181 Miles from Lewistown, out among the rattle snakes of the hot Montana Plains, on the abandoned portion of the Milwaukee's "Northern Montana Lines" sits an old milepost, a dismantled trestle, and more of the remains of America's last transcontinental. The green grasses and wheat fields of the Red Coulee area belie the heat on this June day, but my full-length snake boots that are tied tight against my legs constantly remind me that it is just plane hot.
The journey to Red Coulee has been an interesting one. In fact, the journey along the abandoned corridors of the Milwaukee these past several years has been loaded with amazing and deep experiences. My partners on the journey have been few, but consistent. As a wind begins to blow across the coulee and a red wing black bird chatters from atop the old telegraphy pole, the cold chills I feel remind me of one of my traveling partners - the one who put this old railroad on my heart to begin with. The One.
From an early age, sitting in the back seat of an old '76 Suburban I would stare out the windows. My goal was to see the big trestles that spanned valleys on the west side of Snoqualmie Pass. Around Ellensburg I'd catch another glimpse of an old railroad as a large bridge crossed the Yakima river, then a final encounter at Renslow, where a high black trestle spanned the interstate. It seemed immense and imposing, the sort of thing that makes a strong impression on a young kid. I stored these memories away for a long time, but they were never forgotten. When I arrived back in the West they came back like a flood. I was inspired to search out these things of my youth, and fill in the story around them - the story of the Milwaukee Road.
My travels would lead me across the great plains of Montana, to the tops of the Bitterroot Mountains, and out across the very trestles that I remembered as a child. Finally, the full picture was becoming more clear. When I wandered into a darkened tunnel atop the Saddle Mountains I felt something. It was the presence of something far bigger and far more comforting than I had ever experienced and the implications of my memories and ongoing journeys out across the Milwaukee became just a bit more focussed. It wasn't just a journey to find the Milwaukee, but to find the One that searches for us all.
And so, as I stand among the blowing winds of Red Coulee and feel the coolness of God's hand in the high heat of the day, the immensity of the moment overtakes me and I'm filled with love and passion.
A ways up the old right of way, my second companion on this ongoing journey sits and waits for my return. It's newer than the old red '76, but the gracefully aging 1990 suburban has seen as much of the Milwaukee as I have. Just as with the thousands of miles before, the silver beast rests patiently as I follow the call. On this day, the call has led me to Red Coulee, but the old girl was with me on the day when I traversed the darkness of tunnel 45 atop the Saddle Mountains too. On the day I found and drove Vendome Loop, the suburban was doing the work and it was her headlights that lit the evening scene as we rounded the darkening curve of the massive Rocky Mountain crossing. At Drexel (left), an old substation used to power trains on their way up the Bitterroots. Now, just a lonely photographer and his companions share in the visions of how things used to be.
Years before, during one of my first journeys along the Milwaukee Road I stumbled upon a great breakfast for $3 at Three Forks. The place was run by an older lady with curly silver hair who did all of the cooking at the back along a large grill. She was the only one cooking there and it seemed like her eggs, potatoes, sausage, and biscuits were well known around the area. It was like stepping into a different time, isolated from the outside world. The old truck was newer then when I parked it outside the cafe, but still the same girl. The dirt on her flanks shows the trials of the previous day's journey to Sixteen Mile Canyon and the area around Lombard. The cafe was closed when last I was in Three Forks. Like so many other things we've seen, time takes its toll on the small towns that still remember the Milwaukee and it looks to have caught up to that great little cafe. Silver and I won't park there again for that time has past. It is never forgotten though.
Near the forgotten town of Bonnefield we trekked across dry creek beds and beside old telephone poles. Poles that used to power ABS signals along a big transcontinental railroad, now just standing among the parched grasses of the Montana Badlands. To places like these we journeyed as well. The loneliness and beauty of a sunset on the badlands of Montana is a sight to remember forever.
The journey has been amazing, and the journey into the heart of something far bigger continues to this day. The inspiration for a journey of your own will come to you, have no doubt about that. The same companion that puts that inspiration in you, he'll give you the other companions needed to complete the journey - don't doubt that either. The experiences will be intense and deep, and the memories will be something to be treasured and passed along. The suburban isn't as new as she used to be, her paint is peeling these days, and the a/c hasn't worked for a long time. But she's ready to go whenever the call strikes. That's what's nice about your longtime companions, the ones that are sent along by the man upstairs, they're always ready to go.
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