Tuesday, December 22, 2020

California 2020


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.


“Why me?”


“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 drown.”


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.

We were in the dark for about ten minutes, during which the air pressure dropped as in the cabin of an airplane during take-off.  I swallowed several times to relieve the stress on my eardrums.  When we popped out of the west portal into the middle of a ski resort, the air pressure increased, and I swallowed again.  The sunlight was blinding.  I thought of the hundreds (thousands?) of men who worked on the tunnel.  Although I am not claustrophobic, the idea of blasting rock several miles beneath the middle of a mountain gave me pause.  Perhaps my career choice of the law had been wise.

We arrived in Grand Junction in mid-afternoon, and the conductor came on the public address system to announce that the small store beside the station was closing after more than 30 years, because ridership on the California Zephyr had dropped precipitously.  That, plus Amtrak’s announcement that it would cut service to three days per week, was simply too much for the store’s owner, who was nearing retirement, anyway.

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.)

Mid-trains on east side of Beaumont Hill.

We crested the summit at Norden, which once contained several long wooden snow sheds, all of which have been removed, along with the tracks they once guarded.  Several stretches of the line across the mountains, including the Big Hole, are now single track.  Each time I have ridden the California Zephyr, freight traffic through the Sierras has not been heavy, which has also been my experience the three times (over almost 40 years) that I have photographed this territory.


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.  

As we approached each small foothills’ town, we saw the same tents, the same detritus, the same tired men, reminding me of the shanty towns my father had described as lining the river in west Oklahoma City during the Great Depression.  (I was born in 1950, and by the time I was old enough to remember such things, the shanty towns were gone, removed by Urban Renewal.)

Eastbound stacks.

When we reached Sacramento, the tents were almost thick as houses.  We were sitting in the observation car, and I heard someone whisper “Homeless People” in the same tone that someone else would have whispered “cancer” or “leprosy.”

A man said, “That’s why Emily left Sacramento.  She couldn’t abide all the filth.”

A young woman walking through the car stopped and said to us, “Watch out for that fellow in the back.  He’s crazy.”  Then she hurried to the end of the car and disappeared through the sliding door.  

I turned and saw in the rear of the observation lounge a short man with a torn coat and shoulder-length oily hair.  He was not looking at me or anyone else.  Instead, he was staring intently at the back of one hand, as though someone had written something there, something important.  Every now and then he would mutter in a guttural tone, the sound one hears in northern Scotland, as though the speaker’s mouth is filled with gravel. 

A rock train in San Timoteo Canyon, with the San Bernardino Mountains in the background.

San Gorgonio Pass.  The third engine is the Western Pacific heritage unit.

He looked as ragged and forlorn as the men in the tents beside the railroad tracks, and I wondered when he had boarded the train – and how.  Did he have the money for the fare?  Occasionally, his voice would grow louder, as though arguing with himself.

As the train stopped at the Sacramento station, the conductor opened the door of the observation lounge, stepped inside, stopped beside the ragged man and said something.  The ragged man shouted something back.  The only words I could understand were “Fuck you!”

More shouting ensued from both men.  Then another Amtrak employee walked into the car.  The ragged man kept shouting but soon enough stood up and allowed himself and his grip to be escorted from the observation lounge.

“That’s scary,” my wife said, and I have to admit that I felt relieved when that man was escorted from the car.  Looking out the window, in a minute or so I saw the man walking along the platform.

“I think he’s gone,” I said to my wife.

Soon we were rolling west again across what had once been swamp land in the delta of the Sacramento River.  The ground was now drained, however, the reeds and grass replaced by row upon row of green truck crops.  I have heard that if you drop a seed into this fertile ground, a tree will appear the next day.  I think I might believe that.

The door at the end of the observation car opened, and the ragged man appeared again, carrying his grip.  He sat down and began examining his hands again, mumbling.

Union Pacific in the San Gorgonio Pass windfarm.

“Jesus,” my wife said under her breath.

Our train would soon arrive in Emeryville – end of the line – and we needed to return to our bedrooms to gather our things.  That required walking past the ragged mumbling man.  Not surprisingly, there was now no one else in the observation car.

I told my wife and mother that I would lead the way.  “Stay behind me,” I said.

Were we overreacting?  I thought we might be, but it is difficult to be too careful when your wife and 90-year-old mother are involved.  And later events make me now think that we may not have been careful enough.

We rose and walked slowly down the car.  As we approached, the man peered up, staring directly at me.  He looked as though he might stand, but instead he just sat there, staring.  I stood in front of him while my wife and mother walked past through the sliding door into the next car.  Then he said something in that same guttural tone that I could not understand.  He mumbled again.  I looked at him a moment longer, then pressed the panel on the sliding door and exited the observation lounge.
We arrived in Emeryville late that afternoon.  Forest fires to the northeast had colored the Bay Area dark crimson, reminding me of a glowing red warning light on an automobile’s instrument panel.

The Emeryville station sits just north of the Powell Street overpass, beneath which were more than fifty tents standing among a jumble of rags, cans, dogs, even a few automobile tires.  The whole affair looked like a refugee camp from the Middle East.

We would catch the train south the following morning and so were spending the night in a hotel across the tracks to the west, surmounted by a walkway accessed by ground level elevators.  When the elevator door opened, we were greeted by the pungent odor of human urine and steel walls covered with graffiti.  My mother and wife entered first.  I paused outside a moment to make certain that no one else was approaching.

The front door to our hotel was locked.  We knocked on the window to gain the attention of the woman behind the desk.  She smiled, came forward and opened the door, saying nothing.

The lobby was bereft of furniture, its chairs now blocking the entrance to a restaurant obviously closed.  We checked in and obtained the magnetic cards to our rooms.  There was no one else in the lobby, nor in the elevator that we rode to the seventh floor.  From the window of our small room, I looked across the roofs of Emeryville to what I knew should have been the Berkeley Hills, but I could not see them.  All I saw was dark red haze in receding twilight. 
We boarded the Coast Starlight the next morning.  The train was clean and pleasant, the attendants professional and friendly, and we rolled south out of Emeryville on time, passing the now familiar tent cities scattered up and down the right-of-way.  Dining car service, as on the California Zephyr, had been reduced to pre-packaged meals micro-waved in the kitchen below.  I no longer remember what we ate for breakfast, but my mother and wife enjoyed the coffee, as well as the stories told by the dining car attendant, who seemed a little lonely, probably because we were his only customers in a mostly empty train.  I did not have the heart to ask about coming lay-offs.

Southern California desert.

We traveled south through the East Bay to our stop in San Jose, past significant sections of undeveloped land in a National Wildlife Refuge, an oasis in the desert of subdivisions and shopping malls.  South of San Jose, the hills closed rapidly as we navigated through Coyote Creek Valley.  South of Gilroy we were in truck farm country again, green crops blanketing the flatland.  

At Sargent we turned west, left the valley and followed a narrow creek into the hills.  Soon we were rolling along the edge of a rock quarry that seemed a thousand miles from civilization, though we had departed the 101 freeway only about ten miles behind.  We continued west for several miles, then came out of the hills into another valley of truck farms.  Each field was surrounded by pick-ups and cars.  Laborers were spread throughout like ants, everywhere, hundreds in all directions.  We were in the Pajaro Valley, near Watsonville, with one of the mildest climates in North America.  Year round, the high temperature is rarely lower than sixty degrees, nor higher than seventy.  

We followed Elkhorn Slough south through swampland and trees within about two miles of the Pacific Ocean to Castroville, the “Artichoke Capital of the World.”  When I was in college in 1969, I ate a Thanksgiving meal with the family of a student friend in Castroville, a friend named Maria Concepcion Hernandez.  Her family’s first language was Spanish.  An ignorant Okie, I knew nothing about the Spanish colonization of California, nothing about El Camino Real and the Spanish missions.  I was as green as they come.  I sat mostly in silence while the family laughed and reminisced in their native tongue.

Eastbound climbing the grade in San Timoteo Canyon.

Sunset on Beaumont Hill.

Then we were in Salinas, the childhood home of John Steinbeck, who described the long valley in which the town sits:

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.

South of town were more truck farms, plus huge orchards with long rows of trees like ranked soldiers.  My wife, mother and I were sitting in the observation car when the train slowed to a stop, not on a siding, just sitting on the mainline.  This particular route of the Union Pacific sees little other than two passenger trains, so I knew we were not waiting on traffic ahead.  I wondered if mechanical trouble were the culprit.  Were we marooned in the Salinas Valley?

We sat for at least thirty minutes.  Then a sheriff’s vehicle, lights flashing, came down the service road beside the tracks, beyond which stood a linearly arranged citrus orchard.  Then another patrol car appeared.  Then two sheriff’s deputies climbed out of each vehicle and boarded the train several cars behind us.

In time, one deputy emerged, walking slowly, holding the arm of a long-haired man in his mid-twenties, wearing jeans and a dark shirt.  The deputy led him to the patrol car, where the young man leaned forward and placed both hands on the hood.  The deputy was saying something to him.  The young man looked around.  The deputy grabbed him, handcuffed his arms behind his back and shoved him into the back seat.

A woman next emerged, short with long disheveled hair, talking excitedly to the deputy who followed, her arms waving as though conducting Ives’ 2nd Symphony.  She was not handcuffed, nor did the deputy grab her.  Instead, she walked slowly to the patrol car and climbed docilly into the same back seat.

Several minutes then passed.  My wife, mother and I took turns trying to guess what was going on.  My wife thought that they had not paid their fare.  I said I doubted that armed deputies would drive out into the middle of a citrus orchard for that.

My mother thought they were illegal aliens.  

“Why in the world would they be on the Coast Starlight?” I said.

My mother thought for a moment, then said, “People aren’t as religious as they used to be.”

“Drugs,” I replied.

“Drugs?” both mother and wife replied simultaneously.

Two deputies emerged from the train, holding a very large man by each arm.  His hands were cuffed behind his back, but he looked big enough to do serious damage even without the use of hands.  The deputies led him to the second patrol car and shoved him inside.  In another minute both vehicles drove away.

Westbound approaching Beaumont, California.

The train started rolling south again under pristine California skies.  At the far end of the observation car, the door slid open and in walked a young man in his mid-thirties, wearing a suit and tie that looked as out of place in 21st century California as a Nativity scene.

He smiled and introduced himself as an Amtrak Passenger Representative.  He asked if we were enjoying our trip.

“What happened back there?” I said.

He replied that the three people removed from the train were harassing other passengers.  “It happens every week or so on this train,” he said matter-of-factly, shrugging.

“Harassing?” I said.

“Yes,” he said.  “Harassing.”  It was obvious that he would not go into details.

Every week or so? I thought to myself.
We crossed Cuesta Pass in mid-afternoon, one of the most beautiful and yet unknown railroad summits in the United States, unknown primarily because of the dearth of traffic.  In much of the western United States, mountain passes have considerable vegetation on the western side, while the eastern slopes are usually wide open – because rain comes off the Pacific, mostly falling west of the summit.  For reasons that I do not understand, Cuesta Pass is just the opposite – heavy vegetation on the eastern slope, open grassland with a few trees on the west.

Westbound stacks emerging from a citrus orchard in San Timoteo Canyon.

The scenery, reminiscent of the lower elevations of Tehachapi Pass,  involves steep grass-covered hills rising to the peaks of the San Lucia Mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  A long tunnel bores beneath the summit, and emerging into the sunlight that day, our train curved down the mountainside in elegant serenity toward San Luis Obispo, passing the big horseshoe above the euphemistically named California Men’s Colony (a prison).  If I lived in San Luis, I would drive into the mountains on the old stage coach road to photograph the two passenger trains each day, both of which roll through in the daylight.

South of town, the tracks approach the ocean at Pismo Beach, a quick tease, then turn back east to avoid massive sand dunes.  You see the water above the small beach houses huddled like sea lions on the rocks.  Then the tracks turn even further inland into a small valley of truck farms, then through isolated dry hills thirsty for moisture, even though only about ten miles from the ocean, then more sand dunes, then suddenly flat ground, almost perfectly level, with a minuscule slope down to more sand and then the blue Pacific.

To the east, mostly hidden behind small hills, sits Vandenburg Air Force Base, which the tracks soon leave behind as they run southwest to Point Arguello, a small outcropping of rocks battered constantly by Pacific waves.  Although the Air Force is nearby, you feel as though you might be on the edge of civilization, so far behind are the familiar California sprawl and congestion.  This must be close to what the Spanish missionaries first saw as they travelled north, constructing missions about a three days’ walk from each other.

Past Point Arguello, the tracks run east-west, then southeast-northwest, and now one is truly in isolated country.  The tracks run in a thin line near the white sand.  Above the tracks is a narrow dirt road hugging the edge of the hills.  Beyond the hills are mountains.  A few houses huddle near the dirt road, set back into the crevices that provide some protection from fierce winter storms.  Each dwelling that I could see from the train appeared to come equipped with huge wooden shutters to close when the winds rose off the endless Pacific.

Five Union Pacific units have crested the summit of Beaumont Hill and are headed east to the Imperial Valley.

In places, the tracks come within ten feet of cliffs dropping down to the water below.  Yet unlike Big Sur, where the mountains and water collide, the mountains here are recessed behind a narrow shelf of land which provides good ground for railroad construction.  One sits in the observation car and stares endlessly at the ocean, or else turns to the east and follows the mountains into the sky.

This is what Steinbeck had in mind when he wrote: 

"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.
Palm Desert, where we spent a week in the dry October heat.  This is resort country, and we were staying in one, brown adobe flats secured behind walls and iron gates that swung open with the proper security code, as though we were entering a nuclear weapons facility.  This was “out-of-season,” hot and dry, affordable.

 About a half mile away was Southwest Church.  It looked like a shopping mall, with a correspondingly huge parking lot.  An electronic sign along the boulevard said:  “Services currently suspended due to Covid 19.  Join us online.”

San Bernardino Mountains



Westbound mid-trains approaching summit of San Gorgonio Pass.


My wife and mother had planned a shopping trip, so I was free for a day’s railfanning.  The weather was clear, though hot – above 100 degrees -- and I headed into the desert.  Actually, that is not correct.  I was already in the desert.  I headed out of town.  The desert is everywhere, with the San Gabriel Mountains to the north, the San Jacinto Mountains to the south.  The wind blows fiercely between them both day and night, as predictable as my memory is not, which is why California has constructed what has to be the world’s largest windfarm in the mountains’ shadows.  You can’t miss it.  Windmills are everywhere, in the valley beside the railroad tracks and interstate highway, climbing the slopes, on top of the sheer rock peaks, no vegetation in sight.  They (the windmills) look like alien invaders recently discharged from a mother ship somewhere close but out of sight.  In my sleep I see them crawling down the mountains, down the wide boulevards, climbing the walls of my resort, breaking the windows of my bedroom, where they slowly extract my small amount of brain cells.  They put the brain cells in a jar and leave me lying in bed, staring at the ceiling.  

One of two helper sets roaming the pass in aid of struggling trains.

These westbound stacks have just crested the summit of Beaumont Hill.  The houses are the first metastisizing wave spilling out of the basin into the open desert.  The San Bernardino Mountains watch in silence.  This is what I think Cajon Pass would look like were it not located in a National Forest.

I drove west on Highway 111 to the turnout for Snow Creek Canyon.  I headed north and approached the Union Pacific double-track mainline, stopping about halfway between it and the highway.  Both were no more than 50 yards away.  I had not slept well the previous night, so I leaned back in the front seat and closed my eyes, waiting for the next train.

I don’t know if I dozed or not, but my eyes popped open suddenly, and I saw standing beside my vehicle – all windows were rolled down because of the heat – a man who looked to be in his mid-twenties.  I don’t know where he came from.  He just appeared, like a quantum fluctuation.  He was short, with a small beard stubble on his chin and above his upper lip, and a small scar on one cheek.  His black hair was disheveled, as though he had been walking in the desert for days.

He was standing so close to the car that his body touched the door – too close – so close that I felt threatened.  He said he was thirsty and asked if I had any water.  I was carrying several bottles, and I gave him one.

It's funny how you can know something is wrong when a person stands too close to you.  He did, and I did.

He took a long drink, then looked at me and said, “Now give me your wallet.”

I looked back at him slowly and carefully to judge his level of seriousness.  He was very serious.  One hand was in his pocket, as though fingering a knife.

“No,” I said.

“Give me your wallet,” he repeated.

Eastbound mid-trains.

I sat there, saying nothing, looking at him, until he said for the third time, shouting, “Give me your wallet!”

“Look,” I said.  “I can give you some money.”  I gave him what I had – about sixty dollars.

“Now the wallet.”  He wanted the credit cards.

I shook my head.  Foolish or not, I would not do that.  

He seemed to be considering options.  For the longest time he just stood there, looking at me, as though trying to determine my level of seriousness.  I believed I was as serious as he. At least I hoped I was.

Then, suddenly, as though he had made a decision, he stepped toward the rear of the rented vehicle, reached through the open window into the back seat and grabbed one of my cameras – a 40-year-old Nikon FM2 containing an exposed roll of film that I had not removed.  (One of the shots on the exposed roll was of the Amtrak engines in Grand Junction, Colorado.)  My other camera was in the front seat beside me.  Camera bag and tri-pod were in the trunk.

He took off running with my sixty dollars, antique camera and undeveloped film, laughing loudly, jumping once or twice like a buck deer.  I opened the car door and climbed out.  Giving chase would have been futile.  I am 70 years old.  

Just then I heard the whistle of an approaching Union Pacific freight.    
I drove back to Palm Desert in the dusk.  The next day, wife, mother and I left the Golden State for home.

To see my other posts, go to waltersrail.com.

To see my photographs on Flickr, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpwalters/.


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