We decided to go up to the West Chicago area the night before, as opposed to getting up in the middle of the night. Leo had to work until five, and I had a four o'clock appointment. We both got home about the same time, and took a half-hour or so to relax. Then we said goodbye to Owen and sped off. We weren't trying to see the Big Boy in West Chicago, as there would such crowds (they estimate up to 45,000 people saw the Big Boy in the western suburbs!). We stayed in North Aurora. The next morning we got up and got ready to take off. The guys don't eat in the morning, but I have to. I used to skip breakfast but when I got pregnant that changed, and I've been eating breakfast ever since. I brought a couple of sweet potatoes with me, so I popped one in the hotel microwave and had that. This was my breakfast every day and I pretty much perfected it. One piping hot sweet potato, stuck in a cup, sprinkled with salt and pepper stolen from the hotel, and a squeeze of lemon juice (I always bring lemons with me to flavor my water. I find it easier to drink enough water if there is lemon in it). I give you the perfect portable breakfast:
That and a handful of pecans got me through the day. For our first stop, we headed to the Elburn area and found a good crossing. This was one of the longest waits. It turns out they left West Chicago about 50 minutes late, and we'd gotten there early so…LOOONG wait. There's a beautiful sense of camaraderie at these things though. It's that shared experience thing that happens…complete strangers chat with each other. It was delightful. There's also a whole protocol with the regular railfans. You don't just stand anywhere to get your shot. You have a photo line, so you don't get in each other's way. A few people ignore this, but most people, when it's explained to them go along with it. Later in the day, I loved seeing Leo ask an older guy with a kid to move back. At first, the guy questioned him, but Leo firmly explained, and so he shrugged his shoulders and moved back to where we were. Go, Leo!
Finally, we could hear the whistle in the distance. When the whistle isn't blowing the train is surprisingly quiet. It can sneak up on you, amazingly enough! But that whistle…oh man…it goes right through you. Completely different than a diesel. It rushed by with a blast of heat and sound. After it passed, I realized that my mouth was still wide open in amazement. The sheer scale is incredible. I've seen several different Big Boys in various train museums, so I know they are huge, but seeing one moving past you, just feet away is mindblowing. The pictures don't begin to capture the scale of it. As one does during a chase, the second it is gone, you run to your car. Well, Leo ran, Ernie trotted, I walked. As I explained to them, unless of them is in imminent danger, I will walk. I walked fast, though and dove into the car. We've learned to turn around when we park, so we don't waste time doing it afterward.
The next stop was one of my favorites. Leo had scoped out where the track was, but other than that it was just going by feel. We slowed down at a few possibilities but then he saw a bridge. It was crowded, but there was space. In the West, there had been a significant police presence that kept them from shooting from the bridges, but here we were on our own. Lots of unsafe parking and running along the road, but hell, we were on the chase. We were right above the tracks when the train came through. There was this automatic inclination to pull back, with that whistle and steam blazing up at you. But I made myself stand there and not flinch, and when that hot steam ran right over us, I think we all shivered in awe. I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but it's honest.
We continued on our way. We skipped all the scheduled stops because of the crowds (and oh my were there ever crowds). The stops gave us a little time to get ahead of the train. The Big Boy would be heading to Cedar Rapids at the end of the day, and they had announced there would be no public access because of space restrictions. We wanted to follow it all the way in though so we followed along. When we got near the yard traffic was backed up…cars were stopped entirely on the bridge, watching as it pulled into the trainyard. Leo jumped out and raced to photograph it. Ernie and I limped on and finally found a place to park. I texted him to let him know where we were. A bit later he texted back to say that they were letting people into the yard after all and did we want to come. We were both exhausted and said no. Then we thought about it and got out of the car. We walked over the bridge with traffic rushing by us and got to the embankment — the one Leo had said to be careful on. I just looked at it. I went for it….bad balance, Birkenstocks, and all. Ernie held my hand and I got down there without falling but it was touch and go. Later, Leo said he'd seen us coming down and I asked him if we'd looked like we were 85 years old and he just tipped his head and tried not to smile. "Uh, kinda." Then he told me that Ed Dickens was wandering around, so I was off like a shot. Ed Dickens is the head of the Union Pacific Steam Operations and also could be straight out of central casting. It's NOT just that he's handsome though, he also seems like a really kind person. He's become the rock star of steam. We found him and stood there for a few minutes waiting for him to finish talking with someone else. Ernie was holding my camera, and I was tried to gesture to him to take a picture of Ed's back because he had a cool Union Pacific vest on. Ernie didn't understand my gesturing, so I looked pleadingly at Leo. He gave me a look and said, "Mom, do NOT photograph people's backs…that's just creepy." Damn it. Eventually, Ernie grabbed Ed and asked if we could take a picture. Just look at how giddy I am. Leo and Ernie had to point out to me that it wasn't Ian Hunter.
With the guys' help, I stumbled back up the embankment, and we wearily decamped to our hotel. It's crazy how exhausting it is. All you're doing is driving, getting out to take pictures, and driving again. But in reality, you're standing waiting and waiting for ages, and even with the lovely weather, you get hot and sticky. You're driving down gravel and dirt roads and getting covered in dust. The adrenalin of the chase is what's so exciting but at the end of the day…you CRASH. Leo decided to stay in the room and eat junk. Ernie and I went and found a wonderfully dark, cool bar where I was served the biggest glass of wine I think I've ever had. We picked up some food and headed back to the room. We all looked at pictures, ate, watched a bit of the debate, and happily collapsed.
Oh, and if you look at this video, at around the 43-second mark, you'll see my sweet pea!