As I grow older, I think of life as a journey. Sometimes I believe I am traveling from ignorance to experience. Others, from confusion to enlightenment. But such moments are rare. More often, I see myself on a pilgrimmage from sunup to sundown.
The sun is chasing the horizon now. Shadows lengthen. The wind dies. Now in the last light, moments of clarity appear, and I realize that I am not moving past life. Life is moving past me, like a fast freight into darkness, and I am standing in the same place I have always stood. The trains keep moving. I keep standing and waiting.
The Cascade Mountains in Washington contain innumerable narrow valleys surrounded by precipitous rock walls and towering evergreens that block most sunlight, especially late in the day. The little light leaking through is soft and hazy, as though filtered by smoked glass.
|The sky above is still blue, but this eastbound freight is already shrouded.
|The sun is shining directly down the tracks.
|The sun has set on this train, though not on the mountains.
Columbia River Gorge
The Columbia River Gorge was created by forces larger than I can conceive -- millions of years of basalt flows followed by Biblical flooding. The result is a canyon as impossibly enormous as a man twenty feet tall. This is another location where the sun generally falls below the rim of the world long before darkness arrives. Patience, however, sometimes yields pleasant surprises.
Page, Oklahoma -- RIch Mountain, Arkansas
My first encounter with the KCS mountain grade from Page, Oklahoma, to Rich Mountain, Arkansas, was life-changing, as when a child realizes that the world is larger than his backyard. The hardwoods and pines of the Ouichita National Forest were like an open book waiting to be read -- if only I had enough patience.
|A Grey Ghost chases the setting sun.
|Union Pacific power on a southbound empty coal drag.
|Northbound manifest (compass west) approaching the Arkansas-Oklahoma border.
|Rich Mountain, Arkansas.
|Southbound manifest in fall.
|The new CPKC.
The Craig Branch
David Moffat's railroad west from Denver intended to reach Salt Lake City through the coal fields in northwestern Colorado. Fantastic costs, however, bankrupted both Moffat and his railroad, and construction stopped near the small settlement of Craig. When the Moffat Route was connected to the original Rio Grande mainline at Dotsero, the tracks to Craig became a branch servicing the coal mines. Today (January 2024), at least one mine is still open, and a few trains ply the rails each week.
|An empty coal train is headed to the mines.
|Coal loads struggling upgrade.
|Loaded coal entering Egeria Canyon.
Marsland was founded on August 28, 1889, along the newly constructed C,B & Q line across Crawford Hill and was named after Thomas Marsland, the railroad's general freight manager. For years, I thought the place was so named because it looked like the planet. Now a ghost town, Marsland is the site of a scenic horseshoe curve.
|Pushers on eastbound loaded coal.
|Eastbound approaching the big cut at Doublea.
|On the big fill at Eagle's Nest.
|Westbound in last light.
Westbound traffic on BNSF's Transcon climbs from the Cimarron River Valley at Curtis Hill, an isolated area in northwestern Oklahoma prone to amazing weather extremes -- blazing hot in summer, frigid in winter, almost always windy. Home to an annual rattlesnake hunt, Curtis Hill is truly a western landscape.
|Eastbound racing down the hill.
|Westbound waiting for a green board at the bottom of the hill.
|Preparing to roll downgrade.
|Westbound stacks approaching the summit.
|Chasing the sun.
|Beginning the climb.
|Chased by the sun.
Dragoon, Arizona, is the highest point on Union Pacific's Southern Transcon between California and El Paso. Wedged in the saddle between the Dragoon and Little Dragoon Mountains, the small settlement is named after the soldiers who fought a long and bitter war against the Apaches, a conflict in which each side showed both valor and viciousness, a conflict in which only the desert ultimately prevailed.
|Westbound stacks at the summit.
|Westbound Amtrak rolling downgrade.
|Sundown at Dragoon.
|Eastbound climbing the grade.
|Eastbound approaching the summit.
About ten miles west of Emporia, Kansas, sits Ellinor, not a town, just the point where BNSF's La Junta Sub to the west divides from the Emporia Sub to the southwest. The railroad is triple-track here, with as many as ten trains per hour racing through the bottom land of the Cottonwood River. If you like to see a lot of trains, Ellinor is for you.
|When traffic gets heavy, trains often wait for a green board, as 5714 West is doing one winter's evening.
|Because of the high traffic volume, one or more trains often come through in the last light of day.
|This eastbound is coming off the La Junta Sub.
|Eastbounds on the Emporia and La Junta Subs running side-by-side.
|Some evenings, the parade of trains seems endless.
|In fall and winter, the sun sets south of the the tracks.
|In summer, to the north.
|If you don't like Kansas sunsets, you don't like sunsets.
Flagstaff is where BNSF's Transcon crosses the San Francisco Volcano Field. Trains climb laboriously in both directions to the Arizona Divide, at over 7,000 feet, and although the tracks wind and twist through the world's largest Ponderosa Pine forest, the right-of-way is wide enough to allow late afternoon sun to shine through in pristine clarity.
Flagstaff is also the gateway to the Grand Canyon.
|Westbound stacks beneath San Franisco Peak, a huge strato-volcano.
|Eastbound to New Mexico.
|Eastbound beneath Bill Williams Mountain, another volcano.
|DPU's at Maine.
|Sundown at Bill Williams Mountain.
|Eastbound approaching the Arizona Divide.
|Eastbound in summer when the sun sets north of the tracks.
|Into the sun.
To see my other posts, go to waltersrail.com.
To see my photographs on Flickr, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpwalters/.