Friday, May 16, 2014

Spaces of the Past

"Who plundered those wide open spaces of the past, and how can we get them back?" [1]

Just down the gravel trail mainline from the US89 crossing, the depot at Ringling stands next to the old right of way.  This picture dates from 2003, more than 20 years following the demise of the Milwaukee Road.  Now, an additional 10 years have passed, and as noted in the comments to the prior post, the power lines are gone.  These old telegraphy poles that stood in the lush grasses of this early summer day have faired no better.  The gaping windows of the abandoned depot seem to suggest that the building itself has defied all expectation.  Even the photograph speaks of a different time and an old technology: the vibrant colors of Fuji's Velvia slide film are difficult to replicate, even in this day of modern technology and digital processing.

In the intervening decades from mainline to gravel road, there has been an onslaught of technology and progress. In the past 10 years even, the connectedness of the world and the culture has grown geometrically. When the old suburban and I were in Montana taking these photos, it was with a single cell phone (that was usually off), an old camera that made a loud 'thunk' sound whenever the shutter button was pressed, and rolls and rolls of slide film from Fuji and Kodak. Today, these words are written on an iPad with a touch screen while I shuttle back and forth between email checks and text message updates. And even that itself is old tech, twitter and other social media having replaced emails as the cultural standard some time back. 

But the Milwaukee Road exists in the wide open spaces of the past.  Out in these spaces, old depots still reside in tall grasses, an old tender sits in the plains at Ingomar, a substation atop a mountain grade. Before progress collapsed the size of the world, we could hear the wind and its peaceful music in these places and had time for things that aren't summarized on backlit touch screens. For a brief while, the Milwaukee road itself was progress: making small the large spaces that separated the West with new technology that promised a better world.  Small towns like Ringling were the outposts of this empire where people lived, worked, and loved. 

But progress has no heart for things that become old tech, and doesn't stop to reflect upon what was. Little Joes, sd40 locomotives, boxcabs, and even passenger trains are all relics now. The depot at Ringling is just one of the reminders that is easily ignored via apps and the Information Age.  It takes effort to overcome these distractions but to know places like Ringling is worthwhile. It means hearing the sounds the wind makes once again, or thoughtfully pondering the story that has played itself out across the Milwaukee's West. Once overcome, there is a still small voice that yet calls out, even now through the backlit touchscreen of the iPad. 

[1] Swenson, R.  "Margin" Revised edition, NavPress, 2004