How do you describe the craziest year of your life?
I don't know. I don't think there's one right answer. I do know that this year was insane from start to finish. I put almost 20,000 miles on my car over the course of the year crisscrossing my home state, flying up and down the northern edge of the American south, venturing north to the Marquette Iron Range and to the cold fields of Minnesota, and so many farm roads across neighbouring midwestern states, I couldn't even begin to plot out a path of where I've been. Then there were the additional, oh, I don't know, 8,000 miles of travel by air, bus, and train that took me to and across London, England. Christ, I've been moving around a lot this past year.
Where do I really begin?
With 2020 being very heavily into the pandemic, it was a weird time. Travel was dead, even my job was gone for a while, and it seemed like all the progress over the past two years prior had just up and gone. But, of course, some new friends got me up and out of the house again, and when work returned, everything started to come back together again. I got back to really practicing with that camera more and man am I glad for it.
When I was thinking about the last photos from 2020, namely The Way Life Used To Be, I thought something about that green light on the signal meant something. My description on Flickr even said, "but also maybe this next year will be alright." And you know what? It was. It really, really was. Better than alright, really - it was just incredible.
2021 started off slow, little more than work and making the habit of keeping my camera on hand at all times - and work was deadly slow for that matter. I didn't even shoot a single thing for the first two weeks, until IC1000 (and IC1035, a duo I'd see for a while yet) appeared on my radar as I was coming back to work from lunch one afternoon. Sure, I was late back to work, but that simple wedge photo of that deathstar sparked this whole year on. I had no idea that the next week would send me up and down the IC, chasing BCOL cowls and deathstars and even a Lake State SD50 of all things!
Then, the CN 3115 - the BCOL heritage unit - would appear out of nowhere, sending me on a short chase I couldn't believe. The highlight photo of that day is still one of my favourites for the year, and based on the reception on Flickr, it wasn't just me, either.
The IC1035/IC1000 dynamic duo would show up plenty over the month of January, and near the end, they hosted HESR3868, a former Rock Island Geep that a friend of mine in Michigan had practically grown up around. Coming across that was an accident, but to be able to chase that south as a sort of last send-off as it traveled to Metro East just had a certain indescribable feeling to it. I had no connection to this unit, but it still felt as if I did in a sense. Funnily enough, the photos I'd capture of the 3868 would allow a different friend to fully 3d model the exact details (down to the bent handrails!) and give the engine a new digital life for him. Interesting how things work out like that, huh?
Grand Trunk GPs on the Humko became a theme, and when 4914 was here, I was spending every lunch hour I could trying to time it just right to catch the thing for a proper photo before it was inevitably sent off. It turned out to work rather well during the most intense cold and snow we'd get for the year in mid February. It wouldn't be the last time capturing the Humko, that was for sure.
Speaking of work, February saw my work change. I've been in the warehouse crew since I hired on, but thanks to me throwing together a small spreadsheet to collect some data about daily inbound packages relevant to my position, someone thought it'd be a good idea to move me up to the data/office job area instead. It was sort of a two-fer, as business was very slow in those first few months and it was looking like hours would have to be cut otherwise, and they did need help in that area. I couldn't really refuse, else I'd be back down to part time, so in I went to that. Suffice to say, I quickly found that I was not very happy with that decision, but more on that later...
Honestly, you could call 2021 the year of the deathstar. December 2019 was when I first truly started to realize just how lucky I was in seeing these, and from mid-2020 on - when I got back out there again - I just couldn't stop chasing after them. I can't even tell you how many of them I've shot this year, but I've nailed well over half of the 26 remaining IC SD70s, plus the damn SD40-3 6250! The ICs come around daily, and being able to shoot them as often as I can... When I wandered into Monticello a few months into the year, I'd learn I had a reputation on Instagram for being the deathstar guy.
Every month, I caught more of them. I raced up and down Route 45 for so long, I know it all like the back of my hand. I pulled some shots of them I'm still incredibly happy with, and others I've totally whiffed, but to be able to fly alongside them on the highway and hear those manual valve P5s is just something special. The standard cab SD70s were the last of their kind to be made - IC1020 - 1039 were the final standard cab locomotives built for domestic use. They are the perfect marriage between modern and old power - the brute and industrial look of the SD40s and GP40s, with the modern size and power required of locomotives on the mainline. Though the IC 70s, down to 36 of their original 40 after a 2005 accident claimed four of them (and since then, 10 have been repainted to the CN 'noodle' leaving us just 26 real deathstars to catch), are relegated to local trains these days, A407 and A408 let them ride high and fast along the original IC route, and there is little more fun than playing the game of cat and mouse with them.
One chase of the ICs let me get real creative with a discarded tire I've shot through before, and I even got the balls to try shooting the Gilman coaling towers for the first time. The road to get there is fearsome, all gravel and barely even worth calling a road in the first place.
I still can't believe they sent the CN3008 - Illinois Central heritage unit - north on the IC with two deathstar SD70s as escorts. That was a day to remember.
The poor cowls and blue devils, though... I touched on this in the post Blue Monday, but today, they're all retired. The C40-8Ms, mostly from BC Rail, were a rare but exciting thing to find on the old IC. They couldn't lead - PTC, or lack thereof - but they were something really special all the same. I would drop everything to catch them if I heard they were on a train somewhere.
The blue devils could lead, but they were even more rare, and indeed I only saw three of them before all were retired. Periodically, one of them or a cowl will come back to life for a short while, but neither stay up for very long. My last shots with my Canon T6 were of a cowl, and my first on my Canon 80D were of a blue devil. They won't be forgotten even when they exist no more.
2021 saw me continue to learn and explore the IC, but also gave me the chance to get to the Bloomington District, an old Wabash line now run by Norfolk Southern. It's hard to chase, but the signals are classic searchlights, and those are just impossible to turn down. Not to mention, slightly rickety track, primarily SD40s as power, and just an old feel of the line make it something fascinating to see. I started to learn about gravel roads for real thanks to this line.
The Mansfield branch diverts off of the Bloomington District in, you guessed it, Mansfield, which takes trains into Urbana. Well, it just so happens that on one overcast afternoon on my way home from a particularly depressing day at my new position at work, I found myself at the semaphore waiting for the Urbana local. A shot I'd been dreaming of getting since I learned the semaphore even existed at all - now I could cross that off my list!
Then there was the poor Milwaukee Road 156, now Pan Am/MEC 609, being delivered to Mervis for scrap, then apparently saved - a real rollercoaster of emotions. I detailed this in its own post, but it's still hard to believe this showed up out of nowhere, and practically on my doorstep.
Meanwhile, back in April, my favourite band, Pendulum, announced they would be bringing their Pendulum: Trinity show to London, England, hosting a special mini-festival at The Drumsheds. Friends from online started to plan a meetup there, and the morning of April 8th while sitting at my desk at work, I made a potentially rash and reckless decision to take the plunge and join them. Originally scheduled for August, we were now planning a trip I don't think I ever really realized was really going to happen. The next few months saw a lot of planning and material gathering as I prepared everything from plane tickets to a passport, and began to count down the days...
Oh, and speaking of Pendulum, I decided it was time to fulfill a promise I'd made to myself a while back. My brothers girlfriend is a tattoo artist, and she'd offered to do one for me a while back. I accepted finally, and now, I am forever branded.
Talking to other friends online about a different subject suddenly made me realize if I didn't jump headfirst into another trip, I was never going to do it. So, on a whim, I made plans to head to the Lake Superior & Ishpeming Railroad in Marquette, Michigan in the last week of June. The iron road was expected to kill off its fabled "greens" - old GE locomotives that most railroads have gotten rid of by now - shortly, and with plans beginning to form for more trips later in the year, I knew it was time to go.
So I went. I saw the blues, I saw Great Lakes freighters, and I saw the greens. It was an incredible experience, and it was my first trip alone since the previous November. I can't begin to tell you how good it felt to get out there on my own and try something new and different, that I thought I'd never do. Who on earth expects to go climbing up rocks in the rain to get a photo of some iron ore jennies being lugged up a hill? Or walking through hail onto the side of a taconite embankment to catch 1970s GE locomotives scream up through Palmer Line Junction?
The stars aligned for me in Michigan this year. It was a sign of things to come.
June was an insane month. Just a few days in, the Milwaukee Road 261 excursions were announced for the first weekend of October, and I immediately started working on plans to go to that. Then, more solid information about the IAIS 6988, a Chinese steam engine imported and adopted by the Iowa Interstate Railroad, began to show up, and I started forming tentative plans for that, too. I'd then receive some early information that the Soo Line 1003 charter was happening again, and after some deliberation, I decided to buy into it once more. Not to be outdone, the Union Pacific made a surprise announcement in the middle of June - the Big Boy was coming back for a 2021 tour...
...in late August. Which, when looking at the dates for when it would be closest to me, overlapped with the London trip. But! Just two days before I left for Marquette and the LS&I, Pendulum announced they were pushing the Drumsheds show back one month due to uncertainties regarding government restrictions and Covid. It slotted in so perfectly between Big Boy and 261 I thought I had to be dreaming.
With the LS&I trip happening in the midst of all this, there were now a total of five major trips happening this year. I'd not left on a trip of any significant length since the previous years 1003 charter, but now I was slated to go to Michigan for the iron railroad, Iowa for the Chinese QJ, Arkansas/Missouri/Southern Illinois for the Big Boy; London, England for my favourite artist Pendulum, Minnesota for the 261, and finally, Wisconsin for the Soo Line 1003.
Pretty much all of this was planned or in the early planning stages within just one month. June probably took a year or two off of my life, but it was well worth it. There was continued shooting of local trains until August rolled around and the remaining four trips would begin!
The QJ trip was great, a real return to form with chasing, and the Big Boy was an event if ever there was one. It may well be the last trip my whole family takes together for a very long time, so for that alone it was special, but the places we went and the shots we got... man, what an adventure that was. I wrote so much about that trip already, but all the same, it was a big deal.
Seriously, just three days between QJ and Big Boy. Talk about tightly packed, eh? I hardly had time to rest - but that did make packing easier since I didn't even have time to finish unpacking in the first place!
Oh, yes, remember Humko and Grand Trunk Western Geeps? Between Big Boy and London, you'll never guess what I found lurking about...
Oh, Humko, where would we be without you?
Chases up and down the IC Gilman sub sure made for some bonus adventures this year, and it let me cross off Roberts, Parnell, and Clinton as signal sets that I had been hoping to get photos of. Not to mention, it also saw the return of my favourite deathstar, the IC1000, who I had lost a fucking tire for trying to find in Memphis despite the fact it had returned to the northern IC within the previous month - but nobody had actually reported this, of course.
Oh, yes, I bought a new lens at this point, too! I continued practicing long exposures with it and my usual daily lens, which is always a fun time. That extra wide angle really makes a difference! I got to test it out even more when IC1000 came down from Gilman and switched some cars in Champaign and Rantoul alike.
I still can't really fathom the fact that London happened. It sort of snuck up on me. We'd had to scramble and redo a lot of our plans more than once, but for at least two months, it had been just a waiting game. I had everything I needed, it was just... waiting.
Then before I knew it, I was boarding a plane for the first time in, what, eight, nine years? Ten? And eight hours later, I was in a whole other country - the other side of the whole planet! Meeting up with the Drumsheds gang was wonderful, and to experience a whole new country was just something special. You can get a lot out of media like Youtube, movies, TV, and the like, but nothing can replace actually standing there yourself and seeing and hearing it all.
That trip really solidified a lot of friendships and made new ones. I could have never expected to get what I did out of that trip. Hey, gang, hope you're all well and loved the trip as much as I did!
Landing back in the US and getting kicked in the dick with a major car repair the day before I embarked on my next trip was less than ideal, but you know, it's not all perfect.
I barely had time to rest and recover from London when I was booking it up the interstate to Minneapolis to go see the Milwaukee Road 261. Since they couldn't run last year, I had really been missing my yearly trip up north to catch it, which made this years trip up there that much better! The weather was hell half the time, one of my headlights conked out, and I was exhausted every moment of it, but man, it turned out so well I just can't complain. I met new and old friends alike and got a couple of damn good shots if I do say so myself.
I returned home and had about a month to finally properly rest and gather myself once again. Catch up on some photos and writing, and go out and take a few new ones of course. There was a nice week of having the house all to myself, too, which was lovely.
I did not expect to find not only deathstars on their home turf, but another chase on the Bloomington District and one of the most stunning sunsets I've ever been witness to. My, what a month October was. Did I mention I turned 22 while I was chasing the 261? Because that also happened. Sorta weird to think about, honestly.
As an aside, during one of the breaks between trips, I would learn that one the LS&I's greens, a C30-7, had suffered from catastrophic engine failure and had put that pair out of service. I'm very glad to have gone up there and gotten my greens, as now, the chance has been reduced by half, if the Uboats haven't been retired already.
And before I knew it, more car problems! Less expensive though, only 3% as expensive in fact... and then I was in Wisconsin for the Soo 1003 once again!
Snow was not something I was expecting to find there, but I did, and the resulting photos came out better than I expected. Yet again, I learned more things about controlling this new camera, plus a few other useful little lessons packed in there.
And that was that. My traveling was over, and I'd stay within my home state for the rest of the year. I'd chase a few things ere and there - another visit to the Bloomington District, the Dewey local, and a surprise on New Years Eve when I caught a triplet of ICs (plus the Humko earlier) barreling south, with IC1000 sandwiched in the middle no less. December was a quiet month, but catching ICs and then coming home to have a nice chat with a very close friend made it a fine last day of the year.
Outside of the train world, work got busier again, busy enough I've been able to get out of my soul-sucking data/office job for a few months and get back on my feet again. A much needed pay raise followed the 261 trip, which was also a huge spirit lifter and will hopefully allow for even more adventures to come. In fact, I'm already planning one for next year, but suffice to say it isn't the usual train-chasing adventure you're expecting, nor even music. While I'm not ready to divulge any details about that yet, I can say that it'll be a good little adventure that should hopefully lead to more in the future. Turns out, some good impressions were made back in September - I guess we really never know what sort of impact we have on others and vice versa! If all goes well, there might be a little story to tell about all that later - ask me again in May!
The experiences I've had this year have been just fantastic. There were bumps along the way - from my car to family health problems and personal struggles with work - but it's just been stunning overall. The places I've been, the people I've met, the things I've done... I've learned a lot, not just about photography and railroading but about myself, and others, too. Somewhere between the LS&I and the 1003, I managed to work a few things out, and get a better picture of the things I want. Turns out that was timed nicely, but, of course, that's a story for another time. All that to say that, while things are very much a rollercoaster, there are hopefully good things to come in the future, and people to be excited for in that future.
The one thing that really took a hit this year was DJing and mixing. I just haven't had the drive for it as much lately, but I'm not giving up on it - I've done a few livestreamed sets this year despite not touching the board much. I think it'll come back to me again in time, when I'm ready and in the mindset for it. Here and there I do spin a couple tunes, so all is not gone by any means. All in good time.
Though I've been absent in the mixing world for much of the year, musically it's been a big year. I've expanded my music collection - digital and physical alike - greatly this year, falling into new rabbit holes and picking up some just fantastic tunes. You can probably tell based on my photo titles, which often come from the music I've been listening to when I took or edited the photo, that I've been on a massive New Order kick the last few months that doesn't seem to want to slow much at all. Trance and house have been on the rise, but drum & bass is always thundering away all the time and will never go away. New music, old music, tunes I would have never listened to even as recently as a year ago... Some things change, and others never really do.
Now, onto another totally different point: just look at the Photos page, and the 2021 gallery specifically. Look at how much colour is in it - look how many shots are in it; look at how vibrant the whole gallery is. This year has been bigger than I could've ever dreamed. I've seen and taken photos of so much, things I didn't expect to see and others I'd been dreaming of. Hell, I've hit almost all my bucket list items for photography, now we're just down to a tornado and a plethora of railroad signals and shortlines, really.
Upgrading my camera was a big step, pushing my editing capabilities further and more in depth has been huge, and just becoming more knowledgable about taking the shots in the moment have all been major aspects of my photography this year. Equipment doesn't make the photo per se, but sometimes, a few new gadgets are what expand my horizons to even find that photo in the first place. I've certainly gained a lot of experience in editing photos better now, and I know I'll continue to learn. That, paired with improving my techniques on the ground, will hopefully help me develop a real style of my own some day. I don't see myself becoming some sort of railroad photography prodigy, like say Blair Kooistra or something, but I'd like to be able to take some photos that can make even just a few people stop and say ,"wow, that's cool."
In terms of the best stuff from the year? Honestly, most of my favourites can be seen up above. The Distance is officially the most successful photo of the year, and it was my favourite of the bunch. Other shots like Can't Rain All The Time, Get Your Kicks, Slow Jam, Barrel Down, Under The Waves, and Enjoy The Silence were just some of many highlights throughout the year. While I still don't have a definitive "style" down for myself, I think I've managed to get some good shots in there that feel connected in a way. Catching the action, the drama, the sights and the surroundings are things I try to do. I love to have a story for a photo, too. Honestly though, I just feel pretty happy with the shots from this year. Picking ten favourites like I did for 2020 would be a really, really tough call, and maybe I'll make that soon, but for now, I'd say I got a lot of good stuff this year.
Where do we go from here? I don't know. 2022 brings the real possibility of traveling more than ever before and making a really significant few changes in my life - and they won't be train/photography related this time. It's also possible I'll wind up in a photography rut for a while, or maybe I'll embark on new trips to see more things than even this year. I have places I want to go in the near future - I want to get to Deseret Power, back to the Milwaukee Road and the whole of the PNW, but I also want to venture back east again and find unique shortlines, gritty Alcos, aging signals, and everything in between. Maybe I won't get any of those, maybe it'll be another deathstar year with a shortline sprinkled in, plus a steam chase or two, or hell, maybe I'll finally make it to the Missabe.
The point is, I have no idea what the future holds. We'll just have to wait and see what happens, and if we're lucky? We'll get some good photos out of it and fun stories to tell! And hey, do me a favour, wish me luck for that adventure in April. Like I said, a story for another time, hah!
Anyways, thank you for reading. Whether you follow my misadventures on this blog, Flickr, Instagram, or wherever, your support - even if its just views or likes - is much appreciated. I couldn't imagine being where I am today without the support over the past year and those before, and I'm grateful for it all. Thanks for a wonderful 2021.
Hello, my name is SM, and this is where I write.
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