Friday, December 25, 2015

Tehachapi Loop Saved my Marriage

When my wife and I were dating, and for the first few years of our marriage, I thought she was a guy.  What I mean is, I thought she would like the same things I and my guy friends liked – sports, beer, scatological references and, in my case at least, trains.  I thought she would enjoy hiking through one hundred degree heat, across forests and prairies filled with chiggers and ticks, then waiting several hours to photograph an industrial anachronism that had somehow escaped the nineteenth century.
Northbound UP Intermodal Headed to Central Valley

Northbound BNSF Z Train Below Cliff
Psychologists call this “transference.”  I am going to explain my journey out of this wilderness.

In 1982, I was a young lawyer with a firm in Oklahoma City.  As a litigator (meaning I tried cases), I was watching older lawyers in court, learning why most trial lawyers don’t live very long, trying to develop a taste for alcohol other than beer (thus the short life spans).

UP Manifest in Tehachapi Loop
A senior partner in my firm decided that I should attend the American Bar Association convention in San Francisco, where several panels on various aspects of litigation were to be held.  The firm would pay for the trip, and I planned to take advantage of various railroad locations along the way – Soldier Summit, Donner Summit and, as the grand finale, Tehachapi Loop.  I loaded my wife and myself into our Volkswagen Sirocco and set out across country on what I hoped would be the adventure of a lifetime.

BNSF at Tehachapi Loop
In those long ago days, Tehachapi was completely open to visitors.  One could walk into the Loop along the tracks or hike to the peak of the hill which now bears a cross in honor of fallen railroaders.  No one would say a word, complain or attempt to throw you in jail.

Southbound BNSF Manifest Climbing Grade Toward Mohave Desert
The town of Tehachapi was a sleepy, high desert village with a population of perhaps one thousand and a single motel with a model railroad of the Loop in the lobby.  We arrived late in the evening, and the next morning I left before dawn while my wife slept in.

Northbound BNSF Manifest at Cliff
UP Stacks Between Caliente and Bealville
The Tehachapi Mountains separate the San Joaquin Valley to the northwest from the Mojave Desert to the Southeast, and the grade is effectively one-way – north to south.  The land rises approximately 3,300 feet from Bakersfield to Tehachapi, a distance of 40.3 miles.  The real grade starts, however, at the aptly named Caliente, in the bowl of a magnificent horseshoe curve.  From there to Tehachapi, 27.3 miles, the land rises 2,400 feet.
UP Manifest in the Horseshoe at Caliente
These mountains, like the rest of California, are geologically hyper-active.  The rounded, grassy hills near Caliente can, in the summer haze, appear to be growing before one’s eyes.  Here and there are Valley Oaks, a tree native only to California that, in the right lowland conditions, can grow over 100 feet.  In the foothills around Caliente, the trees are low and look bent down, like grazing horses.  Because they need year-round access to groundwater, these trees tend to be spread apart on the hillsides, at lower elevations, and do not invade one another’s turf.
Northbound UP Freight Exiting Caliente
As the elevation rises, so does the annual precipitation, while average temperature drops.  Average precipitation at Caliente is about nine inches of rainfall, with no snow.  At Tehachapi, only twenty miles away, about 11 inches of rain and 19 inches of snow fall each year.  As the elevation increases, different trees appear, such as Black Oak, Coulter Pine, Incense Cedar and White Fir.  Railroad photography at the loop is more difficult than at Caliente because the vegetation is thicker, particularly the Coulter Pines, one of which I have always wanted to cut down.  (If you have been to the Loop, you know which one I mean.)
UP Mid-trains Above Offending Coulter Pine
The most dramatic landscape in California is the drive from Death Valley to Owens Valley at the base of Mount Whitney, the lowest and tallest places in the contiguous 48 states.  In 115 miles, the land rises from -282 to 14,505 feet.  For my money, the second most dramatic drive in California is from Caliente to Bealville, about half a mile, in which the elevation increases over 500 feet.  Bealville Road runs from Caliente due south up the hills; the grade is both spectacular and unnerving.  The railroad makes what amounts to a gigantic horseshoe from west to east, with several smaller horseshoes within the bigger one.  You can shoot a train at Caliente, drive up the hill to Bealville and wait sometimes fifteen minutes or more before the southbound train finally arrives, heading east.

Southbound UP Freight at Bealville
The Loop itself presents similar engineering problems.  The mountains on either side press inward, leaving little room for the railroad to switchback.  In the middle of the narrow defile, a small, almost perfectly round hill rises to a point, like a woman’s breast. 
BNSF at the Loop
Northbound BNSF Z Train at Loop
 According to legend, William Hood (the chief engineer) built the railroad where the cows had tread.  However, to me, the legend makes no sense.  Cows going south would not walk around the hill.  They would wander east through the defile, then south, following the route of California Highway 58, a grade acceptable for cattle but not for trains. 
UP Manifest at Tehachapi Loop
In the narrow landscape, the only possible solution for railroad construction was to wrap the tracks around the hill, climbing steadily, then at the point where the tracks are 77 feet on top of themselves, construct an embankment with a tunnel.  The terrain is so torturous that there is a horseshoe curve immediately below the Loop, and another shortly after the tracks cross over themselves.  Maintenance in this area is constant. 
Northbound BNSF Trailers Descending Loop
UP Freight Approaching Caliente

I did not understand all this my first morning at the Loop, but like everyone before me and after, I sensed that this place was special.  I drove back to the motel to pick up my wife, absolutely certain that she would be as infatuated with the geography as was I.
Southbound BNSF Intermodal Approaching Caliente
UP Manifest in Tehachapi Canyon
On the way back to the motel, I grew sleepy.  We had been on the road for almost two weeks, and I had awakened at 5:00 a.m. that morning.  I told her I would like to lie down for just a moment.

“Well . . . okay,” she said.
Southbound UP Approaching Caliente

BNSF Intermodal in Tehachapi Canyon, Climbing Toward Caliente 
Almost two hours later I awoke.  She was sitting in the same chair that she had been sitting in when I closed my eyes.  Her expression was somewhere between wrath and plutonium radiation.  That day, I gave that look a name:  “Warrior Princess.”

“Well, this is fun,” she said.

We returned to the Loop that afternoon.  My wife would not talk to me.  The sun went behind clouds that would not lift.  Trains stopped running.  

UP Stacks at Caliente
 In the 31 years that passed before my wife and I returned to Tehachapi in October 2013 (the year the images in this post were taken), we learned several things.  (1)  I don’t like sushi.  (2)  A lasting marriage requires each party to understand and accommodate the other.  (3)  It is easier for women to understand and accommodate men than vice-versa. 

BNSF Passing Under Loop Track
Same Train in Horseshoe Curve Below Loop
Same Train in Loop
We also learned how to travel in ways we both find rewarding.  We both like to explore isolated, geographically and culturally interesting places such as Chaco Canyon, Canyon De Chelly and Zuni Pueblo.  We confine our trips to the West.  We both like to hike, so we plan for access to National Parks and Forests with multiple trail-heads.  
BNSF Auto Racks 
When my wife goes railfanning with me, it is for short periods (an hour or two) in areas with cell phone coverage so that she can talk with her sisters and mother while we wait for a train.  She also needs a place to walk while talking.  So, on a recent trip to Glacier National Park, we stopped for about an hour along the High Line on U.S. 2 before returning to our cabin for the evening.  I saw two trains, and she walked along a scenic turn-out and failed to resolve her latest family crisis.
BNSF Above Loop Tunnel

Southbound BNSF at Sunrise

UP Southbound Intermodal
When we returned to Tehachapi in October of 2013, we did not drive.  Instead, we flew to Las Vegas, using “frequent flyer” mileage I had accumulated in my law practice.  We rented a car, thereby avoiding mechanical troubles, and drove to a rental house in the mountains above Lake Isabella – not particularly close to Tehachapi, but a lovely place where we could spread out, feel at home and drink wine on the deck among the tall trees.
Multiple Loops at Tehachapi
My wife, a CPA and Professor of Management at Oklahoma University, is writing a novel based loosely on some time she spent in California City years ago, in the Mojave Desert, and one morning she drove me to the Loop at dawn, dropped me off and spent the remainder of the day exploring her past.  I hiked from Walong (named after Roadmaster W.A. Long) down to Bealville, shooting trains along the way.  My wife picked me up at sundown.
Northbound BNSF Headed to San Joaquin Valley

UP Manifest at Dawn

I am convinced that, were it not for the ill-fated trip in 1982, my wife and I would have split up in the past 30 years.  But that trip was so difficult that we were forced to confront our own behavior.  I had more confronting to do than she, but both of us have made significant changes through the years.  We are now in our sixties and planning our next trip, which may (or may not) including a little railfanning.

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  1. Don Armentrout ( 29, 2022 at 9:36 AM

    Great story and fabulous pix. My wife and I were at the Loop Overlook in 2006 when we were en route to a quilt show in Sisters, Oregon. We were westbound on SR 58 when I saw the sign for The Loop. I had heard of it, but didn't really know much about it. Much to my surprise, my wife was (nearly) as impressed as I was by what we saw. I was a life-long railfan and I think she felt some obligation to abide my passion since I was driving us to her passion, a quilt show. I am now an 83-year-old widower in a retirement community near Phoenix. I found the link to this site in the live chat on TLTC ( thanks to one of the regular moderators, Molly von Sunshine.
    Thank you for sharing your fine work.

  2. The story has a great marrige advice. Thank you so much for the wonderful post