When my wife and I were dating, and for the first few years of our marriage, I thought she was a guy. What I mean is, I thought she would like the same things I and my guy friends liked – sports, beer, scatological references and, in my case at least, trains. I thought she would enjoy hiking through one hundred degree heat, across forests and prairies filled with chiggers and ticks, then waiting several hours to photograph an industrial anachronism that had somehow escaped the nineteenth century.
|Northbound UP Intermodal Headed to Central Valley|
|Northbound BNSF Z Train Below Cliff|
In 1982, I was a young lawyer with a firm in Oklahoma City. As a litigator (meaning I tried cases), I was watching older lawyers in court, learning why most trial lawyers don’t live very long, trying to develop a taste for alcohol other than beer (thus the short life spans).
|UP Manifest in Tehachapi Loop|
A senior partner in my firm decided that I should attend the American Bar Association convention in San Francisco, where several panels on various aspects of litigation were to be held. The firm would pay for the trip, and I planned to take advantage of various railroad locations along the way – Soldier Summit, Donner Summit and, as the grand finale, Tehachapi Loop. I loaded my wife and myself into our Volkswagen Sirocco and set out across country on what I hoped would be the adventure of a lifetime.
|BNSF at Tehachapi Loop|
|Southbound BNSF Manifest Climbing Grade Toward Mohave Desert|
The town of Tehachapi was a sleepy, high desert village with a population of perhaps one thousand and a single motel with a model railroad of the Loop in the lobby. We arrived late in the evening, and the next morning I left before dawn while my wife slept in.
|Northbound BNSF Manifest at Cliff|
|UP Stacks Between Caliente and Bealville|
|UP Manifest in the Horseshoe at Caliente|
These mountains, like the rest of California, are geologically hyper-active. The rounded, grassy hills near Caliente can, in the summer haze, appear to be growing before one’s eyes. Here and there are Valley Oaks, a tree native only to California that, in the right lowland conditions, can grow over 100 feet. In the foothills around Caliente, the trees are low and look bent down, like grazing horses. Because they need year-round access to groundwater, these trees tend to be spread apart on the hillsides, at lower elevations, and do not invade one another’s turf.
|Northbound UP Freight Exiting Caliente|
As the elevation rises, so does the annual precipitation, while average temperature drops. Average precipitation at Caliente is about nine inches of rainfall, with no snow. At Tehachapi, only twenty miles away, about 11 inches of rain and 19 inches of snow fall each year. As the elevation increases, different trees appear, such as Black Oak, Coulter Pine, Incense Cedar and White Fir. Railroad photography at the loop is more difficult than at Caliente because the vegetation is thicker, particularly the Coulter Pines, one of which I have always wanted to cut down. (If you have been to the Loop, you know which one I mean.)
|UP Mid-trains Above Offending Coulter Pine|
|Southbound UP Freight at Bealville|
The Loop itself presents similar engineering problems. The mountains on either side press inward, leaving little room for the railroad to switchback. In the middle of the narrow defile, a small, almost perfectly round hill rises to a point, like a woman’s breast.
|BNSF at the Loop|
|Northbound BNSF Z Train at Loop|
In the narrow landscape, the only possible solution for railroad construction was to wrap the tracks around the hill, climbing steadily, then at the point where the tracks are 77 feet on top of themselves, construct an embankment with a tunnel. The terrain is so torturous that there is a horseshoe curve immediately below the Loop, and another shortly after the tracks cross over themselves. Maintenance in this area is constant.
|Northbound BNSF Trailers Descending Loop|
|UP Freight Approaching Caliente|
I did not understand all this my first morning at the Loop, but like everyone before me and after, I sensed that this place was special. I drove back to the motel to pick up my wife, absolutely certain that she would be as infatuated with the geography as was I.
|UP Manifest in Tehachapi Canyon|
“Well . . . okay,” she said.
|Southbound UP Approaching Caliente|
|BNSF Intermodal in Tehachapi Canyon, Climbing Toward Caliente|
“Well, this is fun,” she said.
We returned to the Loop that afternoon. My wife would not talk to me. The sun went behind clouds that would not lift. Trains stopped running.
|UP Stacks at Caliente|
In the 31 years that passed before my wife and I returned to Tehachapi in October 2013 (the year the images in this post were taken), we learned several things. (1) I don’t like sushi. (2) A lasting marriage requires each party to understand and accommodate the other. (3) It is easier for women to understand and accommodate men than vice-versa.
|BNSF Passing Under Loop Track|
|Same Train in Horseshoe Curve Below Loop|
|Same Train in Loop|
|BNSF Auto Racks|
When my wife goes railfanning with me, it is for short periods (an hour or two) in areas with cell phone coverage so that she can talk with her sisters and mother while we wait for a train. She also needs a place to walk while talking. So, on a recent trip to Glacier National Park, we stopped for about an hour along the High Line on U.S. 2 before returning to our cabin for the evening. I saw two trains, and she walked along a scenic turn-out and failed to resolve her latest family crisis.
|BNSF Above Loop Tunnel|
|Southbound BNSF at Sunrise|
|UP Southbound Intermodal|
When we returned to Tehachapi in October of 2013, we did not drive. Instead, we flew to Las Vegas, using “frequent flyer” mileage I had accumulated in my law practice. We rented a car, thereby avoiding mechanical troubles, and drove to a rental house in the mountains above Lake Isabella – not particularly close to Tehachapi, but a lovely place where we could spread out, feel at home and drink wine on the deck among the tall trees.
|Multiple Loops at Tehachapi|
|Northbound BNSF Headed to San Joaquin Valley|
|UP Manifest at Dawn|
I am convinced that, were it not for the ill-fated trip in 1982, my wife and I would have split up in the past 30 years. But that trip was so difficult that we were forced to confront our own behavior. I had more confronting to do than she, but both of us have made significant changes through the years. We are now in our sixties and planning our next trip, which may (or may not) including a little railfanning.