Train hunting in Traverse City

A train comes through Traverse City a couple of times a week, at most. For rail fans, that isn’t enough. And my son, Nelson, age 12, is a major fan. For two years now, we’ve tried to get a glimpse of the train. He wanted videos, pictures, the whole package to post to www.railfan.com.

Then, this fall, we had a break in the case. We heard that the train came through on Tuesdays for sure.

So we went.

The first Tuesday, we spent 4 HOURS sitting by the tracks, walking the tracks, biking the TART trail next to the tracks. We did not see a train. But we made friends with the gal at The Filling Station and explored a stretch of tracks by 14th Street covered with broken glass and loneliness.

Nelson was thrilled. He looked at the line switches, the ballast, the rails, the ties. And after four long hours, he was ready to come back the next Tuesday.

I tried to say no, but (as he reminded me), I had promised him that this was the year we would see that train. No matter what.

The next Tuesday morning came and Nelson gave the war cry: It’s 10 a.m.! The “ghost train” (as I fondly thought of it) supposedly came between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

THE near miss

There was a mad scramble and by 10:30 a.m., we made a frantic exit.

Only to arrive and find out from the gal at The Filling Station… that the GLC train had just gone by.

“Like five minutes ago.”

Well, that was a challenge if I’d ever heard one.

“Get in the car!” I roared. One of the kids wasn’t even in yet when I threw the car into reverse. We knew the train was taking its weekly delivery of lumber to Amerhart in Williamsburg. (This was confirmed by a very confused man who answered the phone at Amerhart on the prior Tuesday.)

So I knew we were headed east. The train could only travel between 10 and 15 mph (yes, more research that was paying off in spades). We figured we could catch this thing before Acme if I disregarded most traffic laws.

One look at Nelson’s hopeful face, and I peeled out. This train would be mine.

I got onto Grandview Parkway and turned right. That train was somewhere big and blue, and chugging quietly behind a full thrush of trees, taunting me.

Finally, we saw it! A flash of blue. It was behind the Dairy Queen and, if we hurried, we could catch it crossing Four Mile Road.

I didn’t realize that Kendall was recording all of this on his iPhone – including all of the colorful language I was using to will traffic out of our way.

“Delete that,” I said with steel in my voice. All part of train hunting.

Down we went, careening around the corner and parking at the corner plaza. The children leapt out of the car and the train came roaring up the moment we got out.

It was, without exaggeration, a vision.

The train blew its horn for the road crossing and Nelson shook with excitement (we have a blurry  video to prove it). The engineer waved at us. Success, I thought, with relief. A mother’s ode to her train-loving child. One and done.

NOT EVEN

When we climbed back in the car, Nelson shouted the words that I feared most: “Chase him!”

I wanted to say no, but my killer instincts took over and, in my mind, I masterfully charted every RR crossing between Don’s Drive-In and a lumberyard in Williamsburg I’d never even seen.

I was in rare form.

We soon caught the train lumbering along the bay next to Five Mile and just about to cross the TART trail. We climbed out. We took another video. The engineer waved again. Yes, I was using the kids as my cover, but I was getting caught up in this whole rail-fanning thing.

Next, we went up Bunker Hill Road for a rarely seen “signal crossing with flashing red lights.” (per Nelson)

Another video! Another wave! The engineer was growing weary but he seemed resigned to our everlasting presence.

I began automatically Mapquesting roads I’d never been on. We hung a left and caught the train chugging through some fields. The engineer saw my black Jetta before he even blew his horn. I didn’t wave this time. It was getting awkward for everyone but Nelson.

Next stop, the Big Daddy: Amerhart.

THE end game

We pulled into the lumberyard to wait. I steeled myself for some more awkwardness as we parked in the middle of the stacks of wood and waited for a forklift to approach.

“Can I help you?” asked a leather-skinned man on a Bobcat.

Nelson slouched down in his seat and let me take the heat solo. I went into a fumbling explanation about train hunting. I could tell by the look on the man’s face that he couldn’t see what my point was.

“Well, I’m not liable for you!” he finally bellowed in response.

I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t liable for him either.

I held my breath and used silence as my defense.

“You’ll have to park over there!” he said, after a long (again, awkward) pause. He spun on his zero-radius machine and left us to it.

Which is when the train came rolling in.

Again, it was a vision.

More video, back to the waving.

But, it wasn’t over.

I know, how could that be? But it wasn’t.

The train had to return to the depot in TC and switch to another set of tracks to head back to Cadillac.

I gathered what was left of my pride and we headed back to The Filling Station to wait for his return route.

By 1 p.m., he was there, the pizza was gone and Nelson was reviewing video of “the best day of his life.”

When it was over (for real), we found our flattened pennies on the track and watched our man drive off into the sunset. It was then that Nelson asked: “Can we come back next Tuesday?”

And so it’s been. That Tuesday was the start of several rail-fanning trips—to Cadillac, to Grand Rapids, to the U.P.

Turns out, anywhere you go, you can tack on a rail-fanning side trip, much to Nelson’s delight. (And maybe, just maybe, mine too.)

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