I am above being a foamer. That is, when I talk about trains, I can keep from drooling. I am hardly a ferroequinologist. That is, student of the iron horse. And yet, I have signs of the train addiction, which like crack addiction, is a magnet upon my attention at inappropriate times. For example, I have visited the yard in downtown Coopersville where a team is renovating an old steam locomotive. I have taken more than one cross-country trip by rail. I have a bucket list of rail adventures. In Orillia, Ontario, I have dined in a restaurant composed of antique dining cars, alone, the waitress dressed in a vintage outfit, talkative, a woman of the Twenty-First century reifying the early Twentieth.
I know where a man operates a private rail road near Cedar Springs, and have thought of pleading for a invitation to the next jamboree when all these rich guys bring their small gauge rail cars and engines to the depot. The man uses his rails mostly to extract lumber from his forest, and I have tracked the rails through said forest, thanks to Google maps, now with satellite imagery. I stop and look at the town locomotive found in every Canadian town, all of them rare and special in some way. I know that a fellow named Shay brought the steam engine to help with logging the forests near Portland, and he lived in Harbor Springs and made good friends giving all the area children sleds.
I love the songs Folsom Prison Blues, celebrating a train whistle, and I have studied the words to the song, City of New Orleans. I am aware that Amtrak can book us tickets on a train called just that.
On a vacation last year in St. Louis, I took the light rail twenty miles from St. Louis's Union Station to Shiloh, Illinois, the end of the line going east. It was a lonely ride because everyone got off the train well before that terminus, and the conductor ignored my attempts at conversation as she made ready for the return trip. I also sketched train passengers in the well-lighted car. I suppose I could make these exploratory runs all over the world while my partner goes shopping, or conducts a secret affair. Thus, the stage could be set for the cuckolding of the ferroequinologist. I might be happy to condone if such an arrangement required this trade.
I'm reminded of all this because this morning, I crossed a pair of railroad tracks as a train came east out of the dark, its three lamp lights making a mysterious sigil upon the horizon of black. A bell or chime announced its progress as I cleared the second track, well before the two locomotive engines, the yellow pulling the red, reached my position. Some mornings, snow crews have worked the rails with snowblowers so that the train could pass. I was crossing at the "desire" path across the rails, which a friendly neighbor had snowblown for easier walking. It links the two sides of Leon, a street too low in importance to require a formal railroad crossing. So the crossing earned no train whistle serenade to warn approaching drivers that a right of way was being snatched away. I stayed for a moment after having crossed, and allowed the trinity of lights to grow huge and close. As I continued my walk, I knew the pair of locomotive engines had reached McCracken, singing for its safe passage across the thoroughfare it had blocked. How could mere engineers have sculpted this powerful iron being that made such evocative music? The train whistle enchants air and sound to carry its song for miles and to vary the music so people who are close hear a different song than people who are far, the doppler effect.
I was happy to live and work along its passage, a man made invention that was as much a force of nature as the Big Lake of Michigan moaning and mumbling harried by storm winds. I am fairly sure this pair of rails will be a rails to trails path in less than twenty years, the rails and ties pulled up and the ciders laid down. The sand pits that had provided full loads of sand in cars were now filled with water. The custom metallurgy foundry in the duneland forest needed raw materials brought to it so alloys could be concocted. How long would Cannon make use of the facility is the only question. Once Cannon goes, so does need for the rail line, which has its wheelhouse and maintenance station only five miles away from the foundry, housed in an industrial building on the outskirts of Muskegon Heights.
I met a few of the staff who worked in that foundry, one a management trainee who earned a degree in metallurgy from the School of Mines in Coloraodo, my neighbor for a year. The other I met at a lunch held by a software salesperson who wanted to sell my company the software he had sold Cannon. I ate salmon baked on a charred cedar plank while that foundry manager told how he managed the cost structure of all those custom alloy recipes the furnance used to make its premium ingots.