Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
September 2018 - Volume 18, No. 9
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Iron Lines in the Wilderness

My father loved railroads. I’ve always known this, but never had the occasion to ask why. Yet it was just the other day, while pondering a few of his photographs it came to me.

I myself was born in the far northeast corner of Colorado, on the Union Pacific Railroad and the South Platte River. The little town of Sedgwick never made it much beyond a population of 600, and even now can boast only a few hundred souls. But for some reason still, when I’m out walking, I’ll stand in the middle of railroad tracks and allow my eyes to see those straight iron lines disappear into the landscape. I think I’ve always done that. Maybe I was born to do that. Maybe everybody has.

Then we moved into the mountains, Kremmling, about a hundred miles west of Denver. Again, I’m sure it was imprinted on my psyche that it was the railroads and then the highways that opened up that wilderness for humankind - I myself being one of them.

It was on a return visit to Colorado, when I was still young, I remember through the trees on the side of a mountain, seeing a steam engine climbing the rails, with golden sparks shooting out from the struggle of iron against iron as it slowly pulled its cargo up the grade. Like a fourth of July sparkler writ large.

I’m one of those folk that can put Gordon Lightfoot’s Railroad Trilogy on “repeat” and listen over and over to those lyrics and the hypnotic rhythm of his tribute. Then it can take hours or even days to get that music out of my head.

It seems to me that most who love railroads, love the massive machinery, the magnificent engines or the streamlined passenger cars, the visual rhythms of railroad yards and even the magnificent slowness of trains disassembling and assembling, while a human being somewhere watches and directs the “traffic.”

I myself remember in my youth my back pressed against the depot wall as those huge steam locomotives thundered by - seemingly only a few feet in front of me.


What I see in my father’s railroad photographs isn’t so much the machinery, it the rails themselves. They run straight where nothing else has run straight. There’s a sacred dance between the straightness of the rails and the erratic wilderness they penetrate - a sacred geometry.

Somewhere I picked up the lovely saying:  “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  The most beautiful distance between two points is the shape of a woman’s body.”  Both of those are elements of that sacred geometry that interweaves the railroad and nature. It’s said that in nature there are no straight lines.[1] That’s why I’ll always seek a window seat when I fly - so I can see those ‘lines’ upon the earth below.  Highways can have intersections and sharp corners.  Railroads can’t. They’re the ones with large smooth curves as they make their way through the wilderness around them, be it urban or mountains, forests and deserts.

Now I realize, after all these years, it’s the sacred dance of that geometry that my father loved - and photographed.

In the wilderness there are no straight lines or inerrant gentle curves.

Until the railroad came.

As the photographer he ever was, he saw that.

It captured his attention!

And now again, my own.


[1] That’s the same mysterious transformation from the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis to the Heavenly City in the Book of Revelation - of which our own existence is an intrinsic part.

Comments (2)

  • Yes Yes Yes!

    My great grandfather was a railroader – a conductor of freight trains. He worked until he was 72 when I am told he stepped down off the slightly moving train in the yard and fell. He walked into the office and said his time had come and resigned there and then. He died a very old man in 1942. I am grateful to have heard all the railroading stories from his son, my grandfather and his son, my father. I would walk to an abandoned station in our small town and put my nose against the glass to get a peek of life gone by – deserted with all the papers, chairs, benches, old phones in place as if someone had left for the night to return in the morning. Who were they? Where did they go? I loved looking in there and asking the questions, imaging the answers. The tracks that went on by were to be crossed rapidly and purposefully because a train might bear down out of no where at lightning speed! (Someone warned me I guess and I took it as truth!) The last picture I saw of my father’s photography after he died was looking down a track crossing a river railroad bridge, one tank car that stayed there at least 10 years. I heard only a few months ago that it was being torn down. The area has little use for the industrial spur tracks of lost industries. When we moved to the country luck would have it that we were near a swath cut through the forests for a pipeline. Pipelines swaths took the place of rails for my imagination. They were going somewhere other than “here” and it excited me no end. I had a fantasy of walking that swath all the way to Texas as I was told that is where it ended. PA all the way to TX!! Wow. And I believed it – hoped for it. My father often said that change is good, healthy even. So while I had been afraid of getting stuck on the railroad tracks I begin to wonder if we all are called to look down the tracks, the pipeline swaths, with the hope that the only thing we can see – the point they converge on – really is the same width as where we stand now – just in a different place. It took my aging to realize I could flow with the tracks and the swaths even though I didn’t see them. Where “they” take me is where I am to be and to stop fighting the journey. Great stuff out there following any rail that appears – well that’s what I think now that I am serving a small town with more railroads than I expected – crossings all over town – feeding into Toledo to the south. When I come to the crossings I go as slow as I can crossing, the excuse being my tires need to take it carefully. Now I hope I can catch a glimpse of a light coming down those tracks – or the rear car of a train trundling away. I did see a light one day and I didn’t bolt for fear off the tracks. Life is good knowing that whether I come to the end of the spur or into the yard or keep on scooting down the rails – it will be different and it will be good. Take a long look someday down the rails. Thrilling to imagine where they go!! Thanks Bill.

    — Cynthia, 9/4/2018
  • They are rather like Math. There is never an end. They look as if they go on for infinity.

    — Alice A, 9/6/2018

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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