Tuesday, April 26, 2022

BNSF: Truxton Flyover to the Sacramento Wash (With Thoughts about the Desert, W.B. Yeats and the End of Life)


One of my favorite sections of railroad is the BNSF Transcon in northeastern Arizona -- from the Truxton Flyover to the Sacramento Wash -- a segment including Crozier, Truxton and Kingman Canyons, plus long stretches of desert-running between dark basalt and granite mountains.  Fall and winter are the preferred seasons, because of both the relatively mild temperatures and the angle of the sun in the southern sky.  Crozier Canyon in summer, for example, is almost hot enough to fire pottery.  Also, the sun angle precludes images from the south plateau, the desired location for photography.

Still, on occasion I have ventured to this corner of the world in July, when the path of the sun presents many unique photo opportunities -- even in Crozier Canyon.  Summer is also an excellent time to photograph the Truxton Flyover.  The following summer images follow the Transcon through this fascinating territory.

Along the way, I will have some thoughts about W.B. Yeats, the Irish Revolution and the end of life, odd topics for a railroad discussion, to be sure, but when you are riding a train, you must follow the tracks.

1.  Truxton Flyover

We start with the Truxton Flyover, which began operations in late 2020 and was constructed because of increased conflicts among trains routed to the opposite main.  BNSF estimates that the flyover will eliminate 35,000 crossover moves a year, over 17,000 hours of delays.

From Barstow to the flyover, the right-hand track for westbound traffic has shallower grades at Ash Hill and Ibis, while the right-hand track for eastbound traffic has shallower grades at Kingman Canyon.  Thus, in this long segment, right-hand running is the norm.

From Belen to the flyover, however, the left-hand track for westbound traffic has the shallower grade at Rio Puerco and the Continental Divide.  Thus, left-hand running is the norm.  

The Truxton Flyover allows trains to cross from left-hand to right-hand running, and vice-versa, without slowing traffic.

The following images show these locations.

A.  Right-hand Running

Ash Hill.  The shallower grade for westbound traffic (such as these stacks) is the right-hand track.  The steeper grade, used mostly by eastbounds coasting downhill, is in the foreground.

Ibis.  These westbound stacks are climbing the shallower right-hand main.  The steeper main diverges to the right at the signals.

Kingman Canyon.  The westbound train in the foreground is coasting downgrade on the steeper grade.  Eastbound autos in the background climb the shallower, right-hand grade.

B.  Left-hand Running

Rio Puerco.  The train in the foreground, and the one immediately behind it, are stopped on the steeper downhill grade, waiting for clearance east into the Belen yard.  In the distance is a westbound manifest, left-hand running uphill on the shallower grade.

Continental Divide.  Westbound stacks are left-hand running toward the summit.  Eastbound tracks on the steeper but downhill grade can be seen to the left of the motive power.

The distance from the left-hand running territory to the right-hand territory is several hundred miles.  The flyover could have been built anywhere between, including in or near the division point of Winslow.  I am guessing that Truxton was chosen because it sits in a long, relatively flat valley in the middle of an isolated cattle ranch.  Land acquisition costs were likely relatively cheap, as were construction costs in the flatland.  But this is just a guess.

A westbound manifest has left Peach Springs and is headed toward the Truxton Flyover.

The flyover is dead ahead.

Westbound stacks are rolling under the Truxton Flyover, thus changing from left-hand to right-hand running.

An eastbound manifest is climbing the flyover, preparing to cross over to left-hand running, while westbound stacks have come under the overpass.

The eastbound manifest crosses over the westbound stacks and trailers.

As these images demonstrate, this country is just a few inches of rain per year away from the desert.  Grass is sparse; cattle graze it into the dirt.  While I was waiting for the trains above, several dust devils formed, rising from the ground like wraiths, obscuring the tracks, dispersing as rapidly as they had formed, reminding me that humans do not control this country.  We simply live upon it with the consent of a higher authority.

Portions of this ground are public property.  There is at least one unlocked gate off the highway that allows access.  A narrow dusty trail leads to the mainline, and the flyover can then be reached from the railroad maintenance road, if one is inclined.  I was not and took the above images from the highway, old U.S. Route 66.

The flyover sits near the border of the Haulapai Nation.  A short drive east takes you to Peach Springs, the tribal headquarters.  Tribal property extends north to the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, some of the most breathtaking and spectacular country in North America.  The tribe operates a visitors' center and resort called Grand Canyon West, with a small landing strip and a glass-floored "skywalk" that extends over a steep canyon ledge -- not for the faint of heart.

2.  Crozier Canyon

Crozier Canyon can only be accessed on foot, although some very primitive dirt trails will place you within about a half mile of the western mouth, provided your vehicle has sufficient ground clearance.  And, as mentioned above, the depths of the canyon in summer are like a kiln.

This place feels like the end of the earth.  If you fall and break a leg, you will die here.  A cell phone will do you no good; there is no coverage.  Even if you have a satellite phone, as I do, no one will rescue you, because you won't be able to give adequate directions.  Even if you can, no one will be foolish enough to venture into this abyss.

That said, a certain tranquility pervades this small corner of Creation, even though you are standing beside arguably the busiest mainline in North America.  The world must have been something like this after the multiple extinctions identified by paleontologists.  The world will surely be something like this after the last great extinction, when the last living creature reaches what physicists call maximum entropy.  

West of the Truxton Flyover is the mouth of Crozier Canyon.  In this image, eastbound stacks are exiting the canyon beneath a huge basalt cap.

Westbound stacks have entered Crozier Canyon.  This angle is available only in high summer.  In the distance, an eastbound is crossing what will become the Truxton Flyover.

An eastbound prepares to exit Crozier Canyon -- summer 2014.

DPUs on Westbound.

Westbound in the canyon.


Eastbound approaches the canyon's entrance.

Eastbound stacks and a westbound manifest pass at the western entrance to Crozier Canyon.

Eastbound stacks entering Crozier Canyon.

3.  Truxton Canyon

As the tracks exit Crozier Canyon to the west, they immediately turn southwest into Truxton Canyon and run downgrade side-by-side with old U.S. 66, which Arizona maintains all the way to Kingman, a favorite route of motorcyclists and retirees.  Traffic is light, with almost no heavy trucks.  There is plenty of room between highway and tracks for railroad photography.

During fall, winter and spring, with the sun lower in the southern sky, there is unfortunately no sunlight on the highway side of the tracks.  In summer, however, the sun moves far to the north in the afternoon, and photography beside the highway is marvelous, unless you are unlucky enough to catch the stray summer cloud.

Truxton Canyon as seen from old U.S. 66.

Westbound stacks in Truxton Canyon.

Eastbound in Truxton Canyon.

These westbound stacks are rolling downgrade in Truxton Canyon as the sun prepares to descend behind the cliffs to the west.

Autos meet trailers in Truxton Canyon.

Another meet in Truxton Canyon.

This coal train is parked on a long siding in the middle of Truxton Canyon.

An eastbound meets the parked coal train.

Westbound autos.

4.  Valentine

Located in the middle of Truxton Canyon is Valentine, Arizona.  The Santa Fe constructed a siding here in 1883 and called it Truxton.  The village of the same name, about 40 miles northeast on old 66, now mostly uninhabited, wasn’t established until 1951.  A small settlement was established along the siding in 1898, when the federal government set aside 660 acres for a Native American school, constructed in 1901, opened in 1903, closed in 1937, still standing to this day, now on the National Register of Historic Places.  A post office followed, also named Truxton.  In 1910, the names of both village and post office were changed to Valentine, after Robert G. Valentine, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1909 to 1912.  The National Old Trails Road came through about this time, becoming Route 66 in 1926.

Westbound grain at Valentine, Arizona.

This was the Mother Road, the road to the Promised Land, the road traveled by Tom Joad and his family and thousands more like them.  I am old enough to have traveled this route before the construction of I-40, and I remember a long line of vehicles stretched across Arizona like a fantastic desert worm, moving slowly, hesitantly, uncertain where it might be going, but going somewhere nevertheless.  Travel on Route 66 was truly an adventure, because you never knew when something would break down -- a truck, station wagon, motorcycle, your own vehicle, several simultaneously.  If you've read The Grapes of Wrath (and I wonder how many have in the 21st century), then you recall that the Joads were plagued by flat tires, broken tie rods and uncooperative engines.  When I was very small, probably about five, my father's Ford broke down somewhere in Arizona in the middle of summer.  Our family was driving to California.  I remember intense heat, like a hot hand squeezing the back of my neck, and my father's cursing the old car, using words I had not heard before, and my mother's saying that if Dad wasn't so cheap, we would have a better vehicle.

Once I-40 was finished, almost all traffic left Route 66 and everything changed, as when a boy reaches puberty and his voice alters.  One day he is a soprano, the next a baritone.  Places like Valentine withered under the assault.  Bert's Country Dancing once attracted revelers from hundreds of miles.  After the interstate, the dancers disappeared.  The old building and neon sign still stand beside the highway, remnants of Valentine and an era long departed.  When I drive past, I sometimes think I can hear music -- but the music stopped long ago.  

When the music still played, people would mail cards and letters from the tiny post office to obtain its heart-shaped postmark.  That ended when the office was robbed and the employee on duty, Jacqueline Ann Grigg, was shot and killed.  The operation was privately owned, surviving off a government subsidy.  When Jacqueline's husband bulldozed the building and left town, the Postal Service could not find a replacement.  A gasoline station was built on the site but has been closed for years. 

A few people still live in the area -- faint embers of a once glowing fire.  Everything is gone, deserted, decaying, dying or dead, except BNSF, which on a busy day can see close to 100 trains.  The railroad was first through the canyon and apparently will be last.         

BNSF meets BNSF in Valentine, Arizona.

5.  Hackberry

Past Valentine, the tracks make a wide loop from southwest to northwest as the canyon opens to a valley now truly desert, the beginning of the Mojave, dotted with once inhabited structures now abandoned, like a failed attempt to colonize a distant planet.  Mountains to the south are dark and somber.  When the wind blows, which is most of the time, dust rises in long curtains across this forlorn stage.

At the bottom of the valley sits Hackberry, once a station at mile 489 on the Santa Fe, named for a nearby mine that played out years ago.  In its time, Hackberry was like Valentine, small but lively, with a wooden depot, employee housing, sidings off both mains and water towers to replenish steam locomotives.

A dilapidated general store still operated along the highway in the summer of 2021, but when I stopped, no one was inside.  I looked around, waited for several minutes but no one showed up.  I could have lifted anything I wanted off the shelves, but what would I do with a Jeep full of toilet paper, motor oil and Spam, so I left and drove off down the old road, trying to image what the place looked like when the Joads passed through.

Eastbound leaving Hackberry -- July 2021.

The summer sun was blazing.  I saw neither person nor automobile, as though I were the only survivor of the Apocalypse.  Ahead, the mountains fell away to the south, opening to the kind of broad, treeless plateau ubiquitous in the American West, like the steppe country of Russia, I have been told.  Highway and tracks ran side-by-side.  I was driving west, while the triple headlights of eastbound stacks grew steadily larger.  

There are occasions when I lose all sense of past and future -- no regrets, no planning, no concerns, just the perpetual present, frozen like a stopped film.  I think this is what dogs experience endlessly, which is why I generally am not as happy as a dog, except in those few moments when everything stops.  For some reason, the only place I experience this is the desert.  Perhaps  the Irishman W. B. Yeats experienced something similar when he wrote his most quoted poem, "The Second Coming":

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


The pusher on a westbound manifest is beginning the wide turn into the valley toward Hackberry.

Eastbound stacks are climbing out of the valley.  

I was reminded of that poem as I drove through the stark Arizona desert.  Was Yeats' dark view fashioned from his life as an Irishman?  One of his most famous quotations is:  "The Irishman sustains himself during brief periods of joy by the knowledge that tragedy is just around the corner."

I know nothing of Ireland, except that it has produced extraordinary writers and exerted extraordinary blood, sweat, toil and tears to escape England's diabolical grip.  Something told me to turn around back to Hackberry.  Why?  Did thinking about Ireland have something to do with it?  What could one possibly find in Hackberry?  If the tiny general store was deserted, so would be the town.  What town?  There was no town left.  As Gertrude Stein noted of Oakland:  there was no there there.  I nonetheless turned around, yielding to the will of the unyielding desert.

From the old highway, one can drive down a steep, black-top road, worn away to dirt in many places, to where the Hackberry station once stood.  Remnants of the place still exist -- random tools, buckets, railroad ties, rusted tin cans, empty plastic water bottles -- but all traces of the wooden depot have vanished.  

The American West is filled with places like this, places that grew like crab grass along railroad lines and highways, places that shriveled like crab grass and died in the winter when the railroad or highway was bypassed.  Hackberry did not last even one hundred years.

More eastbound stacks climbing the grade.

I could not get Yeats' poem out of my head.  It reminded me of deceased towns in the desert, and deceased towns in the desert remind me of the Second Law of Thermodynamics:  a closed system will eventually reach maximum entropy.  All wheels will stop spinning.  All engines will cease running.  All living creatures will die.

 "The Second Coming" was published in 1919 shortly after the end of  the Great War, the "War to End all Wars," a cataclysm that annihilated over 17,000,000.  Consider that number.  If I murdered 100 people each day, it would take about 466 years to kill 17,000,000.  The Great War did it in approximately 4.3 years, an average of almost 4,000,000 per year.  Although the slaughter ceased more than a century ago, it still seems incredible. Were man to devise an ultimate killing machine, it would be difficult to improve upon the First World War.

Except man did improve.  The Second World War killed approximately 73,000,000 in about five years -- 14,600,000 per year.

Yeats died shortly before the start of World War II and thus did not live to see the fruition of his poem.  But he clearly perceived that the Christian vision of Jesus's return to earth might be less pleasant than believed. 

The first stanza describes a world in chaos and contains my personal favorite couplet, one as applicable in the 21st century as the 20th:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. 

We have all seen those misbegotten souls full of passionate intensity.  At times we have fit the description ourselves.  And there have also been times when we have lacked all conviction.  In fact, the older I grow, the farther conviction recedes.

The poem foresees not the heroic return of Jesus but rather the arrival of a grotesque monster moving its slow thighs across the desert, circled by indignant birds.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? 

It seems to me that Yeats foresaw, quite clearly, that there is no moral arc to history, that human nature is not changing, that tribalism and hatred are passed from generation to generation like eye color -- witness the murder in the now demolished Valentine post office.

And for some reason, this vision of "a shape with lion body and the head of a man" is seen in the desert.

6.  Antares

Pushers on westbound stacks at Antares.  This curve is where the plateau that begins at Hackberry ends and westbounds turn 70 degrees from northwest to southwest and again roll downhill.  When I think of the desert, I think of this image.

Eastbound at Antares, making the turn toward Hackberry.

Antares had a crossover switch in the Santa Fe days.  Here westbound stacks make the curve beneath the Music Mountains.  

Westbound stacks have made the big turn at Antares and are heading downgrade to Kingman.

Westbound loaded coal has passed the Antares' curve.  

A meet at Antares

Another meet.

7.  Kingman

From Antares to Kingman, the tracks run southwest through a wide valley.  After miles of canyons, this stretch almost feels like the High Plains of eastern Colorado, but we are still in the desert.  Kingman averages about eight inches and 28 days of rain per year.  The sun shines about 290 days per year.  May, June, July,  August and September are hot, though the locals claim that it is "dry heat" and therefore bearable, as opposed to my home in central Oklahoma, where summer temperatures are comparable and humidity is usually north of 60 percent.  Personally, I think Kingman is hotter, because there is little vegetation to absorb the sun's rays.  Sand and rocks reflect the sun like a concrete parking lot.  But arguing whether Arizona or Oklahoma is hotter in the summer is a little like arguing whether the Pacific or Atlantic is deeper.  Both are deep enough to swallow you.

Kingman, Arizona, was named for Lewis Kingman, one of the original railroad locating engineers.  The tracks and old 66 run side-by-side into town beneath I-40, then past a park that is, to my eyes at least, indistinguishable from the surrounding desert.  The highway then climbs a ridge, while the tracks snake through a narrow canyon before turning west, at which point the number one and number two mains separate, the number two making a broad loop to provide a shallower grade for eastbound traffic.  The highway comes down from the ridge, and tracks and highway run together again as they pass the old depot, which sits in a narrow depression between basalt-capped ridges.  The original settlement is located in this valley, where one can see the usual remnants of Route 66 -- the old tourist courts, restaurants and filling stations.  Most of Kingman is now located north along I-40.  Like so many western towns that have not been abandoned, Kingman along the tracks looks like a poorly maintained museum. 

This is the small canyon through which the tracks run in the middle of town.  The photographer is standing in the parking lot of a commercial trash hauler, looking east toward Hualapai Mountain.


I am drawn back to Yeats like a moth to a candle flame, a moth alone in the desert heat, circling endlessly above the rocks and sand, trying to make sense of chaos.  Here is what I mean.

On Easter week 1916, Irish revolutionaries seized government buildings, factories and other important buildings in Dublin.  About 400 under the command of James Connolly and Patrick Pearse occupied Dublin's main post office, which became the rebellion's headquarters, and raised two republican flags.  Pearse stood on the steps and read aloud the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.  Rebels also took over a wireless telegraph station and declared, in Morse code, the creation of an Irish republic.  They took control of bridges and highways, cut telegraph and telephone wires, occupied a railway station and destroyed track.

The rebels, however, failed to take either of Dublin's two main railway stations or its ports, which allowed the British Army, once it fully understood the nature of the uprising, to bring in over 16,000 troops.  On Wednesday, April 26, British artillery began shelling rebel positions.  Heavy fighting continued for days, resulting in almost 500 deaths.  

The post office garrison eventually evacuated.  Incapacitated by a wounded ankle, Connolly passed command to Pearse. They tunneled through the walls of neighboring buildings and established a new position at 16 Moore Street. On April 29, Pearse ordered all companies to surrender: 

In order to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens, and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers now surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered, the members of the Provisional Government present at headquarters have agreed to an unconditional surrender, and the commandants of the various districts in the City and County will order their commands to lay down arms.

The British arrested almost 3,500 men and 79 women and conducted secret trials in which the accused were not allowed to defend themselves.  Fourteen were executed by firing squad between May 3 and 12, including Connolly, shot while tied to a chair because of his shattered ankle, and Pearse, the first to be executed.  

Several of those shot did not kill anyone, including Irish Volunter Thomas MacDonagh and John MacBride, who was not even aware of the uprising until it began but had fought against the British in the Boer War.   

Yeats' lengthy poem "Easter 1916" discusses the rebellion and closes with the following:

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;   
And what if excess of love   
Bewildered them till they died?   
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride   
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:   
A terrible beauty is born.

In both "The Second Coming" and "Easter 1916," something terrible, something bestial, but also something beautiful is born. 

One might reasonably conclude that Yeats possessed no faith in politics. He himself said:

A statesman is an easy man, he tells his lies by rote.
A journalist invents his lies, and rams them down your throat.
So stay at home and drink your beer and let the neighbors vote.
His last poem, titled "Politics," written in his 73rd and final year, beginning with a quotation from Thomas Mann, indicates that if he ever found value in that word, it mattered little at the end of life.

"In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms" - Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!  

As I write, I am 71 years old.  I think I understand this poem completely.

8.  Kingman Canyon

Past the old depot, the tracks turn south and run through Kingman Canyon, a narrow conduit between dark basalt mountains, connecting the Haulapai Plateau to the northeast and the Sacramento Valley to the southwest.  This image is taken from the top of the canyon.  The two tracks here are separated.  The eastbound stacks are operating over the second main constructed in 1923 on a shallower grade.  The original 1883 main, built by the Atlantic and Pacific, runs near the bottom of the canyon.  Between the two tracks is a short segment of the National Old Trails Road.  Imagine trying to drive across country on that!  In 1939, a new highway through the canyon was constructed.


Two trains in Kingman Canyon.  The new grade of US 66 can be seen on the right.  I-40 is west is the canyon and out of sight.

Kingman Canyon is like a tunnel through the mountains.

This image shows Kingman Canyon, the original settlement of Kingman and the small canyon to the east.  The majority of town is now north of this image along I-40.  The area immediately north of the old settlement is a rugged escarpment.  The area south is another escarpment that appears to have roads carved into it.  These are actually just ruts in the basalt, mostly unsuitable for travel by anything except a Jeep or four-wheel-drive pick-up.  

Westbound on the original 1883 main.

Eastbound on the 1923 main.



Like many men, Yeats suffered early in life from unrequited love -- in his case the actress, suffragette and Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne, to whom Yeats unsuccessfully proposed at least four times.  Many of his poems were inspired by her, but the one that most touches my heart is called "When You Are Old," written from the point of view of the young man rejected, imagining how the woman who spurned him will feel late in life when looking back on what she gave up.  I especially admire this poem because it is written in iambic pentameter (as is "The Second Coming"), which I think is the penultimate meter for English verse: 

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Is it just me, or is there something unbearably wistful about life, unbearably wistful about constant birth, death, regeneration, depletion?  Or is it simply that this cycle shows itself most clearly in the desert, where life's hold is tenuous, constantly fluctuating?  Even the railroad seems transitory, like a tourist who does not speak the language.  The tectonic forces that created Kingman Canyon have been at work for millions of years.  Our unrequited loves, and I include my own, seem so trivial, so ephemeral.  

Could this be why so many different cultures across so many different ages have created images of life after death -- to soothe the everlasting wistfulness, longing, loneliness, that knowledge of death brings?  But is "eternal life" a solace?  Does the thought bring peace?

To me, the idea of living "forever" as some sort of spirit does not produce pleasure.  Instead, if I give it any thought, "eternal life" brings a sort of terror, the same dread I feel when I imagine being forced to spend eternity locked in a windowless room with a life insurance salesman babbling on and on about mortality tables.  

"Forever" is a very long time.  What would one do "forever"?  I guess you get to see again those relatives and friends who predeceased you.  But how long would that take?  A month?  A year?  And by the way, there are some relatives whom I do not wish to see again.

Then what?  Do you get to see again all the people who hated you?  Another month or so?  A year if you were a really nasty individual?

Then you talk to famous historical figures, who are probably very tired of talking to all those recently dead.  And then you just go on and on and on and on, and this procession does not stop.  A person can only play so many rounds of golf, or listen to so many symphonies, or see so many movies, or read so many books.

You bask in God's glow.  And you bask and bask and bask and bask.  And more basking.  And more of the same.  And more.  More.  More.   Not stopping.

I think you get my point.

The idea of a resurrection of the dead also gives me pause.  In what body are you resurrected?  Your body when you expired?  That would not be desirable to anyone living to a ripe old age.  

Do you get to choose your new body?  How do you choose it?  Is there a "halfway house" where such choice is made?  Or does God, or some Heavenly Committee, make the choice for you, ordaining the new body that will make you most comfortable?  What if a mistake is made?  What if you want your resurrected body to have blonde hair, but The Committee prefers brown?

God never makes a mistake, you say?  Let us hope that is so. 


Westbound stacks rolling down the 1.8 percent grade of the original 1883 line.

The western mouth of Kingman Canyon.

Although your author will not live forever, it appears that the Santa Fe logo on this bridge might.  

Eastbound stacks approach the bridge immediately above.



This eastbound Q-train is climbing out of the Sacramento Valley, which can be seen in the background.  Although this is the shallower 1923 grade, the slope is still significant, and trains struggle.

Death is an issue we all must face, not just literally but also figuratively, because we are human and understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which applies to us just as certainly as to an automobile or a volcano or a neutron star or the universe.  All closed systems will eventually reach maximum entropy, which means disorder, which in the case of humans means death.

To me, the idea of an afterlife devalues one's life in the here and now, because it focuses on the foggy future and ignores the mindful present, which ultimately is all we have.  When there is no present, there is no me.  Or you.  To say that miserableness in this life is acceptable because the next life will be better is, to my mind, a rationale for accepting injustice.  Most people don't believe that and strive to rectify life's misery.  Those who do believe are capable of committing horrible atrocities -- thus the Inquisition, thus the World Trade Center. 

The concept of an afterlife assumes that living is a means to an end, much as law school is a means to becoming a lawyer.  So you suffer through law school, because the end justifies the means.  But it seems to me that life is not a means to anything.  Life is an end in itself -- to be lived for its own value, not because it will lead to something better.

Yeats' thoughts:

Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all;
Many times he died,
Many times rose again,
A great man in his pride
Confronting murderous men
Casts derision upon
Supersession of breath;
He knows death to the bone –
Man has created death.

These thoughts dwell in the desert, where life is both precious and precarious.

9.  Sacramento Valley

The western mouth of Kingman Canyon opens to the wide Sacramento Valley, like the back door of a house opening to a football field.

The Sacramento Valley is bounded on the west by the Black Mountains and on the east by the Hualapai  Mountains.  The valley runs north-south and descends in about 50 miles from approximately 3,300 feet at the western mouth of Kingman Canyon to approximately 500 feet at the Colorado River.  

In this valley the desert seems almost tame.  Though sloping from north to south, the land appears flat.  The mountains framing the scene are dark, barren, but not hostile, whatever that may mean.  Such tranquility is misleading, however, for just below the surface, the Sacramento Valley is a killer.  No one raises cattle here.  No one grows anything here.  During the cloudless summer, temperatures can climb above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and there is no relief -- no shade, no water, no breeze, nothing but sand and rocks and creosote and more sand and more rocks.  

An eastbound manifest (compass north) in the Sacramento Valley, south of Kingman Canyon, climbing the grade out of the valley of the Colorado River -- deep in the heart of the Mojave Desert.  Nowhere is the tenuousness of existence clearer than here in a land that does not allow second chances.  In the Mojave, one stands alone and either profits, growing stronger, or else fades into the background of sand. 

The Sacramento Valley -- heart of the eastern Mojave.

Eastbound climbing north in the valley.  

Eastbound at dusk.

DPU's beneath the Black Mountains.

Eastbound attacking the grade.

Another eastbound.  The long thin plants beside the tracks are Ocotillo, a succulent that produces spectacular pink flowers when the desert receives enough rain, with multiple canes covered with sharp spines.  Your author has tangled with an Ocotillo before, and the Ocotillo won.

This westbound is rolling downhill to the Colorado River.  Behind it rise the Hualapai Mountains.

In the Sacramento Valley, westbounds such as this race downhill, while eastbounds struggle into a significant grade.  Although BNSF's Transcon, and Santa Fe's before it, does not cross anything like the Rockies or Sierra Nevada, the tracks across Arizona, in both directions, climb one significant grade after another -- always in the shadow of mountains.

Westbound crossing the Sacramento Wash.

Eastbound crossing the Sacramento Wash.

Ten units chasing the sun.

When I began this article, I had no intention of discussing Yeats or the Irish Revolution or death, but like a flooding river, the process of writing often follows its own course, oblivious to the wants, needs and the intentions of others.  Both my parents lived into their nineties, both passed recently, and I now find that their passing is like an ailment that I cannot quite shake -- like a bad cold.  If my similes seem overwrought or transparent, I'm sorry but I can't help it.  This is who I am at this moment in whatever remains of my own life.

When Yeats said that "man has created death," I think he meant that, unlike animals, we know that we are going to die, and because of such knowledge, we are forced, mostly against our will, to confront it.  And how we confront death, whenever we start that process, inevitably shapes the rest of our life.

I first became aware of death when I was eight years old.  I had traveled with my parents for a vacation to Siloam Springs, Arkansas, an old resort in the Ozarks where people once bathed in the hot springs -- when people thought bathing in natural hot water could cure tuberculosis and other afflictions.  Our hotel room was on an upper floor, an old building without air conditioning, with huge wide windows opening onto the forest and screens to keep out the bugs but allow the evening breeze.  Above the hallway door, the transom was open.

My parents went downstairs for something -- I don't remember what -- and left me alone to contemplate the open windows.  In those long ago days, there were no televisions, no internet, no cell phones.  Not knowing what else to do, I lay on the bed and looked at the ceiling.  Then, for reasons unknown, I looked at the door, and I realized that someday I would die, that existence would flow out of me as quickly and soundlessly as the air flowing out the open transom.

The realization was instantaneous, and I shuddered -- an eight year old not prepared for such thoughts.  But once you recognize death, you can't unrecognize it.  It's like learning that there is no Santa Clause, except with more severe consequences.  So I did what most people do, I think.  I flushed it from my mind.  At least I tried.  I tried to think of happy times with my dog, or with my baseball team, or with my friends, wading in the golf course pond for golf balls.

But none of that worked.  I could not banish the thought.  

I have no great ideas, no calming platitudes, no insights.  All I can do is leave you with another's thoughts which may not exactly reflect my own but which have certainly echoed through the centuries:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Macbeth, Act V, Sc. V

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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