|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|Following is an article published on www.california desertart.com|
Shirley Burman and Richard Steinheimer: A Desert Date on “Mars”
By Shirley Burman Steinheimer
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 — study nature, employed
by the State or Federal Parks trying to preserve it, to prospect, or
even 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 ambiance. 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
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
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
2 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 2 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
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
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
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
|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|Shirley Burman, born 1934, is a railroad photographer, historian of women's work in the railroad industry, and creator of the traveling photo exhibition, "Women and the American Railroad."|
Burman received a BA in Art from the University of California-Davis in 1972. She was an illustrator for the California State Parks in 1974, and a documentary photographer for the U.S. federal government in 1976. She resumed employment with the California State Parks in 1978 as a photographer for the California State Railroad Museum's restoration projects.
Since 1983, Burman has been a self-employed railroad photographer and designer. Together with her late husband, the railroad photographer Richard Steinheimer, she produced a book, Whistles Across the Land, in 1994. She lives in Sacramento, California.
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