Thursday, June 29, 2023

The Old Man and the Snow


The thermometer reads sixteen degrees Fahrenheit as BNSF 3965 East rolls past Darling, Arizona.

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

Over the years, I have traveled to Flagstaff, Arizona, to photograph the incredibly busy mainline of first the Santa Fe and now the BNSF.  Those trips were taken in summer and fall when the weather at 7,000 feet above sea level is pleasant and unforbidding.  Yet the wanderlust in me has always wanted to approach the San Francisco Volcano Field in the worst of winter, the very worst of winter, when the whole country from the bottom of the Little Colorado River to the top of Humphrey's Peak is buried by a foot or more of snow.  In January 2023, such an opportunity presented itself while I was traveling in southern Arizona.  In Yuma, the days were bright and warm, temperatures in the 70's, with little breeze.  A quick check of the NOAA website showed, however, that Flagstaff and surroundings had been entombed by a slow moving blizzard.  I am not growing younger, and I wondered if I would have many more opportunities to realize my long-held fantasy.  So I took a deep breath and headed north. 

Westbound at dusk.  

From Yuma I took U.S. 95, which runs along the western edge of the Gila Mountains and for a short distance parallels the old Southern Pacific Sunset Route as it makes a huge horseshoe around the northern edge of those peaks through the valley of the Gila River, water from which makes this harsh desert bloom. 

The Sunset Route.  In the background is the Gila River.

The Sunset Route curving around the northern edge of the Gila Mountains.  In the background is the river of the same name and the irrigated fields that parallel it.

When I crossed the river and climbed out of its valley, I was back in a land that in dry years may see no rainfall.  Average yearly precipitation is 2.5 inches.  A wet year is four inches.

If you are not from this country, the lack of humidity is most noticeable on your skin, which if you do not use lotion begins to itch, as though you have rolled naked in poison ivy.  Then it begins to flake, falling to the ground like ashes. 

The road is two-lane, but traffic is minimal.  An occasional eighteen-wheeler passes, and sooner or later you catch an elderly couple in a motor home, driving 55 and worried that they may get pulled over for speeding.  You pass with ease, nodding, but the old man behind the wheel either doesn't see you or else considers you beneath the effort of a response.

The problem may be that I have weathered like the land (Oklahoma) in which I have lived.  Every storm has produced a red rivulet, and my face is crossed with them, plus the remnants of skin cancers that my dermatologist keeps removing.  She is kind and does not scold me for spending too much time in the sun. 

The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks.

The land rises gradually like the floor of a house that has settled on one side.  Mountains frame the view, small rock mountains with no vegetation, just bare rocks that in the summer radiate heat like mirrors.  But it is January now, and the desert air is clear, dry and cool, and you understand why so many people travel in trailers and motor homes to spend the winter here, crowded together like ants, sitting in lawn chairs in the gravel that separates each motor home, each trailer, each tent, snow birds waving as you rush past on the highway.

The desert is hypnotic, mile upon mile of sand and rocks and the occasional creosote bush, and amazingly long-eared rabbits, amazingly long-eared, ears as long as carrots.  And the snow birds who flock here in winter begin to look like the desert, gnarled and brown, uninviting yet friendly at the same time, a clever paradox.  You hurdle northward in your Jeep with the window down, passing the occasional motor home trundling 55 on the highway, always driven by an old man hunched behind the wheel, staring straight ahead at the road, and you wonder where do all these people come from?  And when it turns hot, where do they go?

You pass the Yuma Proving Ground, surrounded by a chain link fence and razor wire, where the military tests its equipment under desert conditions -- heat, blowing sand, more heat, more blowing sand.  In the military, some posts are considered prime, others not so much.  My guess is that the Yuma Proving Ground falls into the "not so much" category, but that is just an uneducated guess.  Some people like it here in the summer.

At the small town of Quartzsite, you intersect Interstate 10, surrounded in all directions by campsites with thousands of motor homes, trailers and tents.  

Quartzsite, Arizona.

It is impossible to over-emphasize the scope of the winter migration.  This must be the 21st century equivalent of the swarming mass of bison that roamed with the seasons north and south across the North American High Plains, a swarming living mass that takes on a life of its own apart from its constituents.  And dotted between the camps are huge retail lots filled with motor homes and trailers for sale, thousands for sale, in case you need a new one, of if you are a virgin purchaser ready to join the herd.   

Out of curiosity, I quickly stopped at one, but when I saw the prices, I just as quickly jumped back in my Jeep and headed east on I-10. 

I did not have any food with me, but as I age, I have found that I can go all day without eating.  I don't know why.

For a long time now eating had bored him and he never carried a lunch. He had a bottle of water in the bow of the skiff and that was all he needed for the day.
Westbound -- climbing the Colorado Plateau toward Flagstaff.  You can see that, in the distance, the lower elevations are without snow.


In the last rays of sunlight, BNSF 7489 East has passed Flagstaff and is rolling downgrade through the snow toward Winslow.

One of the last warbonnets is helping pull westbound stacks toward the Arizona Divide west of Flagstaff.

If the snowbirds are bison, then driving on an east-west interstate in the 21st century is like the running of the bulls at Pamplona, Spain, during which six Spanish fighting bulls, plus six steers, run from the Corrales de Santo Domingo to Pamplona's Plaza de Toros (the bullfight arena.) During the week long festival, over one million spectators watch thousands of runners try to stay ahead of the bulls through the narrow streets.  Controlled mayhem is an inadequate description.  Simple mayhem will do.

100 years ago, Ernest Hemingway popularized this spectacle when he described it in his novel The Sun Also Rises: 

The stretch of ground from the edge of the town to the bull-ring was muddy. There was a crowd all along the fence that led to the ring, and the outside balconies and the top of the bull-ring were solid with people. I heard the rocket and I knew I could not get into the ring in time to see the bulls come in, so I shoved through the crowd to the fence. I was pushed close against the planks of the fence. Between the two fences of the runway the police were clearing the crowd along. They walked or trotted on into the bull-ring. Then people commenced to come running. A drunk slipped and fell. Two policemen grabbed him and rushed him over to the fence. The crowd were running fast now. There was a great shout from the crowd, and putting my head through between the boards I saw the bulls just coming out of the street into the long running pen. They were going fast and gaining on the crowd. Just then another drunk started out from the fence with a blouse in his hands. He wanted to do capework with the bulls. The two policemen tore out, collared him, one hit him with a club, and they dragged him against the fence and stood flattened out against the fence as the last of the crowd and the bulls went by. There were so many people running ahead of the bulls that the mass thickened and slowed up going through the gate into the ring, and as the bulls passed, galloping together, heavy, muddy-sided, horns swinging, one shot ahead, caught a man in the running crowd in the back and lifted him in the air. Both the man’s arms were by his sides, his head went back as the horn went in, and the bull lifted him and then dropped him. The bull picked another man running in front, but the man disappeared into the crowd, and the crowd was through the gate and into the ring with the bulls behind them. The red door of the ring went shut, the crowd on the outside balconies of the bull-ring were pressing through to the inside, there was a shout, then another shout.

The man who had been gored lay face down in the trampled mud. People climbed over the fence, and I could not see the man because the crowd was so thick around him. From inside the ring came the shouts. Each shout meant a charge by some bull into the crowd. You could tell by the degree of intensity in the shout how bad a thing it was that was happening. Then the rocket went up that meant the steers had gotten the bulls out of the ring and into the corrals. I left the fence and started back toward the town.

Eighteen-wheelers are the modern American bulls, and the Interstate is the narrow muddy lane leading to the bull-ring.  In my Jeep I am running with the crowd, running furiously, but the bulls are gaining, and though I am driving as fast as I feel comfortable, others as racing past; some even honk and shake their fists.  I glance in the rear view mirror.  The bulls are gaining.  They are everywhere, not limited to six but hundreds, thousands, as though the sky has rained huge trucks.  I see myself being gored, thrown in the air, landing face down in the mud as the horde tramples me, but then I see the exit sign for U.S. 60, and I turn off the interstate, my health intact if not my sanity.

U.S. 60 was originally a transcontinental highway from Virginia Beach to Los Angeles.  In 1964, the highway was truncated in far western Airzona and replaced by Interstate 10 across California.  East of Phoenix, the old road crosses the Salt River Canyon in one of the most incredible highway construction projects imaginable, switchbacking down one side of the vast gorge, crossing the river, then switchbacking up the other side -- a feat never attempted by any railroad, which is why no transcontinental line runs through Phoenix.  (BNSF reaches this huge desert megalopolis from the north, Union Pacific from the south.)

Eastbound stacks and trailers as seen from the old U.S. 66 overpass.


High speed passing low speed at Darling, Arizona.

I cross two small mountain ridges, enter an elongated valley and stop for gasoline in the small settlement of Salome, the daughter of Herodias, an odd name for a town, considering her influence on John the Baptist.

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, and said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him.  For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife.  For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her.  And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet.  But when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.  Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask.  And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger.  And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her.  And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.  And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother.  (Matthew 14: 1-11, KJV.)

The King James Version does not much concern itself with pronoun reference, nor do the ancient texts, but you get the idea. 

Portrait of Salome with the head of John the Baptist -- by Charles Mellin

Through Salome, the Arizona and California Railroad runs parallel to U.S. 60 -- a former Santa Fe subdivision linking Phoenix with the AT&SF transcon at Cadiz, California, currently operated by Genesse and Wyoming.  As I pump gas into my Jeep, I see a headlight to the east, approaching at a snail's pace.  When my tank is full, I drive toward the headlight and discover a westbound Arizona and California freight crawling through the desert, running on a slow order, with trailers and stacks in front and boxcars and tankers bringing up the rear.  I "chase" it back to the west -- I could have outrun it on foot -- and take the following images before the tracks and highway diverge.

The locomotives lack lettering and are shiny new.



Then I turn back east on U.S. 60 to Morristown, where Arizona 74 takes me across the far northern edge of the Phoenix megalopolis to Interstate 17 north to Flagstaff.  Though the heart of Phoenix is almost 40 miles to the south, the metastasizing growth of progress is clearly visible in new housing developments, strip shopping centers and one enormous commercial construction project that looks like it might be an indoor arena of some sort.  The people who settled here one hundred years ago, seeking desert solitude, would be aghast, to say nothing of the Native Americans who were displaced.  The descendants of both are long departed.

When I drive alone, I talk to myself.  The conversations do not make any particular sense, nor do they follow any particular order.  They are like fair weather cumulus clouds drifting and expanding across a clear mountain sky.  One minute the sky is clear, the next clouds have appeared.  Some turn into small storms, a deep purple, almost black, as though God is angry.  My self-conversations are like that.  

“If the others heard me talking out loud they would think that I am crazy,” he said aloud. “But since I am not crazy, I do not care.”

Traffic on Interstate 17 is not nearly as heavy as on I-10, consistent with my observation that in the intermountain West, north-south interstates see a fraction of the commotion on the east-west transcontinental arteries.  Still, this road is not free from congestion, especially when we reach steep grades that slow eighteen-wheelers to a crawl.  Then traffic backs up like a clogged septic tank.  When one big truck tries to pass another on a grade, traffic in both lanes comes to a virtual standstill.  Tempers flare.  Horns honk.  Fists wave.  I hunker down in the right-hand lane and hope no one shoots me.  

We are not climbing into mountains; rather, we are ascending the Colorado Plateau, originally named by John Wesley Powell, comprising tablelands within an immense basin surrounded by highlands. Stream valleys are typically narrow and widely spaced, including the most spectacular – the Grand Canyon.  The mean elevation is approximately 6,300 feet, but the range includes canyon bottoms at less than 2,500 feet and volcano peaks over 12,600 feet.  

The San Francisco Volcanic Field covers about 1,800 square miles along the southern margin of this plateau. During its approximately 6-million-year history, this field has produced more than 600 volcanoes, including almost all of the hills and mountains between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon, the most prominent of which is San Francisco Peak (also called Humphrey's Peak), a stratovolcano rising 12,633 feet. Sunset Crater, Arizona's youngest volcano, erupted about 1085 AD and must have been witnessed by native inhabitants living nearby.

Signs along the road announce changes in elevation:  3000 feet, 4000 feet, 5000.  As we climb, we leave the desert air behind; the temperature drops rapidly:  60 degrees, 50 degrees, 40.  Flagstaff is less than 30 miles distant, yet there is no snow, and I begin to wonder if the reports of a blizzard were mistaken.  Then Ponderosa Pines begin to appear beside the road, stunted and gnarled at first, then growing taller, then very soon full grown, magnificent trees hundreds of years old.  The contrast with the territory just traversed is startling, as though one has opened a door in a dark room and walked into brilliant sunlight. 

And then the snow appears, not a light dusting but a huge blanket at least a foot deep.  One minute there was no snow, the next a foot.  The snow is still clinging to the pines; the whole world is white.  There are patches of ice on the interstate; traffic slows to a crawl.  I pass several cars that have spun off the road into the bar ditch.  My Jeep thermometer says it is 20 degrees Fahrenheit. 

By the time I reach the Holiday Inn in Flagstaff, the snow is at least two feet deep, piled along the side of the road in huge mounds.  The parking lot has been cleared, sort of.  The piles of snow are almost as tall as the roof of the porte cochere.

This westbound manifest is approaching the old U.S. 66 overpass.

When I awoke the next morning and went downstairs for breakfast, the motel lobby was filled with people who I soon learned were going skiing at the nearby slopes.  It had not occurred to me that Flagstaff would be filled with skiers, but then I have never been skiing.  It probably did not occur to any of the skiers that someone from Oklahoma would be preparing to venture into the snow to photograph the railroad.

The Jeep started quickly in the frigid air.  The dashboard thermometer read 12 degrees Fahrenheit.  I had not planned on venturing into arctic chill and so had not brought with me suitable cold weather gear.  I wore pajamas, blue jeans, two pairs of socks and two long sleeve shirts.  Before venturing into the wilderness, I patronized a truck stop for a stocking cap, gloves and jacket.  Then I headed east along Interstate 40.

Snow was deep and pristine, like freshly troweled cement, and there were few cars on the road.  I exited at Winona (the railroad calls the location "Darling") and turned north to the overpass across the tracks, where I met my first dilemma.  Because I am not accustomed to heavy snow, it had not occurred to me that when roads have been plowed and the snow is piled to the side, there is no place to pull off and park.  Even though my Jeep is very off-road capable, driving into a ditch filled with snow, as I would soon discover, would challenge its capabilities.  An eastbound manifest appeared to the west, but I could find nowhere to park.  I thought about stopping in the middle of the road, but vehicles were fast approaching in both directions, so I reluctantly kept moving, watching the pristine orange BNSF locomotives framed against the stark white landscape.  

In a few days, though the temperature was still below freezing, snow had sublimbed enough to expose the tracks and hard-surfaced roads, and I found a place to park near the Darling overpass and produced this image.  (The process of sublimation is discussed below.)

I drove over a mile before I found a spot where there was enough cleared space to turn around.  Then back to the overpass, where I saw another train that I could not photograph.

On the east side of the overpass, a narrow country road runs due east beside the tracks for a mile or so, then the tracks turn slightly northeast, but there is another road running north to the tracks that passes a small hill presenting a nice view in both directions.  In good weather, one can turn off the road and follow a narrow path to the top, but with two feet of snow on the ground, that was out of the question.  However, since there was no traffic at all on these side lanes, I planned to stop in the middle of the road, leave the motor and heater running, walk to the top of the hill, take a few images, then walk back to the Jeep and drive west to Flagstaff.

The road running east had been cleared at one time, though more snow had fallen since that effort.  Still, the ground was level, and my Jeep is a champion in the snow.  Where other vehicles spin out and pile up, my Jeep just keeps motoring.

As I drove east, I passed a young man and two women jogging.  I slowed, they stepped into the heavy snow, and I waved.  There were three or four inches of snow on the road, but the Jeep was having no trouble.  I reached the turnoff to the road heading north to the tracks and began to climb uphill toward the small hill.  No problem for the Jeep.  We just kept plowing.

When you get stuck in a Jeep, it happens all at once, and you don't see it coming.  If you did, you wouldn't get stuck.  Suddenly my Jeep slid hard to the right, rear-end first, and the front end began to point skyward.  That was it.  Just like that.  The back of my Jeep was buried in the ditch beside the road that I had not even seen because it was filled with snow.  I had driven directly into the ditch.  

Over the years, I have acquired several tools designed to rescue me from quagmires:  large shovel, small shovel, hand trowel, tow cable, large saw, small saw, traction boards, back-up battery, fire extinguisher, first aid kit, electric tire pump, fix-a-flat, hammers, wrenches, tool kit, and on and on.  None of those was quite designed to deal with a vehicle driven directly into a four foot ditch filled with snow.  Because I have been stuck so many times, I now in my old age have a pretty good idea of what I can dig myself out of, and what I cannot.  A quick look told me that I had driven into the "cannot" category.

I was alone in a ditched filled with snow.

No one should be alone in their old age, he thought. But it is unavoidable.
NS 4453 leads bare tables west.


Maine, Arizona.

Still, one cannot simply give up and curse the universe, especially when one is several miles from civilization in several feet of snow.  So I retrieved my large shovel and began to dig and quickly realized why some old men suffer heart attacks.  The damn stuff (snow) is heavy.  I did not have a heart attack, but I began breathing very heavily and took numerous breaks to rest.

Another train came through that I could not photograph.

Eventually, when I had cleared enough space to place the traction boards in front of the wheels, I tried to slowly and gently inch my way up and out of the ditch -- and got nowhere.  Traction boards are made of heavy, gnarled plastic which, in theory, your tires should grab, allowing you gain enough momentum to leap out of whatever you have fallen into.  They have rescued me from sand several times.  But not this time.  All four wheels spun futilely, because snow beneath the Jeep was pressed hard against the axles and undercarriage.  I was "high centered," that is, the wheels were lifted and had no weight on them to gain traction.

About this time, the young man and two young women saw my plight and came jogging up the hill.  

"Trouble?" the young man said.

He was being polite, because any fool could see that I was an idiot.

"Perhaps we can help."

"Francoise?" I said, meaning to ask if he were French but mispronouncing the word and instead using a feminine name, such as Francoise Bonnet.

"Yes," he said,  laughing.  I think he appreciated my effort.

He and his two female companions then helped me try to dig out the Jeep, a hopeless task, as was soon apparent to all.  With its snout sticking into the air, the vehicle looked like a sinking ocean liner.

The trio shrugged and said that if I was still stuck when they returned from their run, I could come back with them to town to find a towing service.  I think they meant that I could run back with them to town, seven or eight miles away and up a steep grade.

"Thanks," I said.

So I was faced with a Hobbesian choice -- (1) Keep digging for an hour or so until I had literally removed all the snow around the Jeep from the ditch.  (2) Run seven or eight miles back to town.

Then it occurred to me that I did not need to run back to town.  I did not even need to keep digging.  I could instead call a towing service on my cell phone, which was receiving a strong signal from nearby Interstate 40.

"Is this a great country or what?" I told myself.


I was surfing the internet to find a local towing service when two large black trucks appeared in the snow on the northern horizon, coming down the same road on which I was marooned.  The outline of the road was barely visible, and the trucks looked like cargo ships on a white ocean.  But they were headed in my direction.

When they reached the top of the hill, the lead trunk stopped, and the driver stepped out, a young man, mid-thirties, with a narrow moustache and face red from the cold.

"Where you headed?" he said.

"Well, right now, nowhere," I replied.

"This is the first day we've been able to get off the ranch."

"I'm photographing the railroad.  I was going to stop here and walk up that incline, but I drifted into the ditch."

"Yeah, I can see that."

Two other young men had jumped out of the second truck, holding shovels.  Together, the three began digging around my Jeep while I positioned the traction boards.  I carry a nylon tow rope for emergencies, and I connected it to the front of my Jeep and the back of the lead trunk.  Then that truck began to pull, and I very slowly crept up out of the ditch.  Over the years, I have learned that when you are stuck, the worst thing you can do is rev the engine and try to roar out of your predicament.  That just causes the wheels to burrow even further into the snow, or sand, or mud, or whatever.  So I very lightly tapped the accelerator, and we crept slowly uphill.

When I had reached safe ground, I parked the Jeep and climbed out to thank my saviors, who seemed happy to have been of help.

"Stay away from ditches," one said as they drove away.

I said I would, but I lied.

The view from the hill where I got stuck.




Eastbound rolling downhill to Darling.

However, the remainder of that achingly cold day I was extra careful to remain centered on hard-surfaced roads and to stop my Jeep only where snow had been carefully cleared, which of course greatly limited photographic opportunities.  Still, when the snow is that deep and undisturbed, you can look almost anywhere and find a nice image.  But here is the problem with snow; it does not stay undisturbed very long.  Beside the road it quickly turns first brown, then black.  In the field away from motor vehicles, it begins to disappear, even if the temperature is below freezing.

Such disappearance can occur in two ways.  One is when the surface is above freezing, even though the air temperature is below.  This often happens where I live in Oklahoma.  Snow can fall at a heavy rate but melt rapidly on the roads and fields.  When the roads and fields drop below freezing, however, all hell breaks loose, because we have little snow removal equipment, and in any event we don't know how to drive on snow.

In Flagstaff, however, the roads and fields were not warm enough to melt snow, which began to disappear anyway due to a process call sublimation, not to be confused with the psychological concept through which a person converts an unacceptable emotion into an acceptable one, as when a woman who is mad at her husband begins a home improvement project, or a man angry at his boss purchases a new car.

6611 West is approaching Cosnino Road.
In physics, sublimation occurs when something solid turns into gas without first transforming into liquid.  This happens when a substance's "triple point" is high, "triple point" being the temperature and pressure at which the three phases of a substance (gas, liquid and solid) are in equilibrium.  With high triple points, a substance sublimates easier than it evaporates and therefore turns into gas before it turns into water.  The classic example is so-called "dry ice," the solid state of carbon dioxide, which when brought to room temperature turns immediately to vapor.

We witness sublimation on a regular basis. Solid air fresheners that get smaller with time are undergoing sublimation as they release their scent. Moth balls shrink. Ice cubes left for a while in the freezer also shrink.  Snow sublimes in the same fashion as ice cubes. 

So even as I was trying to avoid the snow, it was disappearing -- not quickly, not rapidly, not fast enough to be seen, but disappearing nonetheless, like youth, like vitality, like the belief that people are all naturally beneficent if given the chance.  (Hobbes knew better, even if Rousseau did not.)  As I drove back to the Holiday Inn at the end of that short winter's day, I naively thought that the snow would be around many days, certainly a week or more.  There was just too much of it.

Heavy snow west of Flagstaff.


Flagstaff, Arizona.


These eastbound stacks are climbing the grade at Maine, Arizona.


The cold weather certainly lasted, for when I awoke the next morning, it was ten degrees Farenheight.  At the same time, it was 45 in Yuma.  Part of the discrepancy was because Yuma is about 300 miles south.  Another part was elevation.  Yuma is about 140 feet above sea level; Flagstaff about 7,000.  All things equal, temperature decreases about one degree every 330 feet, or about 21 degrees in the case of Yuma and Flagstaff.  The final difference was caused by a shift in the jet stream through which arctic air was racing southward across Flagstaff but not as far south as Yuma.  My mind understood all this, but the knowledge did not in any way ease the unpleasantness of the unrelenting cold, just as knowledge of the cause of a disease does not lessen its symptoms.

Yet even in these extreme temperatures -- extreme at least to me -- the snow was disappearing.  Roadbed and cross-ties became visible, and the huge piles along the roads became a little less huge.  

Each minute that I did not get stuck again made me a little braver, like an alcoholic who has awakened from a blackout, taken a drink or two, not blacked out again and therefore thinks that he and the world are fine.  I began venturing into heavy snow, still feet deep in places, and parking along the sides of roads.  Nothing bad happened.  My old confidence was returning.  Without realizing it, I began to feel invincible.

That feeling comes upon you not like the flu but rather like old age, slowly, incrementally.  One day you wake up and discover than you're an old man, that everyone seems to tailgate you on the highway, that you can't remember why you walked into the kitchen, that you can't bend over without grunting, that you can't remember the names of close friends (assuming that you have close friends).  


Snow is leaving the roadbed though the temperature is still below freezing.


This eastbound is climbing the grade from Williams to Flagstaff.


Another eastbound.  Bill Williams Mountain rises in the background -- an old strato-volcano.


On the third day of my visit, the temperature rose above freezing.  Then the snow really began to dissipate, though with that much on the ground, a lot of dissipation was needed.  I decided to try my luck west of Williams on the Crookton Cut-off, constructed in the 1950's to avoid the troublesome grades on either side of Ashfork, which today sees only trains bound for Phoenix.  Elevation drops rapidly as one races down Interstate 40.  Williams sits at about 6700 feet.  Ashfork is about 5000.  The drop is about 1700 feet in 18 miles, which explains why the original lines (there were two) were operational nightmares.  (The second line constructed down the escarpment has been preserved for service to Phoenix.)

The Crookton Cut-off bypasses Ashfork, connecting Williams directly with Seligman (elevation 5,300 feet) on a route that runs north of the steep escarpment and avoids the bowl in which Ashfork sits.  What I did not anticipate was that as I drove downgrade, the snow would have dissipated far faster, in part because less had fallen at lower elevations.  The road from Williams to Doublea, a huge cut, is gravel and dirt, but on that day was almost exclusively mud, dark mud, sticky mud, the kind that loves to snare vehicles.  I could have turned back, but something continually presses me forward, foolishly, but forward nonetheless.

And my Jeep is a great mudder.  We just kept plowing and plowing.  Mud flew up from the rear tires like shrapnel, sticking to the side windows like paste.  It was paste.  Had I stopped moving, I might have been stuck for days, weeks, who knows?  But the Jeep is a champion, and we continued rolling through the deep mud, which only increased my feeling of invincibility.  I had been stuck once, but it would not happen again.  It could not possibly happen again.

Upon reaching Doublea, I discovered that all of the snow had disappeared on the north side of the cut where the sun, low in the southern horizon, could shine all day without interruption.  The south side, where the low-angled rays of never penetrated, still carried a fair amount of frozen precipitation.  Unfortunately, the road ran along the south side, so I was now fighting not only mud but also snow.  With nowhere to turn around, I just stopped in the middle of the mud on high level ground, assuming that no one else would be foolish enough to attempt transport in such conditions.

Westbound stacks are entering the big cut at Doublea.


Eastbound in the cut.  No snow on the north side.


Another eastbound.  On the south side, snow was still a foot deep or more in places.



After Doublea I drove to Eagle's Nest, one of the most remote locations on a line that in Arizona crosses almost nothing but remote locations.  There the snow was completely gone but the ground was so saturated that even the gravel road was squishy.  When I stood on it, my boots sank about an inch.  The sun was dropping rapidly, temperature dropping even faster, and though I waited almost two hours, I did not see a train.  I had parked on level ground again, but the Jeep struggled to gain traction.  After some effort, we finally proceeded south toward Ashfork and Interstate 40.  In the eastern distance, San Francisco Peak stood in snow-capped solemnity, watching in silence my foolish endeavors and those of my fellow creatures.

A late evening eastbound climbs the grade toward Flagstaff.


Darling (Winona), Arizona

Back in Flagstaff the next morning, the sky was clear but the temperature had dropped below freezing again, and my face began to ache when I stepped into the cold, which may or may not be a sign of old age; I'm not sure.  Many have commented on aging.  Here are a few:

“Sex at age 90 is like trying to shoot pool with a rope.”  George Burns

 "If we live long enough, we become caricatures of ourselves."  John Irving 

“The good thing about being old is not being young.”  Stephen Richards  

“You know, when you get old, you see that everything is a joke. All the things you were passionate about don't mean a thing. You only did them to keep busy.”  Erica Jong

Although I had been in Flagstaff only a few days, and although the temperature had risen above freezing only one afternoon, the snow was nonetheless disappearing, mostly through sublimation.  As I stood in the parking lot that morning, it occurred to me that growing old is like subliming snow -- a solid transforming to vapor without melting.  You just slowly drift away into the atmosphere.

Other metaphors spring to mind -- itself a metaphor.  Growing old is like paint peeling on the side of a house.  Growing old is like the pages of a book turning yellow.  Growing old is like the power going off during a thunderstorm.  Growing old is like an electric line snapping under the weight of snow.  Growing old is like the air slowly seeping out of a leaking tire.  Growing old is like meat spoiling in a broken refrigerator.  Growing old is like the hole in a pair of worn out jeans.  Growing old is like a steam locomotive.  Growing old is like a can opener.  Growing old is like any Mahler symphony.  Growing old is like watching Gunsmoke reruns.  

I believe that I could expand this list indefinitely, but you get the idea.

“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
Snow is dissipating at lower elevations, while San Francisco Peak remains covered.


Westbound climbing toward Flagstaff.


4216 East has passed the heavy snow and is rolling downgrade toward Winslow.  In about ten miles, the snow will have disappeared.


By now, the memory of getting stuck in the snow had faded like cheap linen.  My Jeep was a monster.  Nothing could stop it, provided it was properly driven, and I had learned my lesson.  There would be no more driving into ditches, no more wandering into four feet of snow, no more foolishness.

Because the area of deep snow was centered at 7,000 feet and above, and because areas to park off the roads were still limited, I was quickly running out of photographic locations.  On a whim, and whims are always dangerous, I turned off I-40 on Naval Observatory Road.  Almost 50 years before, I had hiked down this road to take my first images in the volcano field, and for some reason I thought I might try to recreate those photographs in the snow.  There was a problem, however.  The narrow road had been cleared to only one lane, and there was nowhere to park.

Then fortune cast its long shadow over me.  A small lane led off Observatory Road into the pines.  Snow looked reasonably deep, but if I could just drive in about half a mile, the white precipitation would be pristine.  Pristine! I told myself.

At moments like this, I lose rationality.  Like a dog, I am overcome with whatever hormone causes one to experience both extreme joy and extreme carelessness.  My mind said, "Don't try to drive in there, you fool.  You've already been stuck once.  And if you get stuck here, no one will come along to pull you out.  You'll be stuck in the forest.  If anyone should come along Observatory Road, which doesn't see much traffic, he won't even know you are stuck.  He won't even see you."

My mind told me all this in a instant.  My heart said, "Hold my beer!"

So I turned across the road and into the trees.  The snow was deep but manageable, although very soon it grew deeper, then deeper still, and my euphoria quickly turned to something approaching dread as I realized the depth of my mistake.  I had only driven about fifty yards when I decided to stop.  There was no way to turn around, so I decided to back out, and therein lay the problem.  For some reason, when the Jeep is in four-wheel drive, I cannot back in a straight line.  To a neutral observer, my backing up must look like someone wildly intoxicated trying to pass a sobriety test.  In any event, I quickly veered off the narrow path into deep snow.

I shouted.

I then tried to drive out of the snow -- to no avail.  The wheels spun helplessly.  Somehow or other, I had again managed to "high center" myself in the snow and ice.  My Jeep was like a June bug on its back -- disoriented, helpless, waiting for someone to step on it.

And, of course, as I had already told myself, this time I was really isolated, alone in the forest, contemplating alone my thoughts and foolishness.  Why do I keep driving into places that I know will ensnare me?  Why do I keep making the same mistakes month after month, year after year?

I can't tell you why.


Image taken on a day when I did not get stuck.


As the sun sets.

I immediately grabbed my cell phone and searched the web for the nearest wrecker service.  What did we do before the internet?  How did we live?  I know that we survived, somehow, but for the life of me I cannot remember what life was like.  It must have been dark and somber, which is why I have blocked the memories.

I dialed the first number I saw, and on the third ring a young man answered.  He sounded about twelve to me, though he must have been older.  I explained my predicament and gave directions which he seemed not to understand.  It was really very simple, I told him.  Just take the Naval Observatory Road exit off old 66, then drive down that road until you see an old man standing forlornly in the snow beside the road.

I explained this several times until he finally seemed to understand.  Then he said, "This will cost a lot."

"Well," I replied, "what are my options?"

"I don't know. Two hundred fifty dollars."

"Sold," I said.  "Come on."

"I'm on the east side of Flagstaff.  It will take me a while to get there."

This last statement soundly mildly ominous, as though he had to finish another task before attending to mine.  But as we had already discussed, I was out of alternatives, so I settled down in the Jeep to wait.

Five minutes turned into ten, which quickly turned into twenty, with no sight of my savior.  He had sounded confused on the phone, so I thought perhaps he might be lost.  Also, I did not know exactly what he had meant when he had said that he was east of Flagstaff.  That description applies to many places -- Chicago, for example.

So I called again.  The phone rang several times before he answered.

"I'm on the way," he said but did not sound at all convincing.  "On the way."

"Naval Observatory Road," I said.


Thirty minutes now had passed.  I calculated that I could drive to Winslow in less time.  I thought of calling another wrecker, then decided against it, for as surely as I did, both would arrive at more or less the same time, and I would have to pay both for their trouble.  And which one would actually tow me out of the snow?  How does one choose?

I sat in the Jeep a few more minutes, then jumped out, grabbed my shovel and began to dig, a process which, though tiring, was also strangely soothing, perhaps because I no longer felt helpless.  I would dig for a few minutes, then start the Jeep and see if I could drive myself free.  Then more digging and more starting.  Then more digging.  Then more.

I shoveled snow for at least half an hour, probably longer, and still the wrecker did not arrive.  My predicament seemed hopeless, but still I kept digging, because I am persistent, if nothing else.

Luck is a thing that comes in many forms and who can recognize her? I would take some though in any form and pay what they asked.

Because I carry gloves, my hands did not bleed.  And I am not yet so old that physical exertion defeats me.  But digging in the snow, stopping to rest, digging again, arms and back aching, I realized that defeat was drawing closer.

When it looked as though the undercarriage and axles were completely clear, I very carefully put the Jeep in low and inched forward.  The Jeep hung for a moment, like a worm caught in a web, then sprung free and rolled out into my previous tracks.

With infinite care I then backed toward the main road a foot or two at a time, stopping, backing, stopping, backing, until I was free at last.

My instinct was not to call my would-be savior, wherever he might be.  But even I am not that thoughtless, at least not most of the time.  So I dialed him again.  The phone rang and rang.  Eventually he answered.

"I managed to dig myself out," I said.  "So I don't need you."

"Good," he said.  That was all he said.  Then he hung up.

The day was drawing down, and I was exhausted, so I headed back to the motel.  The next morning, as I was driving out of town to the east, heading home, I noticed that past Darling, a drop of perhaps 500 feet from Naval Observatory Road, the snow was almost completely dissipated.  In other words, I had managed to get myself stuck in about the only deep snow left around Flagstaff.  

The snow cleared rapidly.

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