Aspens it seems to me have a special quality where, when the sun’s angle is just right, they absorb light, and then by some internal process like reverse photosynthesis, transform it from sunlight to… aspenlight. It is as though every individual leaf is lit from within, each with its own special hue.
In my imagination, the tree summons energy gathered and stored during long summer days from deep inside; and then fires out a burst to the leaves creating one brilliant, orange-yellow flash. A few days of fire before winter’s hibernation. Multiply this by thousands.
If God ever used a paint brush, then surely it was in this stretch of Colorado mountains, at 8,000 feet. Here, aspens and birches are painted in wet, broad strokes over carpets of granite and evergreen. Lower growing bushes add daubs of rust and rose. Above, on the granite peaks a little snow lingers from last night’s storm. I am humbled.
Who doesn’t like trains? Well… Crazy Horse maybe. So many generations have gone by since railroads stitched our country up that trains have become a part of our psyche.
Who can resist watching a long freight running alongside the highway? Or a yard engine humping cars into a train in a freight yard? The sound of several big diesel locomotives — thousand of horsepower — lugging a mile of cars down the track, air horns blaring a warning? who can resist that?
I sure as hell can’t. I’ve been known to pull off the road just to watch one pass by. All that diesel horsepower — ganged together, rolling, clanking, squalling and sending a thrumming vibration deep deep into your bones — few experiences can surpas this as far as I’m concerned. But there is one: a sound, rarely heard these days, but every bit as compelling.
This is the progenitor vibration, the primordial sound of the first locomotive — not a roar or bone-rattling thrum, but steam hissing from various valves, pipes, cylinders and every leaky connection on a steam locomotive. Primordial sound number two: the steam whistle.
Ahhh, the whistle. That mournful, far away, good-bye-forever, three, four or five chime steam pipe organ played by an engineer masquerading as Winton Marsalis or Dizzy Gillespie. Irresistable.
During the middle years of the last century, folks for miles around knew who engineered the train just by listening to the way the whistle slurred and moaned through sharps and flats, finally settling on a whole-note chord calling out romance, adventure, faraway places. And a warning for the road crossing ahead.
If you stand next to an idling diesel locomotive, it vibrates you right down to your shoes. Stand next to a steamer, like the 104 here, and all you hear is a hissssss. The engineer throws a lever and the big drivers revolve, almost by magic. The train moves. And still all you hear is a hiss.
Finally, steam, most of its energy spent, exhausts through the burner stack with a chuff. As the train picks up speed, the chuffs get closer together until they produce that wonderful chuff-a-chuff-a-chuff-a sound imitated by most kids of my vintage when playing at trains.
A few of these relics of the last century continue to chuff down the tracks — mostly as tourist ride attractions. And so it is with the 1880 Railroad in the Black Hills of South Dakota. One-oh-four plys a ten-mile track between Hill City and Keystone, part of a much larger route that moved ore and lumber out of the hills and other goods in.
Grazing rock formations
Riding this train is a trip through time. The 104 is nearing its centennial birthday, having emerged from the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1924. Wow! Wyatt Earp was still alive in those days. But the locomotive, small by today’s standards, has managed to chuff its way through almost a century of service. And it is linked further back in time by its similarity to earlier versions where an engineer from the previous generation would be familiar with its levers, gages and hisses.
Pulling out of the Hill City depot, the vintage restored passenger cars clack, roll and creak as the train slowly chuffs out of town. It’s easy to close your eyes and do a little time travel. Riding with the window open, I could easily imagine Crazy Horse — immortalized in stone just down the road — galloping his pony alongside, bow pulled back and an arrow aimed at my forehead.
It’s also easy to see why Crazy Horse — a man who’s most complicated machine was a bow and arrow would have been startled, perhaps even frightened the first time he saw the smoking behemoth rolling down the track. How it would amaze him that a fire — used for warmth and cooking — could be started in the boiler and make that huge machine move!
Coming down the grade
The round-trip ride between Hill City and Keystone is well worth the time — it’s about a two hour ride over and back. On the way, the little steam engine lugs passengers up a 4% grade — steep even by modern railroad standards. Here the train slows to the point where passengers — me included — wonder if they will make it to the top. If I were Crazy Horse, this is where I would make my attack.
Old shacks and mines line the road
On the way to Keystone, the train grazes rock formations and trees, passes by turkeys and deer — and thankfully — crosses roadways 20 times, giving some passengers a healthy dose of those old steam-whistle blues.
Blow the whistle
More and more, these short rail lines are being abandoned, and converted into bicycle and walking trails. Organizations like Rails to Trails are working hard to acquire right of way so they may be used in a new way. I suppose this is a good thing, but I have mixed emotions about old rail lines becoming bike paths.
It feels a little like sacrilege to me, ripping up rails and paving over the road bed, silencing forever the chance that an old steamer like the 104 might clank and hiss its way down the track — once again hauling a cargo of dreamers and anachronisms like me from somewhere to nowhere and back.
Well, move over Crazy Horse… you have company. While the train and those like it signaled the end to your era, it’s now signaling the end of another, one whose passing I observe with a fair amount of wistfulness.
Finally. Getting this far with a blog has been a journey all in itself. I am not computer illiterate, but find most of this internet blog stuff a little bewildering.
However, this is the spot where I hope to publish a few travel stories, pics, videos and a few opinions about various things as we sojourn around the country.
Right now we are camped in Cody, WY waiting for the weather to clear in the mountains of Yellowstone Park so we can wander over to Jackson for a few days. We may be too late, as it feels like Fall is setting in — especially in the mountains.
Thanks for taking a look, and as soon as I figure out how to upload stories, videos and images I’ll have my first story up.
BTW, comments are always appreciated
Travel Stories, Full-Time RV Life, and Opinion from the road