Friday, December 16, 2011

Silent Night, Quiet Morning

It is the morning after Christmas. Overnight a light snow has silently fallen, covering the town of Skykomish in a pristine blanket of white. Devious in their beauty, the wet, heavy flakes stick to every surface, including the boughs of the community tree. However, when banded together this snow, long referred to as “Cascade Cement” represents a formable enemy to the railroad crossing Stevens Pass. Piling up quickly as Pacific storms slam into the Cascades, this is the snow that has a bad tendency to slide and is responsible for the deaths of nearly 100 people century ago at a town named Wellington, a mere 20 miles further up the pass.

Thankfully, no such dangers linger on this peaceful morning. Sans the passage of the Amtrak Empire Builder a quiet day and silent night have passed. Only the occasional hiss of escaping compressed air from a distant locomotive disturbs the dawn. For now, it is the only evidence that a mainline railroad even exists.

The solitude of the Christmas furlough continues, but not for long. To the west, a distant signal suddenly comes to life, its green light burning a hole in the darkness. Something is coming down the hill. Commerce can be denied only so long.

The railroad is waking up from a short winter nap. The silent night and quiet morning of another Christmas is about to end.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Three Generations

Three Generations, Lombard, MT.

All through grade school and high school, Dad and I would go train chasing. Be it around our home in Tacoma, or a yearly fall camping trip to Stevens Pass, the Old Man and I spent many-a-hour along the tracks. Good people were met, good photos were taken, they were, well, good times. Of course time and diverging lives ended those outings and delivered them into fond memory status.

After Mom died a few years back from a long illness, and with eldest son Seth tucked away in Montana, it was past time to load the Old Man up and go train chasing again. This time under the Big Skies. So early in September Dad and I set sail from Eatonville,WA with the goal of meeting up with Seth and doing a little railfanning along the Montana Rail Link.

Now taking the Old Man to Montana was not exactly a logistical nightmare. We both travel light. I just didn’t realize HOW light Dad traveled. In fact we were well on our way early the first morning, east of the Columbia River as I recall, when Dad asked,

“How long we gonna be gone?”

Oh, I don’t know, Dad. It’s like I told ya, 4 days for sure, maybe 5. Why, you need to be back a certain time?”

“Well no, but I didn’t bring a change of clothes….”

“Jesus Christ, Pop, Mom’s rolling in her grave right now. Oh well, don’t worry. You’re lucky we’re just going to Montana. Hell over there half the people don’t change clothes all week either and the other half don’t give a shit if you do or not.”

Now that came after I had to derail his notion that he needed to bring a sleeping bag.

“Oh, I figured we’d be out in the brush under the stars.”

“No, Pop. It’s first class. We’re doing motels. If I put you out under the stars, your oldest daughter and youngest daughter would start with my ass and not quit until they had yours too.”

When I told Seth we were coming, his response was that this was going to be “epic.” We hadn’t even hit Spokane and we’d already by-passed “epic” and screaming towards “legendary.”

A little worried about an 89 year old man traveling 700 miles in a day, I asked Dad if he thought he could handle about a 10 -12 drive.

“Hell, I could go from here to New York. Well, ‘long as we could stop now and again to take a leak.”

Our first stop, (other than…well, you know…) was in Missoula where I delivered my usual bribe to the good folks at MRL headquarters…2 flats of fresh picked strawberries. The Assistant to the President, Lynda Frost came out and visited with us in her usual friendly manner. Dad, on his best behavior doffed his hat, bowed slightly as he carefully shook her hand and told her, “Pleased to meet you ma’am.”

But while I was bragging up the berries, the Old Man couldn’t hold himself back.

“Aaah, don’t believe a word he tells you, Lynda. I watched him go into Safeway five minutes ago and come out with those.”

Friggin’ Old Man. 89 years old and he still has the charm!

Oh the times we had over the next four days. Up and down Mullan Pass, chasing coal trains and helpers. After seeing the first train wrapped around the loops at Austin Pop got back in the car with a grin on his face.

“I don’t care if we don’t see another train. That right there was worth the trip.”

While at the Helena deopt, and Old Man and me joke with MRL engineer, Rich Curtis,

On the second day we stopped into the depot at Helena to greet the Helena Road Foreman Kern Kemmerer. A great guy, Kern was more than happy to take the time to explain helper operations over Mullan Pass to Dad and answer his questions. It was a great BS session but with trains getting ready to move, it was time to hit the road. Besides, we had a little pre-train business to take care of. It seems, worse than forgetting clean clothes, Dad didn’t bring enough film! Now THAT was an emergency!

Meeting up with Seth later that day, it was 3 generations of Burwashes versus the Great Divide! As Dad and I busied ourselves taking pictures of the trains, Seth busied himself taking pictures of Dad and I taking pictures…of trains.

Me and the Old Man, 50 years of taking train pictures together.

Saturday morning the three of us stopped off at the depot once again to get a feel for what was going on. Fulltime Trainmaster and fulltime farmer/rancher Jay Hart was on duty. When I told Pop that Jay was another one of these guys that has to work fulltime to support his farming addiction, Pop summed it up in his usual exact manner.

“Well Jay, they ain’t gonna hang blue ribbons on any of us for having any brains.”

Jay, laughing in his easy Montana manner couldn’t argue.

When we left Dad was shaking his head.

“You know, Mart. I don’t think I’ve ever met a nicer bunch of guys than the guys working out here.”

True that.

Now with Seth onboard, the stories really started to roll. One evening we were sitting out on the deck of a Belgrade pizza joint when the Old Man, mid-bite into his large steak pizza told us how much better it was than the wood pecker he and his brother Chet had tried to cook with a blow torch. Not trying to be funny, Dad had Seth and I in stitches as he recounted how he and Chet, when boys had killed a wood pecker, and with feathers and all, tried cooking it with a blow torch. The feathers melted, but that really didn’t phase them. They hadn’t cleaned or gutted it, but even that didn’t phase them. They’d rip some meat off, and if it didn’t look cooked enough, they just hold it in front of the torch a little longer. (I don’t think the couple on the other side of the deck, who were laughing as well, realized a comedy monologue was going to be part of their dining experience that evening.)

“I tell ya what. Back when we were kids if it swam, slithered, crawled, walked or flew, we killed it and tried eating it.”

Now added to that, the waitress was in awe. The three of us each devoured our personal large pizzas and had no issue destroying dessert as well.

“Wow!” she exclaimed when we paid up. “I’ve never seen 3 generations eat so much in one sitting. And you’re all so skinny.”

We upped her tip.

The weather was fantastic the whole time we were there. Unseasonably hot, but still comfortable for Dad and I to do some hiking. At one point, with the sun beating down on us in the Lombard Canyon I told the Old Man:

“You know why that sun’s beating down on us don’t ya, Pop? That’s Mom up there burning a hole in your back for not bringing a change of clothes.”

“Yeah, that was kinda a bonehead move. Your mother would be fit to be tied if I pulled a stunt like this when she was alive. Skin us both alive.”

Such great times and memories. Up on top of Winston Hill, looking into the sun down the Missouri River Valley towards Townsend, waiting for a train, that in true Burwash form, never showed up. Or watching and 89 year old man hop over a barbed wire fence like it wasn’t even there. Or the look of satisfaction on his face as he sat high above the Missouri River deep in the Lombard Canyon.

Great memories:

Skyline, Mullan Pass

Telling stories, Lombard, MT.

Doing what we came for, Lombard, MT.

The Great Divide, Blossburg, MT

“I could stay here the rest of my life,” he told Seth and me.

There was definitely some truth to that, but by and by he had to head back west and home.

I delivered Dad to my little sister’s house in Kent where she was going to take him on the final leg home to Eatonville. The Old Man gave be a big hug.

“You know, Mart, that was probably my last long trip, but it was the best one ever.”

You know, I hope he’s wrong.

Grandfather and grandson

(Thanks go to Seth for the color images.)