By: Thomas Schuppert
Where I live is the forest covered hills of northern Minnesota. But one of the railroads I often work for serves the prairie regions of eastern North Dakota. The prairies are wide and flat – almost two dimensional. Visibilities can range up to 12 miles. The towns there are small, yet stand out as dominant objects on the horizons. And in every town, the largest structure is usually the steel sided grain elevator. Those are the landmarks of my work. I deliver empty rail cars to the elevators and pick up the loaded ones to take away on my train. It is nearly the end of the day, and the end of the week for me. I’m bringing my train in to a rail yard to set out for a coast to coast railroad to pick up. From here, the thousands of tons of grains will go to other parts of the country, and the world. But an hour from the rail yard, a storm is ahead and moving south. Sometimes I can see the storms in the distance as a side profile as they move over the Prairie. This one, however appears to be moving in to intercept my train with a broadside approach. It seems to be moving as fast as I am.
The locomotive cab windows have been open all day since the temperatures peeked at 90 degrees today. A blast of wind pours in the cab against my face. It’s the first winds of the storm. The leading winds of the black cloud are like a log book. All the scents and odors of where the storm has been are pushed out ahead. I smell wheat fields. I can smell wood smoke, a dairy farm, fresh asphalt, wild prairie flowers, and even a skunk. But the tracks at this point take a long sweeping curve to the right – about a thirty degree deviation from my previous direction. This takes me under the tail end of the storm and hardly enough rain to even bother using the window wipers. The black cloud moves on to let through the nearly horizontal sun rays of the setting sun. The tracks are littered with tumble weeds and other up rooted foliage blown about by the winds and rain that just went through here.
And now I see the object I consider to be a phenomenon of survival. A giant Gray Elm tree standing alone on the Prairie. It seems to have no earthly business being in the location it stands. Its wet leaves glisten in the sun. Still wet from the rains that passed through here just ahead of my train. It’s about 100 yards from the track. It appears healthy, with a full canopy and no dead branches. It was hit by the storm and survived just fine, as it has a hundred storms before. In fact, it was probably a storm decades ago that put the seed down where the tree stands today.
In nature, there is safety in numbers. This holds for trees too. There are widely scattered small groves of trees on the landscape. As a group they can survive the high winds that are common here. But it is rare to see a single mature tree. They blow over when they get so tall as to catch the wind. Yet here, this giant Gray Elm stands. Its massive trunk shows the spiral scars of past lightning strikes – some new and some partially healed. The Elm serves as my personal landmark. The lone tree. It is one mile away from the place on the edge of the next town where I have to make a stop. The train must stop so my conductor can get out to throw a switch that will direct the train off the main line. If I have a heavy train, I’ll begin applying the train brakes as I pass the lone tree. If it’s a lighter train, I’ll apply slightly less brake pressure just after passing the tree.
My conductor is sitting on the other side of the cab slouched down in his seat with his feet up. He’s looking straight ahead with his eyes half closed. Given the fact that a storm just passed by here with 40 to 50 mile-per-hour winds and driving rain, he asks, “How can that tree still be there?” It’s more of a statement than a question. He doesn’t change anything about his posture and still looks straight ahead. He doesn’t expect a reply from me.
With the lever on the control stand, I reduce air pressure from the train brake pipe, and wait several moments for the sensation that the train brakes are beginning to take hold. Further actions on my part are all a matter of how the train reacts and responds for the stop at the switch. The Lone Tree probably got its start in life sometime shortly before I did. And just maybe, after I’m gone, it will still be there serving as a landmark for some future Engineer. Another engineer who will also wonder about its phenomenal survival.