This is a lyrical poem; a piece of railroad memorabilia; maybe a ghost story – take your pick. I wrote it about fifteen years ago when I was living in Tehachapi, California. The inspiration was a short poem titled “The Tank at Mancos” about a water tank on the RGS. In my version, the setting is the Tehachapi Mountains in southern California. On the long climb out of the San Joaquin valley, the Southern Pacific Railroad had a water stop at Woodford siding, a couple of miles below the famed Tehachapi Loop (Walong siding). The footings of the tank are still there, as well as the memories and echoes of the past.
Pompous, weathered, like an old man it stood – dribbling into the crushed rock they had shoveled around the foundation to keep soil from washing into the ditch beside the track. I felt the hot sun on my shirt as I walked the tie ends. Heat waves wrinkled the distance and rose above the talking telegraph poles into the blue above. Immersing myself into the old man’s multi-legged grotto, I found a fruit crate to rest on. I sat. The cool droplets dangled, lingered and fell from the beams, and the gravel tinkled like a wind chime. Lulled by their water music I dreamed awake, and felt autumn in the hot wind that would soon turn cold.
The old man’s shadow covered me from all but the sound of the two-forty-five, laboring upgrade through Keene. Staccato blasts counted steady cadence for the climb. Four chuffs and another turn of the drivers – eighteen feet ahead; four inches upward. The sound intensified until majestically she materialized from the glistening heat. Slowing gracefully as she neared and with oft-practiced precision she eased to a stop at the old man’s feet. The sweaty fireman and brakeman clamored like ants on the tender, cursing as they wrestled with the giant spout. The conductor watched nervously, opening and closing his pocket watch continuously, as if impatience could force the steed to drink more quickly.
The hogger dismounted with oil can in hand and walked slowly alongside, lovingly wiping a blemish from a polished side rod. Touching his can here and there, his faith-healer magic quickly eased the soreness from her joints. She drank thirstily, panting as her air pumps breathed in the fresh mountain air. Her generator whined in harmony with the constant hum of the blower, accompanied by the ever-present hiss and occasional snort from the blow-offs. With two shrill toots she announced her thirst was quenched. The melodic interlude increased toward a symphonic crescendo. The massive rods began to move, almost imperceptibly at first, yet forcing the giant wheels to turn none the less. They grabbed, then slipped, then grabbed again as trickles of sand slid silently onto the rails.
With a groan the elegant lady resumed her journey. Damp darkness shielded me from the stares of faceless passengers peering from her coach windows. They could only sense my presence, as I could theirs. Forgetting me, they resumed their thoughts of people and places now long gone. She quickly disappeared but the sounds of her struggle lingered on long after the last wisps of smoky haze drifted away. I heard her faint whistle for the tunnel at Walong and glimpsed her profile one last time as she danced along the high fill of the Loop. Then she was gone – forever. The grotto was once again quiet and mine alone.
I pondered whether she had been in my dream, or I in hers. Perhaps it didn’t matter. All I knew is that I was cool, and sleepy, and nearing fifty.