Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Saddles

Washington is called the "Evergreen State," but there are parts of it that defy that title. The Milwaukee Road's path across the Saddle Mountains is situated in one such high desert where the rains rarely fall and the sage brush tumbles with the blistering hot winds.

After climbing the Bitterroots and descending into the St. Joe River valley, the Milwaukee Road blazes a path out across the Eastern Washington Palouse where some of the most fertile soils in the world support an amazing bounty of grain. As the line works its way west, however, the grasses give way to dry scab lands and the annual rain fall decreases until the line finds itself in the Central Washington high desert. It is here, in this desert country, travelers on nearby I90 are warned to turn off their car a/c as they climb the grueling grade from the Columbia River Valley towards Kittitas. After crossing the mighty Columbia at Beverly, the Milwaukee Road climbs the same mountains to finally crest the Saddles at Boyleston.

There is so much that can be written about this pass. I've pondered my experiences here before, and perhaps for another perspective, you may revisit my first writings about the Saddle Mountains from the archives, called "Following the Call." In Milwaukee Road lore, it's a pass known to be the steepest on the entire Pacific Extension, 2.2 %. The line snakes its way from the Columbia Valley floor through sand, sagebrush, and high heat during the west's long summer days. The torture of trains climbing the line can be experienced first hand should you decide to bike the ascent: the sandy roadbed clings to bike tires.

This pass was also the home of the Milwaukee Road's Bipolar fleet that towed the road's crack passenger trains out across the desert in a streak of orange and maroon. The old substation at Doris has been demolished, but the foundation still sits on one of the line's many curves. Ancient barbed wire and the remains of operator houses still lie at rest here as well. On the way up the grade, old names with no places go by. Names long forgotten like Cheviot and Rye.

At the crest of the grade, tunnel 45 sits silent and dark. I met the Lord here once. Perhaps that sounds quite insane, and even now as I write this, I must agree that it doesn't sound "normal." Still, the experience sent me down one of life's great journeys and the Milwaukee has played an important part. It's funny that in places like this high desert, one can actually feel history, feel a certain heaviness about times past and a world that has moved on. I've learned over the years since my encounter with tunnel 45 that God really seems to care about history and there's significance to be found in remembering that which came before.

The sunsets can be amazing atop the crest of the Saddles. The eerie oranges of desert heat and dust make the landscape seem all the more daunting and huge. It's easy to feel small here in the Saddles and, for me, that's one of the amazing things about the Milwaukee. Just how big it is and how many different passes and places the old line still traverses. For each of the 5 mountain ranges the line crossed, there seem to be an infinite number of quiet old places that rest silent and still.

Next time: the Cascade Mountain's best crossing and the final mountain range crossed by the "Resourceful Railroad."