Cajon Pass, California
Shootout at Sullivan's Curve

March 1989

Copyright ©1989, 1997 Jon Trent Adams

Here I am, high atop a rounded knob of eons' old sandstone, made of pretty poorly-sorted sand and gravel, in the middle of Sullivan's Curve, one of the more famous settings for countless thousands of photographs snapped by countless thousands of amateur and professional railfans. It is here, deep within Cajon Pass, that the Santa Fe and much more recently the Southern Pacific railroads pass within a hundred and fifty yards of me on my perch.

No, I haven't been sitting here for a hundred years or more; I am the most recent arrival, save the Toyota pickup that is currently feeling its way up the graveled shoulder of the Santa Fe tracks. But except for him, I am alone here today; the sun is brilliant, but a strong south wind is acting to cool me faster than the sun can deliver heat. I sit up here with no particular purpose. I was nearby this morning, and I as had not visited the Cajon in the last month or two, I felt it a good day to do so. The thermometer indicates a temperature of seventy-five or so. The wind chill I am experiencing makes it feel like the sixties.

A thousand yards to my east a westbound Santa Fe freight with five motors eases its way down the grade toward San Bernardino and ultimately Los Angeles. The train is relatively short; the consist is trailers on flat cars: soon the train has vanished from view. A distant complex sound reaches my ears on this southern wind: it is presages the front end of an upbound Southern Pacific freight. Perhaps thirty minutes ago I passed this train, down just before the mouth of the canyon. The lead motor is the 6792; it is followed by the 9116, the 9139 and trailed by the 7364. The first engine is a General Electric unit; the rest are built by General Motors masquerading as ElectroMotive Division, in LaGrange, Illinois. It looks like this train is an extra; if so, it has lowest priority on the railroad. The cargo is mainly boxcars and gondolas, beat and empty. A two-unit helper, 7511 and 7557, the latter in soon-to-disappear SP yellow-and-red warbonnet, pushes the end of the train to keep the uphill speed at a steady twenty-five per. That freight is now gone, round the northern corner, out of Sullivan's curve country and out of my universe. The rushing oxygen-nitrogen mix pushes any lingering noise away from my ears.

I have taken off my shirt, braving the coolness, but cherishing the sun's radiation on my pale torso. I've needed to sit out in the sun for many months now, but between sickness and poor weather, have been unable to pursue this indolent goal.

Two guys appear out of the shadows and shrubbery, a hundred feet below my rocky height: the first carries some unknown object in his hand; the second carries a rifle. I slide over to the north end of my rock. From here I see them both, the second rifleman I now see is carrying a lever -action rifle. The first is washing his hands in the creek water, squatting next to what looks to be some sort of semiautomatic rifle, with multiround rectangular clip hanging beneath and a stubby barrel, all gun-metal black.

Both move away now, back down the gully that they have just followed uphill, stopping occasionally and looking about, perhaps listening for some small critter in the brush.

I don't think that this is a particularly good place to play rifleman, nor is it good hunting around here. Too many people and trains, the Interstate less than a mile away. Too many directions one can fire and not know the location of the ultimate target. I see their vehicle now, two or three hundred yards down that gully, hidden round behind a low tree. A tent is pitched next to the vehicle; they must have camped here last night.

A moment ago I heard a Diesel locomotive air horn; shortly after the westbound Number 36 Amtrak passenger train glided by, doing thirty-five or forty miles an hour down the hill on its journey to Los Angeles from Salt Lake City. Its name is the Desert Wind; sometimes the wind blows much faster than the train moves. The train probably left Las Vegas this morning around six am; Barstow at eleven am; down through the San Andreas Fault zone here at twelve-ten; arriving in Los Angeles perhaps by two-fifteen. Not a fast trip, by any means. But then again, Amtrak's not really in the passenger train business: it's just a subterfuge, a ruse, to appease and distract the traveling public. The government doesn't want to be in that business; neither do the railroads want to provide trackage rights. It is an unfortunate situation.

The creek earlier mentioned begins its existence somewhere to the south of me, the first flow visible as a thin scintillation three hundred feet due south and maybe fifty feet below, in the gully formed between the railroad on the west and this ridge upon which I sit. In a while I will leave this point and perhaps follow the water's path back to its source. I think that I will find a spring in the hills immediately south.

A larger raft of clouds is steadily advancing from the southwest upon my bit of sun. I look more carefully at this vapor-sheet: it is not so much traveling to the northeast as I first thought but seems more like it is descending on me. I think that this must be an illusion. There is something strange here. The clouds are disappearing along a line; although the winds are blowing steadily, the clouds only appear to advance, eternally vanishing like soldiers thrown against an impossible foe.

The riflemen have let two rounds go. I do not know the direction that they fired; I did not hear a local strike, so I suspect that I am not a target right now. Perhaps in a little while it will change if they don't find something more exciting at which to shoot. Then I'll have to go and get my rifle if I can, then we can have a memorable shootout at Sullivan's Curve. I can't wait; or can I?

I finally descend from my high seat, follow the spine of this sandstone ridge back to where I have left the car. I cross the Santa Fe tracks, then walk east two hundred feet or so to a little goat -path that allows me better access to the terrace above me where the SP tracks lay. I churn up the embankment, displacing moist gravel and dirt as I climb.

Here begins the SP siding of Alray; the double tracks wind below the face of the sandstone outcrops, curving to the north and then trending northwest toward the overcrossing of State Route 138 nearly two miles away. It is just before this crossing that the Alray siding ends; a switch allows the second set of rails to be absorbed into the mainline.

I cut across the rails and soon am in a narrow gully just south of the rails. Here I find again the water that I saw from my earlier viewpoint. The water runs at perhaps two gallons per minute: the water is clear, there are no scooting bugs visible on the surface, but I suspect that the water is undrinkable without treatment. I shall travel upstream in search of the source.

I follow the stream along its bed, walking in the bed where I can find dry foothold, climbing out of the course where the path narrows or becomes impassable due to overgrowth. I find one point where the water rushes over a rock ledge, spilling into a foot-deep pool formed by the ledge on the one side and a great depth of sand on the downstream side. The water vanishes beneath the sand and surfaces two yards further downstream. I am an engineer first: I excavate a trench so that the water may flow along the surface. Of course, it does, and the drop between the head of the trench and the outlet is enough that the water actively deepens the trench. The pools' death is not imminent; its shrinkage, however, is. I admire my handiwork.

I continue upstream, rounding a low sandstone rise where the water is flowing on the northern boundary of the rock. The path narrows into a choked defile. I cannot pass, and so I climb my way out, up the gently sloping but friable face of the sandstone. There are deep stands of brambles and juniper here; I cannot get back down to the watercourse until a hundred feet upstream. Here there is no surface water: the head of this stream is a small pocket, a five-acre valley here before me. The sand and gravel in the bottom of the gully is moist, damp, brown. I fight my way downstream through the overgrown shrubs to see if I can find the first appearance of the hidden waters. The path becomes very shrub-choked; I cannot go forward. I attempt to dig down to the water in the soft, moist gravel. I excavate a pit ten inches deep but no water, just more moist gravel and sand. I retire from the field of Water Works Engineering. It was fun.

Where to now? I scramble up the west slope of the gully. I fight my way through the prickly shrubs, beginning to claw my legs in the process. I check for ticks on my bare skin.

It is difficult to find a trail in this dense, low growth. Patches that look promising from afar deteriorate with the reality of closer inspection. Often the greenery looms over my head, and I must literally plunge through the thicket, rolling off the enslaving and grappling latticework of the barbed and hooked brush and hoping that around the corner isn't a snake, maniac or colony of brown recluse spiders. I notice none of these things today - just the scratching juniper.

I follow a ridgeline toward an open run of sandstone: I arrive on this bulbous, sloped surface, reminded of my trips to Moab, Utah and the outstanding country beyond, reminded that a friend that I met there who lives in Atlanta hasn't had the pleasure of a letter from me in the last year, reminded mostly that I forgot to pack the quart of water in my bag. Life is hell.

I drop down off the knoll, follow a secondary path across another sandstone slab, angle downhill toward a drainage, cross the now-dry watercourse and bull my way up the opposite slope, following what had looked from the distance as a goat or burro path, but on closer inspection being only a shadow of its former width. But at this point, I can actually see the shoulder of my target at eye level; it is a simple matter to follow the crest of this spine a hundred yards east and arrive at the foot of the final ascent, which from here looks nearly manageable, perhaps even simple.

The shrubberies that choke the intervening distance are deceiving: I soon find myself caught in innumerable snags, my shoelaces unceremonially untied by grasping low branches, three-inch welts rising on my thighs, rocks, gravel, sand and plant matter sneaking into my shoes and making the passage miserable for my feet. But I persevere, and in spite of that the shrubberies nearly prevail. A few wrong turns, some backtracks to the top of the ridgeline for an improved view, and - voila! - I find myself fortunate to be at the base of the final forty-foot hustle to the top of Sullivan's Hill. I peer over the side of the precipitous ledge, far down toward the tracks, the interstate, to the northeast. I make the final assault: a crevice presents itself to me. Deftly (you needed to be here) I follow the rock face along, hugging closely with the loose dusty gravel a shaky footing, under a standing juniper, cut across a bare, sharply sloped, graveled sandstone face, scramble on all fours up this surface and cut back to my right to the comparative safety of a narrow defile where I regain my courage. The last ten vertical feet I accomplish again on hands and toes, feeling for foot- and handholds in the friable surface. I am on top.

The view here is circular; I can see all directions, but smog, water vapor and dust conspire to limit my depth of view to a few miles or so. So I sit on the rock and begin the pleasurable task of removing my shoes and socks. I find one tick scrambling about on my left thigh. Quickly dispatched, I am soon unshod and my socks are anchored under the heel of the shoes to avoid their being blown away by the still-fresh wind. Retrieval of objects lost off the side of this peak would be very difficult and probably impossible: I don't want to have to descend without shoes or socks.

Off comes the shirt again. I am concerned that my vitamin D supply is perilously low: I will attempt to remedy this with a quick, concentrated dose of UV at this elevation of over 3400 feet.

I reconnoiter my new home. I am sole human occupant of a quarter-acre of ten -degree sloped tan and ecru sandstone, dipping to the east; junipers and peculiar little hearty plants the size of my thumb form the majority of my biospheric neighbors, not counting the billions of critters I can't see. I don't relate to them as well. I stand at the very edge minus two feet. Quite a drop: I envision my body bouncing heavily off the succeeding outcrops below; I'd be dead long before the final descent. I suspect that I'd lose consciousness at the first bounce. At least I'd hope.

So I step away from this particular eternity and meander east to the end of my tabular estate. I see the riflemen far below me, at least two hundred feet lower and five or six hundred yards further east. I am nearly in line with their sun so I feel certain that they are not looking at me. Paranoia is healthy in controlled doses.

I spread my shirt out and lay down upon it, sunning my belly and enjoying the display of fleeting nebulosity overhead. The scanner has been stuck on a weather frequency for a few minutes now; I wonder if some railroad person punched up the weather report for San Diego County on his radio phone, so I investigate and find that I have forced the scanner to this frequency. Enough of the temperatures in El Cajon, Santee and La Jolla! Desist! With a single button-push and a slide of a locking switch, I am returned to the relative quiet of the railroad channels. Still no trains. Where did everybody go?

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