May 29, 2007

I Call It Trainspotting, You Call It Being A Railfan

Let's just agree that I'm not crazy. Strange but true, I came to an important realisation this past Monday--I'm not a nutter.

See, I had this plan, a plan I've had for quite some months now. I've been planning on finding a train somewhere way up the UP line and following it down into and maybe through town, stopping at several strategic and photogenic spots to take pictures of said train engine in said photogenic areas. I had my spots already picked out, had composed the shots in my mind's photo studio, and all I needed was a free day and my camera, and some sunshine would be nice too, please?

And astoundingly enough, I got all those things Monday. I was off for Memorial Day, the day was dawning clear and bright, I had my camera, my bike, and nothing to do but locate a train.

Ah. There's the problem, you see. Trains being limited, as it were, to tracks, you don't usually see many at a time like cars. And when you DO see one it's very likely you won't see another for a couple hours. So, I had to trust to luck. I started north up the highway, stopping every once in a while to very slowly cross the tracks and take long, searching glances up the right of way, hoping to see those bright yellow-white lights that mean a train is working it's way toward you, but kept failing to see anything.

I went north a good fair piece up the highway, to the place where the tracks no longer parallel the highway, and turned onto a dirt road. There's a siding there that runs perpendicular to the highway, the same place that VW and I had gotten some nice graffiti photos off some stationary cars a while back. I was hoping to at least see some new cars there, but no. It wasn't until I had come to a full stop on the shoulder and looked across the highway at the entrance to the Rodemacher power plant that I noticed the sixty foot long yellow and black multi-ton bulk of a Union Pacific locomotive sitting on the siding just across the highway.

Okay, so there's some heavy trees there, kay? And some concrete pilings for the interstate overpass, so don't bust my chops about not seeing a giant locomotive sitting there. Sheesh. Anyway, I wear a full-face helmet which does not block my vision but that's never stopped me from using that as excuse.

So I did what any good trainspotter would do: I put Betty on her kickstand there in front of the RR crossing gates, got out the photo gear, and took some photos.

Now, if you've never stood next to a locomotive that's parked with it's massive diesel engine idling, I strongly suggest it. There is very little quite like looking up at a twenty foot tall, sixty foot long slab of metal resting on a whole series of three foot tall steel wheels, making a noise like a very large cat purring to instill in you a sense of carefully restrained power. And so, feeling quite proud of myself for a) finding a train and b) not having to trespass to do so, I started walking back the fifty or so yards to the bike. I didn't have a solid plan in mind, I didn't know how long that giant would sit there idling, and I did have some nice pictures, so I think I was getting ready to drive home again when I heard a short, ear-splitting blast of the locomotive's air horns and the clear, distinct ringing of it's bell, letting the crew and anyone standing nearby (me!) that it was about to move.

Needless to say, I started grinning. And set up for another few pictures.

Now, when I say to you that it was moving slowly, I can't stress this enough. I was crouched down by a concrete barricade to steady my camera, and I got leg cramps waiting for that huge beast to nose it's very slow way all of thirty feet into the sunlight from under that cave of concrete beams, and thence across the highway and onto the main line.

And here's another thing to try--if you EVER get the chance, walk beside a slow-moving locomotive. It was idling across the highway at my slowest walking pace, and walking alongside it toward my bike made me feel like a pilot fish swimming with a whale shark. I knew that if it could get off that track it could smear me thinner than a whore's promise, but it wasn't going to. And as long as I was careful and kept my toes out from under it's wheels I was perfectly safe. Not even the cars waiting on the highway could get to me. It was a heady feeling, and I think the engineer saw it in my face when I looked wayyyy up to his little side window, waved, and mouthed "safe trip!" I don't think either of us knew how many more times we'd see each other that day.

While my friend idled across the highway I repacked the camera, donned helmet, gloves and dug keys out of my pocket and headed south. And along the way I knew I'd be setting up for some more pictures. It was my day for being a trainspotter.

I got back into Boyce and stationed myself at the first spot I had chosen, parked Betty and secured her, and jumped the ditch and worked my way through the dew-damp weeds to a spot under another section of overpass. There were two shots I wanted--one distance shot of most of the train along a long clear section, and the next just under the concrete pilings of the overpass. So I got my gear ready, mountaineered up the slick slope of broken concrete that made up the right of way, spotted the engine headed my way, returned to my spot and waited.

And waited. And waited some more.

I got tired of waiting (I had only gone about six miles, and the train wasn't THAT slow,) and climbed the embankment again, to see the train stopped at the very end of one of the crossings. Idling again. I don't know why, but it sat there doing nothing for almost half an hour. I know. I waited. I counted minutes. I sweated, even in the shade of the overpass. I counted the sparrows that wheeled and called overhead, nesting under the overpass. I even risked arrest for public urination against one of the pillars because frankly I was getting tired of waiting and it HAD been a rather exciting morning thus far.

And FINALLY it moved again. Whistle blast, bell ringing clear and clean across the morning air, and the almost negligible first stirrings of engine noise. And since it was the better part of a mile long, made up of full coal cars, it was slow. But it finally got to where I wanted it, I got my distance shot, and the shot I really wanted from that spot:

And yes, I waved to the engineer again. It was becoming a habit, and I'm sure he kept spotting the confused paparazzi; that guy with the somewhat crazed grin, the red and black bike jacket, bluejeans, and the camera. He had a pretty good head of steam up by the time he reached me at the overpass and the next stop was only a few miles up the road so I was moving fast too. And yes, I'll admit I shouted to the sparrows and to myself "Hurry Watson! The game's afoot!" as I leaped the ditch and scrambled up the embankment to Betty, there to repack the gear and head out again. I think I might also have cackled something about 'having a train to catch,' but that's unverified.

Okay, so I'm a little crazed.

But it got me to the NEXT crossing, where I took another photo, this time of him moving at a good 45mph clip, and this time waved four fingers in the air--the fourth good photo set I had taken of him.

And of course another mad dash to repack camera and sling it over my shoulder, zip the jacket, don helmet and gloves, turn the key and go roaring off south again. This time slowly past the state trooper who eyed me carefully but didn't notice the manic grin on my mug.

And yes, another mad snort up the highway to a spot I've been DREAMING of catching a locomotive in. The line curves off slowly onto a side spur, and the trees are close and thick and green there, and I've taken photos of that same area many many times before, but never with a train there. Until he came creeping into the clearing, to spot me carefully squatting in the gravel, camera steadied. He spotted me this time pretty early on, and blew a single short blast on the air horns, to which I'm sure I responded like a five year old boy when a big rig driver honks as he peers out the passenger window of his Mom's SUV. I think I would have wet myself were it not for the relief stop at the last overpass.

And yes, now that I have the shot I've already seen how to improve upon it. And that's the proof that I'm a photographer, not a true railfan nor a trainspotter. I didn't care that it was just another UP freight hauler, didn't care what number it was. I was ecstatic because I had Gotten The Pictures.

The story goes on from here; I waited further up the line at yet another intersection, sitting on the line for some fifteen minutes talking to a crow up on a nearby telephone line before I realised the train wasn't moving. Again. I drove back up the several miles to the main crossing to see him parked there, idling. Which didn't stop me from taking two more pictures, one from each side of the rail, and waving, again, this time five fingers.

I guess I should have waved six, but that would have required me to take my other hand off the bars or unzip, which brings us back to that public urination thing, so I forwent both and simply waved again, pointed Betty at home and gunned her.

Two hours, about twenty miles, eighteen photographs, and one very happy me. Oh, and proof that I'm not a fanatic, not a 'real' trainspotter or a railfan or anything like that. I just proved that I love trains, love photography, and right now trains are my subject of choice.

And even proved the saying that when you're a man, the world is your urinal.


meno said...

I'm sorry, but you are crazy.

Sounds like fun! :)

Stucco said...


Scott from Oregon said...

loco loco shooter...

Irrelephant said...

Okay, you three, so let me get this straight...what you're saying is I'm crazy, right?


I guess now I know, and knowing is half the battle, right?

Gooooooo Joe!

*singing off key* GI Joe, greatest American hero, GI Joe is there.....

Mona Buonanotte said...

Have you seen the movie, "The Station Agent"? If you haven't, you should.

My office is directly by a train track. I mean, I could spit really hard and hit the side of a train as it passes. I'll have to bring my camera in and get a few shots for ya!

Irrelephant said...

I have, Mona! Our own Nancy Trainpants suggested it to me and I got lucky and saw it one evening on IFC. Cool stuff, tho I'm not quite that short.

And I deeply envy you your office location. My office windows faces the UP tracks out here but I've got a quarter mile between me and them, and six lanes of traffic plus some heavy trees in the green months. The best I get is loud rumbles and a view of just the very tippy-tops of engines and cars. *sigh*