In Omaha, I was asked this question multiple times: “Err… why do you want to go to North Platte?” Each time, my wife explained, with a hint of embarrassment, that we were going to see Bailey Yard. “He saw this thing on the Discovery Channel about the world’s largest train yard…” A kindly, somewhat pitying look inevitably followed, “Oh, are you into model trains or something?” I’ve learned to accept reactions like this. Women, and certain sorts of infidel men, just don’t get the infrastructure religion. “No,” I explained patiently several times, “I just like to look at such things.” I was in Nebraska as a trailing spouse on my wife’s business trip, and as an infrastructure pilgrim. When boys grow into men, the infrastructure instinct, which first manifests itself as childhood car-plane-train play, turns into a fully-formed religion. A deeply animistic religion that has its priests, mystics and flocks of spiritually mute, but faithful believers. And for adherents of this faith, the five-hour drive from Omaha to North Platte is a spiritual journey. Mine, rather appropriately, began with a grand cathedral, a grain elevator.
As you leave the unlikely financial nerve center of Omaha behind, and head west on I-80 (itself a monument), you hit the heartland very suddenly. We stopped by the roadside just outside of Lincoln, about an hour away from Omaha, to spend a few meditative minutes in the company of this giant grain elevator. There is no more poignant symbol of Food Inc and global agriculture. It is an empire of the spirit at its peak, facing a necessary decline and fall. The beast is rightly reviled for the cruelty it unleashes on factory-farmed animals. The problems with genetically modified seeds are real. The horrendous modern corn-based diet it has created cannot be condoned. Yet, you cannot help but experience the awe of being in the presence of a true god of modernity. An unthinking, cruel, beast of a god, but a god nevertheless.
After a quick pause at Lamar’s donuts (an appropriate sort of highly-processed religious experience) we drove on through the increasingly desolate prairie. Near Kearney, you find the next stop for pilgrims, the Great Platte River Archway Monument.
This is a legitimately religious archway, and a thoroughly American experience. There are penny-stamping machines, kitschy souvenirs (which must be manufactured in China and container-shipped to Nebraska to count as holy objects; no locally-manufactured profanities for me) and the inescapable period-costumed guide who insists on speaking in character. Once you are inside, it is a curiously unsettling experience. Through multiple levels that cross back and forth across I-80, you experience the history of the nineteenth century expansion of Europeans into the American West, from the journeys of the Mormons to Utah, to those trudging up the Oregon trail, to the 49ers headed to California in search of gold. There is also stuff about the Native American perspective, but this is fundamentally a story about Europeans.
You take an escalator into the archway, where you work your way through the exhibits. There are exhibits about stagecoaches, dioramas of greedy, gossiping gold-seekers by campfires, and paintings of miserable-looking Mormons braving a wintry river crossing. There are other exhibits about the development of the railroad and the great race that ended with the meeting of the Union and Pacific railroads in Utah. In the last segment, you find the story of the automobile, trucking, and the early development of the American highway system. From the window, you can watch the most recent of these layers of pathways, Eisenhower’s I-80, thunder by underneath at 70 odd miles an hour.
It is a pensive tale of one great struggle after another, with each age of transportation yielding, with a creative-destructive mix of grace and reluctance, to the next. The monuments of the religion of infrastructure are monuments to change.
As you head further west from Kearney along I-80, the Union Pacific railroad tracks keep you company. I watched a long coal train rumble slowly across the prairie, and nearer North Platte, a massive double-decker container train making its way towards Bailey. If you know enough about container shipping, which I’ve written about before, watching a container train go by is like watching the entire globalized world put on a parade for your benefit. You can count off names of major gods, such as Hanjin and Maersk, as they scroll past, like beads on a rosary. From the great ports of Seattle and Los Angeles, the massive flood of goods that enters America from Asia pours onto these long snakes, and they all head towards that Vatican of the modern world, Bailey Yard.
All of the Union Pacific rail traffic is controlled today by computer from a command center in Omaha, but the heart of the hardware is in North Platte. Bailey Yard is a classification (train dis-assembly and re-assembly) yard. Trains enter from the east or west and are slowly pushed up one of two humps. At the crest of the hump, single cars detach and roll down by gravity, with remote-controlled braking. Each is directed towards one of around 114 bowl tracks (assembly segments), where new trains are assembled. Once a year, in September, during the North Platte Rail Fest, you can visit the yard itself. It’s sort of a railroad Christmas. On other days, you must be content with the view from the Golden Spike tower overlooking Bailey Yard.
It is hard to describe the grandeur of what you see. On the viewing deck there are benches — pews practically — that encourage you to sit and watch a while, and the inevitable retiree volunteer, anxious to explain things. During my time there, I spoke to a thin and rather sad-looking old man, a 33-year UP veteran. His tired face, covered with age spots, lit up briefly when I asked what must have been an unexpectedly technical question about the lack of turntables (platforms to turn engines around, since you cannot do a U-turn on a railway track). He explained patiently that with modern locomotives, you don’t need turntables, since they are equally efficient in either direction.
He also explained the humps and the sorting process, all new stuff for me. His was the non-meditative variety of infrastructure religiosity. Facts and figures, seared into memory, were his prayers. I listened as I always do on these occasions, with the reverence due to the recitation of scriptures.
The pace of activity at Bailey is deceptively slow. There is an appropriate gravitas to this grand mechanical opera that makes you wonder how the place can possibly process 10,000 cars a day, sorting about 3,000. And then you contemplate the scale of operations and understand. From the panoramic viewpoint at the top of the Golden Spike, it can be hard to appreciate this scale. At first I did not believe that there were 114 bowl tracks. There are 60 that lead off the west hump alone, and I had to do a rough count before I believed it. You have to remind yourself that you are looking at real-sized engines and cars sprawling across the flat Nebraska landscape. I’d be a bug underneath just one wheel of one of the four locomotives in the picture below. I am small. Trains are big. Nebraska is even bigger.
I hunted in the gift store for a schematic map of the yard, but there wasn’t one. The storekeeper initially thought I was looking for something like a model train or calendar, but when I explained what I wanted, a look of understanding and recognition appeared on his face. I had risen in his estimation. I was no longer an average, uninformed and accidental visitor. I was a fellow seeker of spiritual truths who knew what was important. “A lot of people ask for that,” he said and explained that after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security stopped the sale of the posters. He told me he expected the restrictions to be eased soon. Anyway, I took a picture of a beautiful large-scale map of the yard that was hanging in the lobby. Since Google Maps (search for North Platte and zoom in) seems to show about as much detail as my picture, I feel safe sharing a low-resolution version. If somebody scarily official objects, I’ll take it down.
To the religious, such schematics are sacred texts. You contemplate the physical reality to experience the awe, but you contemplate artifacts like this when you want to meditate on the universality of it all. Staring at the schematic, I was struck by its resemblance to schematics of integrated circuits. And that after all, is what a railway classification yard is. A large-scale circuit with bowl tracks for capacitors, humps for potentials and brakes for resistors. It is the beauty of thoughts like this, that connect microscopic chips of silicon to railroad yards too big even for a wide-angle lens, that gets us monks and nuns joining those monasteries of modernity, engineering schools. Laugh if you will, but I can get misty-eyed when looking at something like this schematic.
The next morning, we headed back, rushing to outrace a storm. We had enough time though, to stop at the Strategic Air and Space Museum. One of the first things I did after landing in New York for the first time in 1997, was to visit the USS Intrepid. Since then, I’ve visited the Wright-Patterson AFB museum, the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tuscon, AZ (with its acres of aircraft parked in the desert heat), oddball little airplane museums in obscure places, and of course, the Smithsonian. These days, I live close to Reagan National Airport. Sometimes, I take a walk along Mount Vernon trail, which at one point swings right past the end of the Reagan runway. There, you can stand and contemplate airplanes roaring overhead every few minutes.
But the Strategic Air and Space Museum is a different sort of experience, an experience designed to remind you that gods of infrastructure are angry, vengeful gods capable of destroying the planet. This is not the friendly god who lends you wings to fly across the world for work and life. These are the darker gods that can rain nuclear wrath down on us. And no god is more wrathful than the Convair B-36, a massive six-engined behemoth, with the largest wingspan of any combat aircraft in history, and appropriately called the “peacemaker.” Between 1949 and 1959, these beasts were the instruments of Cold War foreign policy.
To look at pictures of the B-36 in the sky is something of a sacrilegious act. You must never look at all of a B-36 at once. And within the confines of this museum, you cannot. Not with the human eye, and not with the camera. The picture above is one you can safely look at. It took some maneuvering to get all three engines of one wing into the frame.
And here I am, a tiny zit of a human being, standing below the belly of the beast, next to a hydrogen bomb (that stubby thing next to me).
No infrastructure pilgrimage can be complete without a reverential pause before a phallic god of destructive power. Menhirs and obelisks will not do for our age. Neither will skyscrapers, which are merely symbols of humanity’s child-like greedy grasping at earthly pleasures. Out in the heartland, among the grain silos (cornucopias?) where I began my pilgrimage, are scattered very different sorts of silos. Silos containing ballistic missiles, designed to soar up and kiss space, home to our loftiest aspirations, before diving back down to destroy us. Outside the museum, there are three Cold War ballistic missiles on display. Here is one. I forgot to look at the sign, but I think it is an early Atlas.