Saturday, June 24, 2006

Through the Sweet Grass

As I-90 winds its way down the east side of Lookout Pass a cut in the trees becomes visible high up on the sides of the lush Bitterroot Mountains. It's not much of a clearing, but it is marked by the continuous presence of seemingly out of place high-tension power lines. Winding further east and down-grade, the cut in the trees gets closer to the road and at a small town called Saltese, an enormous black trestle spans the Silver Creek valley and the houses that have been built up around its large pilings. For east bound travelers, they have met The Milwaukee Road and it will travel with them to Butte as they blast eastward on the modern four lane supher-highway, I90.

On a day back in July of 2005 I sped east past the silent bridge at Saltese and toward Missoula and Butte. I marveled at the old substation at Ravena, a remnant of Milwaukee's much publicized electrification of the late teens, but continued to push east. The miles were adding up and I arrived in Butte in the early evening under broken clouds. Two years before I had tracked the Milwaukee through Butte, now I had returned to find its crossing of Pipestone Pass, old US 10, and the rain shadow that the Rocky Mountains cast to the east of Pipestone. The land to the east was the land of sweet grass and big skies.

As it did when it was a major cross-country road called US10, SR 2 still climbs out of Butte headed for Pipestone pass. I90 drifts north to cross the divide on Homestake Pass, path of the original railroad to the northwest, the Northern Pacific. As old US10 climbs boldly up the mountain side in a series of sharp turns, the Milwaukee meets it and cuts underneath at the summit. To the east, the landscape quickly changes; the trees thin, the grasses begin to grow more thick, and the valley that opens up in the rain shadow cast by the Rockies shows the beauty of Big Sky Country. In these plains to the east of Pipestone the land still stretches out through the prairie country and the old railbed still runs alongside elevators like the one at Sipple, shown above. I had followed the call that day and found myself in the heart of the Milwaukee's Montana; away from the interstates, away from fast food, and into the land of sweet grass and the heart of something else entirely.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The High and the Mighty

June 15, 1974. A Little Joe lowered its pantograph for the final time and the Rocky Mountain division was de-energized forever. For weeks the day had loomed; a derailment at East Portal on St. Paul Pass had removed several feet of catenary, but knowing the end was near no fix was authorized. The final days saw electric locomotives lowering their pantographs across the broken section, then raising them on the other side. Now, on June 15, no more electricity would flow through traction motors anywhere on Lines West.

So here we are, 32 years beyond electrification and 26 years beyond Lines West. More than a quarter century has passed between us, and the hands of time have left places like Rock Lake, shown above, quiet and alone as before all of this happened. From high-iron and named freight trains to a gravelled rise in the ground, running a shockingly long distance from eastern Montana to the Pacific Coast.

Aboard an airline flight on the evening of Memorial Day 2006 I looked down from on high at the rolling Palouse that spread out to the east on our starboard side. Small towns with elevators slipped by beneath us and then, for a brief moment, the ground split, revealing the quiet and reclusive Rock Lake and to the east, Pine City and Malden. Old Milwaukee towns that were bathed in the soft light of a setting sun. Malden; a crew-change point 26 years now without any crews. It pains me to actually consider the magnitude of what was done and then undone. So many places and so many miles and it seems we're left with only fading memories and small towns far off beaten paths. It's a bleakness that cries out, begging for explanation, begging for reconciliation, but knowing all the while that time has passed by and left me only to wonder and wander. So wandering I go under the big skies that no longer watch over Lines West, wondering at the gravity of it all.