navajo heroes who grind out a living everyday. People talk about having the courage to try new things, new careers, etc. But what about the courage to put in your time into one job? Yes, taking those first steps to work is important and it lifts the soul up in self-worth, but it’s the ten thousandth step that counts.
And so maybe one day the minimum for laboring 30 years outside with dangerous machines and loud noises will be decreased, because now you must meet the same qualifications as an office worker in the same company striving for retirement benefits. As a Navajo filmmaker, I want to impress upon the viewer that the next Indian you see at a gas station in oil stained clothes might be returning from a 17-hour shift that keeps the world’s largest transportation system operating.