Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The (slightly) intentional railfan

A few months ago I wrote about my "accidental railfan" trip along the joint UP/BNSF Tehachapi crossing. As you may recall, I was not well prepared: no camera; less-than-interested car mates; etc.

Well, I had the chance to travel through the area again and especially since I am working on a design that features the area, I thought I would be a little more serious this time. OK, but not too serious. It seems the family needed the digital while I was gone, so I bravely set out with an old film snapshot camera. First stop on the way down to So Cal: Caliente, a key element on the layout project.

After getting my bearings, a quick look around and I spy a decent spot to get a bird's-eye view. Climb up the hill and I hear flanges squealing. Real railfans go out all day and never see a thing; I bumble onto a train in the first five minutes. Oh yeah, and the camera's down in the car. Nuts! It was great though, you shoulda seen it.

Anyway, I realize this mixed BNSF manifest is on its way toward the Loop … and as it happens, so am I! Back in the car, return to the Freeway and jump off again at Keene, wind along down to Tunnel 9 on the famous Loop. This time I take the camera with me. The sun is on its way down, so there won't be a long wait one way or the other -- either a train will arrive or it will be dark. But soon enough I hear airhorns in the distance.

In the late afternoon light the same train I saw in Caliente is curving around the entrance to Tunnel #9 and the Loop. Quick photo or two and a friendly (I hope) horn blast from the engineer startles me as BNSF Techno-Toaster 4868 wheels its train of reefers, tankcars and coal or coke hoppers around the Loop. Oh, yeah, and I took the requisite crossover shot. OK, I'm still not sure I'm cut out to be a modern day railfan, but that was pretty neat.

On the return leg to the bay area, I decide to be a little more organized about this. With a photo or two at the Loop already in the camera, I want to focus on some other areas. Couple of quick photos in Mojave to capture some neat things that might not be there for long (like the sign at White's Motel) and I see a BNSF train headed out of town toward Tehachapi. It's not often that I have seen a loco defaced with graffiti, but this GP-35 has received a vandal's unwanted attention.

On up over Tehachapi on a beautiful spring Sunday (mid-May). Returning to Caliente, I drive around for a few establishing shots that I need for the track plan. I was surprised to see a few cars parked at the (closed on Sunday) Post Office and a couple of guys standing around talking. Locals, I guess -- maybe this passes for an outing in Caliente on a Sunday afternoon.

Then I head just outside of town to my vantage point from a few days before. OK, this is a pleasant afternoon eating a sandwich the Moms packed in the shade of an old oak, but this railfanning outing seems to be more like a solitary picnic sans train. (Yes, I'm a wimp -- I did say I was only a slightly intentional railfan.)

But then, airhorns. A BNSF TOFC (Trailer on Flatcar) train is working its way into Caliente. I catch it across the valley as it pulls in from the site of the former Tunnel #1/2. Soon the full train is laid out around the curve as BNSF 4597 rolls by my sidehill perch.

Just after the train pulls out of town, I start to do the same. Roaring past me at the intersection are the three cars that were parked at the Post Office. Railfans! (The intentional variety, no doubt.) From the layout design project, I know the BSNF train is headed to Bealeville, which I'll cross on the road out of Caliente.

The more serious railfans are long out of sight as I wind up the hill to Bealeville. When I arrive, they are nowhere to be found, until I look up on the nearby hills where they have perched, tripods at the ready. Within minutes, the TOFC train we saw in Caliente has arrived, stopped, and dimmed its headlight. And in the other direction comes the same mixed consist I had seen earlier departing Mojave. This quick photo of the resulting Bealeville meet was the last on that roll of film, so my railfan excursion had come to an end. (My more serious railfanning comrades raced off to parts unknown to bag their next ream of images.)

All in all, a lot of luck, some very pleasant time spent in pretty country, useful research for my client's project, and a few photos to remember it all by. Not bad for a somewhat-less-accidental railfan …

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Currently listening to Appalachia Waltz by Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O'Conner. This instrumental music has a timeless, evocative, instantly nostalgic feel that really needs no description except to say that it is truly beautiful.