By Craig Walker
Posted May 12, 2008
When I was younger, friends and relatives, when they discover my passion for railroading, often asked why I didnít hire out with the railroad. (These days, unfortunately, the question is always in the past tense.) After all, isnít railroading an exciting job?
Well, sure. Sometimes.
Don't get me wrong ... I respect the work that railroaders perform, but it just wasn't for me. Iíd known too many railroaders over the years who told stories about their exploits. The old-head who worked on the Frisco in Arkansas, and got thrown against the cabooseís bulkheads while running over the rolling hills on their district when the trainís slack bunched up, then got thrown against the rear bulkhead when the slack went out as the train crested a hill. Ending the day black and blue didnít sound overly exciting to me.
Or the brakeman I knew who worked for the Santa Fe in the sixties. Stopped in the Mojave desert one night, he headed back to protect the rear of the train, setting his lantern in the middle of the track the proscribed distance from the trains rear. Upon hearing the whistle blow, indicating a clear signal, he reached for his lantern and stopped short when he heard a suspicious buzzing. Odd, he thought, and reached for the lantern again. Again, a loud buzzing. He looked into the area lit by the lantern, and noticed a diamondback rattlesnake snuggled up against the rail, absorbing the heat the rail had stored up all day. The brakeman was running out of time ó he knew the train was about to depart, but he couldnít leave the lantern there, as it would stop any trains following them. So, he picked up the largest piece of ballast he could find and knocked the lantern over, smashing the lanternís globe in the process. Tipped to its side, the wick wouldnít stay lighted long, he thought, and he ran back to his train, hopping on as it began to move once again.
Working in the searing desert heat, the bitter winter cold, the long 12-hour plus days, spending every other night laying over in garden spots such as Barstow, Yermo or Yuma, memorizing that thick book of rules, the hours of boredom waiting to leave a yard, or get cleared out of a siding ... Aarrgh! It was all too much for this wimpy kid.
Besides, perhaps working for the railroad might take the fun out of it for me. (In retrospect, I doubt that it would have.)
So, I elected to stay a railfan ó a hobby most of which most have never heard, and of those who had, they often didnít understand. Iím not sure even I understand.
For me, the allure of the rails has many levels, but more than the sounds and smells, perhaps the most compelling for me is the visual aesthetic. Almost without exception, I like the way they look ó the lines of an EMD diesel, the function-dictates-form of a steam locomotive (or marker light, switchstand, signal or coupler), the way a train snakes through its surroundings, the repetition of all those crossties under the rails, the look of a gyrating Mars light on an SP freight working up the San Joaquin Valley while driving up Highway 99 at 2:00 a.m. -- it is my quest to capture the look of railroading that is the essence of the hobby for me.
Which is why I like this shot. A Southern Pacific SD40T-2, with its array of stuff on the cab roof, the utilitarian Bloody Nose paint, the distinctive L-windshield, the colorful (if not quite workable) ACI plate on the hood ó and the engineer catching up on the news while he waits for the dispatcher to give him a clear signal. Yeah, heís getting paid to just sit there, but chasing trains across the Mojave Desert -- Iím having the fun!