Cajon calling: Go home

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Monday, January 13, 2014

A westbound baretable departs Summit, Calif., dawn Saturday. Jim Wrinn photo

CAJON PASS, Calif. – I startle awake in my hotel room around 5 a.m. to a glowing green light on my smart phone lying next to the TV remote. I dismiss it as a late greeting from a pal or a message from my girlfriend that I can look at later. But something nags me to glance anyway. And there it is: My flight home to Milwaukee Saturday has been cancelled. I go immediately to wide awake and dial the customer service number at U.S. Airways. They can accommodate me tomorrow, but I press them for today: I’ve been on the road a week now, and I am ready to go home.

The agent comes up with an alternative, but it will cost me: My plan to spend most of this January day watching trains at Cajon Pass in the warm southern California sunshine and catch a late flight home is dashed. Instead of flying out at 4:40 p.m., now I have to be at the airport for a 12:30 p.m. flight. I still have to go through famous Cajon, subject of our February issue cover story that is available now, anyway. So I might as well get what I can of the place. Over cereal and yogurt in the hotel lobby, I run a quick calculation. If I get to Cajon at dawn, around 6:30 a.m., I can have 3, maybe 3 and a half hours of time at this sacred mountain pass, where BNSF Railway and Union Pacific share mainline track into the Los Angeles basin.

An eastbound stack train pops into the rising sun near the summit of California's Cajon Pass. Jim Wrinn photo
My rental SUV loaded, I drive through the dark on I-15, and there, as I descend to the exit that will take me to Summit, I see the headlight of an eastbound, dancing on the canyon hillsides. It is the approximation of my childhood memory of turning off the living room lights and watching the Lionel train illuminate the scene. A few minutes later, twisting highway 138 leads me to Summit, where two manned pushers have cut off and are retuning down the hill. A pink glow begins to form in the east, and suddenly, I begin to see landscape. A westbound baretable train follows the helpers down the mountain, and I begin to make out bluffs and hillsides as stark and barren as the darkside of the moon in my mind.

A stack train descends Cajon Pass, one of several trains viewed Saturday. Jim Wrinn photo
Though I am here, I am frustrated at the short visit. I was supposed to visit this spot a week prior with advertising colleague Mike Yuhas, but a flight delay of a day thwarted that idea. On Friday, I spent a few hours on the hill with the author of our Cajon Pass story, David Lustig, before he had to return to the Los Angeles area. Cajon keeps calling my name, but it seems to always be hanging up on me just as soon as I answer. My three hours this morning will have to make do.

Taking David’s advice, I get off the main road and find a dirt road that looks like it leads to the tracks. What good is a rented SUV if you don’t take it somewhere to, as Brad Paisley says, “get a little mud on the tires”? The road is rough, but not so difficult that I fail to reach a convenient hillside perch overlooking the mainlines that are stacked one of top of each other like the layers of a cake. Signs implore visitors not to use the area for target practice, but shell casings and crushed beer cans prove that not everybody is paying attention or cares. Soon, a train arrives, and I determine that he will pop into the first rays of light as he works through a cut. It is the harbinger of good luck as a series of uphill and downhill trains parade in front of my location. I yearn to see one take the lowest track, bathed in gorgeous sunshine and snaking gently in front of me, but only one does, and it is a downhill train coming out of the sun.

Final kiss goodbye for this trip: A westbound stack train descends Cajon. Jim Wrinn photo
With amazing rapidness, my 3 and a half hours evaporates. During a lull, I finish packing my suitcase. The meet of a downhill BNSF stack train and an uphill UP hopper train in front of me convince me that the day is just getting heated up, but it is time for me to go. I elect to follow the stack train to Cajon Boulevard, where another easy shot (fall out of the SUV and you’re there) will be my goodbye kiss to Cajon. I arrive long before the train, set up my shot, and photograph not only the stack train, but an uphill UP manifest as well. And then it is really time to go. I stow the cameras in the backpack and hit I-15 again, jealously eyeing the stack train, its bright orange units glowing deliciously in the winter sun.

As I cross the tracks one last time, I take a long look at the mainline, and suddenly realize I should have kept my eyes on the road: Two BNSF stack trains are paralleling each other up the grade. Surely, if I had just had another hour on the hill, they would have reached me in a glorious race, engines in notch 8, thundering upward and onward. I shake off the tempting spectacle and remind myself that I cannot be late for my flight. A full day at Cajon will have to wait until another day.

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