The path back to 16 Mile Creek and America's final transcon has led south out of the small town of Ringling and up and over small passes where cattle roam and the road is single track. On this little path, it is easy to feel alone and lost - even if just for a moment. The mountains that climb around a sole traveler seem too high, the dirt road too infrequently passed, and there are none of the sounds that mark civilization: no car horns, no cell phone coverage, no slamming doors - just all-encompasing quiet. In some ways this makes it easy to see the land the Milwaukee built through in its push west.
Pushing on and through the doubts, past little pieces of Americana along the way, the road empties into a wider valley where, once again, the Resourceful Railroad lies in pieces. Far across the valley floor, a brace of wooden trestle bridges loft the smooth right of way between fills on timbers that seem too spindly for the likes of a Little Joe. At their feet is the remains of an old homestead resting next to the creek. A few trees provide it some shade in hot summer months just as they were designed to do by those who settled here long ago. They have outlasted the little farm, the hearty folk that planted them, and even the transcontinental railroad. Living in this little valley, I wonder if the railroad provided that sense of connectedness and civilization that seems so distant?
"What if" is a dangerous question to ask, but perhaps this scene is just a little too quiet? For years the state of Montana has complained that it is held captive by a single railroad that seems isolated from free market pressures. With the growing trend in oil by rail shipment, these problems have worsenned. Automobiles sit on manufacturer lots insterad of dealer lots, other freight like grain sits due to motive power and crew shortages, and passenger trains run hours off the mark on a regular basis. What if the Milwaukee's exit from the West hadn't been so complete and thorough?
In the enlarged scene above, the old house and trestle bridge are marks of an alternative reality, perhaps the road less taken. On this day, in the late June sun, all is quiet and these are just pieces of history lying in the shadows of times past. The storm that came here was decades ago, but the damage it incurred is felt daily in ways both seen and unseen.