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Summit, Cinders, and Other Ashes

©Douglas Page (click to enlarge)

by Douglas Page © 1994

My dad always knew where the trains were. He was seduced by the railroad as a boy and for the rest of his life he was lured to the tracks. When he died we took him to the trains one last time. We took him to Summit. We used to go there to watch trains with him. Sometimes we still do.



Summit is the opera house for railroad recitals in Southern California. The tracks of all three railroads that serve the area from the east converge from the chaparral through the same notch in the mountains at the edge of the High Desert near Cajon Pass above San Bernardino. Every 10 or 15 minutes a train bounces through there.

The tracks at Summit parallel a remote, serene stretch of state highway 138, between Interstate 15 and Silverwood Lake. Here the dimension changes; the city is behind, the desert ahead and what you notice first is the silence. It is so quiet you look for it. It is as though while adjusting your ears to the altitude you swallowed all sound.

The eastbound and westbound tracks lie together here, side by side, as straight as a stare, then disappear down the slope to the west. To the east they bend easily northward, toward Barstow, and are lost quickly behind ridges. There are no buildings or billboards -- just tracks, stitched like a seam through the barrens.

The low, umber carpet of brush is uneven on the slopes, dense in some areas, sparse in the places the earth has worn through. The ground has been baked to a beige. You begin to adjust to the emptiness around you. You feel yourself expanding into it. There is solitude here and it wears with pajama comfort.

Then, as subtle as a purr, you hear it in the throat of the canyon to the west. An unseen train on the grade. It seems hardly to move, yet grows louder, humming an entrancing, pulsing rhythm, filling the silence in widening waves until the earth seems to move with the murmur. Finally the engines break into view, over the crest, moving with the solemn certainty of a tidal bore, flooding the senses.

It can take 24,000 horses harnessed into eight separate diesel engines to pull a mile long, 5,000 ton freight train up the 3 percent grade from the yards below to the High Desert plateau, an altitude gain of 3,000 feet in 23 miles. It is this grinding, pounding power that swells at Summit into a crescendo of energy, the air vibrating with the earth.

It is this vibration that never stops tickling the insides of some people. My dad was one of them.

The tracks were where his heart was. Trains seemed to elevate his spirit to the upper floors. Thanks to him there isn't a time in the family memory when trains do not appear. If he wasn't married to one in his work then he was courting another through the countryside, waiting with a camera, like a beau with flowers, by a bend or a bridge.

He knew things about trains. He knew where they came from and where they were going. He knew their names and their numbers. He knew their whistles like a Scout knows Morse Code and he could duplicate those sounds by blowing through the tube of his rolled up tongue, to the delight of children, his or their's, that would collect on his lap.

There are nearly as many pictures of locomotives as there are children in the family albums -- locomotives in winter. Something in the contrast of steam engines and winter landscapes reassured him. He found magnificence in the sight of a 2-4-4-2 billowing headlong through the snow banks, undaunted, drawing a nation behind it.


The details of his seduction are obscure. No trains came near Urbandale, the Iowa village he grew up near. He shared few common loves with his father. Perhaps his love of trains was as simple and as profound as wonder itself. Trains are marvelous contraptions under any circumstance. To a child they are positively unreal - great, shimmering, steel creatures that seem almost alive, fire-breathing monsters with immense, undulating tails, that appear suddenly from nowhere, shake the earth with their stomping, deafening roar, then disappear just as magically to mysterious places beyond the horizon.

What you love most you share. The cinder he tasted he shared with me. I have a bit of the same smoke in my eyes, a shiver from the same awe.

An evening whistle haunts one of my earliest memories. It is cool and I am with him and the silhouetted forms of box cars move slowly away against the ghostly glare of distant steam, conveyed through the stillness as if drawn into the light. A whistle pierces the silence from ahead and seems to linger, muffled by the night. It is other-worldly and it is all around me and I hold my father's hand, and his bond to the railroad begins to form on me.

I walk the tracks with him. He warns me of careless boys who have lost their legs, trapped by the foot like a coyote in a closing switch or sucked under the wheels by the force that chases the serpent down the tracks. With fear and awe I balance on the slick, high rail, seeking the thrill by testing the fear. Rusty rails are less fun; no trains ever go there.

When I was five my father and I hitchhiked together from Chattanooga to Des Moines, to bury my grandfather. I stood on his suitcase with his coat around both of us and we caught rides in cold trucks and at night, during storms, slept on shiny, slick pews in empty train stations.

Once he took me to Ames, where face to face freights had collided somehow, creating a staggering tangle of metal and mood. I felt repelled by the horrific piles of twisted and mangled steel, yet at the same time attracted by the sheer magnitude of the mess, compelled by the confusion of trains without tracks, of serpents now silent, who panted no more. Of trains I was to be always afraid, and always in awe.

Later he was hired to work on the railroad. He rode the Rock Island line between Des Moines and Minneapolis.

He didn't work for the railroad, he worked on it, as a postal employee in the days when U.S. mail was processed by rail. He worked in the mail car, the Railway Post Office. The RPO he called it. Mail gets sorted at night, therefore he rode trains at night.

Many times we met his night trains when he came home. My mother didn't like it much, but I'd race for the corner of the darkened station, then stop and round it slowly. There it was, always bigger than my memory could carry: the Rock Island Rocket, the monster itself, the dragon reined in somehow, still panting, sweating, impatient to run, its eyes wild and ready, heaving its breath in blasts through the night, smelling of power and fury, fear and awe.

My dad worked there. He tamed dragons.

It was at times like these, standing close to the pulse, when a train whistle became something not heard so much as felt, an internal vibration seeking its source.

His job was to have mail ready for each town at the right time, to be slung in a dirty, canvas bag on a hook at the end of a steel arm, then swung outside, ready to be snagged by a similar arm reaching out of the darkness as the Rock Island Rocket shot past in the night, chasing its fire.

If he didn't have the arm loaded and ready people in Mason City or Albert Lea would get no mail that day. He joked if his timing was bad the arm reaching back from the prairie would grab him instead of the mail and if it didn't tear his arm off it would snatch him out the door, impaling him on some hook by a crossing light in Iowa Falls, and there he'd be when the sun came up, dangling like a slaughtered steer and probably just as dead.

He was happiest then, charging off on the dragon's back into the night, pursuing the heat of his own fire.

Other Ashes

Then circumstances required the family to move and he left behind the Rock Island Rocket, the RPO and the steel arms reaching like gallows from the prairie darkness and we found ourselves in California, where mail is sorted in rooms without wheels.

He became a chaser, a man that diverts a family vacation two days to get a picture of the Oregon, Pacific & Eastern equipment at Culp Creek; a man that goes to the Grand Canyon merely to ride the Grand Canyon Railway or visits Death Valley only to see an SW1200 recycled in Trona Railroad colors.

On just such an outing, traveling the back roads of the West, he discovered Summit. From then on his roads got shorter. When his world became cluttered you could find him there, in his motor home, parked perpendicular to the tracks, the scanner adjusted, his lip packed with chaw, laces loosened and feet on the dash, watching his mind hop the first freight east.

Too soon after he discovered Summit he got sick on an outing in Canada, complaining of a back ache, and flew home. It was June. He had cancer.

As the family gathered in my mother's San Diego kitchen the morning he died, certain details needed immediate attention. The hospital wanted to know who would be claiming the body. Then the mortuary wanted to know what to do with it.

We didn't know. Somebody made coffee. Mom stood nearby, distracted. It had all happened so fast. That summer he had been chasing trains across Canada. Now, before Thanksgiving, he was dead.

We decided cremation was best. The mortuary said we could pick up his ashes Tuesday, like a suit that would be back from the dry cleaners. Then what?

My brother Rick laughed a little and said, "Let's take him down to Rose Canyon," the nearest tracks, where trains slow to a crawl while snaking through the canyon floor into and out of San Diego.

It was a wonderful idea. Better yet, if we were going to take him to the trains, I thought we should go all the way and take him to Summit. No one objected.

The following weekend the family clan mustered at Summit to send-off a train lover. We deposited his ashes, in a place he might have chosen himself, across the eastbound and westbound railroad tracks between the rise of a road-cut one mile east of the Summit signal.

Now he never misses a train. We used to go there to watch trains with him. Sometimes we still do.


"Summit" won First Prize in the 1994 Writer's Digest Writing Competition, and appeared in the May/June 1995 issue of the late Buzz Potter's Hobo Times. 

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