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Edition #130, July 15, 2010

Tombstones

Photographer: Kit Courter

                                                                                   Photo by Kit Courter

Tombstones

Relics In Passing, Woodford, California

I donít know how many times Iíve passed the big abandoned concrete water tank footings at Woodford with the thought that something photographic could be done with them. I suspect the first time was around 1986 or so, about the first time my art-photography friend Keith G. and I decided to take our cameras up on ďThe HillĒ, mine loaded with Tri-X and his with High Speed Infrared. But on that occasion, and all the others that followed, the big concrete attractions were tunnel portals belching iron and smoke, or bridge abutments lofting their steel spans high above Tehachapi Creek for the benefit of passing trains. Keith G. left some years later for Moab, and today Iíve lost touch with him. In the time since other friends have pooled inspiration and ideas with me, leaving a profound mark on my mind and influencing the photos I have made. To name them all would make quite a list.

But on April 17, 2010 it was Bob that was riding with me. We were heading up the old Woodford-Tehachapi Road toward the overlook above Tehachapi Loop. We had been driven there from the BNSF Mojave Subdivision earlier in the day when a thin cirrostratus cloud deck came over the sun, ruining the light on the desertís spring wildflowers and sending us in search of something resembling contrast. As we drove up the road past Keene Store I was telling him about Keith G. and his father, who as a young man back in the Great Depression helped build that winding two-lane snake-of-a-road, then known as US-466. We were both looking for inspiration; such stories come easily at such times. And then we came around the corner under the freeway and saw the sets of old concrete footings that once supported steam-era water tanks for the mid-grade siding of Woodford. The idea hit him first Ė they look like tombstones and should be photographed as such.

We found a place to park the car and walked around and in between the taller set. Tapering pillars over six feet tall, they felt like a mini Stonehenge monument, ancient and mysterious. The rough yellow concrete was streaked here and there with old tar and paint, and orange lichens mottled the northward faces. The smaller set to the east was less tall, rectangular and stepped perhaps knee high, offering platforms on which to stand. Surrounding it all was tall spring grass that hid most of the accumulation of junk that had collected there. We spent some time looking the place over and discussing the impressions that came to mind, and the possible things that could be done with these strange standing stones. After settling on some camera angles where neither of us would be in the otherís way, I moved the car to a different parking spot out of the field of view (well, mostly) and prepared my camera Ė Bob already had his in hand. Then we did that thing railfans are famous for but hate doing Ė we waited. We waited as the breeze made the pines sing quietly.

We waited as trucks rolled by on the nearby four-lane highway. We waited as a Union Pacific baretable train drifted down the hill and stopped in the Woodford pass. We waited as the overhead clouds thinned a little and then offered a soft but beautifully compelling light under a pale blue sky. We waited until a distant horn announced an eastbound train coming up the hill through the west switch Woodford. We hoped it would have something interesting on the point.

And then around the curve came the afternoon BNSF run taking cars from the Modesto and Empire Traction and the Beard Industrial District at Empire to Barstow and points east, lead by two worn but proud 700-series red and silver Warbonnets. Oh man, I thought, it is relics passing relics, emblems of an ambitious young mega-railroad passing a monument from an even older day. It was the tombstones from the cemetery of steam and the last days of the elder statesmen of the vanished Santa Fe, captured in allusion by its corporate successor. It was evolution. It was all that in a moment of softly focused afternoon light on the west slope of the hill. It was poetry. And then it was captured and was a photograph.

Most days when Bob and I go out along the tracks with cameras in hand, we look for something I donít think either of us can quite define. It has an element of drama involving man and machine, respectively smaller and larger, smarter and more powerful by turn. Only once in a great while does that come into the frame so fraught with layers of meaning and connection as to tell a part of the long continuing story extending from history books into our daily lives. But when it does, no matter how much thin clouds may have washed out the light the rest of the day, we can go home satisfied, feeling honored to have been the ones that were there when it happened.

Kit Courter

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