Union Pacific Railroad in 1984
Photos of the UP in California
Spending the night in Kelso; a journal.
May 10, 1984
It's a two lane strip of gray asphalt cutting South-Southwest across the desert, called KelBaker Road. Miles and miles of unending stark beauty in the late afternoon sun. The closer you get to the mountains ahead, the farther away they seem to be. Heat rises in waves giving the image of shimmering wetness -- a flood -- on the road ahead. More miles and miles of desert, then a gentle curve, then more miles and miles of desert.
Finally you reach the crest of those 'mountains' and begin to drop into a wide valley, a basin, just as the sun sets, sending fiery pink and orange and red and purple hues onto the foothills of the desert around you. The shadow of your vehicle stretches long beside you, racing you. In the distance, at the bottom of the basin, you see a mirage-like apparition, out of place in the middle of the vast and barren desert, an oasis of large-lush-green-trees, tall silver water tanks towering over a small settlement reflecting the sunset's ebbing glow, and a tiny point of flashing red light; a sentinel. Kelso. As you grow closer, you can make out the thin line of the Union Pacific Railroad main line piercing the oasis. The line stretches to infinity in the east, disappears behind a long, low sand dune to the west. The flashing red light gets more distinct as you near; two miles to go and you can identify the outline of a stop sign. You ease off the gas and coast the last half mile into Kelso, your view of the small oasis expanding to include a few mobile homes, some disintegrating brick buildings, assorted outbuildings and that inappropriate mass of huge green trees. Closer and closer in the fading glow, the sentinel's red red red light flashing bright and steady. You ease to a stop at a red stop sign. "STOP." "5 TRACKS." "HIGH SPEED TRAINS" on a yellow diamond-shaped sign mounted below the crossbuck of a railroad crossing sign.
You look both ways and prepare to skitter across the tracks but the depot in the Cottonwood trees to the left grabs your attention. You ease across the tracks, then turn left on the dirt road and slowly drive, the rows of railroad families' mobile homes with a scattering of human activity around barbeque grills and fences watching you suspiciously and talking together nursing beer cans while their dogs chase your car's progress and bark inside their chain link worlds to your right and the steel mainline to your left. A few scattered freight cars, a complete set of crew cars for a work train sit with air conditioners running, plugged into an electric pole on a siding near the water tanks.
Across the tracks, hidden in those trees, sits the Kelso station. Ornate. Grand. Mission Style and huge, polished as if expecting the City of Los Angeles to pull up and discharge its passengers at any moment. A station befitting the majestic Streamliners of Union Pacific's heyday. You turn around and retrace your path until you can drive across the tracks again, then turn toward the station on the frontage road. Brick walkways, gas-style lamp posts glowing in the darkening evening, a soft green well-maintained lawn spreading under the shielding canopy of Cottonwoods. A park-like scene right out of Main Street, U.S.A. A few other buildings line this side of the tracks: a worn out and fading block-walled Kelso Post Office and a tumble-down ruin with faded lettering marking it as a grocery and maybe a gas station and a few small metal railroad-oriented utility buildings but your attention is continually drawn to and focused on that station. Union Station in Los Angeles is not this well maintained; why would such an artifact be in such good condition out here in the middle of nowhere?
This is the object of your drive. It has been your goal to see this station that you've heard rumors about. You set up your tripod and get one or two pictures in the fading purple and now it is full-on dark. A mother in a mobile home across the tracks calls her bicycling children in to baths and the dogs have long since settled down. You drive across the tracks again and park kitty-corner from the station, hoping the residents of Kelso don't mind an overnight guest if you don't bother them. Having no pressing plans, you settle down for the night. You are not accustomed to sleeping in your car, but the setting is so serene it beckons you to relax and enjoy its quiet beauty. 11:00 P.M. A low, ominous sound awakens you. You feel it more than hear it at first, but then you know you hear it. It grows in intensity, a deep bass rumble. Louder and louder, more powerful with each passing minute. It takes twenty minutes before you really recognize it as an approaching train, diesels throbbing in the night, but you can't tell which way it's coming from, then, headlights blazing from the east, it roars through Kelso. Must be doing at least 80. Westbound. Three SD40-2's and a mile of automobile rack cars and covered hoppers glide smoothly past on welded rail then clatter over the siding switch down the tracks on their urgent way toward Los Angeles, red light on the rear disappearing down the endless track, reflecting off polished silver rails. The entire setting seems ethereal. The drive was worth it.