There are times when I want to get totally away from every-day life and work, to think, or maybe dream, or learn something new. I suppose I could do this on the hillside above my house on a Saturday afternoon. But one of my favorite places to be alone is the railroad track outside Sandpoint, Idaho, on a hot summer day.
This isn’t just any railroad track. This is THE main line of the Burlington-Northern Santa Fe transcontinental route, the place where the tracks divide. The left-hand track carries trains across northern Montana to St. Paul and Chicago. The right-hand track is the Montana Rail Link line across southern Montana to Butte and Billings. And in between the two main tracks is an old rusty siding, no longer used, ending abruptly at a pile of old railroad ties. I can sit there on the ties and smell the hot tar in the sunshine, listen to the whirring grasshoppers, see a hawk wheel slowly overhead. And watch the trains go by. I could sit there all day, if I hadn’t promised my wife I’d take her to lunch.
One summer day, I wandered a little farther up the track, idly picking up pieces of scrap iron, rusty railroad spikes and the like, and depositing them in neat little piles. When I returned, two men had taken my place at the dividing of the tracks. Seen from a distance, they wore hats that glittered, and they were doing something with fire. After watching them from afar, I reasoned that they were probably not sabotaging the rails at ten in the morning, and I strolled up closer.
The gleaming hats proved to be welder’s shields pushed up on their foreheads, and they were merely a couple of bearded railroad repairmen surrounded by tools from a pickup truck parked on the road beside the track. We exchanged howdys. They spotted my notepad tucked in my belt, and asked if I was writing a book. I dismissed that idea with a small laugh, leaving me free to ask what they were doing.
“We take the clickety-clack out of the track,” the older of the two told me. The mainline rails are an unending ribbon, free of the joints that used to give background noise to every train trip. I asked why the hot sun didn’t cause such a long piece of steel to expand in the heat and bend out of shape. Even quarter-mile-long bridges need room to expand in the heat. I didn’t understand his whole answer, but he said it is only an occasional problem. Like now, at this point. The inspection truck, a pickup that rides the rails on iron wheels, had recently been by, and had found a bump at this place as it passed, plus a couple more, farther north, that they would presently go fix. He showed me a half-inch-thick cross section of rail which he and his partner had surgically removed from the track with a large circular emery saw. They had then jury-rigged a small brick crucible around the gap, melted some of the trackside scrap metal with a welder’s rig and rewelded the track together, polishing their weld smooth with all the care a dentist might spend on a front tooth filling. These two men were responsible for such repairs from Sandpoint all the way to Libby, Montana, an 85-mile-long stretch.
These new methods of railroading fascinate me. After they left, I compared their work with the old unused spur, where rails are bolted together every twenty or thirty feet. A date stamped into the rusty side of the rail on the spur said 1920. I moved back to where the main switch determines which route each train will take for the next thousand miles. There is no switchman there anymore. A computer in some city far way, activates the heavy-duty electric motor that moves the rails, and changes the overhead signal lights from red to green. In winter, an automatic propane-fired blower melts any ice that might clog the switch-points. I am told that the bits of scrap-iron I idly put in little piles along the track might just as well have been left alone: a work train with a large magnet periodically comes along and recovers most of them.
But the job I have always dreamed about – the locomotive engineer – is still filled by a human being. A train is coming now; it had stopped down at Sandpoint station until the signal turned green. Its four diesel engine units throb mightily as it slowly accelerates its l06-car, mile-long load, the triangular pattern of the three headlights visible a mile away. The brilliantly painted orange-and-yellow engines with their Santa Fe logo are slidimg past at thirty miles an hour by the time they glide by me, gradually gaining speed.
As he passes, the engineer, high in the cab, waves to me.
And the little boy inside me waves back.