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
|Northbound UP Intermodal Headed to Central Valley|
Psychologists call this “transference.” I am going to explain my journey out of this
|Northbound BNSF Z Train Below Cliff|
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|
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|
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 Stacks Between Caliente and Bealville|
|UP Manifest in the Horseshoe at Caliente|
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|
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.)
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.
|UP Mid-trains Above Offending Coulter Pine|
|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|
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.
|Northbound BNSF Z Train at Loop|
|UP Manifest at Tehachapi Loop|
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|
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.
|UP Manifest in Tehachapi Canyon|
“Well . . .
okay,” she said.
|Southbound UP Approaching Caliente|
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
|BNSF Intermodal in Tehachapi Canyon, Climbing Toward Caliente |
“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|
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
|Same Train in Loop|
|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.
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.
|Multiple Loops at Tehachapi|
|Northbound BNSF Headed to San Joaquin Valley|
|UP Manifest at Dawn|
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.
To see my other posts, go to waltersrail.com.
To see my photographs on Flickr, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpwalters/.
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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqF7Jdtk_HI) thanks to one of the regular moderators, Molly von Sunshine.ReplyDelete
Thank you for sharing your fine work.
The story has a great marrige advice. Thank you so much for the wonderful postReplyDelete