Thursday, March 26, 2020

Six Days in the Desert (BNSF Transcon: Danby to Ash Hill)

Day One

February sunrise on the Mojave.  No wind.  No sound.  The eastern mountains are black.  Above them the clouds glow orange.  The air is so dry and clear that you might be able to reach out and grab the sun from behind the tallest peak.  

You carry your camera equipment to the Jeep from the small cabin in which you have slept.  Nothing surrounds you but sand and three other dwellings a half mile away or further.  No cacti grow here, just the ubiquitous creosote bush that appears from the sand and rocks like tentacles of an underground creature searching for water and sunlight.

You pause by the Jeep and ask yourself why you enjoy being so alone, so isolated, in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to keep you company but sand and your own thoughts, which usually are as barren as the desert landscape.  You have no answer.  You realize that most people – all? – consider your activities indices of mental incoherence, but you cannot help yourself.  Like a moth to a candle flame, you are drawn to this immense wasteland where people, animals, insects and plants scratch a meager existence.  So here you are, loading your cameras into the Jeep.  You would not choose to be anywhere else in the world.

Your cabin sits near Twenty-Nine Palms, California, home to 20 or more tattoo parlors, 20 or more barbershops advertising “Marine Haircuts,” five or six small churches, a private college about as large as a two-car garage and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, the lights of which in the hills beyond town glow at night like a nuclear reactor.  During the day, when you have crossed the mountains to the adjoining basin to the north, you sometimes hear deep rumbling that you can almost feel on your skin, and you wonder what is going on at the Marine base.  And if the sound is not coming from the base, then where?

But now you are preparing for your first morning in the desert, mouth dry with anticipation, because you have already examined the satellite photo and know that the few clouds over the mountains are moving quickly to the east and there is nothing behind them but clear sky.  You will not be fighting clouds this day, which is perhaps the best reason of all for photography in the desert.  If you crave sunlight, if you wilt in the shade, then the Mojave Desert was made for you.

From Twenty-Nine Palms, Amboy Road leads east across the barren land.  The posted speed limit is 55 mph, which you are driving until someone races around you going at least 80.  Then someone else flies past even faster, so you speed up to 75, which does not seem all that fast, because you are not passing anything other than an occasional house or abandoned dwelling or the Wonder Valley Community Center, which honestly does not look all that wonderful.  You pass a restaurant called “The Palms,” which is listed on Google Maps as providing “Bar Games, Dancing and Comfort Food.”  You make a mental note to avoid The Palms.

After about fifteen miles, the highway turns north, climbing toward a notch in the Sheep Hole Mountains.  You are uncertain where the name comes from or what it means, though any image is unsavory.  The road winds back and forth on a seven percent grade until reaching the 2444 feet summit, about 1200 feet higher than the valley you have just climbed out of.

Ahead to the north lies another broad basin, one in what appears to be an endless series of peaks and valleys, basins and ranges, like the ruts and rocks in a well-worn country road.  But below somewhere is the BNSF Transcon, the point of all this effort, and you imagine you can see a train over 1000 feet below and 28 miles away, though your mind, which is occasionally rational, points out that a train from that height and distance would look smaller than a single strand of hair on the ground, viewed from the top of a Redwood.

The road now leads steadily downgrade.  You are going about 80 mph when headlights appear behind you.  Your heart jumps as you fear you are about to be pulled over for speeding, but that, as it turns out, is a pointless concern, because everyone speeds in the desert.  The vehicle behind you is a pick-up on huge tires, with about a 12 inch lift kit, that looks like something from a grade B science fiction movie.  If you are going 80, it roars around you going at least 100, but you do not speed up, because you no longer trust you reflexes at such speed.

To the east, the desert unrolls in shades of red, brown and white.  How can the desert be white, you may wonder, but you are simply looking at salt that has leached out of the ground after centuries of occasional rain.  Soon you are passing a huge industrial facility that appears to mine the salt, though the main gate is locked, and you see no one about.  You turn sharply left, then right, and suddenly you have reached the intersection with old US Route 66.  Across the road is the Transcon. 

And now you see the strangest sight you will encounter on your journey to this land of contrasts.  Walking beside the road is a short man wearing a wide-brimmed, pointed hat like you have seen in Kurosawa movies – The Seven Samuri, for example.  But this is no Samuri.  He is short and pulls behind a small, two-wheeled cart like something someone would bring to a grocery store for cereal and potatoes.  He wears a long coat, almost a duster, and is walking with his head down in the direction from which you have just arrived.  He does not look up, does not appear to notice your presence, and you wonder if he intends to walk across the mountains.  To where?

But there is no time to stop and chat, which you would not be likely to do anyway, because the sun is out, and trains are running.  You turn right (east) on Old 66 and immediately are in Amboy, which appears to have once been a small settlement.  There are an abandoned school, a few small houses, a gas station that appears to be open and the remnants of an old pre-World War II tourist court, with small white individual units where weary travelers could spend the night.  A large sign along the road proclaims “Roy’s Motel and Café.”  The windows on every unit of the old tourist court are now boarded, and there is a sign in what used to be the parking lot, saying something about an historic landmark.  Amboy looks like it once saw a lot of history – before the construction of I-40 which took away the traffic.  Whether it is a landmark is probably in the eye of the beholder.

You are heading east on the old highway, and in a few miles you approach Kelbaker Road, which heads north into another mountain range and eventually intersects the interstate.  Immediately in front are barricades announcing that the road ahead is closed to through traffic.  It is apparent, however, that many vehicles have driven around the barricade, so many that a trail has been created through the desert sand.  You follow the path and are soon back on the main road headed east.  You pass an abandoned restaurant and gas station, more reminders of the traffic that once flowed through this place.  Then you arrive at Chambliss, California, another “former” place that used to be a restaurant and tourist court but is now fenced and abandoned.  

It appears that a few people live here, though it is hard to tell if the vehicles in the sand still operate.  You turn right on Cadiz Road.  The railroad pronounces it K-deez, emphasis on first syllable, and when you reach the tracks, the hard-surfaced road ends.  This is the junction with the Arizona and California Railroad, once a Santa Fe branch line, now operated by the Genesee and Wyoming.  There is no traffic on the line this morning, so you turn east into the desert, following a minimum maintenance road that parallels the tracks as far as Danby, where you stop and begin your morning’s photography.  This is day one, and you will work your way slowly back to Cadiz as the sun sets.  

However, the day will not be without care.  In fact, you cannot remember your last day without care, though you're sure you must have had one sometime in the past.  In any event, you take several shots from a small basalt outcrop that has not yet eroded back to ground level.  Rather than hiking the half-mile or so from the road, you take off across the open desert in your Jeep, which makes the drive through the sand and creosote bushes quite easily.  You park beneath the shallow ridge, then climb to the top, set up your tri-pod and camera and wait for the first train, which on the Transcon never takes long.  Several images later, you climb down and return the camera equipment to your vehicle.  When you start the engine, the warning light comes on for low tire pressure.  You check the indicator, which shows that the right front tire is down to 28 psi.  (Normal is 37.).  Oh, boy!

You are 69 years old, and changing the tire on a Jeep Wranger is not as easy as it once was, especially in the middle of the Mojave Desert on the side of a hill.  One of the nice features of a Wrangler, however, is that it carries a legitimate spare tire, not the tiny "donut" that you find with most vehicles.  The spare is attached to the rear door and is fairly heavy, at least it seems heavy to you.  You lift it down, roll it to the front of the Jeep, extract the jack from the rear cargo holder, then spend the next half-hour changing the tire.  The most difficult part is lifting the spare and matching the holes in the wheel to the bolts on the rotor.  This takes more effort than anticipated, but eventually the match is consummated, which reminds you a little of sex after sixty.  

But now you have no spare tire.  What will you do if you have another flat?  It is about a five mile walk back to Cadiz.  When you drove through, no one appeared to be alive.  It is about another five miles back to old 66, and the traffic there didn't look too heavy (you didn't see another vehicle on the road), so even if you walk that far, you can't be certain that anyone will help you -- or even see you.  You check your cell phone.  Much to your amazement, it is picking up a signal.  Apparently, old 66 has cell coverage!  Is this a great country or what?

On the internet you find a wrecker service in Twenty-Nine Palms that advertises rescues in the open desert.  You are, it seems, not the first person to have a flat out here.  No price is given, and you really don't want to know.  But at least you have a plan.  A man with a plan is better than a man without a plan.  Right?

All four tires hold -- for the remainder of the trip.  Following are selected images from that first day.

Day Two

When you return to your small cabin that evening, the winter sun has been down for almost an hour.  The lights from the Marine base shine through the darkness, while the town of Twenty-Nine Palms appears to be asleep.  The wind is calm, as it has been all day.  The sky is clear.  In the dry air, the temperature is dropping rapidly.  From a high near 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the Jeep's thermostat now registers in the low 50's.  The temperature will descend to the high 30's before the next morning's dawn.

You finish your legal work for the day in about an hour, then pan fry a steak and some potatoes.  You stopped drinking alcohol in December, a bad month to make such a switch, and you tell yourself that a glass of wine certainly would tase good right about now.  But you have no wine.  You wait a minute or so; the urge passes.

As you are eating, you check the next day's forecast on the National Weather Service Website, which predicts that the sky will be clear but that winds will be out of north at 25-40 mph with gusts as high as 60 mph!  Blowing dust warnings have been posted throughout the Mojave.

You have never seen a desert dust storm.  You've seen dust storms from time to time in your home state of Oklahoma, but since the time of your birth (1950) they are rare and not particularly ferocious, so you imagine that any blowing dust in the morning will not affect photography.  Perhaps the wind will exacerbate the dryness of your eyes and nose.  In the desert, you must lubricate your eyes several times each day and spray your nose with saline solution.  Otherwise, your eyes will burn and your nose bleed, making you feel like the old man you are.

You stopped watching television years ago, so you don't bother with the small, flat-screen model in the cabin.  Instead, you take a shower in the tiny bathroom.  "Tiny" is probably too generous.  The shower makes the comparable facility in an Amtrak bedroom look enormous.  Water comes from a well which must be quite deep to find moisture in this barren land.  The pump turns off and on regularly, decreasing and then increasing the flow of water like periodic gusts of wind.  Water pressure is about the same as liquid poured out of a small bottle, not much but enough to wash the sand off your neck and arms.

You then climb into bed and quickly fall asleep over Volume V of A History of Philosophy by Frederick Coppleston, S. J., an amazingly fine book if you are interested in philosophy.  If you are not, I don't recommend it.  You are reading Bishop Berkeley's critique of Locke's theory of a material substrate.  According to Berkeley, perception is the essence of existence.  If something is not perceived, he argued, it does not exist.  Many people wrongly assume this to mean that if no one is looking at a tree, it is not there.  Since Berkeley believed that God perceives everything, then all material things do exist.  He simply argued that there is no material substrate beneath perception.  In that regard, he anticipated the Matrix by a few hundred years.

When you wake the next morning, before you dress you open the cabin door and step outside.  The wind is blowing lightly from the north, not too strong, nothing to worry about, and you smile to yourself that the Weather Service has once again exaggerated a forecast.  The policy must be never to underestimate a problem.  If they think it's going to rain, they predict thunderstorms and lightning.  Better to be wrong that way than to have predicted light rain when a tornado shows up.

By the time you are loading your equipment into the Jeep, the wind is stronger, strong enough to blow shut the cabin's screen door.  But you don't see or feel any dust in the air, and the sky is again clear.  You've slept later today, and the sun is already well above the mountains.  It is going to be another good day.

When you reach the summit of the Sheep Hole Mountains and peer down into the basin to the north, you see a large dark column rising from the ground like a tornado funnel.  It slithers first left, then right, then left again, growing, shrinking, growing again.  Then it just disappears, as though someone unplugged it.

The morning before, the mountains across the basin were clear and pristine.  Now they are like vague shadows through a mist.  The sky is clear but with a slightly brown tinge.  You stop the Jeep and step out beside the road.  The wind is now fierce from the north, and you can feel the sand in it, hard against your face and arms, small particles surprisingly fierce.  But the basin looks clear, if a little hazy, and you have ventured many times before into the wind and dust, so you return to the Jeep and press downhill, northward.

About half-way down the mountain, you pass the small strange man in the pointed hat, pulling the same strange cart, walking with his head down, climbing the grade toward the summit, wearing the same coat as the day before, trudging slowly against the grade, and you want to stop and ask him where he is going, but you don't because you are not sure you want to hear the answer, and anyway, what if he pulls a knife or a gun?  Who in his right mind would be walking across the desert pulling a cart?

Where does he spend the night?  What does he eat?  Does he have any particular motivation, or is he just walking aimlessly, pointlessly, because he has nothing better to do?

So you continue driving, and soon you have forgotten about him.  You are planning the locations for today's action -- from Cadiz to Amboy, an area well off Old US 66 until the tracks reach Amboy, but one which you can again follow on a minimum maintenance road through the desert.  You retrace your route from the day before to Cadiz but this time turn west along the tracks toward the junction with the Arizona and California.  The double-track mainline is paralleled on both sides by a row of short dead trees, clearly planted years ago, all completely lifeless, crooked and misshapen like the bones of a deformed animal.  The scene might come from a science fiction movie about an expedition to Mars.  The astronauts find the remains of an ancient civilization, long dead, annihilated by a planetary disaster.  Whatever happened here is lost to your meager understanding, and besides, the dead trees ruin any possibility for photography.  So you continue driving west.

The wind is blowing harder now.  Ahead, another brown funnel rises from the ground.

"Dust devil," you say aloud, involuntarily.  The phrase spills out like paint.

But you are mistaken.  This is no dust devil.  Instead, a brown curtain stretches across the basin from north mountain range to south, growing taller by the second, as though someone is raising it from the wings of a vast stage, and you realize that this may not be the optimum moment for photography.  You stop the Jeep, leave the motor running and open the driver's door, which is pointed south.  Even though the wind is from the north, the desert immediately swirls inside, as though someone is throwing buckets at you.  You slam the door shut and notice that in that instant, sand has coated the steering wheel and dashboard.

The desert mountains are severely sculpted, sharp lines and points like broken ice, and you have always assumed that the sculptor was water.  Though rain is sparse in the Mojave, storms are often violent, and occasional torrents over millions of years can dislodge even granite.  But you now realize that the desert's primary artist is windblown sand, the same substance used to blast buildings clean in Manhattan.  The maelstrom outside your Jeep may strip the mountains clean, to say nothing of the red paint that you and your vehicle are so fond of.

When the weather turns nasty, you spend the day exploring for optimum photographic locations.  This is the first time, however, you've suspended operations for a sandstorm.  The Weather Service wasn't kidding.  The winds are ferocious.

Thoughts occur at odd moments, assuming they occur at all, and you suddenly think of the old man walking along the highway up the mountain, pulling the two-wheeled cart.  Is the sand as fierce there as here?  What is he doing?  What would you do?  You suppose you would lie down facing south and cover your mouth and nose with whatever cloth might be at hand -- shirt, coat, sock, anything.

Then the thought passes, and you decide to keep driving west toward Amboy.

Cadiz appears to be at the bottom of grades in both directions.  Eastbounds struggle uphill all the way to Goffs, while westbounds climb to some point that you have yet to identify, though not all the way to Amboy, because westbounds are definitely racing downgrade there.  You drive slowly in your Jeep, because the sand is so thick that you can only see about 20 yards ahead.  The vehicle rocks steadily from side to side, and you wonder if it might blow over and roll across the desert like a Russian thistle.

A few miles west of Cadiz, you reach the end of the dead trees lining the tracks.  A few additional miles and you reach what appears to be a summit for westbound traffic.  Ahead the tracks are clearly trending downgrade, and to the south you see what appears to be an abandoned "Y" used by helpers during the steam era.  The rail must have been removed at least sixty years ago, yet the roadbed and embankment are as clear and unmarked as the day they were first constructed, so little erosion takes place on the desert floor. 

Tomorrow you will return to photograph the locations you missed today. 

That evening you fall asleep reading Coppleston's discussion of Spinoza's conception of God as all of nature, an idea that has some appeal, until you read further that Spinoza was considered an atheist and would have been ex-communicated by the Church were he not Jewish.  Not to be outdone, the Jewish authorities ex-communicated him when he was only 24.  Well, you still like the idea, and Spinoza seems like a thoughtful fellow.  You believe you will cast your lot with Spinoza.  

Day Three

All that night, the wind roared around your small cabin, waking you repeatedly, rattling the windows, howling across the sand.  But now you are awake, and there is faint light outside.  With trepidation you open the cabin door and, in your pajamas, walk outside.  There is no wind.  Nothing.  The sky is mostly clear, with intermittent high cirrus, but you have always found such skies attractive.  Your Jeep is covered with sand.

Soon you are headed east on Amboy road, climbing the Sheep Hole Mountains.  At the summit, you pass the same old man with the pointed hat and the two-wheeled cart, still walking with his head down, still not looking at you, still fixed on some destination only he comprehends.  He has become a fixture, as much a part of the desert as the sand and creosote bushes.  If you return in a year, you believe he will still be walking back and forth across the mountains, still with his head down.

This day traffic on the Transcon is heavy in the early morning and late evening, sporadic through the middle of the day, because a maintenance crew has appeared from Barstow and is replacing ties near Bagdad, not the city in Iraq (which is spelled Baghdad) but a location along the railroad east of Ash Hill.  Westbounds pour through in the morning; eastbounds wait until almost sundown.  In the first image below, taken just before the sun disappears, you can see five eastbound trains lined up across the desert, each about seven minutes behind the other, with several more behind but out of sight.  Selected photographs follow.

Day Four

Your small cabin has an outdoor grill.  Last evening you attempted to cook a steak.  Unfortunately, darkness comes early in February, and there is no artificial light outside the cabin, so you attempted to use your phone as a flashlight and ended up dropping the steak into the sand.  You took the poor pitiful piece of beef inside and washed it at the sink -- to an avail.  The first bite crunched in your mouth like peanut brittle, but without the taste.  Your supper consisted of potato chips and hot dogs cooked in boiling water.

Then you read yourself to sleep again with Coppleston's discussion of Hobbes' and Rousseau's differing conceptions of the "state of nature."  The Englishman Hobbes believed that a world without civilization's controls would be filled with violence.  Everyone would fear for his life.  Existence would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."  Thus, men and women allow themselves to be governed by a sovereign who sets rules of conduct to avoid such a miserable existence.

The Swiss Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that the "state of nature" was beautiful and sublime, paradise in a word, and that humanity had been corrupted by civilization.  His goal was to preserve natural human freedom in a world of rules and regulations.  He would have been at home in a commune.

Two more dissimilar spirits than Hobbes and Rousseau would be difficult to discover.  On this particular evening, after your lousy supper, you cast your lot with Hobbes.

But it is now morning, and the sun is out.  The temperature is in the high 30's, but with the promise of warmth as the day progresses, so you load your camera equipment into the Jeep and point yourself east again on Amboy road.

Twentynine Palms sits at the northern entrance to Joshua Tree National Park.  The namesake is planted throughout town.  Mormon settlers in the 19th century named the tree for the Biblical story of Joshua, who raised his hands to the heavens in prayer to the Lord.  

To you, the tree looks like a space alien covered with tentacles.  But "tentacle tree" is not as mellifluous as "Joshua tree," is it?  And certainly not as meaningful.  In any event, you find it odd that you have not the slightest desire to tour the park.  Your only concern is finding trains in the desert, which simply confirms your belief that something fundamentally is wrong with you.

There is no traffic this morning on Amboy Road.  You turn north and begin to climb the mountains.  Soon you are passing the old man with the pointed hat, head still down, still trudging across the desert.  This time, you barely notice.  He might be a passing creosote bush.

Today you will be photographing from the Amboy Crater to Bagdad, where the maintenance crew is replacing ties.  The crater sits just south of the Transcon on Old 66, the remnant of a cinder cone that last erupted about 10,000 years ago.  The lava field extends to the edge of the highway and is easy to climb.  You do not bother climbing the cone itself because, as mentioned, you are focused on the railroad.    

While hiking through the lava, you are fascinated by the variety of life that has taken hold.  Creosote bushes appear to grow directly out of the rock.  Over the years, crevices have formed, now filled with sand, where small shoots of green grass grow.  Small lizards scurry to avoid your footsteps.  A bird flaps its wings overhead.  Then a jackrabbit darts across the red rock.  You had no idea that rabbits could live in such a harsh landscape.  This animal's ears are almost as long as its body.  It looks as though it might fly away if terribly frightened.

In other areas, however, the lava is totally barren.  The scene is little changed, if at all, in 10,000 years -- a sobering thought.

West of the lava field, the Transcon appears to run on fairly level terrain for several miles, then begins the slow and arduous climb to the summit of Ash Hill, about fifteen miles away to the northwest in the middle of another lava field.  This whole portion of the desert is covered with ancient cinder cones and shield volcanoes, though now the sand is quiet, like an old man contemplating his youth.

You pull your Jeep off the highway onto a turnout where Bagdad used to be.  A single tree is growing in the sand.  Beside it is a sign that reads:  "This tree is all that remains of Bagdad, California."  Once, Bagdad was a station stop on the Santa Fe, with a motel and restaurant, but all that is gone now, and the tree does not look very healthy.

The maintenance crew is working hard -- men and machines stretched out over about one-half mile.  Actually, there are as many machines as men.  Years ago, tie replacement would have required hundreds.  Now there are about 30.  Your scanner chatters incessantly with communications concerning approaching trains.

"Here comes another one," someone says.

"It keeps us employed," someone replies.

During the middle of the day, the dispatcher in Fort Worth holds trains in both directions for about four hours.  Then the dam bursts.  Westbounds pour through one after another for about an hour.  Then eastbounds.  Then more westbounds.  At first you are annoyed, but then you realize that you have been given the opportunity in the late afternoon to photograph ten or more trains in the rapidly setting the setting sun, so your mood improves, and you think that maybe Rousseau was correct, after all.  But your temperament is still more like Hobbes'.

The maintenance crew shuts down for the day about the same time you head back to Twentynine Palms.  

After returning to Twentynine Palms that evening, you stop at a local grocery store to purchase another steak.  This time you pan fry it inside, avoiding the sand.  You start to read Coppleston, but you are so tired that you fall asleep with the book on your stomach.

Day Five

February sunrise on the Mojave.  No wind.  No sound.  The eastern mountains are black.  No clouds.  The air is so dry and clear that you might be able to reach out and grab the sun from behind the tallest peak.  

You are loading your film cameras into the Jeep, and you wonder if anyone else in the world still shoots film.  Someone must, because you can still purchase it, though the price has been going up steadily for many years.

On this trip, you are shooting three different types:  Velvia 50, Provia 100 and Ektachrome 100, which Kodak recently starting selling again after about a 10 years' hiatus.  The return of Ektachrome gives you hope that perhaps film photography is not completely dead.

The images in this article demonstrate the distinctive characteristics of each film.  You believe that careful readers should be able to tell the difference.

The real problem with film photography in the twenty-first century is not film but rather cameras.  Almost no one makes and markets film cameras anymore.  Nikon still sells the F6, but the price is astronomical.  Nikon also produces the FM10, successor to the original FM, at a more affordable price.  (Actually, the FM10 is made by Cosina but bears the Nikon name.)  The FM10, like its predecessors, is fully manual.

On this trip, you are shooting a Nikon F5, in your opinion the greatest film camera ever made, and two Nikon FM2's, also great, fully manual cameras.  You shoot multiple cameras and films so that if something goes wrong with one, the others serve as back-ups.  So far on this trip, nothing has gone wrong.

So far.

Every morning before you leave, you make yourself a ham and cheese sandwich and pack it in a plastic bag with some chips.  Today is no different, but you are low on chips, so you make a second sandwich.  Then you load several bottles of water into the car and off you go.

This morning you meet the old man in the pointed hat about ten miles east of Twentynine Palms, head still down.  He appears to be walking with a slight limp today, but he is now on level ground.  Perhaps he knows someone in town.  Perhaps when he arrives, he will find food, water and a soft bed upon which to rest.

Today you will be photographing from Bagdad west to Siberia, another ghost town, where the double-track mainline splits, one running north directly up Ash Hill, the other curving back to the northeast, then northwest, switch-backing up a shallower grade.  Almost all westbounds take the shallower route.

The only things left in Siberia are the rock walls of an old telegraph office.  The roof is gone, and someone has painted colorful geometric designs on the rock.  There is a sign along the tracks, identifying the location.  Just beyond the sign is a palm tree, more dead than alive, that must have been planted and watered once by someone at the telegraph office.

Slightly east of Siberia are the remnants of two volcanos, side by side, lava piled on top of lava to form small mountains.  The winter sun is well south of these peaks today, but in summer, if one were younger and foolish, one could climb to the top for some magnificent images of the desert.  In the summer, however, the average high temperature is 108 degrees Fahrenheit, and the reflective heat off the sand and rocks can easily raise the temperature on one's body to 130 degrees or more.  Even when twenty years old, you were never that foolish.      

The railroad history here, tales of sordid competition and gamesmanship, is similar to most of the western United States.  In the late 19th century, the Atlantic and Pacific Railway reached Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River, while the rival Southern Pacific laid a line eastward from Barstow to Needles.  The two roads then agreed to interchange traffic.  

But the A&P (which later became the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe) decided to bypass the SP and began construction of its own line to Needles, paralleling the tracks of its competitor.  In October 1884, the SP sold its line to the A&P.  In 1885, the A&P completed its line from Barstow through Cajon Pass to San Bernardino and Los Angeles, reaching the Pacific Ocean.

Today, the maintenance crew is moving steadily east as it replaces ties.  It is now close to Amboy; trains are running regularly.  Trains are everywhere!  When the Transcon gets busy, it really gets busy.  Today, you are fortunate enough to capture several "moving" meets, the sort of thing that makes you very happy, another indication that something may well be wrong with you.  Is "well be wrong" a contradiction?  Oh,  well.

The first image below shows a moving meet at Siberia.  Between the two trains are the trailers of a third movement climbing the shallower grade up Ash Hill.

Earlier that morning, you can look east back into the valley at the dust raised by the railroad workers, and beyond the dust to the headlights of westbound trains about fifteen miles away.  Sound on the motionless air carries unbelievable distances.  You can hear the maintenance workers.  You can hear the trains beyond them.  You can hear an automobile on the highway before your weak eyes can even find it on the asphalt.  To the west, you hear eastbounds whistling at a grade crossing ten miles away.  Beyond that, you can even hear the faint whine of traffic on I-40, about 15 miles distant.  Everything in the desert is gigantic -- light, heat, wind, rain, distance, sound, emotion, life, death:  everything.

The Mojave is everything that coastal California wants to forget.  There are meth labs out here.  People bury bodies.  Missiles are tested.  They used to explode atomic bombs out here.  Maybe they still do.  There are no beautiful people this morning in Siberia.  In fact, there is no one but you. 

That morning while waiting for the next train, you search the internet on your I-phone and discover the following:

Cheapest 15 Acres Around Siberia CA Near Barstow $2,500 Cash.  Off road enthusiast land. Live off the grid with no neighbours in sight. Within driving range of Los Angeles, Los [sic] Vegas, Lake Havasu and San Diego.

60 Day 100% money back guarantee. If you don’t like it let me know and I will buy it back from you.  No closing cost, I’ll do all of the paperwork and make it really easy.

For a moment, you toy with the idea of purchasing the property.  You qualify as an off-road enthusiast, and you also like the idea of no neighbors.  But then you realize that your wife and home are about 1,500 miles away, and that as nearly as you can tell, there is no source of water anywhere near Siberia.  In the old days, it must have been trucked in from somewhere.  Still, the idea of owning property along the tracks in the Mojave has a certain appeal.

This day, because traffic is running smoothly in both directions, you move back and forth across the railroad.  You finish photography and drive back to Twentynine Palms, which takes about 45 minutes, and spend your last minutes before sleep contemplating Kant's Categorical Imperative, as discussed by Coppleston:  "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."  Kant spent hundreds of pages trying to explain this, and it is still not particularly clear, at least to you.  Another formulation suggests that you should treat people not simply as a means to an end but as an end in themselves.  Not sure about that one either.  You fall asleep, hoping for another sunny day -- your own categorical imperative.


Day Six

The last day.  Tomorrow you head home.  

The sky is clear, and as you drive east on Amboy Road, you suddenly realize that you have not seen the old man with the pointed hat.  Perhaps he made it to Twentynine Palms.  Some portion of you relaxes; he has found a home.  He will not spend his days wandering aimlessly about the desert.

Today you photograph Ash Hill, a location you have visited before and find infinitely interesting.  The detritus of ancient volcanos lies everywhere.  In fact, it is difficult to find a spot not covered with lava.  The Mojave is part of the "basin and range" country extending into Nevada, where the earth's crust is slowly pulling itself apart, causing the ground to subside in the middle and tip upwards on the ends.  In the California desert, however, for reasons that no one understands, the crust has stopped expanding.  The land here, at least for the time being, is inert, like a sleeping dog that may awake at any moment and, disoriented, stumble itself into trouble.

You are hoping to obtain an image of two trains on the portion of the line where the tracks are separated, one climbing directly up the hill, the other cross-crossing the grade.  Unfortunately, traffic is sporadic, long stretches of nothing followed by activity, followed by more nothing.  An eastbound double-stack train stops for a red board at the summit of the hill and calls the dispatcher.

"Just need a heads-up," the conductor says.

"We're single-tracking today," the dispatcher replies.  "Get comfortable."

The train sits most of the afternoon.  Westbounds flood past.  Other eastbounds run around.  You follow one eastbound down the hill, and much to your amazement you see a westbound in the valley below at Siberia.  Then another.  Two trains on the separate tracks!  

 You return to the summit, and the stack train is still waiting.  You wonder if the crew are playing chess.  Maybe they've fallen asleep.  Eventually, shortly before sunset, they receive a yellow board, cross over to the active track and continue the journey east.

No one who does not live in the desert can claim to know it.  Perhaps no one can.  But six days have at least taught you how much you did not know before you arrived.  You did not know the ferocity of a sand storm.  You did not know the variety of life.  You did not know how beautiful the clouds can glow at sunrise, nor how pleasant a windless afternoon can be in February.  You did not know how fast the weather can change, nor how slowly someone can walk from one basin, across one range, then across another basin, pulling behind a small cart carrying his worldly belongings.

As the day draws down, the sand glows yellow, as though on fire.  Five trains rush through in final minutes of daylight.  The images look surreal, but they accurately portray the desert on this day at dusk.  You take the final photograph of the trip, one more meet shot.  The sun disappears.  Now all that is left is to drive back to your rented cabin and spend more time with Fredrick Coppleston, S.J.

The next morning, as you begin the drive home, you see the old man in the pointed hat, still pulling the small cart, head still down, back out on the road.

To see my other posts, go to  To see my photographs on Flickr, go to

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely beautiful. I visited the area for 2 days in March and found it highly alluring. Got many good shots during my stay which began in Barstow. Daggett is wonderful scenery as well. There are so many great angles off Route 66 could've easily stayed a week or two.