Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mists

It is an unsettling feeling to look back at life and ponder the passage of time. It is unsettling to wonder how or why things worked as they did. It has been said that life is a mist, here and then gone. Perhaps the key is to live in such a way that every day is made to count, that every day is meaningful in some way?

In the grasslands of Central Montana, in a small town named Roundup, the mist of the Milwaukee Road's life is slowly dispersing out across the curve of time. The grasses sway and the trees rustle in a warm summer breeze, but the sounds of America's Resourceful Railroad have been gone for many many years. Like the cattle drives that preceded the railroad, lending Roundup its name, quiet is here and life is moving on.

In the tall grasses an old signal stand sits alone with the remnants of a few electrical wires at its base. The insulation is cracked and crusty and their connection to a national lifeline has long been severed. Like other tombstones spread out across the Milwaukee's West, these that remain in Roundup are the fading mists of a line and people who have moved on. A few still stop and take notice of them, but how many? Off the beaten paths, places like Roundup and the Milwaukee Road are where we've been, but somehow, no longer wish to go.

Undeniably, however, these fading signatures of different times still make a difference. I can't explain it, nor even understand it, but I know days I've spent along the route of the Columbian were meaningful and counted for something. I wonder if we would live life differently if we asked ourselves at the end of the day, "what counted today?" It is ironic that even in its life after death, the Milwaukee Road still counts and makes a difference. It fulfills no purpose ever envisioned by those who sent it west, but it remains a difference maker for a few of us nonetheless. On that warm summer day in Roundup, on that day, it made a difference to someone. Now, many years and many miles away, it still does. I guess that's a day that counts for the old girl.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Between Mountain Ranges

Location:  Ralston, WA

The lands east of the Cascades and west of the Bitterroots are remarkable in their variety and beauty.  Between these two ranges lie high desert country, rolling wheat fields, foot hills, massive rivers, tumbling sage, abundant wild flowers, rain shadows, endless skies, and a long, long right of way plotted by America's Resourceful Railroad.

To this land between mountain crossings the Milwaukee Road journeyed.  While other parts of the Western Extension existed in near infamy, this land existed in relative quiet.  Like the lands east of electrification, it existed out of the spotlight and away from many photographer's cameras.  The summer heat is harsh and the treeless plains offer little relief.  The winter is cold and the winds have little to break their howl as they roll across the undulating landscape.

The small town of Ralston sits along the right of way here.  It rests beneath Washington skies as the clouds that break apart over the Cascade Range roll out and across this land.  The grasses sway in the summer winds and the grain elevator watches over the small town.  It's a scene that's played out in thousands of places across the West, and many places along the old Resourceful Railway.  The old station has been removed and placed nearby in a farmer's field.  Half of the building is now collapsed and the paint has been missing for many years.  The grasses have taken over much of the old right of way here as well.  Although it remains part of the John Wayne Trail, maintenance is uncommon and use is light.  Much like the days when orange and black locomotives plied the rails, visitors to Ralston are rare.

For those who travel with the Milwaukee Road between the mountain ranges, places like Ralston are a quiet place to stop and ponder.  Apart from the occasional farm truck that rolls by with a wave, this is a lonely journey in a large world.  There is no safety in numbers here - no constant noise from a nearby interstate, no lights to chase away the darkness of long nights.  Now, all of these years beyond the bankruptcy and abandonment, there is no lonely railroad either - just the traveler and that thick feeling of depth that goes beyond what is simply seen.  This is the land between mountain ranges and between electrifications.  In life, and along the Resourceful Railroad, all part of an incredible journey.   

Thursday, June 04, 2009

East of Electrification

Kamm, MT
The end of a hot day in 2003, in the lands east of electrification.