Go west, they said.
This past January and February – I did exactly that. Accompanied by one of my best friends, Michael Polk, we set out on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to the great American west. Basically, we spent twenty five days of shooting railroad lines we had always dreamed of capturing – and it all came at the perfect timing.
Below: Mike and me as we rolled through Oklahoma.
I had just recently returned to my hometown after changing schools, deciding that pursuing a business major at community college would be a better decision than staying at an expensive, private film school. I had just settled in when I got the invitation from Mike, who had just been furloughed by Iowa Pacific.
Because of a rough first quarter, the railroad industry all over the country was struggling and as a result – most railroads had to let people go. The Chicago Terminal Railroad, where Mike was originally employed, was no different. After six months of service, Mike was temporarily let go.
Not letting his spirits down, he used the downtime to explore – and invited me along in the process. It was literally the perfect storm: we both had the time to do it. I decided to take online courses for the semester, so school could go along with me. We were set. Mike began planning our cross country journey.
Over a period of two weeks, Mike decided we would travel from Illinois all the way to California, by the modern day version of Route 66. We used several different highways, but for the most part, they all followed the original outline of the old Route 66. We left Mike’s apartment in Chicago Ridge on the 24th of January, after visiting a model railroad club in Milwaukee earlier that evening. We departed exactly at midnight.
Above: Mike runs a local freight train on NAPM’s huge club layout before we departed for our trip.
Our drive would be a long one. Mike’s goal was to have us in Clifton, Arizona by 7AM on Monday, the 26th. It would basically be a 22 hour drive from Chicagoland to Clifton. What’s in Clifton, you ask? Well, two amazing railroads: the Genesee & Wyoming-owned Arizona Eastern and the Freeport Mcmoran Sierrita Mining Operations Railroad. The two interchange every morning at Clifton, exchanging loads and empties. The FMI Railroad serves one of the largest copper mines in the world and is owned completely by the mining company. To meet the AZER at Clifton Yard, the FMI must traverse down an extremely steep grade – by my estimates, at least 5%.
We are both young, so we decided we would take shifts. I would drive four or five hours, then Mike would switch on. We had cleared a small space in the back of my Ford Escape to lay a yoga matt down for more comfort. I drove the first leg of the trip, switching with Mike northeast of St. Louis by about a hour. He led the way until morning. We then found ourselves along the former Frisco mainline in Claremore, Oklahoma. We photographed a few intermodal trains and even saw a Tier 4 unit. Being from Michigan, this was my first exposure to the new “eco-friendly” brutes.
Below: Our sleeping accommodations for the long drive westward.
Continuing on our journey west, we made our way through Oklahoma City – seeing deadlines upon deadlines of locomotives. The railroads were hurting and it wasn’t just the shortlines. I guess you could say they lost their “thunder” (OKC pun totally intended). It was evident that this early period of 2016 was one of the worst the industry had seen since 2009. After making our way through OK, we entered the panhandle of Texas. From a map, Texas looked big. But in person – it felt never ending. And we didn’t even leave the panhandle! On our way, we took sunset pictures with giant, steel crosses as the golden orb slowly disappeared beneath the horizon.
Around dusk, we stopped in Amarillo. This was my first time in the Lone Star State, so Mike decided we should have an authentic Texan dinner. And what better way to celebrate our passage through than a big texan steak? We ate dinner at the Big Texan Ranch off of I-40 and onto the original Route 66, stuffing ourselves with protien so that we wouldn’t need breakfast. By this time, we had already been driving about sixteen hours straight – and we still had a lot more to go.
Above: Mike and me at the Big Texan Ranch in Amarillo. Everything is bigger in Texas!
On through New Mexico we would go. By this time, it was pitch black out. The only thing visible besides passing car headlights were the faint outlines of mesas and rock faces. This was the west that I had always heard and read about. Dry, barren, and almost ancient. It was almost easy to imagine a tribe of Native American Indians riding the open desert outside our car window.
I would drive this portion – as Mike became tired from driving about twenty hours, consecutively. As we made our way through New Mexico, we would drive through the town of Roswell – the famed location of a supposed extra-terrestrial landing in the late 40s. They streetlights were illuminated heads of “little green men.” Mike and I both believe in the supernatural, but we also have an interest in conspiracy theories. Needless to say, our conversations that night ranged from ET’s, to Area 51, to the “black eye children.”
Finally, we crossed into Arizona around 5AM. Another hour and we would be in Clifton. We had almost made it…and our journey had only just begun. In about a hour and thirty minutes, we would be taking pictures of some of the most incredible and beautiful railroads in the country.
Arriving into Clifton, we did a bit of scouting. We roamed through the town of Morenci, where the big mine was located. In the distance, we could faintly hear the unmistakable whine of EMD prime-movers. It was the FMI and they were ready to go, just as Mike’s contacts had predicted. We made our way to Morenci Hill and waited. But we wouldn’t be alone – a cat kept us company while we waited for the train to appear. After twenty minutes, the faint sounds of the locomotives became louder: it was train time.
Above: The FMI Railroad’s train slowly rolls down the steep, 5+% grade at Morenci.
Stay tuned for more blogposts and stunning photographs from Mike and me’s out-west adventure. Where’s the video, you ask? After all, that’s what we are known for at DIB. We are currently in production for this amazing railfan film, set to be released on DVD by this fall. Thanks for stopping by.