In search of trains

Angela left Friday for a women’s retreat with some of the ladies from church. Unlike me in my reluctance to join in the reindeer games of the tribe of menfolk, my wife is actually inclined to participate in what other women in her world are doing and she really looks forward to the twice annual getaways to Whidbey Island, which leave Mara and I blinking worriedly like orphaned quail. She left a plate of freshly baked cookies, which now mirrors the desperate faces of two people missing Mommy. And it’s only Saturday afternoon.

Actually, I exaggerate. Mara and I have learned to make the most of these occasions. And Angela left us some pea soup.

Today Mara and I decided to go in search of trains. Real ones. Big, working diesel engines. We always see at least one train when we go to Carkeek Park to hike in the woods, play in the playground or mess about on the beach. That was our first destination. It was a chilly day and there were many clouds, but there were also these patches of blue sky, which permitted cascades of sunlight to bless into the world herebelow, momentarily lighting up part of the green bluff between Ballard and Edmonds, as though picking through the foliage to find the best fall color.

"It can't be seen," said Mara about the treasure she was burying at Carkeek. I was surprised at her dramatic use of the passive tense.

"It can't be seen," said Mara about the treasure she was burying at Carkeek. I was surprised at her dramatic use of the passive tense.

We found the usual (and always surprising) number of rocks that look stunning at the water’s edge and not so stunning at home. We also found a small but entire periwinkle shell. It is rare to find one that is not broken, and the only other time we found whole ones, they were occupied by very crabby tenants. Naturally, we brought it home.

But we did not find any trains. Oddly, not a single one came in the hour and a half we were there. But not to worry; we had other tracks up our sleeve, so we headed south. We stopped for blueberry pancakes and biscuits and gravy at a pancake house that we didn’t even know existed, and which was a delightful surprise to stumble on for big breakfastheads like us, and which I’m not going to describe because Angela might read this and Mara and I are planning to take her there as a surprise.

After brunch we motored south across the Fifteenth Avenue Bridge in Ballard and got off at Emerson, then hooked into the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad industrial labyrinth that sprawls between Emerson and Dravus and centers around a large roundhouse. NO TRESSPASSING signs were posted. I hadn’t really expected that we would be able to drive right up and get out of the car and climb onto locomotives, but I thought there might be someone around in a hardhat that might be kind to a dad and kid out appreciating the railroad. At the very least I figured that some fast talking might prevent me being made to “taste dirt” by Homeland Security and my child being handed over to CPS before we could have a looksee.

I should pause to note that my appreciation of large, exhaust-belching behemoths of the Industrial Age, the age I blame for many of society’s present ills, is mysterious to me and possibly hypocritical. I know that the railroad barons were crooks, and that the issuing of huge grants of land to railroads in the service of “Manifest Destiny” (don’t get me started) helped create many land-use problems that endure today. And locomotives are thoroughly unsustainable — they don’t, after all, burn corn oil.* Still, I just love trains. I think it has something to do with the way they go. Running on tracks parallel to but just beyond our world of cars automatically gives even the grimiest and noisiest of them the aspect of friendly guardians. You glimpse them from the back seat of your parents’ Ford Galaxy 500 as a child, a smudge of rusting metal between buildings or trees, and you sense the slow movement through an intuitive analysis of distances and positionings that accounts for your forward motion and the speed at which buildings and trees appear to be moving past you. Or suddenly they are running alongside the car, full throttle, and you wonder how something so huge as a freight train could have sneaked up on you like that in the middle of Nebraska.

The roundhouse was curled with its back to us, so we couldn’t see the turntable, and I was leery about nosing around on a property whose owners forbade tresspassing clearly and explicitly and in writing. But a sign saying that “all visitors must check in at the office –>” seemed to suggest that visitors were not unheard of, which was a tick in the plus column. We found the office and went in. A woman in an orange vest and a man sat behind a counter, just like at a dentist’s office. There was a monitor in the corner that showed what was going on out in the yard from a camera way up on some pole; lines of tracks, some with hoppers or tank cars on them, stretched away in the distance; the orange and black locomotives of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (now officially shortened to “BNSF” — the KFC of over-the-rails commerce) sat with their headlights on, but nothing much moved. Three burly guys in orange vests and white hardhats stood in front of the counter talking to the two admins. One of these, an elderly guy with silvery beard and moustache, saw Mara walking in next to me and said, “here’s the new employee.” Mara slid behind my legs.

The section we stood in has its six doors open at the far end. The office is the small extension at the top of the building.

The section we stood in has its six doors open at the far end. The office is the square extension at the top of the image. Image purloined from Microsoft Virtual Earth/Bing Maps.

While the five concluded their business I picked her up in my arms and held her and pointed to the locomotive I could see through the window in the door between the office and the roundhouse proper. I imagine the people who work here don’t call it a roundhouse, even though it has the classic roundhouse shape and function. They probably say “shed” or “shop” or something.

Presently the man behind the counter asked if I needed something. I uttered my hope that we might get close to the turntable or some of the locomotives, though we knew everyone must be very busy. 

“Closer than you are right now?” he said, and scrunched his face to indicate that was unlikely. Silverhair, who seemed quite gamesome, said to Scrunchy, “You want me to give them a tour?”

“They’re not PPE’d,” said Scrunchy. I recognized the acronym, and said “oh, we’d need personal protection equipment, right?” 

“I could give ‘em mine,” said Silverhair.

Lady seemed about to go for this, but Scrunchy worried it down by the weight of the rules. By way of concession, he said we could go through the door and stand just inside it. “They’re bringing one in right now.”

I thanked them and carried Mara through the metal door just in time to see number 1573, an orange and black hood unit, pull into the far-rightmost of six bays that this part of the roundhouse held. We missed the shop door opening and closing, and it was a good fifty feet away off to the right, so we only really saw the front of it glide forward and stop.

There were five locomotives in this portion of the roundhouse, four hood units and a switcher. The switcher and two of the hood units had the orange and black paint scheme of the new BNSF. One of the other large engines was liveried in Burlington Northern’s old green and white, and the last wore the blue and yellow of the old Santa Fe line. The floor where we stood was elevated above the tracks and the locomotives came forward in a slot or bay that allowed maintenance workers to walk around them at the level of the doors and platforms. A staircase in front of us, its metal rails painted yellow, led down to the basement, which, if we could have visited it, would have been a strange place of nothing but large wheels and fuel tanks. Above us, metal beams suspended from the cieling held what I took to be winches and hooks for moving large generators and stuff around. I don’t know if winches are really involved or if generators are among the items hoisted around in this place, but I’m out of my element here. The word “generator” is the only noun I can think of that sounds heavy and industrial and like something a diesel engine might have as a major part. Similarly, when I open my box of words for painting the picture of heavy industrial work being done, there aren’t many words in it besides “winch”.  Sad, but there it is. I stand in a cavernous room chock full of real objects that do real stuff and have no language to describe what I see. For all I knew, every item in here had a specialized name like Pulasky. I had my camera with me but didn’t even want to ask if I could snap a picture, lest the admins begin to wonder if I was really a clever OSHA inspector, bringing the kid along as a ruse.

Spying on the work crews.

Spying on the work crews.

The air had a slight haze and the place had the flinty smell of a smithy — metal and fire, or rather greasy parts and electrical sparks. I asked Mara what she smelled, hoping that by activating a conscious olfactory registration she might be able to remember this event all her life. Me holding her. The brightly colored locomotives. The hardhats. When she’s sixty-five and I’m a hundred and eight or gone, she’ll have this vivid memory and say “My dad must have taken me to a roundhouse.”

“Smoke,” she said.

Mara didn’t want to leave. We took it in for awhile. One young man in overalls (and his PPE, of course) worked in darkness in the cab of the green and white locomotive directly in front of us. His flashlight bobbed around. After about ten minutes we walked back into the office and asked where we might go to see the trains moving around. Scrunchy was doubtful. For one thing — he moved a joystick or some keyboard keys and the view on the monitor panned around the yard — there wasn’t much going on. One shift was just coming off and another going on. For another, “they” had been “tightening up” around here with “stuff like that”, meaning we were officially unwelcome to poke around.

I said I understood, but couldn’t help asking, “if we’d brought our PPE, could we have had a tour?” referring to what Silverhair had said earlier.

“He’s supposed to be doing some work,” replied Scrunchy with amusement. “The guys that volunteer for one thing are usually trying to get out of doing something else.”

We quit the BNSF property and drove back out onto Emerson, but we circled the switchyard along various back alleys. At one point we got out and stood on a bridge watching an orange-clad work crew spread some gravel that was being deposited at the north end of the yard. I was surprised how little security there was in some areas. On the unfenced western edge of the yard, right next to a dead end road that anyone can access, a line of locomotives stood with their engines running.  We could have heisted them and been halfway to Kalama before anyone knew about it.  

We considered it...

We considered it...

I haven’t given up on the idea of wrangling a tour of the roundhouse for Mara someday. It has to be possible. I’m sure that high-level railroad functionaries’ kids get to ride locomotives right onto the turntable. But I learned today that it might be a good idea to carry a vest and hardhat for me and small versions for Mara in the car. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I’d been able to say, “Oh the PPE is no problem, we’ve got our own. We’ll be right back. Come on Mara, let’s go get our helmets on. We’re going to have a tour!” 

*I’m not positive this is true. In fact as soon as I wrote it a memory, perhaps a phantom one created just now, seemed to worm into my head of an article about trains that run on corn-based ethanol (and anyway, cf. Hamlet, Horatio, heaven and earth).

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19 Responses to “In search of trains”


  1. 1 Kip October 25, 2009 at 15:05

    Mara, you are one lucky kid! To have a dad that will take you to a Roundhouse and get you inside is a true blessing! I hope you also grow up with a love of trains, and do the same for your children, provided the beasties are still around!

    Matt, I too love the trains, I would stand a tracks all day and wait for them if I could, and with luck Mara will remember the trip long into the future….and the breakfast as well!

  2. 2 Marni October 26, 2009 at 11:16

    Yes. The barons were vile. Manifest Destiny was a sham. They belch smoke and grease and contribute to noise and air pollution. They are politically incorrect in so many ways. BUT! They are inherently romantic. They hark back to a “simpler” time, a “better” time, a time less crowded and busy when you could take the time to step on board and take a week or two to get somewhere. You could take your destiny in your own hands and hop a freight train, sitting in an open car door and watching the world pass by. You were free. It’s just one big black and white movie! You need a fedora and a slightly rumpled suit with a big tie and you should probably be carrying a folded newspaper, and Mara needs a little fitted number with a peplum and shoulder pads and a hat, preferably with a veil. You need a well-appointed sleeper car with fold down bunks and velvet trimmings, and a dining car with tablecloths and little glass vases with carnations in them- and real silver and china. Luggage without zippers. Probably not 11 other friends and one common enemy that you all conspire to stab in the night while misdirecting the worlds best detective…..but the rest would be sublime!
    Glad you had such a great day; when you’ve taken Angela to the breakfast joint, please share the name for the rest of us breakfast lovers!

    • 3 Ben October 26, 2009 at 12:51

      Marni: I can help but crack up with the “fitted number with a peplum and shoulder pads” What the heck is a “peplum” anyway?

  3. 5 Ben October 26, 2009 at 12:48

    Brother (former Basement Train World Jr. Rate Engineer type 1B):

    I have never gotten over the long-wrought love affair with trains our father introduced us to either. But for me, the magic has found its resting place among the Climax, Shay and Heisler’s of the Pacific Northwest logging days. I love those engines beyond description. I once did a intricate pen and ink drawing of a Shay fighting its way up a slight trestle grade in Washington State (from a Kinsey photo). This is the same engine that we often saw on our way to Mt. Rainier (though I do not remember where). These types are also frequently used today for tour trains. When I was a Civil War re-enactor, I went to fight Johnny Reb in the woods South of ‘Frisco in a place called Big Trees and they had a Heisler that puffed past the battlefield as we fought and camped (added quite the atmosphere).

    In Fairbanks, Alaska R.R. is king and getting a good glimpse is a daily occurance. The fuel trains go back and forth through Fairbanks to North Pole and out to Eielson AFB every day of the week, 365. My claim to fame is: (get this) On the hood units, one can shut the whole blame thing down with the press of a big red button on the side, from ground level. Its marked “EMERGENCY STOP”. Shuts down the whole kit and kaboodle. Got to do that in a Mass Casualty Drill once. It gave me a very powerful feeling. Pushed the button and she slowly rattled to a stop.

    Ben (Basement Train World Apprentice to the Jr. Rate 1B-C)

  4. 6 mpg October 26, 2009 at 18:06

    > I’m sure that high-level railroad functionaries’
    > kids get to ride locomotives right onto the turntable.

    Right.

    So next weekend you slip into that old black frock coat you’ve got stashed away in the attic, get yourself under a nice black hat, chomp down on an unlit cigar, and bring Mara back to that roundhouse.

    Walk into the office briskly, telling Mara that some day this will all be hers.

    Tell them you are there for your 10:30 tour, the 10:30 tour your secretary set up for the young lass here. And that you’ve only got an hour before you’re due back downtown for that board meeting.

    But of course you’ve got an hour to spare for your little girl — yes, of course, you do, all the best for Daddy’s little girl. She’s been looking forward to this all month, haven’t you, sweetie?

    You there, ma’am — your PPE will be a bit big on her, but it should be okay — help her on with it, would you? Fine, just fine. And if I could borrow your hardhat, sir? Thank you, that’s fine. Just fine.

    Rub your hands briskly.

    Let’s get on with it then, shall we? Have to get back for that board meeting, you know, but can’t disappoint the little miss here, now can we?

    No, of course not — course we can’t. Nothing too good for my girl. Loves railroads, she does, just like her old man.

    And someday this will all be hers, you know.

    -mpg

  5. 7 jstwndrng October 26, 2009 at 20:42

    Kip, do you remember you and I fooling around with the old Super 8 next to the tracks at Midlakes in Bellevue? We got some great sound footage of the boxcars being rolled down the tracks and slamming into each other. Still have it somewhere, but sadly it’s analog in a digital world…

    My how the presence of trains has brought out the imaginations here! Marni and mpg, I had good laughs imagining these scenarios you’ve painted. But Michael, those quick-talking-VIP scams only ever seemed to work for Jim Rockford. I doubt I have the bluster. And Marni, I share Ben’s worry over your vocabulary. Can we say “peplum”?

    And Ben, you have to be kidding that there is a RED BUTTON on the OUTSIDE at teenager-level that SHUTS DOWN LOCOMOTIVES! What are they thinking? And what are you thinking, broadcasting this dangerous information on the World Wide Web!! I’m seriously considering deleting your comment, young man! In fact, you’re going to write “I will not divulge secrets of huge infrastructure operations on the Internet anymore” 100 times on the chalkboard. Get busy!

    • 8 Ben October 26, 2009 at 22:20

      I’ve come to believe that really sneeky, sneektheives aren’t likely to read a blog like yours. The bigger the sign, the less they read. But, if you wish, I will begin.

      I will not divulge secrets of huge infrastructure operations on the Internet anymore
      I will not divulge secrets of huge infrastructure operations on the Internet anymore
      I will not divulge secrets of huge infrastructure operations on the Internet anymore…….(copy and paste is so much easier than the chalkboard and less mess).

  6. 9 Louis October 27, 2009 at 06:32

    Marni´s romanticism with the passenger train reminds me that the Amtrak from Seattle to Portland captures some of that bygone era with their dining car and optional private rooms. It makes for a nice weekend trip. Union Station in Portland has been lovingly restored and King Street Station is currently being stripped of its yellowed early-1960´s “modern, space-age” panelling and being restored as well. I can´t wait to see it when it´s completed!

    Even better, I love it that the fedora has been mentioned more than once on this blog!!

  7. 10 Kip October 27, 2009 at 13:39

    Matt, yes I do remember that. I think that was near where my sister took her gymnastic classes.I find any time spent around tracks I remember. I have an interesting story from college about trains and a small bridge that I should probably not put on the web….but remind me and I will relay it person! No laws were broken….except maybe the laws of good sense….but I don’t want to give anyone any crazy ideas.

    Why do I feel the need to get a fedora now?

  8. 11 jstwndrng October 27, 2009 at 20:19

    Louis,
    Angela and I have thought for years that we might like to make the trip to Portland by train. If it weren’t so expensive I’d want us to take the train back to her hometown of St. Louis. Three or four days on the rails with the plains and prairies going by outside the windows would be about my speed.

    Kip, by small bridge I hope you don’t mean a “low bridge”, as in Tweety and Sylvester’s “Ducka You Head, Lowla Bridgeada”. You should go ahead and dish. Ben’s already told us how to wreak havoc on the nations rails with the Red Buttons trick.

  9. 12 Angela October 27, 2009 at 21:04

    Hey Sweetie,

    Surprise blown! And for those of you who are reading this, yes I did leave Matthew and Mara with homemade cookies and split pea soup, but let it be known that upon my return, Matthew made me a wonderful dinner of pan seared tilapia in a cilantro ginger lime sauce, served with sauteed Yukon gold potatoes and stir-fried sugar snap peas with slivered almonds. I think I need to go away more often!

  10. 13 Ben F October 28, 2009 at 15:59

    My brother can cook?

  11. 14 Louis October 30, 2009 at 14:14

    What kind of cookies were they?

  12. 16 Louis October 30, 2009 at 14:20

    Matt, when I met Sonia in person for the first time, I took the Amtrak to San Francisco and met her there. It was roughly a 24 hour trip, and I purchased a sleeper cabin. I didn´t sleep very well (lumpy mattress, constant train whistle and rattle did me in), but the dining car, the food and various vistas were great.

  13. 17 jstwndrng October 30, 2009 at 15:00

    And despite your presenting her with the dishevelled, ill-slept and thus slow-witted outer man she still saw the charming and natty prince within. Bravo!

    Yes, I suppose it’s easy to romanticize rail travel, but you’re basically in a tin box moving on a rattly old track laid down almost a century and a half ago. Did you see any fedoras?

  14. 18 Louis October 30, 2009 at 15:39

    There really isn´t any other kind of cookie, is there?

    Unfortunately, I didn´t see any fedoras I think it should be a standard requirement upon entering a train and/or station.

  15. 19 Ben October 30, 2009 at 15:47

    My trip this summer on the Northeaster was interesting enough. I couldn’t understand the voice on the train station loud speaker, so was never really sure if I was on the right train. The seats were comfortable, I rode business class, $5 bucks more or so. Comfortable seat or not though, the ride was not exactly relaxing. I still couldn’t understand anyone, speaker quality wanting and the NE accent adding in, resulted in a real earpuzzle. You just couldn’t be sure if your stop was coming up or not. So you finally ended up in the end of the car ready to get off, the conductor has the step ready, out you go quick cause it ain’t stoppin’ fer long!
    Then when the trains passed going the other way, “EEEERRRRRRRWWWWhOOOOOOOOOOSHHHHHHH” Wow, that was close. You could spit a wad and hit the other conductor! Mind out, there was the man in the fadora! I glimpsed him in the opposite car as it flashed by! He stood there as if he expected was looking right at me.


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