Why we do this

Posted by Justin Franz
on Friday, October 26, 2018

Sunrise on Monida Pass. Photo by Justin Franz.
I sometimes have a hard time explaining my hobby of railroad photography to my wife, an intelligent and totally rational person. Our conversations usually go something like this...

Me: “I’m going railfanning this weekend.”

Her: “Where?”

Me: “Idaho.”

Her: “They run a lot of trains there?”

Me: “No. Actually we’re not even sure they’re going to run the train when we’re there.”

Her: “Why are you even going then?”

It's not a bad question and it's one I was thinking about last weekend as a good friend and I watched the sunrise over a signal at milepost 259.2 on Union Pacific’s scenic, but all too quiet, Montana Subdivision. We had started our day about four hours earlier in Missoula and drove through the dark hoping we would catch one of the rare road freights over Monida Pass on the Montana-Idaho border. Just two months earlier, on a smoky August day, we had lucked out and chased a freight south out of Dillon, Montana and we were hoping for a bit of the same luck. However, as we drove down Interstate 15, the silent scanner told us everything we needed to know: We had struck out.

Not all was lost however. In Dillon, we hit up the local Patagonia outlet store (where I got my wife a new winter jacket because someone had to chock up a win on this trip), an incredible burrito bus (get the burrito or the tamales, but don’t get both) and a nice local brewery (I recommend the India Pale Ale).

Later on, we met up with an old UP hogger who spent much of his career on the very piece of railroad we were hoping to photograph. On a pleasant October afternoon, not far from the empty Montana Subdivision, the old engineer regaled us with stories from the past. Of how he hired out in the communication department and one of his first jobs was helping restore telephone service along the Yellowstone Branch after the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake. Of how he was the one to cut the last telegraph wire between Pocatello, Idaho and Silver Bow, Montana. And of how he ran the last UP stock train out of Montana.

Later, as we drove home in defeat, my friend and I talked about how even though we never saw a train move, it wasn’t that bad of a day. Sure, my camera spent most of the time tucked safely away in my camera bag, but we also explored a town I’ve spent little time in and we heard some great stories from the past. In many ways, it was the perfect example of why I got into this hobby.

That’s why we do this.

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