Wyoming Weather Skunks Still Photographers as Big Boy Goes Home

on Monday, May 20, 2019

Or, How Fog Killed A Classic Shot

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Somewhere in this 114 MB tiff file image are a precious few kilobytes of pixels showing UP #4014. UP #844 is barely visible. The wonderful rock formations towering behind the train are totally obscured. Sunday’s foggy conditions on Sherman Hill made for truly challenging – and a lot of disappointing – photography. Tripod users take note -- when under load, Big Boy can shake the ground from 150 yards.

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Airfare - $629.81

Rental car - $292.00

Rental car fuel - $154.32

Hotels - $601.49

Meals - $121.01

Seeing Big Boy and #844 conquer Sherman Summit – priceless.

Before typing another paragraph about how fog killed off what might have been a shot worthy of the office wall, I’d like to extend a sincere “thank you” to the Union Pacific Railroad. The UP Steam Crew and anyone in that enterprise who had even the smallest part in restoring #4014 and allowing Big Boy and #844 to participate in the Golden Spike sesquicentennial deserves kudos and applause from the unknown thousands who lined the UP right-of-way to watch these two gorgeous time machines in action.

Now back to this sad saga. After watching the UP steam special run from Rawlins to Laramie on Friday, Saturday was spent scouting the railroad between Laramie and Cheyenne.  Two great locations were found. The plan was to honor the late James Bistline's sage advice -- find one or two really great photo locations each day and then enjoy watching the rest of the show.

Understand that public roads shown on Google and other map programs are in reality often private roads with Do Not Trespass signs every 100 yards, and sometimes less.  As some folks found out Sunday morning, the two-rut dirt path leading to Sherman Summit and the old wye – boldly labeled Davis Parkway on Google Earth – isn’t a public road. Last Sunday morning, it was blocked by a not-too-happy property owner with a wildly-barking black Doberman, slobbering as it leaned out of the back seat of his black SUV.

So, I went to Plan B.  There is a gorgeous railroad straightaway just west of the Summit, near the end of Monument Road, featuring an impressive stone and mountain backdrop.  The best shot was from Dale Creek Road, again shown as a public road. Trouble -- there was a big Private Property sign at the gated entrance. Fortunately, Bonny Bath, the landowner was on site Sunday. And she was in a far better mood than the guardian of Davis Parkway. So after paying Ms. Bath $10.00 for access (a donation to the local FFA chapter), I drove a thousand feet down the private road, climbed the hillside (joining another dozen or so photographers), and waited.

As was previously chronicled in TRAINS Newswire, Sunday's weather for Big Boy’s homecoming run over Sherman was between dreadful and awful.  And about the time #4014’s whistle echoed off the distant ridges, as if on cue, a dense fog bank rolled in. 

It was thicker than MyPillow stuffing. It was close to Category III B landing conditions. In less than two minutes, Mother Nature had dropped a dense gray curtain on the photo spot. At the top of this page is my pitiful photographic effort. Only John Gruber or Victor Hand could have salvaged this scene.

However, videographers were well rewarded.  They captured railroading’s biggest-ever time machine reveal itself, hammer past with a thunderous rapid-fire exhaust, and then magically fade into the thick gray veil.

For a few glorious minutes, it could have been May 1958, when UP’s 4-8-4s, 4-6-6-4s and 4-8-8-4s were living on borrowed time. And like ghosts from the past, the #4014’s and #844’s show on Sunday morning had a mystical, almost enchanting, quality.

So, scratch one item off of my Bucket List – see #4014 on Sherman Hill

Some other notes. 

If only Howard Fogg could have seen this spectacle. He would be hard at work today, creating another watercolor masterpiece. Also, wondering if O. Winston Link was on hand,somewhere in the mist, choreographing Big Boy's audio track. Some video audio tracks are eerily similar to Thunder on the Blue Ridge album audio.

Lt. Tim Romig of the Wyoming Highway Patrol estimated “there were over a thousand vehicles between the Cheyenne side of the fog and Cheyenne.” The fog added significantly to the vehicular crash potential but Lt. Roming said there were no major incidents. “Just a lot of backlog and slowing of traffic, and a few conversations with people on the tracks,” Lt. Romig reported.

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A few of the thousand vehicles WHP Lt. Roming estimated chased Big Boy’s Cheyenne approach sit atop an earth berm beside the UP main,12 miles west of town. As the railroad dropped in elevation, the ceiling got slowly higher.  This shot is hardly what the late James Bistline would call "a real winner."  But it does reasonably well memorialize the event.

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Big Boy IS big. When paired with #844, and their two fuel tenders, the total length of this machinery requires rethinking traditional locomotive photo and video framing decisions. Standing off on a hillside or using a fish-eye lens is about the only way to clearly capture both beautiful locomotives. 

Photography in Wyoming is nothing like shooting trains in the eastern U.S. Sustained winds at 20 MPH, gusts to 35 MPH, and blowing dirt are challenges not often encountered around Roanoke, Sand Patch, or along the Western New York & Pennsylvania. Winds can threaten to topple tripods bearing $3000 Nikon D-810s and the $2400 Nikon zoom lens. 

That lady with the $400 iPad created better images than did the fancy Nikon outfit. The TRAINS video team should have outstanding coverage of this gorgeous foggy day.

I spoke with railfans from Japan and the U.K., and saw license plates from two dozen states and Canada.

This past weekend, thousands were treated to a steam locomotive performance not seen since N&W J #611 and Class A #1218 wandered about Norfolk Southern lines more than three decades ago.  So, as rail fans download photos and edit videos accumulated during the past two weeks, we should again say, “Thank you, Union Pacific.”  

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