Monday, May 16, 2005

Today I indulged in one of my favorite pastimes: exploring California. For months now, I've been eyeing an alternate route over the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles. Normally I take the I-5 over the Tehon Pass, through the "Grapevine," a spectacular piece of engineering through the Angeles National Forest. It's no small shakes, but after two years of drives to and from Merced, I know that road by heart.

Another, longer way south turns east after Bakersfield and takes Highway 58 over the Tehachapi Pass through the mountains, where the Tehachapis meet the southern end of the Sierra Nevada. The road turns south from there to cut across the western end of the Mojave Desert. That road called to me from the map: it whispered sweet nothings about beautiful mountain and desert views. I had resisted the call for months (classes to go to, services to lead) but today I stopped in Bakersfield, slept until I woke up, and then headed east for Tehachapi.

One unusual glitch: whoever heard of a rainy day in May in Southern California? When I left Bakersfield, the rain was spitting a little, nothing much, but as I ascended into the mountains, I also ascended into the low cloud ceiling and more rain. I was grateful for the bright orange Cal Trans truck ahead of me: I followed that truck through the fog and trusted that its driver knew the road, because I could barely see the taillights of the truck, much less anything to do with the road. I imagine it's a gorgeous road up to the pass, but I've no idea. I'll go back someday and see, I guess.

At one point, I got a little nervous about the road (lots of fast vehicles passing me and the Cal Trans guys) so when I saw a California Historical Site Marker for something called the Tehachapi Loop I thought, "What the heck is that?" and then "What the heck?" and turned on the road to Keene, CA.

Keene is a wide spot in the road with about 400 residents; it was damp as I drove through but people seemed friendly. The little road curved back 3 miles into the brush past Keene's cafe and post office, and I thought to myself, hmmm, was this smart? But it certainly was interesting. All the wildflowers that had been flashing past my window on Hwy 58 were now close enough to touch. The terrain was rough, befitting a place where the Pacific and North American plates have been jamming up against each other for millenia: the only flat ground had been carved out to make a road, to build a house, or to build the railroad through the pass. Everything else was vertical, lots and lots of hills and hillocks, bounding up and down the mountainside, studded with huge rocks.

When I found the brass Historical Marker by the side of the road, I pulled off to read it. Turns out that the Tehachapi Loop is one of the great railroad engineering feats of the 19th century. I looked out over the valley below the road, and there was a loop of railroad. It was nice of the railroad people to leave a freight train sitting there to help me see it. It took me a few minutes to understand what I was looking at, but after some staring through the rain, I got it: the engineers who designed the railroad track had been faced with a problem when they tried to design track to go over the Tehachapi Pass throught this wild, vertical country. In addition to tunnels (through the hills) and bridges (over the valleys) and a circuitous route (around the devilish hills) they needed a way to gain 77 feet in elevation in a single spot, a seemingly impossible feat. That was accomplished by designing a giant loop of railroad track that crosses over itself, gaining the 77 feet. (If you find this hard to visualize, click the link and the diagram may help.)

All this work was done by hand, by Cantonese railroad workers. They called the loop "Walong" which means "Chinese Road" or "Coiled Dragon" depending upon whom you ask. The railroad from Caliente to Tehachapi, including the loop, is a marvel, and a testament to the Chinese contribution to California history. Even now, that track carries over 40 frieght trains a day, and it is one of the busiest sections of rail track anywhere in the world. I was sorry to hear that there's no passenger service over the loop; apparently the bus from LA to Bakersfield is quite a bit faster than the train would have been, which is why there's an Amtrak bus from LA to Bakersfield.

I got back on 58 and saw lots more great stuff: the town of Tehachapi (it's a rail town, with streets labeled A,B,C, and D) and the town of Mojave, where I had lunch. I left the rain behind at Mojave -- it was stopped by the height of the mountains, and when I looked back, I could see a few clouds leaking through the pass, as I had.

I saw the Silver Queen Mine, a huge plant visible from Hwy 14. There's lots of mining up there, silver and gold and borax and goodness knows what else. I saw all sorts of beautiful wild things blooming: brittlebrush , Mojave aster, creosote bush, and Joshua Trees in bloom. The Joshua blossoms have a strong odor; when I pulled off the road to look at a tree to see if those were blossoms or fruit, I got a snootful of their amazing stink. The Mojave is a wilderness with a flavor of its own; the wildness reminded me of the Judean Desert, even though the plants are quite different and instead of Bedouins, the Mojave has test pilots!

The last bit of my detour took me down Soledad Canyon Road, in the Tehachapis. The photos at the page I linked to don't do it justice; it is a beautiful, winding road following a small river and the railroad down the canyon. I saw a lot of interesting geological bits in the canyon, outcroppings of what looked like basalt in one place, and what I think must be the tailings of an old copper mine on a slope above me. (I hope it was an old copper mine -- I hate to think what else might have made that strange green color.)

I'd like to take that route again sometime, armed with a more information and more time. There were a dozen side roads that looked interesting, and some small museums (like the one in Keene) which I hated to pass by.

I told someone recently that I'm a fool for new ideas. That's true. I'm also a fool for an unexplored road. I think those two qualities are linked -- I just love going where I don't know what I might find!

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