Cajon Pass, California

A Tan And Dusty Day's Journey into Night

March 1989

Copyright ©1989, 1997 Jon Trent Adams

Saturday afternoon in the Cajon: I sit, in the back seat of the tan and dusty Rabbit, atop a fire-scorched rise just west of Interstate 15, no more than a mile north of California State Route 138.

I am just passing through today; but the Cajon is warm and sunny this late fall afternoon, just an hour or two before sunset, and I have the laptop with me, so here I have temporarily perched myself.

Being born and raised in Los Angeles, I am a child of the desert, to twist and paraphrase T.E. Lawrence. The nakedness of the western landscape thrills, haunts, entrances me. I like scrub brush more than fir or pine. I belong here.

This particular knoll is the remains of an alluvial ridge laid down during the last couple million years; it affords me a clear view of the Interstate. The westbound tracks of the Santa Fe Railway past just beneath me to my right; the eastbound tracks are to my left, not quite visible around the north trend of this ridge. I am alone, not counting the sixty cars and trucks per minute that endlessly zip past on the six-lane concrete superhighway a quarter-mile east.

I have a few radios with me in the car today: the Backpacket, squawking regularly but with the terminal turned off; the UHF mobile radio listening on a deserted desert repeater frequency; and a portable scanner, busily hunting to capture some stray transmission from a passing railroad crew. I just leaned over and quieted the packet station, turned down the UHF rig, and am now wondering why I have heard no traffic on the Santa Fe road channel. Wait; I just now heard a single word on the scanner: "Alright". I suppose it is working. Timely, even eerie, perhaps, but not real exciting at the moment.

This lazy December day in Los Angeles began in a characteristically Southern California way: at three-thirty-eight this morning, a whole bunch of us were awakened by a solid, cleanly-felt and well-appreciated temblor, epicentered some miles beneath the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. I had awakened about two this morning, unable to return to sleep after having had a robust dinner last night, liberally spiced with several different types of salsas. Being awake, I don't try and fight the sleeplessness; I get up and play amateur radio.

All of a sudden the Cajon is busy again; a downbound Union Pacific mixed drag is before me, just across the freeway, easing its way down from the high desert, while a slowly-climbing four-engine Santa Fe freight is pulling a mile-long string of variegated, multicolored boxes around behind me.

The UP train creeps squeakily past, with a few flats loaded with John Deere combines followed by an assortment of chemical hoppers, some pink, others gray or dirty white. Occasional brake shoes roll by that cry out in oscillating pain, unhappy with their load and with the steep downgrade. Two UP engines tag along at the rear of the train, applying a steady restraining force to the hundred-car chain, completely silent but for the quiet idle of their Diesel engines keeping the air pressure up. Running downhill, these engines are running as dynamic brakes, their thirty-six hundred horsepower of electric traction motors acting as generators now, converting the gravitational potential energy of the Cajon into electricity; this electricity is applied to massive load resistor banks along the roof of the locomotive, where the energy is transferred to heat, blown away from the resistors by six-foot diameter electric fans.

The sun has been below my local horizon, the San Gabriel Mountains, for some forty minutes now: the pale azure sky has a band of gloriously orange clouds swept across, leaving an irregular, thin blue band of light blue as a buffer between the orange cotton and the hazy, dark, snow-streaked ridges of the San Gabriels.

The air has become crisp - the sun could hold its own while above the mountains, but now the huge heat sink of the sky is colder than the earth below and the day's warmth is rapidly leaking away from the planet, going to warm up some distant infinitesimal by some infinitesimal amount.

I had better leave this rise before darkness falls too vigorously; the path up here was little more than a motorbike romp, taking all the horsepower of my little car. The drop down is somewhat treacherous, with deep parallel ruts cut by rain and motorcycle tread.

I saddle up my little Rabbit and gently urge it down the slope; I have no problems and soon am winding my way slowly along the tracks, back toward Route 138 and thence to the freeway.

But wait! I decide that the freeway is an ignominious escape from the pleasant Cajon today. I gravel (sort of an onomatopoeic verb: imagine the sound of skritching gravel as a car brakes and slides to a stop, if you will) to a stop, jockey the car around and soon I am headed up grade, following the Santa Fe Tracks to the desert. My path along the frontage road leads me under the Interstate; immediately after exiting from the underpass I roll down and away from the right-of-way to cross a narrow wash that the railroad hops with a trestle span. The other side of the wash has been breached to provide an incline that leads me back to parallel the pair of steel rails. I continue along this path, motoring past the site just south of me where for over a year there was a drilling rig working its way down deep into the San Andreas Fault zone, I believe as part of a research project. A few months ago the rig was removed, and now all that remains is the graded site. The rumor that I heard was that the project ran out of money, and had to go.

Perhaps it was fortunate. Remember the movie "Crack In the World", where the scientist, played with stunning significance by Dana Andrews, has decided that all the world's energy needs will be alleviated by drilling a deep hole into the Earth's Mantle; big mistake. This bit of scientific mucking-about causes the crust to weaken and split open, dislodging a huge chunk of the surface of our fair orb, thus creating another moon in the process. I think the movie ends with everyone getting together after the big blow and gazing with hope and awe and even appreciation (for a job well done) at this nascent satellite, the guy gets the girl, etc. I guess you had to be there to appreciate the significance.

Up ahead lies a single track tunnel that burrows through a minor ridge; there is no room for both me and the tracks here, so I separate and hook around and over the hill, following the service road. This path soon drops me next to the rails again, and now I am visibly bounded by the westbound rails to my right and the eastbound rails to the left.

Santa Fe runs traffic over the bulk of their double-track mainline just as we do on the highway: traffic running the opposite direction passes on the left. Of course, occasionally this is violated to get one train past another, or when there are equipment or roadbed failures, but it is the standard for the system. Here in the Cajon, the geography conspired to force the railroad to swap left for right; here the most direct route is on the right; this of course is the steepest. The less direct, more gently curved and meandering route loops well to the west, keeping the grade to a minimum. Since it is cheaper and faster to run a freight train uphill where the grade is low, the upbound, eastbound trains take that westerly (northerly) path. The westbound, downhill trains take the east (south) rails.

Santa Fe allows this to happen as the trains leave San Bernardino yard at the south (west) end of the Cajon; this operating irregularity is corrected some 35 miles north (east), near Victorville, where there is a high-speed bridge to reorient the paths. It helps to remember that Santa Fe considers itself to be an east-west railway, drawn as a horizontal line on the map. Therefore all points west of any other point on this linear, one-dimensional map are exactly that in our three-dimensional world: westward.

I cross over the westbound and continue along the tracks, following them through a narrow cut in a fanglomerate hill, then speed up and parallel the twin steel ribbons as they curve right and approach the notch at the west end of Summit.

An upbound SP freight thunders along side of me on the left; half a dozen motors on the point lead a long sequence of tankers, boxes and even a few trailer cars toward the San Jouquin Valley and perhaps Oregon. At the end of the train is a pair of helper units, squealing with purpose, struggling to keep the rear end of the chain at the same speed as the front. He edges ahead and finally begins his left turn into the cut that marks the crest of this hill, which on his railroad is called Hiland.

I pass a camper parked on a little rise right between the SP and Santa Fe tracks; two guys are sitting around a warming fire watching the action on the grade. I wonder if they will sleep there tonight? It takes someone who can sleep very deeply or at least one with the astounding capability to screen out the blast of the locomotives as they drag five thousand tons of steel and aluminum up the Cajon. I have done it many times; I enjoy the sounds and vibrations that flood over my subconscious.

I finally come upon the sign marked Summit; a few pieces of roadbed-tending equipment and the few ubiquitous railfans are all that mark this place today. The sun has set here also and I continue my eastward and northward trek toward Victorville.

Along the route I am passed by two more trains; one Union Pacific eastbound a a westbound Santa Fe. I leave the right-of-way next to the Hesperia Airfield, sneak along the west taxiway/access road and soon exit the airport at the north end. Halfway into town a westbound Santa Fe passes me at forty per. I cross the bridge to the west side of town and continue north on Hesperia Road.

Many years ago, when I was just a wee sprout, I came out here with a few of my friends to watch trains. Paul Fredericoni of Alhambra droved his parents' car. There were a total of five in our party: one kid whose name I don't recall who lived up on Raymond Hill in South Pasadena, myself, Paul, Brad Stevens, and some other kid whose face I can suddenly recall. Pretty hideous, too. Kinda mutant-like. A single eyebrow ridge, like the character Ernie on "Sesame Street". The car was a circa-1970 Chevy Impala with plenty of room for us, and we parked here along the shoulder of Hesperia Avenue just about two blocks north of the Main Street Overpass.

We had a great time photographing UP and SF trains; I remember seeing a Union Pacific DD50 locomotive, the world's largest Diesel locomotive, and typical of UP. To make a long, dull story short, somehow the keys were locked into the trunk of the car and we spent the better part of the afternoon attempting to dismantle the Impala from the passenger compartment in order to get at the trunk. Never made it; we ended up calling the Automobile Club which came out and jinked the lock in a matter of moments. But we had fun anyway. Ah, memories...

Darkness is complete now; the desert sky is clear, more or less, and the stars are dimly visible through a thin, milky haze that is well-lit by the city lights surrounding. I soon roll into Victorville, make the left turn onto Route 18 and then continue north along the old Route 66, the Old National Trails Highway. Past Oro Grande, over the Mojave River, under the Santa Fe tracks, merrily I go, rolling, rolling, on to Barstow. Kinda lyrical, doncha think? Fortunately for all of us, I cross the city limits to Barstow at about 7pm and proceed to my favorite pizza restaurant near the east end of town where I meet a friend for dinner.

A piece of poetry to reminisce by (ahem):

The Big Ride

Nat King Cole sang it best
Maharis and Milner acted it out
in a dreamy 'Vette

This highway of the hopes
and aspirations
of the immigrants
Exists now only in pieces and memories

Before and after that time are the steel ribbons
From Chicago
From Omaha
Together snaking their way across a once hostile desert
To the City of The Angels

That high iron is still triumphant over the paved
But Sunset might be soon.

That's as far as I got... Anyway, to return to my story: pizza was great, the service was astonishingly prompt (at this place, that's always a real wonder). We left there and both separately meandered our ways back home, some 130 miles distant.

Everyone's gotta have a hobby: some do drugs, I do diesel fuel.

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