Big welcomes from small towns

Posted by Hayley Enoch
on Sunday, April 23, 2017

Crowds greet No. 844 in Gooding, Idaho.

Wrack your brains and list off the big cities in Idaho. Not many come to mind: Boise and its suburbs pull in more than 650,000 residents, a respectable sum but modest in comparison to other state capitals.  Geographically inclined individuals might suggest Pocatello as a secondary offering, but barely 83,000 people call this metropolitan area home.

The Union Pacific's Boise Turn will take the 844 and the company excursion train to both of these cities, but they will call at very few cities in between. That isn’t due to a scheduling oversight--there simply aren’t that many communities along the way. Boise and Pocatello, on the state's western and eastern borders respectively,  bookend hundreds of miles of stark,  open land. Most of it is either is too craggy to tame, or reserved for farmland instead of human habitation. This, after all,  is a state best known for growing potatoes. 

The select towns that have clawed a foothold between Boise and Pocatello aren't, at the risk of offending,  the sort of towns where things typically happen.  Their buildings are condensed, weather-beaten from decades of endurance and constant use, and almost completely dedicated to the agricultural and dairy industries. Trains moves in and out in far greater numbers than people do. Mote-sized towns like these feel untouched by the progression of time and technology. The abdication of the 844's kin is  perhaps the only change that has truly pierced their isolation.   

It has been a long time since the 844 has taken a jaunt out to Boise. The locals have been starved of its presence since 2010, they say, some  with enough conviction that you believe they have the exact date and time of its last appearance committed to memory.  It is quite apparent that its return is among the most notable things to happen in those seven years. In these towns, the anticipation for the train’s coming is more honed than the normal buzz of such an event in the air. There is raw, untempered excitement.  

Percentage wise, it appears that this excursion has brought out a near total showing of these small towns' citizens. Excursions crowds in larger cities typically have a decent number of people caught completely off guard by the train's appearance, who have been drawn out by the sound of the whistle and the pistons. That isn't the case here. For all intents and purposes, daily life has  come to a temporary halt.  Busloads of school-aged children show up on field trips. In several locations, high school seniors come dressed in their Sunday best to snap their graduating portraits. Those unlucky enough to be at work at the time of the excursion wander away from their posts.

There are even more signs--literal signs-- that welcoming the train is a community-encompassing effort. Every changeable road sign up and down the main drags display a message welcoming the 844.  Many more businesses have posted printed or hand-written signs commemorating the event on their front doors and windows.  In many cases, neighboring towns some ten or twelve miles away from the tracks have also put up messages of welcome.

Many of these businesses, of course,  are well poised to benefit directly and significantly from the excursion. Train chasers need lodging, food, and gasoline, and they swarm the small towns in great enough numbers to provide a substantial boost to the local economy. They aren't likely to see this many people stream into their towns again any time soon. Still, it’s heartwarming to see entire towns coming together to welcome the train, especially considering that it rarely lingers in one place for more than an hour. It’s difficult to think of anything else that could be so completely uniting, so uniformly positive. The memory of this excursion will linger many years after the last curl of smoke and vapor fades away. --HKE 

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