There’s a lonely stretch of road on the south side of San Antonio between the old Spanish Missions of San Juan and Espada. It’s a mile-long straight shot running parallel to the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. Many people in town are familiar with this region, as the southern reach of the road crosses the notorious “Ghost Tracks,” a railroad crossing purportedly haunted by the children who died when their school bus was struck by a train. The problem is, no one seems to be able to track down any newspaper report of this event. I ride this road maybe three times a week on my bicycle, and from my experience, if there are ghosts haunting this area, most likely it would be from the carcasses of the family pets dumped out here. It’s no doubt easier than digging a hole. Every few days I encounter a new box or trash bag surrounded by a cloud of flies and stench. There are also live pets abandoned here–I see them eyeing me hopefully as they cringe at the fence-lines of the surrounding farms. There are also three roadside altars along the road: markers where some drunken or dozing driver lost control of his car and perished unseen and alone.
I had wrangled a photography show at an Alamo Street gallery for Día de los Muertos, which was just a week away. The plan was to shoot a dozen of the more interesting roadside altars around town, but I hadn’t yet done a single photo.
I decided to begin with one of the alters about half a mile from the “Ghost Tracks,” as it was the only one of the three on that road which showed any signs of upkeep. It was early afternoon when I pulled off the road in my truck. There was still a chill in the air and the trees clustered across the road from me were still dripping from the heavy rains that morning. I grabbed my tripod and camera and walked up to the large live oak tree. There were four tall votive candles at the base of the tree each with about an inch of rain water in the glass holders. Further up the tree trunk a heavy iron grill that looked like it belonged to a backyard barbecue had been hung with huge nails driven into the tree. Attached to the bars of the grill were all manner of sentimental objects: a little weathered and sodden teddy bear, white silk flowers, plastic beaded necklaces, some cards with pictures of saints, a tiny gift shop acoustic guitar, and a rosary with pink beads and a silver-painted crucifix.
The clouds, which had been running low and fast on my drive out, were breaking up and the sun began throwing some pleasing shadows. I set up the shot with the grill in the foreground–I was zoomed in as tight as my lens would allow, so that the train, when it finally made its appearance, would be massive and imposing in the background. A slow shutter would leave it’s motion smeared like a river surging by.
Now it was just a matter of waiting. I was toying with the idea of reframing the shot to include a crude carving on the tree which read “Yolanda 4 Ever,” but I wasn’t sure if it was part of the altar. At the sound of a car approaching, I turned around. It was an old green El Camino. I watched as it slowed and rolled to a stop in the grass between me and my truck. Conjunto music with a heavy base line and a strident accordion came from the open windows. A young woman sat in the driver’s seat watching me from behind sunglasses. Beside her sat an old man in a baseball cap reading a newspaper. The twisted front bumper was held fast with a large link chain and bailing wire.
The music stopped abruptly and the woman cut off the engine, which dieseled onerously with a low throaty cough before finally dying. That’s when I heard the long, wavering train whistle. I looked back toward the tree, and the train track beyond. I could see the bright headlight from the train–it had just turned that little bend near the cemetery across from Mission San Juan. It was coming in fairly fast, and I tried to ignore the woman as she climbed out of the car and began walking toward me. I needed to get this shot, because who knew when another train would come along. I could see, from my peripheral vision, that she had come to a stop about fifteen feet from me. She took off her glasses and crossed her arms.
The train was about to enter the frame–the rumbling of steel wheels along iron rails and the whistle screaming all came crashing into me like physical thing. That’s when I squeezed off a shot. I took another three exposures with slightly different settings and placements. Then I put on the lens cap, like a diner placing his napkin on the table, to indicate he was done with his meal. I turned to the woman with what I hoped was a pleasant and cordial smile.
As we stood there, facing one another with the train lumbering by, she pointed with her folded sunglasses at the tree.
“You’re not messing with that, are you?” she shouted over the noise. I didn’t make out the words at first.
“What? Oh, no,” I said slowly and loudly. “I’m just taking pictures.”
She furrowed her brows. At that point the final train car sped past, snatching with it all the thunder and high-pitched metallic squealing.
“It’s for a photography show.” I added. “At an art gallery.”
“Oh,” she said, with an understanding dip of her head, as if art explained everything. “It’s just that if my mother saw anyone messing with this, she’d be sick. This is for my sister, Yoli.”
She walked to the tree and fussed with the silk flowers by reshaping the petals with the wire inside the fabric.
“You should come back out with your camera next week. Me, my mother, and my nieces, we’ll redo it. We freshen it up every few months.” She was wearing an orange t-shirt, faded jeans, and flip-flop sandals. Her hair was held back with what looked like a strip torn off a dish towel. She looked like she was about twenty.
“She was in a car accident?” I asked.
“What?” She turned around and was looking down at my camera.
“Oh.” She slipped her sunglasses into the front pocket of her jeans. “It was up there,” she said, pointing to the rise of the train tracks. “She was walking along the tracks with her boyfriend. They were drunk. Someone said they saw them pushing each other when the train was coming up. You know, pretending. Kids do stupid stuff. Sergio, her boyfriend, well his parents sent him to live with his grandparents in Laredo. It was an accident, everyone knows that, but, you know, the kids at school and everything.”
She bent down to empty the water from the candle holders and stood up with a sigh. “Come on back next week, it’ll be pretty.” She smiled at me and nodded and walked back to her car.
“Hey,” I said. “When did this happen?”
She turned. “On her birthday,” she said. “On Yoli’s birthday.” And I watched her get in the truck with the old man and drive off.