Beware that Nostalgia, Folks

It’s the dead bringing you back to life. Or else, just sentimental bushwa.

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So I’m going to make some sweeping generalizations in this post.  For many people, hobbies have a strong overtone of nostalgia.  I’ll go so far as to say that nostalgia is the driving force behind many of our efforts and obsessions– a drive to recreate (often in miniature) that which no longer exists.  And if you’re not careful, you can become that person who’s always making statements like “The first time we did such-and-such was in nineteen ought-six, when you were only eleven years old.”  I even say things like “I remember that this song was playing when we were doing X and Y.”  In other words, if you allow your nostalgia to get the best of you, you might just turn into… me.

I know what you’re going to say next.  Sentimental bushwa! I chase trains because I love the excitement of seeing new/old/classic/different equipment.  Or, I photograph/model/study navy ships because I find the latest warfighting technologies fascinating.  Or, I fly ultralights or I GoPro myself base-jumping off of bridges for the rush of it, for the immediate thrill.  Fill in your own blanks.  And I do not argue, not one little bit!  But this is my point.  Once that experience is complete, what do you have left from it?

Memories.

Even if it’s captured on film or digital media, what you did yesterday has now become an event from the past.  It’s history.  It’s experience.  It’s a memory.  And, if it’s something you enjoyed, it’s a fond memory, which is just the first milepost on the road to nostalgia.

This is even more pronounced when you find yourself aging and no longer are able to bungee-jump the Royal Gorge or free-climb the Bastille.  Or, when the thing that you chase or photograph or study or admire has ceased to exist– for whatever reason.  Now, all you have left is your photos, or videos, or memories of something that you can never have again.

That wistful feeling you got when you read that last sentence, and thought about it?  Bingo.  Nostalgia.  One of the most intoxicating and most painful facets of human life.

I have a friend who’s a total Route 66 nut.  (I mean this in the clinical, not the pejorative, sense.)  He has collected an astounding amount of relics and Americana from the Mother Road.  He’s building a replica of some gas station from Texas in his front yard.  He knows everything about it.  He loves everything about it.  He also does a fair Elvis impersonation.  He’s almost worse than I am about railroads.  OK, he IS worse.  And what do you think drives his obsession?  Um, Duh.

In a strange way, when it comes to nostalgia about the past, it’s the dead bringing you back to life.  My friend the Elvis singer is never so alive as when he’s talking about his stuff, and what he’s building, to re-create the spirit of Route 66.   And maybe that’s the appeal.  Through our nostalgic hobbies, we are somehow transported to another time, another place, a time and place where we were having a magical experience, a moment when we were… happy.

Don’t get me wrong here.  It’s not that we are necessarily unhappy now.  But to be transfixed in a happy moment– this is what some hobbies are all about.


Let me walk you through one example of how this occurs.  I’m a self-confessed railfan and rail hobbyist, amongst a number of other things.  I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and had always liked the Rio Grande railroad just south of town.  I could actually hear the trains on the mountain as they came and went on the old Moffat line.  Well, when I was 23, my wife and I relocated to New Mexico, a long ways from Boulder.  This was in the pre-internet age, pre-digital cameras, pre-email.  And though I liked to take photos of trains, I could not afford to spend a lot on film or film processing, so my pictures were far fewer than today.  I was also not connected in any way to the railfanning community; I did not even know that such a community existed.  All my information was gathered in little snippets– a newspaper article here, an article in a hobby magazine there.

So in 1988 I became aware of an impending merger between the Rio Grande and  Southern Pacific railroads– a development I viewed with some dismay, although it seemed that the Rio Grande was going to be purchasing the SP, which might be OK.  I also read an article in Model Railroader about a fairly new, hot overnight piggyback operation  called the Railblazer that the Rio Grande was running between Denver and Salt Lake City and vice versa.  We were planning on visiting family in Boulder at Christmas, and I made it a priority to plan a “train-chasing” trip with my cousin whom I’ll call “Dan”.  I wanted to see this little piggyback train, and also see if the Rio Grande was even still the Rio Grande.  The merger was already a couple of months in the rearview mirror, after all.

So, early on the morning of Christmas eve, Dan and I met up and headed out to Coal Creek Canyon, parked by the overpass, and hiked up towards Tunnel 1.  Not having scanners and not knowing where exactly the Railblazer might be, we started over the top of the hogback pierced by the tunnel to wait for the train.  We had not reached the summit when we heard train horns up ahead– something had just hit the east switch of Plainview siding just up the hill.  Hurriedly we about-faced and hustled back down the hill to observe whatever was coming down the mountain.

Our timing was perfect.  It was indeed the Railblazer, and I captured one of my favorite rail photos ever in that split second (see the image at the top of this article).  I shot two more photos of the train from our elevated vantage point.

Railblazer 1
The Eastbound Railblazer comes into view, behind GP40 No. 3077 and GP40-2 No. 3116.

We stayed long enough to watch the train transit the curve in the mouth of the canyon.  I had no telephoto lens back then; this was using a 50mm fixed-length lens and ASA100 print film.

Railblazer 2
The eastbound Railblazer crosses the bridge in Coal Creek Canyon on 12/24/1988. You can see nearly the entire train in this shot.

Somewhere during this interval we had heard a train stopping down on Rocky siding to the southeast, quite some distance by railroad from tunnel 1, and we decided to move uphill from here and catch it coming out of the tunnel’s opposite end.  Like idiots we dropped down to the tunnel and walked through it– somewhat nervously, to be sure.  The most instructive thing we discovered was a dead deer midway through the bore, evidently cornered by a train and mashed up into tiny components.  Yeah, the smell was intense.  Makes you think about what you would do if you got surprised by a train in there.  What we did was hustle on through there as fast as possible!

Fortunately nothing else was trailing the Railblazer down the hill, so we had 20 or 30 minutes cushion before the westbound arrived.

D&RGW 3130
The highest-numbered GP40-2 was leading this westbound freight as it rolled out of tunnel one on Christmas Eve 1988.

Well, eventually the train rumbled out of the tunnel, and I began shooting frames.  If I’d had a digital camera like I have now, this would have been a hundred or so; as it was I took three 35mm exposures.

Remember what I said earlier about the merger with Southern Pacific?  Well, the middle unit in the 5-locomotive consist was a harbinger of things to come.

SP 8550
A Southern Pacific SD40T-2 “Tunnel Motor” was the third unit on the front of the train. Within a few years, it would be rare to see a Rio Grande locomotive on these rails.

A train passes rather quickly, even at 25 MPH.  My third and final image was of the power as it roared away from us.  Behind was a long train of mixed freight.  I recall specifically that there were a lot of large tank cars lettered ANHYDROUS AMMONIA, and remember feeling glad that they did not derail while we were standing there!

DRGW 3051
The power was a real mix of heritage this morning. The leader was only 5 years old; the second unit was an ex-Conrail unit that was originally built in the late 1960s and painted for the Rio Grande in 1984. The SP tunnel motor was built in 1979. The two Rio Grande units at the rear date from around 1966, and are still in original paint.

So the train disappeared up the hill and we went back and had Christmas and life went on and the Railblazer was cancelled and the Rio Grande faded away and so did the Southern Pacific, and now all I have are six photographs and a bunch of indelible memories of a magical Christmas Eve morning many years ago.

Every Christmas season I remember this brief morning when I went out to see something new, and ended up capturing the end of an era instead.

Nostalgia.  It’s a killer.  actionroadlogobang