The story that follows involves a recent rail trip my mother, wife and I took to California. The photographs were all acquired on Beaumont Hill in southern California: San Gorgonio Pass on the east and San Timoteo Canyon on the west. San Gorgonio Pass is a 2,600 feet high gap between the San Bernardino Mountains on the north and the San Jacinto Mountains on the south. Formed along the San Andreas Fault, the pass is the transition zone between the mild climate to the west and desert to the east. San Timoteo Creek formed the canyon of the same name and flows northwest to its confluence with the Santa Ana River.
Your author originally intended that the text would discuss the geography of San Gorgonio Pass and San Timoteo Canyon, but events of the trip intervened. Thus, the following images do not necessarily match the text. That is a defect I am compelled to live with, because this story tells itself.
Mid-trains on westbound stacks are climbing San Gorgonio Pass.
My mother turned 90 in December 2019, and my wife and I had planned to take her on a cruise to Europe in April 2020. However, fate intervened in the form of Covid 19. My mother decided she did not want to spend weeks confined to a large boat with hundreds of old people, so we cancelled.
But as April turned to May, then May to June, the old girl became restless. She loves to travel and has seen more of the world than I can imagine – places like China and India. She communicates with me by talking to my wife, and so my wife one afternoon told me that my mother wanted to take a trip.
|More mid-trains on San Gorgonio Pass.|
“Well, what kind of trip?” I asked, not unreasonably.
My wife said that she did not know. Just a trip. My mother wanted to take a trip, and she wanted me to plan it.
“Because you are her son.”
I have lived long enough to know that I would not win that argument, so I planned a trip by train from Denver to Emeryville, California, on Amtrak’s California Zephyr, and then from Emeryville to Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight. The Zephyr is the heir of the train of the same name operated into the 1960’s by the Burlington, Rio Grande and Western Pacific. All three railroads have since disappeared, the Burlington swallowed by BNSF, the Rio Grande and Western Pacific by Union Pacific. The Coast Starlight retains the name of the Southern Pacific train running up and down the California coast from Oakland to L.A. Both trains soldier on through government subsidy. I believe they are the two most spectacular train rides in North America. My wife and I had ridden the Zephyr twice previously and loved it so much that we were excited about a third trip. I had ridden the train south from San Jose once in December, 1971, while in college, shortly after Amtrak’s creation. That train was running hours late. By the time we reached the ocean, the sun was down, the sky dark. I wanted to see the ocean by train and was therefore suitably engaged. And my mother seemed pleased.
We made our reservations, flew to Denver and spent the night in the Oxford Hotel, a grand building constructed in the 19th century, only one block from the train station. That evening Joe Biden and Donald Trump were holding their first presidential debate, which my wife and mother watched in my mother’s room. I refused to watch and stayed in the separate room my wife and I had booked. To me, watching a presidential “debate” is about the same thing as listening to the disembowelment of a cat. Nothing even close to a debate transpires. Instead, each candidate spends the allotted time hurling ad hominem missiles across the stage.
“My opponent pushes children into the Royal Gorge!”
“My opponent stores nuclear waste in baby strollers!”
That sort of thing.
The guttural level of political discourse in this country is depressing. I know there are competent people in the land, but none dares run for public office. Our politicians are narcissists to the core.
The next morning we checked out of the hotel and made the short walk to Denver Union Station. Both my wife and mother were complaining about the “debate.”
“What is wrong with this country?” my wife said. “Why is everything so polarized?”
“People aren’t as religious as they used to be,” my mother replied -- her standard answer to almost every question.
Denver has recently significantly enlarged the boarding platforms at its magnificent train station to make space for trains from its new light rail system. To reach the tracks where the passenger trains stop, one must walk below ground, beneath the light rail tracks, then take elevators to the surface. However, the elevators were not operating. Instead, large signs announced that Amtrak passengers were required to take the stairs to avoid close contact. Covid 19, you know.
Stairs are not a problem for me, but they are challenging for my 90-year-old mother. Also, we all were dragging large suitcases for a 16 days’ trip. Neither wife nor mother could navigate the suitcases up the stairs, so your author was required to carry everything to the surface.
I once heard a woman complain that men make more money than women. I heard a man reply, “That’s because, when the Titanic goes down, you and the children get to board the life boats, and we have to stay behind and drowned.”
The train was on time, and we settled into our bedroom suites – one for my mother, another for my wife and myself. The train was only about 40 percent full. The four coaches were
almost empty. The two sleeper cars, however, were completely full, both roomettes and bedrooms.
As I sat down in the bedroom, I could hear two men talking in the adjacent chamber. One appeared to be on a cell phone: “We were going to fly, but all flights were cancelled,” he said, clearly miffed. “So we decided to take the train. We thought we’d be there [California] before sundown. Now they tell us we have to spend the night on the train, and we’ll arrive tomorrow afternoon!”
Westbound stacks are rolling downgrade through San Timoteo Canyon on the west side of Beaumont Hill.
Our attendant was a pleasant young woman, short with black hair and prominent cheeks, who told us that in one week, Amtrak was cutting back all long-distance passenger trains, including the California Zephyr, to three days per week.
“I’ve only got 12 years seniority,” she said, “so I’ll probably get laid off.”
The ride out of Denver up the Front Range, through Big Ten Loop and the Tunnel District, is the most dramatic I have ever taken. I have always been startled that construction of a railroad across the front range seemed possible to anyone. Unlike other lines, from Denver there is no opening into the mountains from the east. The Donner Pass route follows the Truckee River. The Solider Summit line follows the Price River. The Tennessee Pass line (when operational) followed the Arkansas River. But not the line west out of Denver. The mountains rise beyond the city like a stockade, like a chain link fence topped with razor-wire, like a wall of cinder-blocks.
|Eastbound stacks descending San Gorgonio Pass.|
Thus, as the tracks approach the mountains, they turn sideways from west to south, then make a 180 degrees loop up the slope, on a curve of ten degrees, which is why this engineering marvel is called Big Ten Loop. As we ascended in the observation car, my wife and mother asked me to explain why the tracks appeared to be running in circles. I told them that trains are so heavy that they cannot climb steep grades. Thus, tracks curve back and forth up the side of a mountain like a sail boat tacking into the wind. Since neither my wife nor mother knows anything about sailing (and I don’t know much), the analogy was lost, so we contented ourselves with admiring the golden Aspen along the slopes and the more than 30 tunnels traversed before we reached the big tunnel under Rollins Pass.
|An eastbound manifest climbs San Timoteo Canyon on the way to the summit of Beaumont Hill.|
“We’re stopping for 15 minutes,” the conductor said. “I would appreciate it if you would take the time to walk inside and say good-by to Lou. This is the last day.”
My wife and mother walked inside to say good-by to Lou. I walked to the front of the train to take a few images of the motive power, images that were subsequently lost, as will be discussed below.
|Westbound stacks pass eastbound stacks at dusk on San Gorgonio Pass. The billboards are along Interstate 10.|
Our sleep that evening was pleasant, though I must admit that each time my wife and I ride the train to California, the bedrooms seem smaller. Since they obviously have not shrunk, the problem must lie in our perception – just another facet of aging. The bedrooms seem smaller because we grow less mobile each year. Thus, it is more difficult to make the movements necessary to navigate in close quarters.
|A heavy westbound manifest struggles into the grade at San Gorgonio Pass.|
The nighttime ride across Nevada was smooth. I don't think I awoke at all, nor did my wife, who usually has trouble sleeping on trains, though she falls asleep almost instantly in moving automobiles. The sun was just rising as we pulled into Reno, down the long submerged open trench that the mainline now ploughs through the middle of town, effectively eliminating traffic congestion at what must have been some considerable construction cost. We dressed slowly, trying unsuccessfully not to bump into each other, then made our way to the dining car for breakfast.
We pulled out of Reno and soon were following the Truckee River into the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which rise above Reno as precipitously as does the Front Range above Denver. The climb is slow and steady through the deepening canyon. Soon towering trees make their appearance, like mama cats watching over newborns. Then we arrive in a narrow valley and roll slowly into Truckee, which in early October is fresh and smartly decorated, as though each of the small wooden buildings -- with tall sloping roofs to handle heavy snows -- has recently been painted.
From our train window, I see one of the huge Union Pacific rotary snow plows, a gigantic open fan on the front of a railroad car holding the engine that drives the blades. Your author has never been to Truckee with snow on the ground, but the plow makes me think that depth of the snow must be measured in feet. A quick check on the Internet indicates that Truckee averages a little over 200 inches (about 17 feet) per winter. Donner Summit, where our train is headed, averages a little over 400 inches per winter (about 34 feet), making it one of the snowiest locations in the lower 48 states!
|Eastbound stacks gliding downgrade.|
I cannot imagine what it must feel like to be surrounded by 30 feet of snow, but I remembered reading years ago that John Steinbeck was once the winter caretaker of a property deep in these mountains.
I was the caretaker on a summer estate during the winter months when it was snowed in. And I made some observations then. As time went on I found that my reactions thickened. Ordinarily I am a whistler. I stopped whistling. I stopped conversing with my dogs, and I believe that the subtleties of feeling began to disappear until finally I was on a pleasure-pain basis. Then it occurred to me that the delicate shades of feeling, of reaction, are the result of communication, and without such communication they tend to disappear. A man with nothing to say has no words. Can its reverse be true -- a man who has no one to say anything to has no words as he has no need for words? Travels with Charley in Search of America.Soon we entered what the Union Pacific dispatchers call the “Big Hole,” the two mile tunnel beneath Mount Judah, named for Theodore D. Judah, the locating engineer of the Central Pacific, who surveyed the original route across the mountains. (The Big Hole was part of a later construction project bypassing a portion of the original line to avoid some of the massive snowfalls.)
***As we rolled west in the foothills above Sacramento, we noticed a growing number of tents along the tracks – tents of every shape and size imaginable, some as large as rooms, others as tiny as sleeping bags, red and blue and black and grey. And not just tents, but shopping carts, rusted toasters, streams of paper, tin cans, shovels, shoes. If you could imagine it, you could probably find it strewn somewhere along the tracks. And there were people in and around the tents, mostly men, mostly unshaven, long-haired, mostly light-skinned though some brown, mostly tired-looking, forlorn, beaten-down, like a long line in front of a Salvation Army Center.
|A rock train in San Timoteo Canyon, with the San Bernardino Mountains in the background.|
|Union Pacific in the San Gorgonio Pass windfarm.|
|Sunset on Beaumont Hill.|
The land cracked and the springs dried up and the cattle listlessly nibbled dry twigs. Then the farmers and the ranchers would be filled with disgust for the Salinas Valley. The cows would grow thin and sometimes starve to death. People would have to haul water in barrels to their farms just for drinking. Some families would sell out for nearly nothing and move away. And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way. East of Eden.
|Westbound stacks emerging from a citrus orchard in San Timoteo Canyon.|
Five Union Pacific units have crested the summit of Beaumont Hill and are headed east to the Imperial Valley.
"We carried life out here and set it down the way those ants carry eggs. And I was the leader. The westering was as big as God, and the slow steps that made the movement piled up and piled up until the continent was crossed.
"Then we came down to the sea, and it was done." He stopped and wiped his eyes until the rims were red. "That's what I should be telling instead of stories."
When Jody spoke, Grandfather started and looked down at him. "Maybe I could lead the people someday," Jody said.
The old man smiled. "There's no place to go. There's the ocean to stop you. There's a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them."
“The Leader of the People”
***Los Angeles. Downtown. Streets are lined by tiny shops with pull-down metal doors, like garages – the same architecture you see in the big cities of Mexico. Guadalajara. I thought of all the tiny shops in Guadalajara.
And police cars. Every five minutes or so, a squadron of police cars would race through a downtown street, sometimes as many as ten cruisers together, lights flashing, sirens blaring.
And people walking in the middle of the street, as though daring vehicles, such as the rental one I am driving, to run into them. Adolescents in the middle of the street on skateboards. If they knew how bad my eyes are, they wouldn’t do that.
|Westbound mid-trains approaching summit of San Gorgonio Pass.|