Steve Schmollinger, 49, feeds off the power of a railroad locomotive and the life and death struggles of those who have driven them across the mountains and deserts of the West.
"You kind of feel the energy within," Schmollinger says of watching a freight train snake its way up a curving mountain track just cleared of snow or seeing a train's headlights light up a forest in the darkest part of night.
Schmollinger, a resident of Oro Valley, for about six years, has been watching freight trains run across the West for more than 30 years. Weekends, vacations, anytime he can. The product of all that watching has been three books, filled with his photographs, more than 60 articles written for rail fan magazines and numerous photographs sold to such clients as the Union Pacific Railroad, the American Association of Railroads and General Electric Corp. ranging in price from $200 to $600 each.
For his first book, "Tehachapi: Railroading on a Desert Mountain," published in 1993, Schmollinger focused on Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroad freight trains chugging at a mile a minute pace across the flatlands of California's San Joaquin Valley south of Bakersfield on the northwestern edge of the Mojave Desert.
It is here, Schmollinger writes, where ease of operation and the mile a minute pace come to an end.
On the line through the Tehachapi Mountains, Schmollinger writes, "the grades are tortuous and unrelenting, their passes hard to reach, if not inaccessible."
Here, the railroads climb 3,628 feet in a 50-mile stretch on the northern slope and 1,278 feet in 18 miles on the southern slope. On this 68-mile stretch, the pass is synonymous with the word congested with two lines running across in an effort akin to "squeezing coarse sand through an hourglass," Schmollinger writes.
"Railroads have always held a fascination for me," said Schmollinger who first started taking pictures of freight trains back when he was a teen-ager in Stockton, Calif. "To me, there are many exciting aspects to the world of railroading - the people, the landscapes, the opportunity to show the trains in an assortment of environments."
Whenever traveling as a child, Schmollinger said he was always on the lookout for trains and always excited to see them.
He recalled traveling with his parents to Jackson Hole, Wyo., at the age of 13 and watching for a train to appear for more than 100 miles, only to be disappointed at never seeing even one pass by.
Tehachapi was chosen as an area of interest because even people with a mere passing interest in railroading know of its extreme grades requiring several locomotives to get the trains over the pass, Schmollinger said.
Because the pass is more than 50 miles long, the site offers lots of angles from which to shoot and at different times of day changes in light present opportunities to capture a variety of moods, he said.
Schmollinger started out doing landscapes, portraits and weddings before concentrating on railroads, graduating along the way from black and white photography then to color and the use of slides to reduce the cost of reproduction in books and magazines.
His second book, "Feather River Canyon, Union Pacific's Heart of Stone," published in 1996, is a visit to a more than 100 mile stretch in the Sierra Nevada Mountains from Oroville to Portola, Calif. that winds its way into the Sacramento Valley on a route that follows along the river's banks rather than going across the top of the Sierra Nevada at an elevation of 7,000 feet, more than 3,000 feet higher.
A third book, "Desert Railroading," published in 1999, captures the inexorable struggle of railroads to tame the Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts as they plow across the sands of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.
The more than 12,000 copies of Schmollinger's books sold to date present a dramatic history of those who have faced every challenge from rock slides to blizzards, floods, freezing weather and unbearable heat to keep their railroads running.
A fourth book in the works will cover railroads of the West, from Canada to western Mexico.
In addition to raising five children ages seven to 15 with his wife, Lynn, earning his bachelor's degree in economics from San Diego State in 1982 and his master's in business administration from the University of Arizona this past August, Schmollinger has also done missionary work in Guatemala with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and lived with a family in Guadalajara, Mexico, just to perfect his Spanish.
In 1985, three years after joining Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in San Francisco, Schmollinger was on his way to Albuquerque, N.M., one day when his car broke down in Winslow. Turning mishap into opportunity, he spent three days in Seligman taking pictures of trains. In 1997 he would return to Arizona upon landing a job with Tucson Electric Power as a pricing analyst and commercial account manager.
In the early years, it was the trains themselves that drew Schmollinger's attention as a photographer. In recent years the focus has been more on the people who run them. "I've come to understand more what it takes for these people to keep the railroads moving," he said.
So do the people who are caught up in Schmollinger's pictorial histories.