Looking for trains, finding a Nation
By Erney Alewine
Leaving Florida is not a difficult task. Leaving Florida in 0-5% visibility due to smoke does up the demand, but leave we did.
First stop was a family reunion of sorts in the hills of Northeastern Georgia, where train legends of themselves thrive from the small, sleepy town of Lavonia, once a major thoroughfare for logging, freight, and passenger; and close to Toccoa, where many a paratrooper earned his right to abandon perfectly fine airplanes for the hardened thump into a battlefield.
I, along with my wife and father, traced my paternal decedents, finding grandfather, great grandfather and mother, and several aunts and uncles.
Relatives never met, but now somehow lent to closure along the road of heritage.
On and thru the great states of Tennessee, Kentucky, and into Illinois, to behold what I know of but never knew was real.
Metropolis, the working city of a young reporter known as Clark Kent to many, Superman to those of us who have passed the half century mark wishing that type of hero still existed.
Therein, amongst other historical tributes, is a museum dedicated to the Red Caped gentleman, dedicated to Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
Crossing the Ohio River between Paducah, Kentucky and Metropolis, Illinois, is a multi-spanned arch trestle bridge that is an architectural beauty to behold.
And on the return trip I was fortunate enough to catch a coal drag rolling across against an afternoon sky, one step ahead of some storms.
Onward into Missouri, feeling awe-inspired and welcomed by the Arch in St. Louis. Having passed over the Mighty Mo, the Missouri River, I felt what the first of the pioneers might have thought, how intimidating the other side and the crossing might be.
We passed many train yards, and sidings, and rolled along to Kansas City, Missouri, again finding large train yards, along with the stuff of modern lore, like stadiums and riverfront casinos.
Upwards towards Iowa, where the confusing and already exorbitant gas prices began in common.
A quick left turn netted us the Nebraska countryside, complete with the sights and sounds of trains, and long, straight highways, and picturesque old barns and farms, although far between.
North Platte, Nebraska was a target this vacation, and we finally made it after stopping at other various tourist traps, like Fort Cody, a tribute set to Buffalo Bill, whose home was nearby. The rail yards were, too, and that was the chosen destination.
North Platte is a Union Pacific utility, and is the largest rail yard in the U.S., if not the world.
We learned of walkways over the yard lead tracks, where a good vantage was held, watching in total amazement at the number of units being moved.
Although we did not get access into the actual hump yard, we could see most of the 8 mile splendor of a rail fan’s reward.
Across Nebraska, into Wyoming, stopping in Cheyenne to get a glimpse of the real U.P. Big Boy on display at the town park, and to go overhead again to view the yards in their evening cloak of sunset colors, last sun shining on the rails.
Needless to say, all of the above fits a tall order for someone who is used to a two track main, and the same Blue/Yellow livery in general.
Eyes turned to the vastness of the territories we encountered, the abundance of the wildlife, in herds, again a defined new characteristic from the one or two a season sighting of deer here in the flatlands of Florida.
Finally making our way to the westernmost part of our route, Yellowstone, we encountered what some may take for granted,-bison, elk, moose, beaver, mule deer, and trees upon trees, with the Purple Mountains Majesty of the Grand Tetons, that I have heard of for many, many years in verse and song, but now be held.
Old Faithful made its appearance, in a quiet, reverent manner, and also another geyser in the field that had not risen in a matter of years, made a spectacular display, seemingly just for us, as if saying “You, who have waited this long, need to see the best before you go away.”
Empty handed was not how we left the splendor of this region.
Onwards to Deadwood, South Dakota. Amongst cowboy, gold rush, and gambling folklore, one would not expect to find a perfect miniature world, but below in the basement of the building close to where Wild Bill Hickok met his demise from the drygulching Jack McCall, is one of the most spectacular HO model Railroads.
Ask of its whereabouts along the main street, anyone can give you the details.
Heading back towards the scrub oaks and palmettos of Florida, the long way, we came around a curve and out of nowhere, a circa 1880 train and excursion. A quick stop and a few questions and pitiful facial expressions captured me a walk around the maintenance area, where Mallet # 110 had just finished its duties, and sat regaining its breath, complete with all the delightful oil, grease, smoke and steam aromas, delicacies of lost decades in the nostrils of the fanatic train chaser.
Following our hastily laid out plans, we followed a long twisting highway into what was called the Needles, where looking closely at the license plates ahead of you would yield the same issued to you at your local agency.
Rocks, with holes carved thru that allowed the car to pass and would make the shadow of the vehicle patiently await its turn for access.
We made it to the end, and then found ourselves in Custer State Park, amid more bison, lumbering aimlessly to where ever their notions took them.
We then started another ascent on a road called Iron Mountain Road, and after about 30 minutes of climbing, came upon the most dramatic part of our journey, four stately gentlemen, posed for a period of infinity, overseeing this Land in a passionate gaze into the future, with a weathered stance of knowing the past.
Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln, carved into Mt. Rushmore, is as stirring a patriotic moment frozen in time, as picturing Francis Scott Key peering over the side of the vessel staring at the Flag in his vision penned to paper of this country’s rise to glory.
As with all good things coming to end, we came away humbled by the experience at this Monument. It is in small part about the carving, but the magnitude lies within the heartfelt mood it stirs.
Said this, to leave. Down the mountain, and on to another wonder, the Devil’s Tower. Rising over 800′ in the middle of nowhere, it guided us like a beacon to its majestic stance.
Closer, we found climbers that looked to be no more than ants, clinging to the sheer walls. Not for me, thank you, but I can imagine that “just because it’s there” feeling. There is another kind of reverence felt in viewing this wonder.
The Badlands, although producing little or no train activity, is not to be missed. One can see Clint Eastwood or John Wayne riding over the knolls, and it also has a strange beauty, one of a compelling nature, the vastness and the evidence of the violence that took to create it. It beckons, “Come closer, but stay out.”
At the Eastern entrance to the Badlands, South Dakota, and a man-made reality came upon us. The National Minuteman Missile Complex. This is a good place to think out the true meaning of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Thankfully, we are the Good.
The ride home was not that anti-climactic. We found other items of interest, including a Museum in a small town called Murdo, South Dakota.
This man has an assortment of cars, tractors, movie, toy, and hundreds of anything that can have the word “memorabilia” attached to it, including the ’31 Packard of the beloved Tom Mix, cowboy of cowboys. It also includes the old depot/station in its own little world, along with old wooden caboose.
In this year’s 5500 mile jaunt, added to the 7000 miles of last year, this country has amazed me in many ways. The utter diversity, the great expanses, coast to coast, is by itself filled with invaluable lessons. How Lewis and Clark and their party must have felt, although it was a duty to them, to be so honored and allowed to first map and plot the routes that many would follow from their day forth, and how those that have followed have used this great Nation as a canvas.
It is a setback in reality to just think of it as a place to live, and the more of it I see, the more I believe in a much Higher Power to have put it here for us to enjoy, in any form we can.
I would request that all regroup, and pass on not only our feelings of trains and their enjoyment, but the legacy of all the Great States of our America, still–United.
See ya, Erney
Clermont, Florida – U.S.A.!