Guess what I’m doing? If you’re in my general circle you know because I won’t shut up about it.
Chris and I are going on a road trip, listening to podcasts in the daytime and then spooky old time radio shows after dark, and eating cheese-poofs with chopsticks because it’s tidier. We’re fancy.
We’re going to Utah for the 150th Anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad — (aka Golden Spike) May 10, 1869.
One of the line of the largest steam locomotives ever, Big Boy No. 4014 is there, and I get to see it.
There are probably about five people reading this who know what that is and also, are excited about it. Maybe six. But those half dozen folks are really impressed.
On Friday morning there is the ceremony of the Golden Spike, and I will possibly cry because that is a thing that I do at any given moment.
I come by this passion honestly. In the ‘50s my dad became a member of a railway museum that opened in 1946.
I cannot properly put into words how much I love this place. It is a shiny blissful memory in a childhood that was not always so happy.
My sister and I had absolute free rein to a degree that my mother probably would not have approved of.
We would ride the cars, swing the heavy poles when we got to the end of the line to go back the other way. This would have been in the late ’70s to mid-’80s so I would have started when I was in the 11-year-old range. Not sure we’d get away with that now.
We’d poke around the car barn and its many pointy bits and pieces, run down the mainline tracks to find dead sheep. After closing time dad would let us run one of the cars.
I also got to work in the bookstore, an old building warmed entirely by a Franklin stove. In the cold days of winter, it was perfection. There was an old-timey cash register I got to use. Eleven-year-old me felt very important.
“The House” where the guys stayed was full of dusty, weathered antiques, mismatch dishes, a probably-safe-why-not fireplace. I would spend hours in there too, enjoying the privilege of being my dad’s daughter. It was private, set far back from the public areas, but we came and went as we pleased. There were also many stray cats and kittens who would sleep in the planter boxes in the sunroom. We’d pick them up one by one, snuggle their kitten faces, plop them back down when their mothers came back. There was a small room crammed with bunk beds; this is where mom drew the line. We always stayed in a hotel in Fairfield. In hindsight, I would have done exactly the same.
Since I grew up with all this, it was normal, and I took it completely for granted.
I would like to go back in time right now and just sit there. Actually, I just did.
In the summer the valley was surface of the sun hot so we would alter our activities accordingly, so we did not actually die.
But the winter, the winter was magic.
There’s a thing called “tule fog” that is thick and cold and billowing. It hugs the ground in a flowing blanket that made me feel calm and contemplative, as it blew wisps of ground cover that made everything unreal. There were few tourists there if any, and only a skeleton crew, so I could be absolutely alone most of the day. I would sit by the duck pond and imagine that I was the last person on earth, that the ducks were my only source of food and I’d have to scrounge to get by in this new, human-less world. I would walk through the fog around the trees and grass, around the tracks, back into the empty house and imagine utter solitude. It was bliss.
Tucked inside this blanket of fog was the nonfunctional steam locomotive #334. I bonded with her very early, and she will be in my heart for the rest of my life.
That’s her in the featured photo, as I knew her back then. But this is the view I generally had, leaning out the window of the cab staring down the track as I flew along to points unknown.
There was a decaying wooden seat inside, held together only by habit. Sometimes when I sat down I could hear it creak out a warning, there will be splinters soon, but I didn’t care. My heart and my mind were worlds away. For hours and hours, I would go away.
The levers and knobs inside still moved a bit so I could control it, and the cover of the firebox would open with the grind and squeak of very old metal so I could stoke the fire.
Every now and then Casey Jones was the engineer. I was already fairly morbid.
Anyway, sometimes I would be on a track, sometimes I would be in the clouds. Generally the wind blew so strong that with my head out the window it was all I could hear. I was absolutely free as I was nowhere else. My dad was doing his thing, any siblings were doing older sibling stuff, so no one was watching me, no one was bothering me, no one was telling me to get out of that fantastically dangerous, tetanus-ridden jungle gym.
It was magic.
So off I go to this incredible event, this huge event, and I will be there. I will write again about it I’m sure, and I’ll post some photos. Probably not ones where I’m crying but, besides that.
I hope that even if you are not a rail fan, you can enjoy the story and pictures. Maybe you’ll find yourself getting lost in the daydreams and fantasies, the utterly romantic and spooky glory that is rail.