Friday, July 30, 2010

The Skunk Train

Someone on Facebook posted a status update this morning that said, "back from a month of Boy Scout summer camp with no e-mail, electricity, phone service or Facebook. Our only outside contact was the Skunk Train."

I was instantly propelled back thirty years or so and my memories of the Skunk Train and our general "train era."

I don't remember when the "train era" began, but it probably pre-dated our marriage, and at least Jeri's birth, because of what happened to her when she was a baby.

Mike and Rich (Pat's husband) were both into trains and model railroading. I remember going to several model railroading displays...

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Rich had a big track set up in his basement or garage or somewhere in his house (I don't remember where now). I don't think Mike had his own train, but he collected railroad spikes, those big nails that held railroad railes to the tiles.

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Walt had a train set too, but it was from his childhood and was packed up in boxes in the closet. We've been married 45 years and to the best of my knowledge he's never unpacked it and the kids may never even have known he had it (until now). But he had fond memories of his train.

It seemed that in those days, a lot of what we did, especially going out and exploring ghost towns in Nevada, involved a hunt for railroad spikes. I remember once walking in knee high grass on a bluff overlooking the town of Mendocino. At some time in the very distant past, apparently there had a been a railroad line that ran through there and, damn if Mike didn't suddenly bend down and pick up an old rusty railroad spike.

I know that the "train era" predated Jeri's birth because she was less than a year old when we all went to the Western Railway Museum in Rio Vista, a town on the Sacramento Delta. It was a place where authentic historic streetcars and electric trains from all over California got new life as the object of veneration from train nuts. The 22 acre site had only begun to be developed in the early 1960s, so was still fairly new when we decided to take a day trip there with Pinata People.

On the day we visited, they were giving free rides on one of the electric trains.

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We all piled on the train and Walt went outside to take movies of Jeri at the window. I opened the window and when he started to aim the camera, the window slammed down on her hand. She began screaming, while the rest of us tried to open the window. Walt, laughing because he just thought the sound of the window had scared, continued to take the movie, and then felt terrible when he realized in how much pain she was.

There was no serious damage except that as a baby she sucked her two middle fingers to soothe herself and the window had slammed down on those two fingers, so she was unable to soothe other fingers, thumbs, or pacifier would work as well as those two fingers. It was a very long night, as I recall.

I don't know how long the "train era" lasted. It probably began to wane when Char and Mike moved to Alaska, but before that time there was the trip to ride the Skunk Train.

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The Skunk Train is an old steam train that travels between the towns of Ft. Bragg and Willits, a distance of about 40 miles. The train was originally built by the Ft. Bragg Redwood Company to carry logs from the forest to the lumber mill. But at the time we were there, the logging operation had moved to the highway and the train made its money from tourists.

The route crosses 30 bridges and trestles and passes through two mountain tunnels. It's a beautiful trip and you can sit there and get covered with soot from the chimney of the locomotive and relive the old days of railroading.

We had all the kids with us, ours, Mike and Char's and probably Pat & Rich's as well. We went from Ft. Bragg to Willits and while we were waiting for the train to turn around so we could get back and return to Ft. Bragg, we all walked the tracks looking for a spike for Mike, which we never did find.

Disappointed, we got back on the train and as the train began to pull out of the station, Mike looked down and saw a spike lying on the track next to where our train was moving.

We chug chugged the 40 miles back to Ft. Bragg, got in the car and drove to Willits to pick up the spike.

Mike was finally happy.

We haven't collected spikes in many years, but I still find myself looking for one whenever we are near railroad tracks. Old habits die hard.

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