Saturday, February 14, 2015
February 14, 2015: Night on the Great Divide
If you want to feel insignificant, spent a night or two alone up at Blossburg, Montana. At the summit of Mullan Pass, draped across the Great Divide, the only man made light comes from the searchlight railroad signals and the headlights of passing trains.
Whether it is the altitude, the lack of the constant droning of urban life, or just the dark solitude, my ears seem ultra sensitive to sound. Somewhere in the night one of Dave Schatz's cows is bellowing out a call, answered by her calf. The "conservation" ensues until the two are reunited only to be replaced by the not too distant yipping of coyotes. The amazing thing about these animals, two scraggily coyotes can sound like 50, especially since their chilling howls are multiplied by their echoes bouncing off the surrounding hills. I have to convince myself they are a lot farther off then my imagination is trying to tell me.
As if on cue, to the west and to the east a faint rumbles become obvious. Distant whistles intermingle. A westbound and helpers are rounding the Austin horseshoes to the east, an eastbound is whistling for the crossing at Elliston. The noise ebbs and flows as the trains duck into back canyons them emerge out into the more open valleys. Finally, to the west the bright light of the eastbound emerges illuminating the switches at Blossburg. To the east, the rumbling of the westbound suddenly ends, the head-end is in the tunnel. The train's helpers also fall silent, but a glow to the east tells me the head-end is about to emerge just down the track from where I am situated.
And then all hell breaks loose! The lead locomotives of the westbound climb out of the tunnel cut, their diesel engines straining under the load. Headlights are momentarily dimmed as the engines of the two trains pass, then are turned back on to light the way. Cars inch by, and then a set of helper engines, with only a bare minimum of lighting thunder by, shoving part of the train downgrade, while still pulling the remainder of the tonnage uphill. More of the quiet clickity clack of the cars, the cadence increasing as more and more the train crests the summit and roll downgrade. In time the last set of helpers drift by, no longer powering, but rather helping hold the train back for the downhill run to Elliston.
Within a few minutes of the westbound's passage, the eastbound gets a green signal to proceed. The engineer throttles up just enough to get the train rolling over the summit, then backs off into braking, the a long string of empty coal hoppers following in an obedient line. With that, the little drama ends and once again I'm surround by darkness. A few distant whistles can be heard as the two trains continue to put distance between them.
The late night rising of the moon adds a luster to the scene. One of the helper sets off the westbound returns, stopping briefly for a red signal then continues east to Helena and its next assignment. Silence again returns.
Be it the unbelievable show of horsepower over gravity, or merely the wide open spaces, I am left feeling as important as a single chunk of the ballast. Under a canopy of stars not to be seen in but a few places these days, I come to the conclusion, I represent a pretty small cog in a really big gear.