Earlier today, at a quarter past noon to be precise, I was standing on the railway platform at Fort Steele Heritage Town, waiting for the steam train that takes tourists for a ride along the banks of the Kootenay River.
It is a relic from the past, from the glory days of the railroad. I think most people have a certain fascination with steam locomotives.
I just happen to be of an age where I can actually remember when they were still running, carrying both freight and passengers across the country.
The last steam locomotives were phased out in the late 1950s.
The Fort Steele train was supposed to pull into the station at just a little after noon. It was not on time. Some things never change.
As I stood there waiting, my mind’s eye became focused on the shapes of the billowing white clouds that hung motionless in the sky above. When I was a kid, the steam that billowed out of the smokestacks of the steam locomotives always reminded me of clouds.
My mind began to drift back to all the times in my youth when I would walk along the railway tracks and wave to anyone looking out the windows when a passenger train would pass by. I used to wonder where they were heading and what adventures might lie ahead for them in some distant part of the country.
How many times did I wish it was me on the inside looking out at the world passing by?
Sometimes I would sit in the tall grass and wait for a train to come by. The grass was so tall I could totally disappear into it – it was like a huge sea of green washing over and consuming me. When a train would come by, I would imagine the sound of the steam engine was the pounding of waves. I would yell and shout at the top of my lungs – but everything was drowned out by the sound of the train. I couldn’t even hear my own voice. I would be lost in the sound and fury of the moment. When the train had passed, all would be back to normal. I’d just lie back again in the tall grass, look up and contemplate the shapes of clouds.
As I stood there this morning, looking down the tracks to see if the train was coming, the words of Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railway Trilogy began going through my mind. I wonder if Gordon Lightfoot ever waited for a train that was not on time. I also wonder how many trees were cut down to build the railway that was once so vital to this nation of ours – how many streams and spawning beds were destroyed.
The building of the railway was once considered a great accomplishment. Man built his “great steel rail” and called it progress. Now progress has declared the railway a thing of the past.
Standing there waiting, I could not help but smile at the fact that nature now seems to be pushing back at progress. Weeds and wildflowers, bushes and bull rushes, tall grasses and greenery of all sorts are encroaching on the thin strip of ground where the rail lines run. Wild raspberries are growing in great numbers. Purple and mauve lupins have sprung up in abundance all along the rail line. Nature does, indeed, bat last.
One thing too about the train here at Fort Steele is that it runs in a loop. Whether it arrives or leaves on time or not, it inevitably comes back to the place it started from. Life, however, isn’t like that – it has a beginning and an end.
I think one of these days, just for the heck of it, I’m going to walk out along the rail line and stand among the tall grasses and lupins near the tracks. I’ll wave to the train as it passes by. Some of the people on the train will inevitably wave back because they will be thinking that I am waving to them, but I won’t be. I’ll be waving goodbye more to the past, to the long ago summers of my youth and to all the steam trains that travel through my memories.
I loved trains when I was a kid. I still do. But as Hank Williams put it, “That midnight train is whining low, and I’m so lonesome I could cry.”