I've just come back from five days at Joshua Tree National Monument. I hadn't been there since high school and had forgotten what a wonderful place it is. There is something about the desert air, the sun baking on the rocks, and the wild shapes of the prehistoric trees that is uplifting. I left the Bay Area a complete grouch, saddled by work and a feeling of helplessness. I've returned, still saddled with lots of work, but feeling much more optimistic.
I drove back with some friends and we made a lunch stop in Tehachipi, a small town perched on the summit of the Tehachipi Mountains, which divide the Central Valley from the desert. I wanted to stop there to see if I could get any more information on a terrible train wreck that happened in 1883. The train, carrying the former California Governor John Downey and his wife and many others, derailed near the summit, burning Downey's wife and dozens of others to death. It's a scene in my book as it graphically shows the negative impact of the railroad.
Well, no one in wind-whipped Tehachipi had ever heard of this disaster. A waitress at Kelsey's Restaurant, where the walls are lined with old photographs, told me the local historian had Alzheimer's and wouldn't be much help. The local train shop was closed, as was the museum.
So there I was, buzzing with my love of history, looking all around for clues, but turning up nothing. I get so jazzed by this kind of stuff that I ignore everything else. But I saw how history can be contagious. My friends joined in the hunt, thumbing through local history books. They didn't turn up anything, prompting one of them to make fun of me, and to suggest that this 1883 train accident never happened and that I was writing "fiction."
As we left the town, a tumbleweed flew across our path.
It seemed like a perfect metaphor for the West.