Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Sundown: Part Three


Aikman, Kansas.

When I was young, I liked to rise before dawn and watch the sun climb slowly above the eastern horizon.  I liked to watch the world come slowly awake, as though each morning were a resurrection of everything good and proper.

Now that I am old, the thought of rising before dawn makes me shudder, the same reaction I have when thinking of debilitating diseases like Parkinson's or cancer.  Now I like to watch the sun drop slowly below the western horizon.  No more resurrections for me.  Now the end of each day closes another chapter in the disorganization of my life.

Dusk is when a train's whistle sounds the most plaintive.  Dusk is when I marvel that 19th century technology is still going strong in the 21st.  Dusk is when, occasionally, my thoughts coalesce into something close to consensus, and I realize that the peace and tranquility of sunset should be desired.  

As Ernest Hemingway is reported to have said:  "I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?”

Flint Hills

Because of the lack of trees, the Flint Hills of central Kansas produce some of the world's greatest sunsets.  The wind may have blown all day, but at dusk it ceases, and you can hear the prairie birds calling across the bluestem grass.  In the far distance, the faint sound of a train emerges like a dim echo, growing steadily more insistent.  If you are standing beside the lone cantilever signal at Aikman (gone now these many years), you adjust your tripod for what you hope will justify all the waiting in the sun and wind.

Southbound Roadrailer at Aikman, Kansas.

Northbound and southbound meet at Aikman.

Flashing FRED.

The sun sets on the Flint Hills.

St. Louis and San Francisco

Once railroad consolidation started in earnest, the Frisco never stood a chance.  The Burlington Northern swallowed the smaller line like a bear eating a minnow.

A relatively small, regional line serving mostly Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri, this road ran beautiful red and white engines, always clean, over well-maintained roadbed.  Living in Oklahoma City, I always looked forward to the daily morning freight from Tulsa, which usually came through the valley of the Deep Fork River about 10:00 a.m.

Northeast from Oklahoma City  to Tulsa.

Southbound approaching the Red River.

Oklahoma City.

More Oklahoma City.  The cotton gin is long gone, and the area is unrecognizable today.


Gallup, New Mexico

Gallup is a dusty town in far western New Mexico, the gateway to the canyon of the Rio Puerco of the West.  (There is also a Rio Puerco on the eastern side of the Continental Divide.). Trains on the BNSF Trascon race through day and night.  Like most small places in the West, the town follows the tracks.  Near the Arizona border, the BNSF runs through a deep and magnificent sandstone canyon.

Two stack trains meet west of Gallup.

Westbound trailers deep in the canyon.

Late-running Amtrak at the border of New Mexico and Arizona.

Glendo, Wyoming

Coming south from the coal mines of the Powder River Basin, BNSF trains run through the tiny village of Glendo, perched in the plain above the North Platte River like a small bird on a telephone line.  The tracks run along the edge of Glendo Reservoir, and the mountains to the west look down in absolute silence.  Thunderstorms are frequent in this solitary land, and at sundown amazing rainbows can appear and disappear without warning.

A Glendo rainbow.


Northbound (railroad west) empties headed to the mines.

Southbound (railroad east).

This northbound manifest will divert westward at Orin Junction and head to the Wind River Canyon.

Wyoming thunderstorm as the sun sets.

First dark.

Loads at dusk.


As darkness falls.

Goffs Hill

Goffs Hill is the first westbound grade past Needles, California, the first of many gradients that trains in both directions must surmount between Needles and Barstow.  This crossing of the Mojave Desert changes with the seasons as surely as birds migrate with the changing temperature.  Winter brings mild days and the little moisture that falls in this barren land. Summer brings heat beyond endurance, beyond imagining.  Sundown in both seasons brings an ambience found only in the desert, a crimson-tinged tranquility that must be close to what death feels like.

As the sun sets, westbound stacks are framed against the Dead Mountains.

An eastbound races down the hill.

Westbound beginning to climb.

This westbound is approaching Needles, where a new crew will take the stacks across the California desert.

Eastbound at Ibis, where the tracks divide.

Sacramento Valley

One of Arizona's contributions to the Mojave Desert, the Sacramento Valley runs southwest from Kingman to the Colorado River near Needles.  Framed by the Hualapai Mountains on the east and the Black Mountains on the west, this terrain, which looks flat to the naked eye, actually slopes upward from the river at approximately 500 feet to Kingman, 45 miles away, about 3,300 feet above sea level. 

A few brave souls live in this harsh country, souls who prefer solitude and isolation to companionship.  Chrysler tests its Jeep Wranglers here.  If a vehicle can navigate this terrain, it can navigate anywhere. 

Eastbound (compass north) beneath the Hualapai Mountains.  Notice the five different paint schemes.

Climbing the grade to Kingman.

Kingman Canyon.

Open desert.

Downgrade to Needles.

Beyond Laramie

Laramie, Wyoming, sits in a frigid valley above 7,000 feet.  Winter starts early and ends late.  The growing season begins around June 13 and ends aboiut September 2 -- less than 90 days.

Westbound Union Pacific trains on the Overland Route head north-northwest out of town to avoid mountains and don't turn due west again for about 120 miles.  The terrain here is deceivingly tranquil in comparison to the mountains, but trains still struggle over several hills in both directions.

Like the rest of Wyoming, this country is filled with beautiful sunsets, instant thunderstorms and unexpected rainbows. 

Westbound into the sunset.

Hannah, Wyoming.


DPU on another eastbound.

The mountains to the south are why the Overland Route detours far to the north.

Approaching Sherman Hill.

The last light of day sneaks through a thunderstorm.

Clouds descend.

DPU on grainer.

Dodging rain.

The unexpected rainbow.

Maricopa Mountains

Southwest of Phoenix, in the Sonoran Desert dominated by the majestic Saguaro, the Maricopa Mountains look like lost orphans at an otherwise deserted railway station.  In a state filed with majestic mountains and canyons, the Maricopas barely rate notice, which is why the locating engineers for the Southern Pacific chose to cross them -- rather than other, taller impediments -- on a short gradient to the valley of the Gila River.  

Unlike the Mojave, the Sonoran is filled with vegetation, making one realize that water is everything.  Even a desert, with just a little bit more water, can blossom.  A desert can produce a tree like the Palo Verde, containing chlorophyl in its branches and stems, allowing it to survive until the next rainfall.

Eastbound autos navigating through the Macicopa Mountains.


Climbing the grade to the summit at Shawmut.


Although not as busy as BNSF's Transcon, UP's line from El Paso west still sees heavy traffic.

In this land, the Saguaro is king. 

Union Pacific charges west.

Transcon Meets

Because traffic on the BNSF Transcon is so heavy, one will often see two trains pass within photographic range.  Seeing this event at sundown, however, is less common -- about as common as an honest man.  As Harry Truman said, if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

Near Belen, New Mexico.

Ellinor, Kansas.

Ellinor, Kansas.

Flagstaff, Arizona.

Mojave Desert.

Rio Puerco east of the Continental Divide.

In the valley of the Rio Grande.

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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