Ed. Note: California Desert Art is honored to present one of the great untold romances of the desert. Staged in a crater near Amboy, Shirley Burman Steinheimer’s story tells of her first desert date with Richard Steinheimer. Her late husband was one of the legendary railroad photographers of all time and is often called the Ansel Adams of Railroad Photography. Shirley is also an accomplished railroad photographer and has advanced the story of women in railroading through her research and writing.
Folks are drawn to the desert for many reasons — to study nature, to work for the State or Federal Parks trying to preserve it, to prospect, or even to hide from the law. I was none of the mentioned. In the mid-1970s, I was a novice desert visitor itching to go back to touch, photograph and take in the ambience. In 1977, the opportunity came; a photography workshop in the Mojave Desert near the Kelso Dunes area and I hung out there in the Spring for three years.
I had at last found heaven, but also there was a bonus, Union Pacific’s railroad depot at Kelso. In 1978, I had just been hired by California State Parks to photograph the construction of a new railroad museum being built in Sacramento and the restoration of all the railroad equipment.
So I had a natural curiosity about the depot and the trains that stopped there. Thank heavens the State did not hire me for my knowledge of railroads as I had little then.
At Kelso, I watched trains and workers in action, but that is another whole story. This is about the desert, but more importantly–my future. At the same time I was in Mojave, there was another photographer, Richard Steinheimer, who was roaming the same desert but photographing the Santa Fe that followed close to Route 66. Our paths never crossed the three years I took the workshops and then my desert journeys ended, at least for a while.
The next few years I was busy working for the State’s new museum. However, not forgetting my wonderful days in the desert and wishing I could find a kindred spirit, who also liked hanging in the desert, and if lucky, also liked photography. I lived and worked in Sacramento; the chances of meeting someone who filled the bill was like counting the grains of sand in one of the sand dunes I photographed—not likely to happen.
But on April 15,1983, everything changed. The California State Railroad Museum–now opened–held a reception for a railroad photographer, Richard Steinheimer, who had a new exhibit on display. As the evening wore on I noticed every time I looked up Mr. Steinheimer seemed to be looking my way. We spoke several times that evening and I was surprised to find we had many common interests. At the close of the reception, he invited me to join him and others for dinner. I couldn’t go. So, we exchanged business cards and he said he’d call. My first thought as I floated on air going home was I’d probably never hear from him. At the time of our meeting, I was not aware of his reputation as an internationally known railroad photographer; all I felt was my heart racing when he spoke. There was such a kindness in his baritone voice and a gentle manner, all 6 ft. 6 inches of him. You could say I was smitten and I didn’t think that was possible, being a 49-year-old divorcee.
Imagine my surprise to find a call from him on my answering machine just two days later. I returned his call that evening not knowing that he had already started writing a letter to me. We must have talked for two hours. He finished his letter anyway and to my surprise mailed it, a treasure I still hold dear.
He wrote the following:
“Hello, again. Fun to talk with you. You actually sound too good to be true. Come on, now, who else loves the desert, trains, photography and sleeping out??? A rare, and for me, a delightful combination.
My life is typically unstructured, so I shouldn’t have any trouble much with preconceptions of getting to know you. Its always fun to see how the “movie” of life rolls on with its usually delightful surprises. Things work out for the best…”
Our mutual interests immediately brought us together and for the next month we saw each other frequently, commuting between Mt.View, his home near San Jose, CA, and mine in Sacramento. In early June 1983, we made plans to drive to the Mojave to explore and photograph trains. Dick’s primary focus was railroads whereas my interests were more eclectic, which explains the following excerpt in a letter he wrote to a friend several years later about our “photography styles”. These observations I’d say applied immediately after we started traveling together.
“. . . we still greatly treasure the often-arduous long distance photo trips we make on assignments for clients or for stock pictures . . . Our personal approaches to photography could hardly be more different.
Shirley approaches our photography trips from a relaxed vacation viewpoint. She seeks to enjoy the few comforts of travel she can find between the times she is taken by me to an endless number of unheard of, remote, off-the-edge-of-the-world railroad locations where she will have no preconceived idea of what to expect or photograph. Or any idea of where she is. Making it more confusing, we often arrive on locations at night, ready to shoot at first light.
One of Shirley’s native talents is that she quickly adapts to such situations by imitating a space traveler fallen onto a strange planet. With no… ideas or knowledge of where she is, she simply starts exploring around the vehicle—working outward in her search for new subjects of interest. The pictures she makes at these times are almost always original and interesting, images that illuminate the details of a location a normal person would not see…”
Finding out that I was a “space” traveler, it should be no surprise to learn that on our first desert date, we landed in a crater! Driving west along old Route 66 from Amboy, close to the Santa Fe rail line, Dick pulled off the paved road, the van bumping along over a dirt road dodging rocks and bushes and finally stopping at the collapsed side of a small volcanic crater and he said, “ Here’s where we’ll spend the night!”
My first reaction—“HERE?”
“Ok, I thought, I like adventure, wherever it takes me.”
Before pulling into our ‘lodging,’ for the night, I remembered it had been a good day and I was lucky enough to “capture a few trains,” challenging new subjects from my usual fare. I know dusk is a great time to photograph, but I was ready to unwind after an arduous first day. I arranged my sleeping bag on the mattress Dick had flopped down in the back of the van.
We sat on the rear of the van watching passing trains for a while and Dick, a born storyteller began to spin his yarns; the first of many was about our desert lodging.
“Shirley, did you know that Amboy and the desert we are camped in is the lowest and hottest portion of the Mojave crossing between Needles and Barstow? But more importantly, that the NASA Mariner I & II, in 1976 sent back information about Mars soil samples finding later that soil tests performed on Mars indicated that the volcanic soil of nearby Amboy Crater was the most similar on earth to that of the Red Planet.”
“Wow, my first desert date and I’m sleeping on Mars! I’d better remember to take a souvenir rock as a reminder of this date!”
Without missing a beat, the story telling goes on. Next it was about friends seeing black towers of swirling mating termites near a dump site in Twenty-Nine Palms then next I’m hearing about the time an elephant pulled a stuck truck out of the sand near Amboy. I was ready to call it a day and said “goodnight!”
I climbed into my sack and since it was a warm evening he left the rear doors slightly ajar to catch a desert breeze where our heads rested. Thinking back after years of traveling with Dick, I think he wanted to listen for the throbbing noises of locomotives westbound going up the grade to Ash Hill, while eastbound trains dynamic braking made a whining and screeching noise going down hill.
No critters or space aliens bothered us during the night and only a few freight trains passing in the distance broke the night’s silence.
As the morning’s first light of dawn drifted in through the cracked open rear doors, I felt moisture on my face and realized it was sweat. The sun was peeking over the Bristol Mountains and the temperature was moving up and fast. Dick was still sound asleep so I got up and decided to explore around the small crater rim while waiting for him to awaken.
But he kept on sleeping and I kept on sweating. Finally, I gingerly woke him up and he responded with a few grunts and grumbles that surprised me. Thinking: “There goes the happy ending to finding my Prince!” However, I had to assert myself at that point and managed to blurt out that I was miserable and did not want to have a heat stroke while waiting for him to get up.
After photographing another passing train, we climbed into the front seat and drove away from our crater and back onto the highway, passing a hitchhiker that I wouldn’t let Dick pick up and he was mad all over again.
I began to doubt my sanity about going off to no-man’s land with a man I’d only known about 5 weeks. The desert sun can do strange things to you, such as make you think you’ll disappear and never be seen again. “What do I do if Dick goes stir crazy from the heat?” Momentary thoughts darted through my head. Luckily we were only a short distance from the cafe. I reminded myself that he had a sterling reputation. However, there was a slight chill in the air and not much conversation as we drove the mile or two to Roy’s Cafe at Amboy. I intended to call the highway patrol to pick up the hitchhiker from there. As we pulled in, I looked around and there was a highway officer with the man we passed coming in right behind us. Thank heavens during breakfast our first small disagreement faded and I felt a bit more relaxed. Also Dick never grumbled at me again.
Amboy was a small town established around 1883 as one of a series of railroad stations constructed across the Mojave by the predecessor Atlantic & Pacific Railroad to the Santa Fe Railway. As one might expect there was a population explosion after Route 66 opened in 1926. Roy’s Cafe and Motel opened in 1938 and was a real oasis, as there was next to nothing out along that stretch of the highway. In 1977-79 while exploring the large Amboy Crater and other scenic locations in the area our photography group also stopped to eat there on several occasions.
By 1983, the Interstate 40 bypass all but destroyed the little town. We sat in the nearly empty café talking about our different desert experiences while polishing off the last drop of coffee.
Climbing back into our “motel on wheels” we pulled away from Roy’s leaving “Mars” behind and headed east following the highway towards Needles, another “cool” place in June. We stopped numerous times to either photograph a scenic location or a passing train still following the old 66 or as it’s called today, National Trails Highway.
I’m not sure if it was obvious to anyone, but I was in “photographer’s heaven” traveling with the most fascinating man I’d ever met, but most of all, totally impressed that he knew so much desert history and all the best places to photograph trains.
Years later when cataloging Dick’s negative collection I discovered that he had been photographing the Mojave going back to the 1950’s, as well as, collecting stories about Amboy and the last famous owner of the cafe, Buster Burris. I met Buster as well in the ’70’s, but being a novice desert explorer, I did not know the significance or history of Amboy, the cafe and owner, or the nostalgia surrounding old Route 66.
Back to our journey. Driving through Needles and crossing the Colorado River we pulled off to a road next to Santa Fe’s tracks where Dick had spotted a man working and asked him if any trains were coming. He said he thought one was due in about 20 minute. We crossed back over to the Moab exit and drove to the bank of the Colorado where the Santa Fe Railroad Bridge crossed. This was another memorable location, because again my brain was in danger of being cooked. If you’ve ever had the occasion to be parked along the Colorado River in the summer, you’ll understand. By now I was traveling in shorts and sleeveless T-shirt and large hat.
I grabbed my photo gear out of the back of the van hoping to find the perfect location on the edge of the river bank, set up my camera on a tripod and aimed it towards the railroad bridge. With the sun beating down, I hovered over my camera to shield it from the hot sun and waited—nothing came. Finally, I took my hat off, covered the camera with it and walked back to the van for a water jug and proceeded to pour the cool water over my head.
I don’t know what Dick thought, but I noticed he seemed to tolerate extremes in temperatures whether it was a blizzard in Donner Pass or standing on the banks of the Colorado in summer. I sat down inside the open sliding van door to wait. Minutes ticked away and began to turn into an hours, during which time I had retrieved my camera from the baking sun. We waited and waited. Dick was not one to give up on an approaching train just because it was not on time and would wait until it showed, even if it took all day. Luckily it was only four hours. [I say that with a slight grimace.]
At last we saw the yellow nose of a Santa Fe locomotive approaching the far side of the river and bridge. The setting was spectacular, baking sun and all; we both took many more photographs than we probably needed. After it passed, we continued our trip eastward through Arizona and back around to Northern California.
Dick and I married in November 1984 and continued to travel all over the United States on photography assignments and on for ourselves until 1999, when it became apparent that his memory was slipping. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2000. We still had so many more places to see and stories yet to tell.
On March 25, 2012, we made one more trip to “Mars” together and with close friends and family, I scattered Dick’s ashes in the Mojave Desert just as he requested years before:
Don’t bury me in any Forest Lawn,
or Eternal Acres.
Toss my ashes out into the desert around Ash Hill.
Let the wind behind the Santa Fe’s eastbound hotshots
pull me off toward Amboy and Cadiz.
Let me take one hundred years to know this desert.
–Richard Steinheimer, 1982
Article and photos: Shirley Burman Steinheimer, with additional photos by Richard Steinheimer, ©2019
For more info on Shirley Burman Steinheimer: www.americanrailroadwomen.com
For more on Richard Steinheimer: www.railphoto-art.org/steinheimer.html
Wonderful story of two dear friends and special people! Well done Shirley. Hope there will be more!!!
SHirley, Your remembrance is lovely. Thanks a lot for sending it on. Be well and be happy. mUch love from Frisco. Kim
Shirley, what a wonderful love story! Thanks so much for sharing it with all of us. Dick will be fondly remembered by the thousands of people whose lives he touched either in person or through the lens of his camera. Al
Well done, Shirley. I’m sure this only scratches the surface. Hoping there will be more.
Your writing and story are both touching and enlightening, as this was a part of your life I had not heard about before. To a degree, I can relate from my own experience in that area dating to a trip along the UP/LA&SL route in Dec 1971. Your awe of the desert is a feeling we share.
A message from two hearts with one passion. Thank you Shirley.
A wonderful tribute from a loving wife.
Your writing brought me to tears. I knew you and Dick were a perfect couple, sharing creative passions and travel adventures, but you have captured the essence of LOVE in this writing. Thank you for giving us all a gift of your insight and togetherness. It is a sweet tribute to a life well lived and a love well found.
A beautiful tribute to a life well spent. Thanks for doing this!
Loved every word of this recollection. Loved the ‘sleeping on Mars’ mention, that’s pure Steinheimer and Shirley.
Thanks for sharing this heartfelt memory of two great friends and their adventures together.
Tell us more… loved it!!!
If I had known this story before going to Ash Hill to spread ashes I would have cried like I just did reading this. Beautiful. Thanks for sharing it Shirley.
Shirley, Bob Johnson my brother in law as Lois is my Sis. Bob forwarded this to me and I thoroughly enjoyed the read. I too have a love affair with the desert and had a home in Rancho Marage for about 10 years. Traveled many many times by Amboy and point all around there. Thanks for sharing!!
Dear Ms. Burman,
My name is Ann Murphy. I am an artist and I am doing some research for a proposal for an arts organization in Joshua Tree. I am especially interested in Thermal, CA and I would love to learn more about Leah Rosenfeld. Would you be willing to exchange email addresses or even have a phone chat with me?
I live in Oakland and I would love to hear from you. Sincerely, Ann
I have enjoyed photographs and slide presentations from these very gifted people for years. I travel the old Santa Fe lines twice weekly past the Amboy crater, Roy’s and the area on My way to and from Needles to Bakersfield as Conductor. Never tiring at looking at the crater from the window of a locomotive, I will now have the pleasure of knowing another special history tied to it. Thank You Shirley for sharing Your memories of how special it was to Richard and You. Please know that I am doing My part to grant His wishes to guide Him carefully eastward as My train heads towards Needles.
Thank you so much for sharing memories of your desert trips with Dick. Brought back some fond memories of our own to Ann and I of our “dating days.” The bed of our pickup often served as our motel at Cajon Pass or the Loop.
Shirley, your story brings back wonderful memories of our rail photography days in similar desert areas, such as camping at Cajon and Mojave. I’d like to add, the first time I accompanied John on a weekend photo shoot, he reserved the Motel 6 in Mojave, requesting a room that faced the tracks! In spite of rail traffic noise all night and less than quality accommodations, life with a railfan promised exciting fun times for the years ahead.
What a beautiful tribute to Stein and your life together. I have been a railfan ever since I can remember, having grown up in San Bernardino, CA. The desert was special to me from San Bernardino to Needles and especially the weeks in the summer I would spend with my uncle who lived in Needles. I spent many a night with him on a boat in the river underneath the bridge at Topock, watching the trains go over as we fished for catfish. Your picture of that bridge brought back those memories. I’m going through a nostalgia trip about California (I live in Ohio), and your pictures only brought back those memories.
Richard was a true artist with the camera pointed at trains and I have treasured all my life viewing his photos particularly those of the west.
Thanks for sharing your wonderful story.
Don Leedy, West Chester, OH
Shirley – Your remembrance was lovely. I’m a little short of time this morning and only intended to skim through your story and come back to it later when I have more time. But it is so beautifully presented and so sweetly captures Stein and your early days on the desert together, I found myself reading every word carefully. I know I’ll be back for a reread. I worked with Stein at Fairchild in the 60s and then a lot in the early 80s while working at VLSI – another semiconductor company. He was our photographer of choice and everyone there loved working with him. So talented, smart, creative and a joy to work with. Now knowing that this is when you two fell in love with so many common passions, it makes even more sense to me.
Many hugs, Geri
I thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story of you and Stein, along with the artful desert themed photographs. After the fascination of reading it, one realizes you were true soul mates. That in itself is the most wondrous thing we can hope to find in life. You did!
We have driven between Barstow and Needles many times on our way to Mesa, AZ, to visit family, but now I’ll have to exit and see what is left of Amboy and take a look at where you “slept on Mars!”
Bob and Jeanne Church
As a retired Southern Pacific Brakeman-Conductor that worked the Desert from Carlin,Nevada to El Centro,California, To El Paso,Texas you may leave the Desert but the Desert never leaves you! My last talk with Dick was about the San Diego & Arizona Eastern between El Centro and Hipass and the Desert it crossed, boy did his eyes “twinkle” and you could see his love of this remote area that he took pictures of and rode the railroad. His understanding of operating rules and his fondness to meet and talk with railroad employees was one of his loves!Dick was a class act!!! M.A.”Bo” Golson