We've all heard the saying. Most of us have used the saying more than once. But is it true? Can I pen 1000 meaningful words about a single photo? Let's give it a try.
Montana Rail Link engineer Sam Sutton peers through his rain splattered mirror. His locomotives are cut in the middle of a heavy westbound coal drag. He looks back as the rear half of the train rounds the horseshoe curve at Austin, Montana. Within 3 years of the taking of this photo, Sam would not be with us.
Looking back. Like Sam looking back on his train, I find myself looking back on my experiences in Montana. Like the effect of the water droplets on the mirror, I'm sure my view of what I did and saw has been a little distorted by time. The photos taken can bring when and where into focus, but the more important emotions felt, the nitty gritty details of the experiences I had, that's where time tends to either enhance, or fade.
Montana would have never happened were it not for a set of events that had nothing directly to do with me. Our son Seth, transferred from the University of Washington to Montana State. The 4 year plan became a 12 year stay. Looking back, even if I set aside my WSU Coug roots requiring a hate of the U of W Huskies, Seth's move to the Gallatin was a good one. It revived his pursuit of a Master's of Architecture and my enthusiasm for rail photography.
I remember the trips to Helena and Bozeman. It seemed once across the Idaho boarder and the closer I came to the top of Homestake Pass, the more relaxed I became. When the aggression and hustle of the "west side," and the seeming endless monotony of Eastern Washington finally were replaced in my rear view mirror with the Bitterroots and the Clark Fork River, a degree of ease settled in the like of which I have never experience before or anywhere else I've been. Not just the open spaces of "The big Sky Country" it was the attitude of the people. Look again at Sam. He is helping to move 15.000 tons of coal up a mountain grade. He is controlling 14,400 hp along with two other engineers operating that many horses, or more, and yet you can see his sense of calm control. Looking back, I saw the same demeanor in most I met.
Of course, over a period of 12 years things are going to change. The biggest change for me is one of priorities. Seth and his wife Jess moved from Billings this past summer and are now living a mere 20 miles from us here in Washington. With them, (and our soon to be born granddaughter) here, driving to Montana has slid down the "to-do" list to the point it no longer even appears. Looking back, taking train pictures along the Montana Rail Link was important to me, but these trips were always planned around spending time with Seth. It's no coincidence that 2014 was the first time in 12 years I did not go Montana.
Changes have come to the people I've met which is to be expected. Three of my MRL friends have retired, two have taken other positions on the railroad, and as mentioned, sadly, Sam has passed away. Looking back, it is these connections, these friendships that I value far beyond the images they allowed me to take.
Looking back, I sometimes think I was able to experience the Montana Rail Link during a time of transition. I was there when the tried and true old locomotives of the 70's were being replaced with sleek new, high tech engines that were supposed to run more by computers than the seat of the engineer's pants. Looking back, the mountain grades of Montana more than tested that theory. But there also seemed to be a shift in attitude. The pressures of surges in rail traffic forced the MRL to shed its local, hometown, regional point of view and lean more towards the corporate, Class 1 mode of operations.
Sam was old school. He was the Montana I look back and choose to remember. Climbing the east slope of Mullan Pass he was watching his train, watching over his power, and watching for where the local elk herd was grazing. It was getting close to hunting season. He was back and forth sparring with the Road Foreman of Engines who was riding with us and one "Did I ever tell you about the time...." after another. He was a man that treated me, a total stranger, like a best friend within minutes of meeting. Like Seth, Sam was a good reason to keep going back to visit Montana, and like Seth, when Sam left, a little of the incentive to travel back left with him.
Is this picture worth a thousand words? I think the question should read, are a thousand words worth this picture? Right now I'm at 809 words.
I guess the answer is "No."