The Headwaters and Hope
Crossing the Missouri at Lombard, the Road turns and rolls down the west bank of the mighty Missouri River. The mainline finds a much smaller river here than its mainline crossing at Mobridge, or even its secondary line crossing at Chamberlain, SD. The river length itself is over 2500 miles long. It begins here at the feet of the Rocky Mountains and heads east, through the open grasslands that awed Lewis and Clark, down amongst the fertile fields of America's breadbasket, and into the Mississippi at St. Louis. The railroad itself is more than 1400 miles into its own journey, but where the river stops, and the waters no longer flow towards the Mississippi, the old transcon will push further up and further in.
The headwaters of the Missouri lie now at the very doorstep of the mainline as it makes its way to the small town of Three Forks. The land is already more rocky and arid, approaching the rain shadow cast by the Rockies. Three Forks was named for the three rivers that come together as the Missouri, named by the Corps of Discovery after Jefferson, Gallatin, and Madison. In some ways, the scene before the Milwaukee Road is little changed from the days of Lewis, Clarke, and the Corps of Discovery. The seemingly eternal landscape spoke then as it did in the days of Olympians and Columbians, as it still does today.
Zane Grey in his book, "Riders of the Purple Sage" thought of Western Lands when reflecting that the wind ...
"... was fresh, cool, fragrant, and it carried a burden of far-off things - of other places where reigned peace. It carried too, sad truth of human hearts and mystery -- of promise and hope unquenchable."
There is both hope and sadness in these miles and places. There is the hope of the West, an indescribable pull of something greater than what is apparent at a glance. There is the hope of finding the answer to some plaguing and unknown question, that perhaps the sad longings that are in the hearts of men might find the antidote to what plagues them. And there is sadness that the times pass away, taking with them the hopes of men and their memories of what came before. Their triumphs, trials, and stories all passing away. The sun rises one more time, but this time, without them.
Steeped in hope and sadness, the Milwaukee route to the Pacific presses on - further up and further in - to the rain shadows and rain forests that lie ahead. It has outlasted the hopes and dreams of the men who built her and many who knew her, and lies now as a fading memory and fading hope for something different.