random thoughts on railroad photography, railfanning, technology, and such

Entries in HDR (25)


Living, Barely - Cima Sub Shots - Part 5 of 5

(Continued from: Living Lucky - Cima Sub Shots - Part 4)

After the day’s events and considering I was content with the shots I had taken already, I decided to head home. As I left the Ivanpah, California grade crossing, I knew of two trains on the normally sparsely populated Cima Subdivision of the Union Pacific Railroad. One was the eastbound vehicle train that kept me company while we both waited for the westbound manifest train at Ivanpah. The vehicle train was now well on its way to Nipton, California and east towards Las Vegas, Nevada. The manifest train was out in front of me somewhere between Ivanpah and Kelso, California by now.

I had no intention of stopping, except perhaps to get gas, before I reached home. However, as I approached Cima I noticed the distinctive and highly illuminating glare of a locomotive’s headlights in my side mirror. I must have caught and past the manifest train. I slowed down to confirm my sighting and gauge the apparent speed of the train. I realized that the train was moving too quick for me to get in position at Cima so I kept an eye out for a potential photo location as I continued towards Kelso ahead of the train.

I found my quarry at the grade crossing at Cedar Canyon Road. This is the road that is noted for being part of the original route of the Mojave Road and a key route through the New York Mountains. In fact, I did drive over the crossing to evaluate the road’s condition on the other side in hopes of possibly reaching the Mid-Hills campground. My hopes were quickly dashed when I saw the road warning sign which read “Flooded.” I drove back across the crossing and parked. (I always try to park on the side of a crossing that I will be leaving from or the side that I will be shooting photos from as I never want to have a train between me and my vehicle.)

I had ample time to set-up my tripod and take a bunch of test shots to figure out what settings would work best. The moon had risen by this time and I was able to leverage the light it afforded me. After taking a series of shots I could see that the moon began to resemble a sun in the longer exposed photos. As such, it gave the scene a surreal daytime/nighttime look. I chose those settings for a few shots and I really like they way they came out.

Here is one shot of the crossing sans train. This shot has three sources of light for the effect. The first is the moon which provides most of the lighting for the scene. The second is some partial lighting from the approaching train, and lastly, I lightly “painted” the light on the cross bucks and telephone poles with my MagLite® flashlight to get them to expose properly because they were in the “shadow” of the moon.

“Coyote Crossing” - Part of the famed “Mojave Road,” the Cedar Canyon Road grade crossing is framed by the moon and the lights of an approaching train. I had become very casual about my surroundings as I was taking this shot and soon after it was taken I found myself the subject of a pack of coyotes’ nightly hunt.
[2/20/2011 - Cima Subdivision] Copyright © 2011 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.
I took shot after shot and tweaking the settings in hopes of enhancing my knowledge of night photography and my camera’s (Nikon D50, in this case) capabilities. I loved shooting this crossing because it was barren and desolate. It did not have any distracting crossing gates or lights. I don’t mind the telephone poles too much but I think it might have been a better shot without them.

About 15 minutes after taking the shot above the train finally arrived at the crossing. I left my tripod in the same location, in the middle of the road, since I hadn’t seen another vehicle for hours. It was just me, the moon, and the train. Oh, and the cold. Did I mention that it was about 29F degrees? Yeah, it was and as I held the remote to my camera in the hand, poised to press the shutter release button, I realized that I had lost sensitivity in my fingers by now. Oh well, here comes the train.   

I fired off successive shots and altered the settings a bit and then fired some more. I kept this up until the trains length had cleared the crossing. I wasn’t sure what settings would create a cool effect so I tried a bunch of them. Here is one of the better shots of the train blowing through the crossing. I wish I could say that I planned to take exactly this shot and I used these settings to capture the… But the truth is, I am just not there yet. I did know enough to try everything and use my flashlight to help paint the scene though. ;-)

“Coyote Crossing” Train - The Cedar Canyon Road grade crossing with the Union Pacific’s Cima Subdivision is framed by the moon and the lights of an passing train in this time-lapsed photo. I had become very casual about my surroundings as I was taking this shot and soon after it was taken I found myself the subject of a pack of coyotes’ nightly hunt.
[2/20/2011 - Cima Subdivision] Copyright © 2011 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

Once the train blew by my location I briefly considered what other shots I could take there. I was having fun and learning a lot. By this time I was at the crossing for nearly an hour or so and despite the lack of feeling in my exposed parts, I felt like I could keep shooting. 

I took up a position behind by tripod and looked through the viewfinder to possibly frame another subject when I was shaken from the moment of having fun by a disturbing sound. At first, the sound didn’t register in my mind. It seemed out of place. It was foreign to my world of shutter clicks and squealing wheels on steel rails mixed with the low drumming sound of massive diesel engines.

Then I heard it again.

This time, it sent shivers down my spine. I suddenly felt like an explorer in a far away land. The hairs on my arm stood up. Uh oh. Instinctively I knew this was potentially a bad thing. Then it got worse.

This time when the I heard the coyote’s howl I realized it was coming from directly ahead of me on the road, in the dark. I was in the dark. He was in the dark. He could see. I couldn’t. Just then I heard another howl, and then another, and another. In rapid succession, there was the main coyote call followed by three others in a semi-circle around me. And they all were close - within 75 yards or so. Oh shit!

I had become so caught up in my photography that I forgot I was in a preserve in the middle of nowhere. There is wildlife all around me. In this case, the wildlife could case me grief. Naturally my mind told me that the calls were the gang ensuring that everyone was in position before they moved in for the kill. Wait, I am in the middle of this. Oh shit, I am the kill!

I grabbed my tripod and hustled to my truck like a the next victim of some horror movie. I even did the “fumbling keys” bit as well. I eventually reached the safety of Fort Ford and, as I closed and locked (really?) the doors behind me, I took a moment to make sure that I didn’t leave any equipment behind. “Nope, should be good. Let’s go home.” I told myself.

I didn’t survive the black abyss and being stuck in muck and mud only to be consumed by a pack coyotes - or werewolves! By my calculations, I have seven lives left.

In keeping with my tradition, Cedar Canyon Road will be forever known as “Coyote Crossing.” ;-)

The end.


Living Lucky - Cima Sub Shots - Part 4 of 5

(Continued from: Living Large - Cima Sub Shots - Part 3)

Up until this point my truck was soldiering on, doing its climbing the mountain thing when came that point that most, if not all, four-wheelers have felt at some time or another. My truck had lost forward progress, started to wiggle, and began a worrisome and very discernible slide towards the right side of the road. “Shit, sand,” I exclaimed. Normally I would not want to stop my truck at this point because any forward progress works in my favor to get beyond whatever sand trap I might be in. However, my forward progress had ceased and I worried about the sideways slide that my truck was in. I stomped on the brakes.

(I clearly was surprised by the situation because I had not seen any issue on the road previously. I was simply entering a right hand turn. I later learned that my concern about falling off of the left hand side of the road, which lead me to favor the right side of the road, would contribute to my undoing. My experience grows!)

I took a few seconds to gather my thoughts and then I proceeded to ensure that I was in the right gear and that I engaged the “low-range” 4X4 setting. I gave it a little gas - no forward movement just some more sliding to the right. I let off of the gas. I put the truck in reverse and made a little progress but then stopped again. I tried to go forward again. No luck. I moved the steering wheel from right to left several times in hopes removing any sand that might have built up around my front tires.

I glanced at my iPhone and saw that I had no cell signal. No surprise there and thusly, despite the below freezing temperature, 29(F) degrees, and the total darkness, I decided I should assess the situation from outside the truck before I do anything else. I learned that lesson the only other time I got stuck, which was in Afton Canyon. It helps not to bury your truck by just giving it gas - it only makes it worse.

I zipped up my jacket, grabbed my trusty MagLite® flashlight and braced myself for the pending blast of coldness. I opened the door and jumped out into the sand — or what I thought was sand! It wasn’t. It was mud, and not your average run-of-the-mill household mud. This stuff was like nearly set-up mortar, which is used to bind bricks and cinder blocks together.

I took a step or at least attempted to. I felt my leg and foot move but my boot stayed firmly planted in the muck. I almost lost my boot. “Shit, this is going to suck,” I thought as visions of me on my hands and knees digging my truck out flashed in my mind. I had to pull myself along my camper to get to the rear of my truck and not lose a boot or two in the process.

I took a few moments to assess the predicament I was in. I saw that the mud was up to the rims around my wheels. Fortunately there a large flat stone on the side of the road that I was able to lift and I dropped it into the track of my left rear tire. I also discovered that the slide to the right was beneficial in two ways. First, it precluded my imminent demise by keeping me from going over the left side of the road and into the abyss. Secondly, it placed my truck right up against the berm that is formed when the road is graded by one of those big graders. The berm’s composition was one of dirt and copious amounts of gravel. This was ideal.

After placing the stone, I decided that I would use the berm to my advantage, if I could, for traction. This would require me to cut the rear of the truck hard to right and try to climb the berm, which was about two feet tall, to get at least one wheel out of the mud. My hope was that the stone would help provide some traction to pull this move off.

I made my way back along the camper being careful to keep my boots on. When I reached the driver’s door, I scrapped my boots off, best I could, on the running board. My boots felt like they were lead diving boots. I climbed into the cab and rolled the window down. I wanted to be sure to listen for any crunching or snapping sounds. I didn’t want to unnecessarily damage my truck or camper.

I took the requisite deep breathes and put the truck in reverse. I then applied some gas with slow and steady pressure. The engine roared to life and but the truck remained in place, at least at first. Despite hearing that one wheel was slipping the truck began to move slowly at first and then with clear decisiveness.

I felt the resistance of the berm and gave it more gas. Eventually the whole truck began to take on a list to the left. She was climbing! I gave it more gas and steered the right front tire onto the berm as well. I sighed with s sense of massive relief as I pulled clear of the would-be tar pit.

I gingerly negotiated getting the truck off of the berm and back onto the dry road. I did that in short order and kept moving until I was confident that all was ok.  I lit a celebratory cigarette and stepped out of my rig to assess my victory over certain death.

I walked back to scene of the crime and discovered how the trap had been set for me. Recent rains had ensured that plenty of run-off water made its way down from the slopes to the road. The fact that the road turned to the right meant that there was a sufficient slope to gather the water on the inside of the road which was the right side of the road. The very side I was favoring.

After seeing the mud hole and figuring that I still had at least some forty miles ahead of he same, I opted to head back top Ivanpah. A sound decision for sure. So I walked back to my truck and I had to back down the mountain in reverse for nearly two miles until a found a wide spot in the road that afforded me the opportunity to make the 12-point turn to turn around.

As I reached the asphalt again I relished the sound of the mud and gravel being thrown from my wheels. As if being pelted by the hail stones that proceed a tornado, the sound was raucous and fierce. I smiled from ear-to-ear. Eventually I arrived back at the siding at Ivanpah. This meant I also now had a cell signal so I pulled to the shoulder and called Deb to tell her what happened.

I also had to call my good friend CJ, who is my designated rescuer and avid four-wheeler. I shared my trials, tribulations, and triumph, as guys are want to do. As we talked the scanner crackled to life. “UP 7862 East, Approach diverging Ivanpah, going in the hole.” What good fortune.

I advised CJ that a train was approaching and we concluded our share fest. I moved the truck to the south side of the crossing and parked. Within moments the train’s headlight illuminated the entire area. The engineer held the train short of the crossing so that it would be clear while they waited for another train to pass it. He dimmed his lights accordingly.

This time I had plenty of time to prepare my gear. I set-up and leveled my tripod near the crossing and fired off some test shots. I haven’t taken many photographs at night so I was trying to experiment to see what was possible. I soon discovered that it is extremely difficult for me to gage the quality of a night photo on the camera’s LCD screen sufficiently to make adjustments as I go. I would just have to do my best with what seemed right.

About every 15 minutes or so I would have to go back to the truck’s cab to thaw out a bit. During one of these thawing out sessions I saw the headlight of an opposing train quickly approaching. I jumped out and took up my position at the crossing.

As soon as the opposing’s train headlight began to illuminate the stopped train I fired off a few long exposures. Here is one that came out:

In the Hole, In the Dark - An eastbound and downgrade Union Pacific vehicle train has taken the siding, a.k.a. “in the hole,” at Ivanpah, CA to allow an upgrade manifest train to keep climbing Cima Hill unabated. The manifest train is approaching and its headlights are helping to illuminate the vehcile train. Notice the conductor, on the ground just ahead of the train, taking up a good position from where he can do a “roll by” inspection of the passing train.
[2/20/2011 - Cima Subdivision] Copyright © 2011 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

After the opposing train passed the signal cleared for the train in the hole to continue its journey. After a short two blasts from the train’s horn the engineer put the lights on full and eased the throttle up. The train slowly and nosily began to move. As the train lit the crossing up I saw the moon had finally decided to rise and I thought it warranted a photo so I composed this shot: 

Moonnrise, Ivanpah Road - The moon begins to rise over the New York Mountains as a train’s headlights illuminate one of the grade crossing signals at Ivanpah, CA.
[2/20/2011 - Cima Subdivision] Copyright © 2011 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

Eventually the excitement of the last few hours died down and I decided to head home, via asphalt, thank you very much! I put away my gear and poured myself a traveling soda and headed the rig towards Cima.

However, I hadn’t taken my final shots of the outing or evening just yet…


Living Large - Cima Sub Shots - Part 3 of 5

(Continued from: Down at the Depot - Cima Sub Shots - Part 2)

Eventually my frozen fingers thawed and I proceeded along my route towards Ivanpah, CA. I would have to go through Cima, CA in the process and I thought perhaps I should stop for the night and tackle Ivanpah in the morning with fresh light and fresh legs.

As I reached Cima it was pitch black. The moon had yet to rise and it was dark, really dark. As anyone who has tried to navigate an unfamiliar trail in total darkness will tell you, it was challenging. I tried to navigate, best I could, with a TomTom GPS unit that reflected roads, or what it thought were roads, that simply were not there, or no longer there. I looked for a safe spot to camp that wasn’t going to put me on someone’s private property. I did eventually find a trail that looked promising so I swung my camper onto it and crossed the tracks near Cima Hill. After a decent effort I concluded that my efforts would be in vane because the area presented too much risk for little reward and I found a wide spot to turn around and backtrack to the sanctuary of the paved roads. I opted to press on to Ivanpah. Perhaps it offered a better option, I foolishly thought.

I had originally hoped to traverse the distance between Cima and Ivanpah by going along the tracks on a dirt road shown on the park map, but it looked as though it really was a railroad access road and thought it best to not try it out, especially alone at night. I stuck to the asphalt and garnered a plan. I decided to just play things as they were dealt.

I reached Ivanpah in relative short order considering the amount of time it might had taken me had I plied the dirt trail rather than the road. I reached the tracks and slowly crossed them. As I did I glanced both ways and looked for any indications of train traffic. Bingo! I spied a headlight off in the distance coming from the east. I parked on the shoulder and gathered my gear.

The cold was now enveloping me once again as I walked to the crossing and surveyed my surroundings. Fortunately, there was a single bulb burning on the outside of a railroad signal shed at the crossing that afforded me enough ambient light to get a general sense of my surroundings.

Perhaps I misgauged the distance of the train or I had taken too long to get my gear together and set it up but the train had now activated the crossing lights and bell. I fumbled with levelling my tripod and tweaking my settings on the camera. I didn’t have enough time. I fired off a few shots in hopes of something going right but post-processing would prove that this effort was futile. All I got was the bright glaring gleam from the train’s headlights and ditch lights with no other relevant details. Bummer.

I often wonder what the train crews must think when they see someone like me, out there, literally in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, freezing my ass off, trying to get a picture of a stupid train. They probably think “stupid foamer.” I might. But they would be wrong. I am committed compelled to capturing all aspects of railroading in America in all conditions. To me, nothing says “American Railroads” like a slow drag freight or a hot intermodal cruising through dark and desolate landscape of the Mojave Desert with two guys (or gals) moving all of that freight easily and effortlessly, and moving America forward at the same time, as they have for the last 140+ years. So I am there. I am there because you can’t be — or, perhaps more accurately, you don’t want to be! (“You want me on that wall. You NEED me on that wall!” But I digress…)

At this point I began to question my own sanity. My fingers became so cold that I couldn’t properly operate the controls on the camera and the gloves I had, while providing relief from the cold, were like wearing oven mitts. Perhaps I should call it a night. I didn’t want to head home because I still had the next day, President’s Day, off from work and I was already here so I convinced myself that I should try one of few traditional campsites located in the preserve.

My target was the “Hole-in-the-Wall” campground. I reasoned that it was located between the Cima Subdivision and the BNSF’s Needles Subdivision, my home turf, so I could go either direction in the morning. I was familiar with the south side of the route, Lanfair Road but I had never crossed the New York Mountains from Ivanpah Road to Lanfair Road. I knew that the pavement would end a few miles from my starting point but I felt confident that I could make it. I set out.

In a “Donner ‘esque” kind of moment I jumped at the brief opportunity presented by a cellular signal and phoned home. I apprised Deb of my intentions and fully described the route I was taking - just in case. Good thing I did.

The road changed from the asphalt to one of graded gravel/dirt and, even though I missed the train at the crossing, I was living large. I had the shots from Kelso and you know I was “doing my thing,” the way I chose to - for better or worse. I cranked up the heater to compensate for the fact I had opened the window to have a smoke and enjoy the brisk night air. I clicked the “Shuffle” button on my iPhone and it began blaring Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and I sang along as loud as I could. No doubt with perfect tone and pitch and on key. Again, I was living large.

I motored on, clearly climbing a grade at this point, and I caught glimpses of a large drop-off on the left side of the road. I hugged the right side of the road from that point forward. “Boy that would suck,” I thought. Realizing I now had no cellular signal, I began to console myself with the fact that, despite the below freezing temperature, I at least had a warm shelter, plenty of water and propane - should anything bad happen.

And then it happened…