Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Wyoming is known for its breathtaking natural beauty. We visited Yellowstone during our 2006 trip, and this time around all I saw of the state was the view from Interstate 80.
I woke up in Evanston, where the temperature had neared 30 degrees overnight. Loading my two guitars, my suitcase and my satchel into the car, I departed with essentially no impressions of the town except for the fact that I knew I was finally in truck country.
Those who grew up in urban environs might think it's a stereotype that most people who live in rural areas drive trucks. It's absolutely true. And for the most part these people need to trucks to do things like to get around a large ranch area or haul construction equipment. Or pull a horse trailer. Or serve as the setting for a rather on-the-nose country song about redneck seduction rituals.
It's partly because trucks are such useful tools (and actually used as such out here), and partly because they are regarded as large powerful and durable, that they have become emblems for American masculinity. Men love their trucks--sometimes too much, as those Calvin-peeing-on-Ford's-logo stickers amply demonstrate.
Those are pickup trucks of course. The other half of the vehicles you see on the road in wyoming are 18 wheelers. Or 22 wheelers or 26 wheelers. There seems to be no end of unusual permutations of the tractor trailer configuration out here, and they all seem to be going to hell for leather somewhere. Many of them are in a hurry because they are hauling something away from a fracking well site, perhaps actual natural gas, perhaps toxic waste water or other chemical byproducts. Time is money of course and the drillers aren't going to waste either one. Nearly all the tractor trailers out here are a quilt with antelope bars that protect the headlights and radiator grill from impact with cloven hooved animals. It makes me feel a little bit like I'm driving in Australia and honestly I was a little relieved when I finally hit Iowa and they disappeared.
I spent much of the day chasing freight trains as they headed into Cheyenne-- no surprise really considering that cheyenne is the headquarters of Union Pacific, the largest railroad in the United States. Frankly I was excited to visit Cheyenne because it brought back memories for me.
Yes, I was a train freak as a kid. My father took me to Railfair at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, and I became acquainted with just about every steam locomotive still operating in the country. Somewhere there are photos of a 9-year-old Jeremy beaming from ear to ear standing on the cowcatcher of one of these huge locomotives.
Why do I mention all of this? Because Union Pacific owns two of these big relics, and still operates them on special occasions. I didn't get to see those, but I couldn't resist visiting their cousin. Engine number 4004 sits on display in a small municipal park just a few blocks from the massive rail yard where it once pulled freight trains. It's part of the last generation of American steam locomotives, and just about the largest ever made. Built in 1941, it weighs about 1.2 million pounds, has 16 driving wheels each as tall as me, and it logged more than 440,000 miles over 17 years of service.
Who cares, right? Well, steam engines are just more fun to watch. They're almost like living creatures, while diesels do the job efficiently and without any fuss.
So the 9-year-old still hovering in the recesses of my brain was thrilled to see the old train. But the 30-year-old me is unspeakably relieved that I left childish fascinations at the door of adolescence. They call adult rail fans "foamers." As in "foaming at the mouth."
I had no desire to stop and photograph the immense Union Pacific railyard on my way out of town. That nostalgia trip lasted for half an hour and then it was behind me, like the bold "UP" badges on the locomotive shops and the towering refinery chimneys that take the place of skyscrapers in Cheyenne. I had another 500 miles to go before bed.