An Infrastructure Pilgrimage

by Venkat on March 7, 2010

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.

Dan March 8, 2010 at 12:45 am

SUPER cool post, and incidentally, the first one I’ve forwarded to my father.

Joe March 8, 2010 at 7:23 am

Very enjoyable. Not to take away from the sanctity of your account, but I laughed out loud when I saw the banner ad that came bundled with this post in my RSS reader. It simply read:

scientology.org

No idea if the ads are content-sensitive, but I thought I’d share the smile.

Evil Rocks March 8, 2010 at 9:39 am

The next time that you’re in New York City, I suggest you traipse across the Manhattan bridge on foot. I walked across that bridge with my pants off one warm summer night, and didn’t meet a soul. Long walk, big bridge. Do it at night and put your pants in a bag – nothing quite compares to showing the biggest city in the US to one’s junk.

Venkat March 8, 2010 at 9:48 am

Dan: glad this meets the parent-friendly requirement. I plan to send this to my dad as well. Unlike most bloggers, oddly enough, my parents don’t normally read my stuff unless I give them a heads up that it is stuff they’ll get.

Joe: I believe the 3rd commandment in the religion of infrastructure is “thou shalt laugh at every commandment.” AdSense is also a piece of infrastructure worth both kneeling before and laughing at. I view it as a badge of honor that my content is usually capable of breaking Google’s relevance algorithms.

Evil Rocks: That is a borderline weird comment. I will definitely NOT be attempting to walk across the Manhattan bridge with my pants off.

Evil Rocks March 8, 2010 at 9:59 am

It is far more fun than you know ;)

Bart Stewart March 8, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Here’s another AdSense juxtaposition to add to the fun: I finished reading the piece with its reference to ballistic missiles… and realized the sponsored ad was “Learn Biblical Hebrew online with Israel’s best teachers!”

I’ll let the connection there speak for itself.

As for the piece itself, I wonder whether it’s something that only a born acolyte of infrastructural design can fully appreciate. For most people, I think, if you showed them a cutaway or “exploded” picture of some physical object, they’d think it was mildly interesting. And a few would become enthusiastic on seeing how the physical pieces fit together to form a complete working object.

But far, far fewer (in my experience) would begin to be able to appreciate the terrific satisfaction that the infrastructure designer feels on seeing a representation of some vast and complex process made real. The amazing thing about the Bailey Yard is not how many trains there are or the details of their physical connection — it’s grasping the scope of the process of their interactions that’s exciting. A map of this facility is not interesting merely because it’s complicated; such a map fascinates the infrastructurist because it reveals something of the dynamic structure of a complex but functional system.

Other representations can have a similar effect: schematic diagrams of aircraft or rockets; org charts (for sufficiently complex organizations); a photograph of a microprocessor; a social network map; representations in different contexts of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System — all of these and more are forms of infrastructure enabling various kinds of complex processes to occur. (Check out Google Images of “complex systems” or — a favorite site of mine — A Periodic Table of Visualization Methods for more examples of repesentations of the inner workings of complex systems.)

Very, very few people are inspired by images like these. So it’s a pleasure to run into someone like Venkat who not only groks the appeal, but who is able to articulate some of the reason for that appeal. Most folks see a representation of a complex, abstract, dynamic process and dismiss it as “complicated” and not really relevant to real-world concerns.

It’s nice to run into someone who can see and appreciate the beauty of the dance… even in systems whose functional result may not be beautiful at all.

RG March 8, 2010 at 10:42 pm

I used to think that those who don’t have or “get” real religion have to make do with such experiences from train yards/grain elevators/whatever. Now I believe the experience is equally “real” whether derived from nature or from human-built creations.

The reactions you encountered reminded me of my trip in the 1980s to Adi Shankara’s birthplace Kaladi in Kerala, a bus trip I undertook from my cousin’s home in Cochin, despite potential language glitches and despite discouraging sounds from people who had been there. A simple and quiet temple, adjoining a serene pond where legend has it that young Shankara, apparently with a leg seized by a crocodile (probably a floating log?), extracted permission from his mother to become a monk. There was absolutely not a single soul anywhere, even in the tiny bookshop in the temple premises so I had to wait in order to buy a book (my usual way of paying respect to codifiers and spreaders of knowledge).

I was also reminded of another recent experience on a trip to Pratapgad fort near the touristy hill station Mahabaleshwar, where the official tour guide, a descendant of the original soldiers of Shivaji, rattled off 5 or 6 design principles behind the construction of the fort entrance. The sheer pride in his voice throughout the tour was worth more than the under 5 dollar tip.

Venkat March 9, 2010 at 3:24 pm

RG: Atheists tend to be among the most religiously inclined people you can meet.

Bart: That Israel/Hebrew ad is seriously unintended hilarity. I like visualization methods, but I guess my primary lens for looking at such stuff (though I like schematics etc.) is narrative exploration. I find that reflective storytelling is the best way for me to understand complexity. The visual analogy is a “radioactive tracer” experiment. You understand certain bodily pathologies by sending a tracer through. You understand beyond-human complexity by becoming a tracer yourself and living a story through the system…

Venkat

Greg B March 10, 2010 at 6:52 pm

“You understand beyond-human complexity by becoming a tracer yourself and living a story through the system…”

I’ve maintained for a while that in one sense maturity consists of writing/developing your own story, instead of basing your life on a plot/archetype you already know. Your formulation here gives more room to expand that out, I think.

Venkat March 12, 2010 at 11:17 am

Great minds think alike :) Two chapters of my upcoming book are devoted to creative archetypes and narratives.

RG March 10, 2010 at 8:21 pm

“Understand beyond-human complexity by becoming a tracer yourself and living a story through the system” sounds like [a] Fantastic Voyage! Many stories in that wikipedia link including its novelization from the film script, released earlier than the film(because Asimov was fast) and the theory that the miniature model stolen by a bird is probably lying in a nest somewhere.

Josh W March 12, 2010 at 7:17 am

I’d agree with the first bit in america, but I know some really dull atheists in the UK! In our country you don’t need to make any choice to be an atheist, just be a bit lazy and like scoffing at the established church. Oh and being inclined towards a feeling of superiority apparently helps too, it seems those guys have switched sides and are no longer becoming priests.

Thankfully on the other hand we do have a reasonably high amount of the “the garden is beautiful without faeries” people too. Those people who can look at a piece of the world and see the strangely familiar order of it.

Personally I’m a sort of “faeries are a bonus” guy myself! I’ll never underestimate the worlds power to suprise me, but I won’t seek out the weird by devaluing the ordinary.

Josh W March 12, 2010 at 9:52 am

On the tracer/storylines thing, it reminds me of some more complex variant on the method of characteristics: http://scottsarra.org/shock/shock.html

Basically you break down the whole space into a family of paths, with the coordinate system being which path you are on, and how far along it you are. The classic fluid example being following a streamline.

chrisb March 11, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Before Bailey Yard, there was Enola Yard, Pennsylvania.

This yard was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1905 and was the world’s largest freight yard through the late 1950s, containing 145 miles of track and 476 switches.

Then, the name of the bomber which delivered the first nuclear weapons to a target was the Enola Gay.

A boy who shared my bus ride home from school never tired of declaring “Enola Yards was number three on Hitler’s target list, after Washington, DC and Newport News, VA.”

I absorbed this knowledge as a child, recognizing the ensemble.

Now you have identified the new incarnation of the ensemble, or at least, its new location.

The first fission weapon was tested at Trinity.

Thanks for your pilgrimage.

Susan March 12, 2010 at 10:14 am

Hey, I’m a woman, and I DEFINITELY get infrastructure religion. And so do a lot of the women I work with. We’re out here. :) Thanks for this great post.

Venkat March 12, 2010 at 11:22 am

Josh W.: Your comment reminds me of an episode of Yes, Prime Minister involving the appointment of a new bishop, and they put one candidate up because he is interested in steam engines, cricket and has a complete lack of interest in religion itself. I think I am remembering this right.

Susan: Heh, I was baiting a little bit there, just to see if any women would bite. I am glad you did, and glad to know this religion enjoys gender diversity :)

Re: tracer stuff… hmm.., seems like a lot of people like the tracer metaphor. Now if only I can think up something more intelligent to say about it in another blog post. I’ve had an idea for a tracer-themed thought experiment/blog/short story for a while, where some guy gets it into his head to start an “international potato day” and we learn about how the world works through the story of his attempt to create one, all the way from some local town to a UN resolution and a US Presidential declaration or something. I might do this one, if I can flesh it out.

Venkat

biscuts and gravy February 21, 2011 at 10:21 pm

As an Omaha-an, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Well done sir.

Barak June 6, 2012 at 8:13 am

Interestingly, I took my own odd pilgrimage to that area: One of the largest migrations on the planet (Sandhill Cranes) passes through Nebraska. I went on my own and got similar curious looks when explaining my purposes. To be sure, many retiree couples were present but I was an odd young man in their midst.

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