2019 and 2020 are contrasting rather sharply, I would say. Calling the past 365 days (and change) a rollercoaster is an overplayed trope, I think. Maybe I can call it an audio wave and still get the same idea across. Highs and lows, yeah? Maybe.
So, three weeks into the new year - and new decade - and it's been rather quiet here all that time, and even before. Yeah. Things got busy and other things got delayed or put off. You know I was writing a post about my 261 chase - like 3 months ago. I do want to actually go and write that, as there are some great moments in it, but I haven't been up to the task lately.
Instead of musing about the many things I haven't gotten done, let's take a moment to celebrate 2019. You know, three weeks after it ended.
The Great Race Across 2019
Like I said during the first three minutes of the 3-hour megamix, there was so much that happened in the span of one year in my life it is hard to put it all together. Only one thing links it all together though: music.
Every moment in 2019 can fall back to a song. I vividly remember racing across I80 between Green River and Granger, WY, to the tune of Morning Light by Concord Dawn. Playing a ridiculous, yet fun, two hour DJ set for Halloween - and more so, playing an actual live set in a venue for an hour. Having a music based radio show for college, the tunes played on the daily commute to classes and work, the tunes played at work itself. Increasing my musical library - digital and physical - by volumes I don't know how to quantify.
There was just so much music. More than I could begin to start listing out.
For the past two (now three) years, I've done a little end of the year mix. The 2017 one was bad - I didn't really understand beatmatching and flow all that well. 2018 had strange audio settings (and some questionable mixing decisions) which made it feel a little odd. I wanted 2019 to be different.
It took a very, very long time to come up with a solid plan for this one. I wanted to represent my favourite songs and favourite moments of the year (often intertwining) yet still have the mix flow. Picking out the songs was incredibly hard to do because there was just so many that made up my year! Some were no brainers, like Morning Light and The Way Life Used To Be, but others like the entire 20 minute dubstep section and tracks like On The Run and Close Your Eyes seemed to come from nowhere at the last minute. I had a lot of songs to cut, though. If I had included everything I wanted to, it'd be a 5 hour mix at the minimum.
So, it came down to 84 songs. I spent a few days mixing by genre - the first drum and bass hour on its own, the dubstep and trancey stuff on its own, and so on so forth. With some work in post, I combined them all in a pretty seamless fashion. I think it represents the year pretty well.
The final question was what to call the whole mix. I like to title them (despite being bad at titling anything), but what was a good title for a year encompassing mix like this?
I thought back to what was easily the greatest part of the year and it clicked immediately.
The Great Race To Ogden
There is no other moment or event that can compare to the three weeks spent throughout Wyoming, Utah, and Montana. Chasing the Union Pacific #4014 and #844 was a dream come true.
There are many who would regard the Big Boy as overrated or just some form of foamer-bait. I understand that. I also believe those people are wrong.
Many of us can relate to being a young child infatuated with trains, especially steam engines. The Big Boy will always find its way into a kids lexicon of railroad knowledge that they simply must talk about and inform everyone every bit of information they have on it. It's sort of the natural order of things.
So, after, what, some 12 years (give or take), finally seeing one flying through the countryside despite always being told it would never happen? That is a dream come true. For hundreds of people. The kids of today, yesterday, and twenty years ago. The countless thousands of people who have dreamt of witnessing one of the biggest, most powerful locomotives ever constructed finally return to the rails under its own power, finally get to see their dream come true. That's something a lot of people just don't get.
I come from a decent sized college town in central Illinois. There is nothing particularly interesting where I am. The land is flat and dull. The railroading is limited to a Class 1 that seems to keep all of its interesting motive power elsewhere. There is a small steam train in a town a half hour away, but photo opportunities are limited. To see a large steam engine, mainline or otherwise, in operation is rare. It always takes a trip.
So a trip I took, along with my father. Ever since Union Pacific announced 4014 was getting the attention it deserved, I have been adamant in making sure I got to see it. I never got to see the Challenger (and as of 2020, well... goodbye 3985) and I missed out on everything else I took interest in. The Milwaukee electrics died 45 years ago, the age of steam between 20 and 30 years before then, and the incredible, timespan of rugged EMDs and chunky GEs and ALCo diesels slinking across the country has been all but replaced by fancy modern engines that all look pretty much the same. Impressive in their own right, to be sure, but the variety is all gone. The fire is rather dim. I have missed so much, either by being too young, too uninformed, or simply having not even been born yet. This was one thing I absolutely could not miss.
The farthest west I had ever been at that point was Omaha, Nebraska, when I got a few hours of chasing the UP 844 back in 2017. It was time to blast past that and take to the cross country roads and go somewhere I've wanted to visit for a long, long time: Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Cut to the morning of May 4th, 2019. We've parked in a makeshift parking lot, standing by a signal bridge with dozens - probably hundreds - of others, all waiting for the same thing. I thought to myself, "How did I get here? What am I doing?"
When the smoke rose above the elevated BNSF track and the headlight began to inch closer, I didn't even think about those questions anymore.
And a few minutes later, when the Big Boy #4014 and the #844 thundered past, shrieking with that deep, almost angry whistle, I had my answer. I knew exactly why I was there.
Until the very last day of the chase - May 19th - there was always excitement in the air when the train would come around. Each stop was a journey on its own. Sometimes we met people that we'd already met in other stops. Sometimes we came across people who had just been told about the Big Boy for the first time that day and decided they wanted to take a peak, as well. Older people, younger people, railfans, non-railfans - people from across the world! I even remember meeting a few people from Australia and even Hungary.
This was my first opportunity to see the west, as well. I don't think any photo can do the western United States any justice. The incredible, broad landscapes of Wyoming are gorgeous. The mountain ranges in the distance near the Wyoming and Colorado border almost look fake with how picturesque they are. To top it all off, the winding roads throughout the rockies in Utah, coming into Ogden was unlike anything I've ever seen in my life.
I don't kid around when I say that every moment of The Great Race To Ogden was incredible.
It was loud.
It was exhausting.
And it was beautiful.
I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
The Montana Detour
Coming off of the Great Race to Ogden, I was startlingly close to Montana. Relatively, of course. Less than a day from Cheyenne, and about three days from my hometown.
One of my favourite things is the Milwaukee Road. This company was a trainwreck in every sense of the word. Terrible, terrible ideas, horrible finances, equipment and tracks so beat up and rugged that it's almost comical - yet the poor old Milwaukee is absolutely fascinating. Everything that led up to its collapse in 1985 comes together to form arguably the most unique railroading story the world has to offer. From building and electrifying the Pacific Extension to the streamlined Hiawathas and amazing Skytops, the Milwaukee was a whole other beast of railroading.
A beast it may have been, but a frail one it certainly was. The company began to keel over in the late 1960s, when they stopped making any money. 1974 marked the end of the incredibly unique and now antiquated electrification, and six years later, literally thousands of miles of railroad tracks disappeared from the country. The largest railroad abandonment to ever take place in the nation. Five years later the Milwaukee Road ceased to exist.
When the electrification died and the Pacific Extension as a whole followed it a few years later, almost everything was ripped away and destroyed. From the incredible substations to the very rails themselves, everything came down.
Well, almost everything.
I have wanted to explore the remnants of the PCE for a few years now, and in 2019, I got one day to do that. Just one. I wanted to make the best of that day.
I visited Harlowton, Loweth, Gold Creek, Ravenna, and Primrose, with other stops in Two Dot and Butte to name a few. I wanted to see as much as I could in a limited amount of time.
Harlowton was terribly quiet and very cold. It almost felt like a ghost town, yet still it felt like eyes were constantly on you. It was easy to feel like the out-of-stater that wasn't exactly welcome, despite the fact I don't actually recall seeing a single human being. It was strange. I'm glad I went, anyways. Seeing the E57B, the depot, and roundhouse was pleasant despite the inclement weather.
Journeying to Loweth was so strange, as well. Two Dot was possibly one of the smallest, saddest little places I've ever seen, and the dreary day made everything feel that much colder and uninviting. It wasn't until we were rolling away from Martinsdale on Montana 294 that I could actually see the original Milwaukee Road right-of-way to its fullest extent. It felt strangely surreal.
One of the more surreal moments was coming upon the railroad signals that still stood tall through it all.
Perhaps the strangest of all, and the most surreal, was coming up on Loweth, Substation #2.
Coming around the long curve and watching the huge brick structure come up over the rolling hills of the Belt Mountains was indescribable. I have never been anywhere so desolate in all my life.
I will never forget what it was like to step inside of the 1914 building. Cold, windy, and sad. No glass left in the windows meant nothing was there to stop the high winds from cutting through. The emptiness of the place. The Motor Generator pits filled with dirt. The paint stripped away, exposing the raw brick.
I have written much about this particular building, and I still have more to say, more things to learn and more to see. One thing is for sure though, I want to return and take more time to truly appreciate it.
After Loweth, it was time to move onto other things. Three more substations and the locomotive that drew me into the Milwaukee Road in the first place.
Someone online joked to me, saying that visiting E70 was like visiting my mecca. In a certain sense, yes. On the other hand, that's ridiculous (yet still funny). This thing caught my eye a number of years ago, and I simply wanted to know more about it, which led me into the great rabbit hole of the Milwaukee Road. And here we are today.
I could write so much more about my brief trip to Montana. I have more I hope to write eventually. For now, though, I'll conclude it by saying I want to return and for longer. I want to see more of the route - especially Sixteen Mile Canyon - and also to visit places like East Portal and Avery, and ideally even make it to the Coast Division in Washington. Attainable in 2020? No, not really, unfortunately. They are but dreams right now. But, with how the dream of chasing a Big Boy did finally come true, then there is yet hope for this one still.
Speaking of the Big Boy...
Another Great Race & The Sprint Across Minnesota
The Big Boy was far from out of my life yet (will it ever be? probably not). It came within spitting distance of home, something I never once believed would happen. You know I chased it.
It was only two days, and I wish dearly I could've done it for longer, but the two days I had were legendary in and of themselves.
The last few blog posts here all talk about this trip, so I'll spare the details. But I can safely say that this was an amazing trip. It gave me a chance to pull pictures I didn't dream of taking and chase a locomotive I didn't think I'd see for a few more years, let alone in my own home (and neighbouring) state.
I won't be forgetting the Great Race Across The Midwest any time soon. It was a fantastic opportunity to see something that only once came to the Midwest - some eighty years ago.
Later in the year, I got the chance to return to see a favourite of mine: The Milwaukee Road 261.
This trip was one of my favourite parts of the year. It marks the third time I've chased the 261 and also was one of the best chaser experiences I've had - in terms of my fellow chasers.
There's a stigma in the railroading world that train chasers/photographers/enthusiasts/etc. are all sort crazy, autistic, slow, or obsessive, or all of the above. And in many cases, that's not far off at all.
What people don't talk about is that a lot of people into this stuff are actually quite normal. In the case of 261 here, I met a lot of friendly, level headed, and interesting people throughout, and made some new friends. It was just a nice, refreshing trip in the middle of a hectic time in the year. Although train chasing is hectic, it's also cathartic in a way. To me, at least. I love to photograph. It makes any day better for me.
I have a lot to write about with this 261 trip, but I'll save it for its own dedicated post. It deserves it - and I will get around to finishing it! Time will tell when it does get done, but I promise that it will. This trip was certainly a bright spot in a weird time.
The Rest of 2019
2019 was, overall, a very good year. I learned a lot, experienced a lot, and did a lot. The first half of the year was pretty spectacular. Everything up until August was, without a doubt, just fantastic. Then I returned to college for my third semester.
In some ways, this last semester was the best semester, but also the worst semester. Best in that I made great friends and great connections, got to start my own radio show, and managed to pass everything with flying colours. Worst in that it took a dreadful toll on me mentally and physically. Overworked and overburdened. Even weekends didn't feel like a time of rest. It was a daily struggle to get through things. I would say the time around Thanksgiving was the worst, as three of my four classes all demanded massive projects at the same time, but due to the abysmal Thanksgiving break, it became particularly difficult to get that done. Also, group projects - yikes! Overall, it was too much in not enough time. That semester certainly cemented in me that continuing school for much longer is not in the books for me. Paired with work and a few other more personal life things, it was not a good time.
Thankfully, the last weeks of 2019 calmed down significantly. Much more laidback, and Christmas is always nice. When suddenly the only thing to be worried about is work, which is self-contained and you get to leave all of its problems at the warehouse itself, then things are much better.
So when you add everything up - the Great Race to Ogden, Montana trip, Midwest chase, 261 trip, the semester, work, personal life - 2019 was a weird year. But, ultimately, the good outweighed the bad.
The New Year
Coming into 2020, I didn't know what to expect. I have to say, it's not been a particularly strong start to the year in all honesty. I don't want to get into it all here, but things seem to become more uncertain as each day passes. At any rate, we're still hanging on, so that's got to mean something, I think.
There's still light, though. I've begun my fourth semester at my local college, and with a significantly smaller load of classes, I've been given the opportunity to start my own radio show through one of the classes. On Fridays from 8-10pm CST, I'll be hosting the Hour of Jungle on WPCD 88.7 FM, where I get to play out my favourite electronic songs on an otherwise alternative based radio station. I was given this opportunity directly from the station director late last year, and now I'm actually doing it, which is another dream come true. The show will last throughout this semester, out until May of 2020, at which point, there is no set future. For now though, that's what I've been pouring my energy into.
What will 2020 bring for SMWorks and my work here? Hard to say. I have zero trips lined up at the moment. I know that whatever the Milwaukee 261 does, I'll definitely be going out to chase it (probably at the usual time, in fall), but other than checking out the local Monticello railroad museum and whatever weird stuff CN decides to bring through town, that's all I've got booked. I hope I can get some interesting stuff lined up, and not to mention, I hope to just start taking more shots and posting more.
You know, I've somehow got a good feeling about making that storefront happen this year.
At any rate, the jumbled rambling of this post match up with the entire 2019 mix. It's a bit of everything, all cobbled together to make... well, this. It's a bit assorted, full of weird stuff, but that's what 2019 was like, that's what the mix is like, and that's what the post is like. It's all coming full circle.
More to the point, that's it. Thanks for reading through this. I hope to have more stuff to drop here soon to give the year a proper start. We shall see. Anyway, let's just try to have a good 2020, shall we?
Hello, I'm SM! I run the site and write about stuff a lot.
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