In the summer of 1882, deep into monsoon season, the first railroad tracks reached a small community at the foot of the San Francisco Peaks in the wilderness of the Arizona Territory. The railroad brought workers and the workers attracted saloons, dance halls and gambling, transforming a few isolated lumber mills into the town of Flagstaff. Today, between 80 and 100 trains barrel through Flagstaff every day. They are no longer the lifeblood of the town, but they are a reminder of our past.
When I first moved to Flagstaff in middle school, the trains were required to blow their horns at every railroad crossing. Many nights, I fell asleep to the mournful train whistle in the distance. Then, a few years ago, the city introduced wayside horns that you couldn’t hear from far away. The trains went silent, but I can still hear the rumble of freight cars on the tracks in my apartment on exceptionally quiet nights.
So, when I started work with some friends on a web series about life in Flagstaff, I knew I needed some footage of trains. So, this weekend, I sat at the corner of Beaver and Route 66 with a tripod in my backpack and a video camera tucked into the front pocket of my blue NAU hoodie. And I waited. I waited for the long arms of the railroad crossing to lower, for the red lights to flash, for the wayside horn to sound.
And I waited there for an hour. On an average day, 3-4 trains an hour come through town. I usually get stuck waiting for trains at least two or three times a week, but on the day when I actually wanted one to block traffic, it didn’t come. I guess Saturday is just a slow day for the BNSF.
I was pretty upset with the railroad when I went to bed that night. I set the alarm on my phone, switched off the bedside lamp and pulled my comforter up to my chin to keep out the advancing cold.
I was just starting to doze off when I heard that old, familiar sound — a mournful train whistle in the distance — and my frustrations were carried off with the wheels as they rolled west into the night. I’ll try again another day.
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Sources: The History of the Railroad in Flagstaff. Flagstaff Visitor Center. http://ow.ly/fOJEH
The short film “Blow No More” is a Shot By Gunn production, directed by Flagstaff documentarian Chris Gunn. It premiered at the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival in 2010. His newest project is called “Staying Sane in an Insane World.” More info at www.shotbygunn.com.