Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Following the Call

Is it possible that things can be put on your heart on purpose? That there is some reason we love the things we do, or feel compelled to search out and seek the unknown?

As a young kid, my family lived in Vancouver, BC and we'd drive across Washington to visit relatives in Sand Point once a year or so. I have vivid memories of staring out the window of our old Suburban at the tall curved trestles on the west side of Snoqualmie and then straining for a view of anything on the east side of the pass. I always suspected, but as a five or six year old never knew, that the huge trestle over the interstate east of Ellensburg was the same railroad and somehow I seemed to know it wasn't used anymore. It seemed so huge, so towering, and even in the mid-eighties, somehow sad.

It wasn't until years later that I would come into contact with the story of The Milwaukee Road. America's final transcontinental, and the first and only to be wiped off the face of the west. After moving to the Midwest in '87, the trips back to Idaho would come from the east, and there in the valley east of Missoula was the strange brick building with broken windows and large electric insulators on its roof nestled in amongst the trees: Ravenna Substation. I still knew little about the railroad or its history, but was fascinated by the old substation the few times we would drive by it over the course of many years and several trips to the west.

Years later, now entrenched in a graduate degree program at Washington State, the story of The Milwaukee had become something of a legend in my mind. In the summer of 2003 I pointed a different old Suburban east and tracked and photographed as much of the old line as I could across the great plains of Montana up to The Bitterroot Mountains and the long dark tunnel of St. Paul Pass. The following year would find me working across the state of Washington and coming full circle with the realization that the bridges that I remembered as a five year old were actually part of the story I was currently immersed in. It was a shocking realization: to uncover the old memories and put them in their proper context. The old railroad and its story had been on my heart a long time, building and growing as the years passed and I had finally returned to the place where it had started.

One day in the late summer, before the cold sets in across Washington's high desert, I was biking The Milwaukee's daunting 2.2% grade out of the Columbia River Valley west of Beverly. I had heard many stories about The Milwaukee's assault on the Saddle Mountains and found that as I pushed hard against the grade, that even now, the steepest grade on the Western Extension could still require a lot of effort and a lot of determination. Up through the sage-brush and sand I pushed along. The old Substation at Doris is long gone, but the foundation is there as is the old roof from an operator bungalow. Fifteen miles up the grade I arrived at the crest, Tunnel 45.

Tunnel 45 lies at the top of the 2.2% grade at Boyleston, WA. Like so many other Milwaukee Road hauntings, Boyleston itself is long gone and not much remains except for a few out of place trees that were planted back when Boyleston had a station and passing siding. Tunnel 45 itself is dark and ominous. As I stood outside the entrance and marveled at the total black that was in front of me, I listened intently to the rustle of bats and birds that wafted out of the tunnel with the cold air that felt so different from the desert heat I had been working in all day. I hadn't realized the tunnel was as long as it was, nor did I figure on it being curved toward the west end. I had no flashlights that day and so I stood and pondered the decision that lay before me.

To continue would require a literal act of faith that somehow, I was supposed to enter in. After tracking so much of the railroad across the west and feeling the beauty and stillness of what was and what is, I wondered aloud if perhaps everything had been put in motion for a reason? Could the memories of a five year old, the fascination with a substation, the feeling that I should go to Montana and begin a journey to the west all have been purposefully put on my heart to lead me to Tunnel 45?

Thinking back over the miles of big sky and beautiful mountains, the stories and people I had met, could there be any doubt? I put my faith in The One that had, unbeknownst to me, guided me all along. I stepped into the blackness of the cool whispering tunnel and as I stepped in, I knew I was not alone. God had revealed Himself in a purposeful and undeniable series of events and love that floors me every time I think about it. The journey of the heart was just beginning and for me, it will be forever and indelibly marked with mileposts of The Milwaukee Road.

Friday, November 04, 2005

A Thousand Miles From

On The Milwaukee Road, east of electrification lay the flat plains of Montana and the Dakotas. In 1980 near a small town in eastern Montana scrappers began their work to undo what had been done 70 years before.

The passenger trains had been gone since 1967 and had not traveled to the Pacific Coast since 1961. Freight trains with fast schedules had continually evaporated since 1974 and the reliable power that headed them had been shepherded off to other parts of the troubled empire as the seventies closed. To look at photos of SD40-2s leading trains across the Montana plains in the last couple years of service is shocking: the track looks as rough as on some little used branch line. The line had come full circle: expensive and well-engineered to begin with and derelict and accident prone at its death.

In eastern Montana, near the town of Terry, today's saga begins. This is where the Western Extension's removal starts and goes all the way to Tacoma. The original milepost still marks Terry, MT: 1080 miles from Chicago.