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.


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