The perfect morning

Posted by Andy Cummings
on Monday, July 13, 2009

DM&E train 470, Teton, S.D., July 11, 2009My cell phone alarm rang at 3 a.m. mountain daylight time, and I forced myself out of the cheap motel bed I'd spent the night in. By 3:30, myself and a railfan friend of mine were passing through Badlands National Park. There was no chance of finding coffee at this hour of the morning, so the best I could do to wake myself was to open the car windows and feel the chilly breeze brush past my face. The first light of day was just a smudge on the horizon to the northeast.

Interstate 90 was empty, save for the handful of truck drivers who'd opted to drive through the night instead of pausing at one of the myriad truck stops on this cross-country stretch.

The sun broke the horizon as we descended the hills into the Missouri River Valley south of Pierre. To our west, an intimidating thunderstorm that had failed to rain itself out overnight was closing in. We knew we'd have just a short window of time to get our photos.

The Bad River Road was in surprisingly good shape, with sufficient gravel, and without standing water, as it'd had in years past when I'd driven on it. We passed a couple ranchers in big pickup trucks on the way out, each giving the "steering wheel wave," and no doubt wondering what two guys would possibly be doing out this way in a Honda Civic at this hour.

We soon came face to face with our quarry: Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern train 470, with two blue and gold IC&E SD40-2s in the lead. The train crew had spent the entire night crossing the PRC Subdivision at 10 mph, and a relief crew would soon be on its way.

The cool morning breeze bit into me as I opened my car door and stretched. It made me shiver, which helped to shake off some of the mental numbness that came with the early hour. Also assisting on that count was the throbbing of the two engines lugging a loaded train eastward at 10 mph. Trains on this line have long taken the nickname "land barges," but I prefer another comparison I've heard made: "A herd of turtles."  

After taking the traditional "wedge" view, I turned around and looked east, and the view took my breath away. The sun was hovering just above the horizon, and the wispy clouds on the leading edge of the thunderstorm were beginning to lend the sky a texture that looked almost as if it were an artist's rendition. The sun's rays were piercing through a light fog and spreading an ever-so-soft light across the grasses and hay bales that covered the prairies. I put on the widest-angle lens I had in my arsenal, sat down in the dewy grass, and waited for the right moment. And then, "click."

The best camera in the hands of the most capable photographer can only begin to capture a moment like this, and neither camera nor photographer fit the bill that morning. In spite of that, I love this photo, and it brings me right back to that morning. I can feel that sensation of being tired, but at the same time, absolutely thrilled to be in such an unbelievable place. Oh, and the train was a nice bonus, too.

When railfanning doesn't go the way I want it to, I often crack jokes about taking up stamp collecting. But it's moments like this that make all the bad times entirely worthwhile. You have to put yourself in the right place at the right time to get the shot you want, and even then, there's no guarantee you'll get it. But when everything comes together, it's satisfying in a way I don't imagine stamp-collecting could be. But I won't knock that until I try it. And after my most recent four-day railfan trip, I don't expect I'll be trying it any time soon.

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