Saturday, April 11, 2009


When I was a wee lad, our family came by here. I still have black-and-white pictures I took with an Instamatic camera. At the time, finding it was a real coup: Mom happened across an article in the newspaper with directions to the best vantage point. Nowadays, you just type in “Tehachapi Loop” on your GPS direction finder, and it takes you . . . well, somewhere close.

This plaque is new since the last time I was here. While I was tromping around trying to find the right spot to watch the trains go around the loop, I chatted with at least four other sets of visitors who knew exactly what they were looking for and why. We pooled what we knew and figured out enough to keep us all happy. Even with that, it’s not a heavily trafficked tourist attraction. No postcard stands, lots of NO TRESPASSING signs.

The hill is in the center of the loop. The idea is that the canyon here is too steep for a train to climb. Normally a train climbs the grade by making a lot of switchbacks and S shapes on the way up. At this spot there’s no room for an S to ease the slope. Back in the 1800s, someone lit on the idea that the train could make an O instead of an S in order to gain a few more precious feet before moving on up the canyon.

I had a lovely visit to the Loop. Clouds scuttered back and forth across the sun; a chill wind whipped at my thin jacket. I stood around taking pictures of scenery. Finally I decided no trains were coming, and I started back down to the car. Then, far down the canyon, I heard the peal of a train horn.

The yellow locomotives are making one final S before they reach the loop. The white train cars stretch off down the valley. (This is probably a good spot to point out that you can see any of these pictures in a larger format by clicking on them.)

The locomotives are on the far side of the hill (even though it looks almost as if they’re running on the track on top of the hill). They are about to turn into the far end of the tunnel.

The locomotives are in the tunnel . . .

. . . and . . .

. . . out comes the front end of the train!

Now the train begins the long circle that will raise it several dozen feet (±25 meters). The locomotives are pulling up around the hill on the right. The far end of the train is still outside the loop; it hasn’t all come through the tunnel yet.

On the train climbs.

Now the locomotives have come out from behind the hill, and you can see the train’s last cars have yet to enter the tunnel. They are still visible outside the loop.

The train chases its tail.

Here you can see the train has inscribed a complete loop over itself, positioning itself to climb even higher.

The locomotives pull the train around onto the rising track closer to my hillside perch.

I ran over the crest of the hill to look down into the next valley and catch the train climbing off into the distance.

133 years ago, before we had things like space stations and Wii game controllers, this kind of engineering was considered pretty neat. The Tehachapi Loop is no longer the only railroad loop in the world, but it’s still unusual, and it’s still a little exhilarating to see a train cross over itself.

Back when I was a kid, I remember Mom brought along a camera with a good telephoto lens to take pictures of the loop, and we got a train coming through that day too. When we got back home, she couldn’t wait to get the pictures back from the lab to see whether she had captured any good shots.

Today I was able to take pictures with my cell phone and send them right away to be posted on the Internet for all the world to see. And on my cheap digital camera I was able to zoom in quickly and zoom back out without changing lenses, and I could see right away what was in the pictures I’d just taken, then take more (without worrying about having to change film in a hurry) if the shot wasn’t what I wanted.

Having seen it, and recorded it for posterity, I climbed back into the car and got back on the road, glad to be out of the wind.


CaliforniaGirl said...

Nice train shots. It is nice not to need to change film after the first 24 or 26 pix too.

I remember that trip too. I asked my parents if we were going to the Grand Canyon first, and they said yes, so I put my color film in first. All my Grand Canyon pictures were in black and white after a stop at this loopy place. I still have the insulator though.

Kangamoo said...

Ahhhh the memories. Takes me back. I really should take my kids there.