My grandfather, Luther E. Brown, Sr., was an engineer for the Southern Railway 1401, a steam locomotive now on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It's the largest train in the National Museum of American History.
I visited the train for the first time when I was twenty-six years old while on a cross-country trip with my oldest bestie, Dana. I had known my grandfather as a kid because he visited us in California every few years. He died when I was a freshman in high school. My grandmother didn't like to travel; therefore, on my trip around America in our Volkswagon Westfalia camper named Blue, I met my grandmother for the first time while in Virginia.
It's an understatement to say how excited I was to see the train in the museum. "I'm going to see my granddaddy's train," I told the first staff member I came across. We made our way through the museum and found the glorious 1401 in front of a long bank of windows. The train is painted dark green with gold trim, and the staff keeps her polished and clean. The wheels are almost as tall as me.
At that time, there wasn't a fence around the train or the cab, and when I saw a young man go behind the train and enter the cab, I thought, if he can do it I can too. "I'm going in," I told Dana, as I slipped behind the train and climbed the steep steps. As I grabbed the bars and pulled myself into the cab, the young man turned around, and for the first time I saw he was wearing a Smithsonian name tag. Whoops!
I spurted out my story. "This is my granddaddy's train and I am seeing it for the first time. I live in California and I'm travelling around the country and I met my grandmother, etc. etc..." I was nervous and thought I was in trouble.
The tall, young black man listened patiently. Then he said, "Do you want to blow the whistle?"
Did I?! Yes, I did! I pulled the lever that made her "Choo choo!" I wish I could tell you that I remember what the whistle sounds like, but I can't. I do remember that I looked out the cab window and waved to Dana, just as my grandfather likely waved at kids as he ran the 1401 fast through the Blue Ridge mountains.
I love trains and trails, and whether I'm taking the California Zephyr to Chicago or the Empire Builder to Glacier National Park, I'm never late. As the granddaughter of an engineer, I know that people wait for trains, and trains don't wait for people.
I wrote an article recently for the Bay Area Monitor about rails-to-trails in the San Francisco Bay Area. I learned why it sometimes makes sense to convert a railroad right-of-way to a regional trail. I also learned that there is sometimes room for both.
|Me in the Grand Tetons on our trip around America|