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Edition #78, May 15, 2008
Solitude and Glint
Photographer: John Benner
Photo by John Benner
Solitude and GlintThe morning is cold, the first cold of fall. I revel in the crispness of the morning despite the biting cold I feel through my gloves. There was only starlight two hours ago when the last westbound rolled by, an uncharacteristic gap in traffic on the BNSF transcon. Amtrak #4, the eastbound Southwest Chief, was barely visible in the predawn twilight spreading in the eastern sky as it sped downhill a half-hour ago. I had checked into a Winslow motel last night in clouded, windy weather after driving nearly 400 miles after work. The wind that had howled most of the night has diminished, leaving cold clear conditions in the very early predawn hours. I awoke early, too early, still several hours before sunrise and decided I’d rather sit under the night sky amidst the sage, Piñon and Juniper watching trains and the coming of the day than more of the motel. I packed my gear and navigated the truck toward my objective here on the high plains of the Colorado Plateau to the west of Winslow.
After setting up the tripod and camera, I study the Hopi Buttes to the north and east across the Little Colorado River valley and the Painted Desert, their dark, distinctive volcanic forms looming against the crimson predawn sky streaked with golden flares of clouds receding in the distance. A faint momentary sound intrudes on the stillness and solitude, a train? or just a rumble from I-40, a couple of miles to the south? I think this may be the most beautiful hour of the day, although I find it a difficult choice as much depends on the season and location here in the southwest. During the monsoonal months of July and August, the finest hour begins with sundown after the terrible afternoon heat. Now, in the cold of early fall at an elevation of nearly 6000 ft, I’ll take the other end of the day, that hour beginning with the sunrise.
A dim headlight in the distance to the east confirms the approach of a train, inspecting it through the perspective of a 560mm lens reveals at first a single orb of light and later, after the head-end rounds a slight curve out west of Canyon Diablo, the recognizable familiar triangular pattern of a headlight with ditch lights. The train is still very distant, at least 5 miles. I watch its progress and consider the horizon in the area where the sun will rise. Will the timing on this work, or will it be yet another attempt missed by just moments? It will, I decide, at least be close. I study the train’s progress as it navigates the sags and rises as it follows its nap-of-the-earth route over the undulating high desert plains it has been traversing since it left Winslow. The sound is now much louder and recognizable as GE motors as the train works westbound climbing the Arizona Divide. The train has already climbed over 1000 feet from Winslow, some 30 miles distant. It becomes apparent that the seemingly slow moving train in the vastness of the high desert is actually making good speed as it works west and has become recognizable as a Z train of truck trailers on spine cars.
With the train now a little more than a half mile away, I start to worry that it will surely beat the sun. Glancing at my watch I recall my sunrise calculations, which suggested that the sun should rise right now. Suddenly a fiery orange fringe appears on the horizon in the expected location. I now attempt to ignore the suns brilliant appearance and try to make sense of the rapidly changing exposure in the extreme clarity of the desert light while shooting nearly directly into the blinding sun. No more time: ISO 160, 1/400 sec at f/16? I release the shutter and walk away with the tripod and watch the three GE’s roar past some 50 feet away, my body feeling the vibrations from their 13,200 hp. I wave at the crew in the lead GEVO who remain oblivious to my presence; their attention focused on the track ahead, not the dark shadows where I walk. Dozens of UPS vans and LTL trailers glisten in the sweet morning light as they roll by at speed on the California bound “Z-9”. The train quickly disappears to the west as the silence begins to return and the color of the light has already changed, losing much of its warmth. I have hundreds of miles to travel to my next destination, but the morning is off to an auspicious start.
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