Afton Canyon Reverie
Text and Photos by Chris Wray
Once, about 2 am, when a westbound freight turned the last curve in Afton Canyon and headed up the long pull toward the campground, I dreamed I had mistakenly put my tent on the tracks. I awoke with a bolt, but realized in time the tracks were actually a few hundred feet away. In the darkness, the distance made little difference to the roar approaching from the east. Through the tent's blue vinyl, I watched the headlight swing into view and pass. This dream-state shock has pervaded my impression of Afton ever since.
Afton Canyon Campground is in the upper, western end of the Afton Canyon. The reeds and bushes along the Mojave River sway and bend to the east. They seem to point me further into the canyon. Though the Mojave is only a small stream here, it supports a rich growth of willows and smaller water-loving plants. The willows are fringed with their autumn gold. Walking beside the thicket, I can hear frogs in the water nearby.
The first of the railroad bridges is here. The steel angles seem to defy the desert. Yet, all three Afton bridges date from 1938, when heavy storms washed the earlier structures eastward toward the Mojave Sink, where the river disappears in the sand. Short levees protect the camp area and the tracks, but one wonders what power they would have in the face of a similar storm. Even beams weighing tons, secured with rivets the size of my fist, may not hold against this desert wash in flood.
During the 1910s, Afton Canyon was chosen as the route of the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad, now the Union Pacific. The main line between Los Angeles and cities like Denver, Salt Lake and eventually Chicago, still runs through the canyon. Trains in both directions are common, and seem to give the already impressive canyon a feeling of even further immensity and power.
The road I follow quickly descends from the levee to the first crossing of the stream. I find a soggy path beside the road and step carefully on wet rocks. The water flows with soft eddies and glistens within the covering of reeds. The nearby road crossing is a deep pool, one which causes fear in many drivers. There is no current in the pool, but the darkness of its depth threatens.
I walk along the road leading to the tracks and see dark forms of pipes and wood ahead. A tamarisk near the tracks whispers with the soft hush characteristic of these trees. Though dreaded as a water-thirsty pest, with almost unstoppable tenacity, the tamarisk is surely the most beautiful sounding tree on any desert. It is next of kin to a high mountain's pine in its song. This tamarisk marks the old village area at Afton.
The Union Pacific had a siding here, about one-half mile east of the campground. Several small houses and a locomotive water tank were located beside the tracks. Crossing the rails, I find piles of rusty cans and ruined household debris that mark the area where people lived in company houses, waiting for the signals to fail or the hissing locomotives to stop for water. People also died at Afton. Several graves on the gentle slope above the village site are testaments to workers and families who probably dreamed of places far from this desert canyon. These five or six people remain, however, to remind us that today's reality does not wait for tomorrow's dreams.
About one half-mile beyond the village site, the Mojave River makes a large curve to the south. Flat-topped bluffs rise north of the riverbed. Here is the second railroad bridge and road crossing. A large cut through the hill beyond the bridge was once a tunnel. Unstable volcanic rock forced its "daylighting." The river swings through the large curve to the south before striking east again.
Downstream from this bridge are the most historic spots in the canyon. Eroded into the canyon's western wall are two alcoves, "caves" to early travelers. Afton was Cave Canyon to early pioneers and military parties. Cave Mountain still looms to the north. The rock walls of the caves are blackened with the soot of many campfires. From these caves, the light of ancient fires rimmed the sharp rocks and showed the dim forms of swaying willows and the sun burnished skin of desert natives.
Leaving the shaded alcoves, I wind through the willows back to the tracks. A freight train is crossing the bridge as I approach in the streambed. Dark cars make the bridge creak. Some reveal their stays in the city with spray-painted graffiti. I wonder if the makers of these modern pictographs, hurriedly painting their territorial mark in the cold darkness of an Eastern metropolis, ever dreamed their work would be seen in such a remote desert place. The train passes on toward the next metropolis, the next marked neighborhood, and is lost around the curve.
The stream flowing beneath this second bridge is a shallow pool, not threatening like the first. I pass the bridge and walk into the deep cut leading toward the canyon. Beyond the railroad cut the canyon walls become dark and tinged with the burnt colors of volcanic action. Large, blackened blocks loom from the heights. Colors blend to green and crimson in some areas.
Opposite these, I see the softer hued sedimentary layers across the wash. The small side ravines often drop hundreds of feet into the canyon, leaving a tapestry pattern in the walls. Walking up a southern tributary leads me to a vertical notch where only a curving ellipse of sky is visible. Added into the gray landscape of the southern wall is a mix of red and white volcanic blocks standing like outcasts from the northern side. Between lies the flat wash with its edging of willows and ribbon of water reflecting the blue desert sky.
I follow the main canyon to where I can see the last bridge. Here the railroad strikes straight into the desert toward Kelso and the East Mojave. Knowing I have walked the five mile length of the canyon, I turn to face the sun and begin the long walk back to the campground.
At sunset, clouds formed by a blustery west wind are lit from beneath. I think the Mojave may be the best desert for sunsets. Low horizons to the west let the sun strike into valleys and areas often obscured in more mountainous regions. The pageant of the clouds is breathtaking as I watch from the slight rise near the railroad bridge.
Distant forms of people in the campground move in and out of campers, and I wonder if I am the only person noticing the brilliant sky to the north. The cold wind buffets me from behind as I watch the bright orange glow on the canyon walls above the blue-filled shadows in the riverbed. The gold willows accent the aerial colors from below. Slowly, the sun disappears and the crimson fades from the clouds in the west. The grayness of the desert twilight envelops the canyon and seems to shine on the silver steel of the nearby bridge. An occasional ping echoes from the bridge as the massive beams cool.
After dark I cross the stream once more and walk to the tracks. My flashlight creates a small sphere of recognizable desert surrounded by almost pure darkness. A narrow trail leads to the small knoll above the bridge. From this overlook I watch as the Afton night unfolds. Lying back on the rocky ground I see the black sky speckled with a myriad of stars, each distinct, yet all combining in my mind to create a constant sparkling cover. A few spots of light mark the campground across the stream.
Mojave National Preserve
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