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Edition #75, April 1, 2008

On the Rocks

Photographer: Scott Lothes

                                              Photo by Scott Lothes

On the Rocks

“Should we eat dinner before we come over tomorrow?” I asked Dad.

He thought for a moment.

“Let’s see…I guess you could just get something before you come.”

Then his eyes lit up as if he’d just remembered something important.

“Or if you want to try something a little different,” he said more to my wife than to me, “get here by 5:00 and I’ll grill you some deer steaks.”

We both looked at Maureen.

“I could try that,” she agreed.

“We’ll see you at 5:00,” I told Dad.

My dad is a hunter, and a good one. For an average hunting season in West Virginia, some 400,000 hunters kill about 250,000 deer. That’s less than one deer per person. Dad calls it a bad year if he doesn’t get at least four.

You won’t find any deer heads mounted on the walls of Dad’s house. In a world of trophy-buck-craze and elaborate antler grading systems, Dad refuses to “hunt for horns.” For him, hunting is all about being outdoors and putting meat on the table. From a deer Dad kills, every edible scrap gets used.

The next evening, Dad emerged from his back patio carrying a plate piled high with hot, dark brown steaks. He served them immediately, and they nearly covered our plates. Dad blessed the food, and both he and I tore into the meat with ancestral hunger. Maureen was a bit more reserved, cutting carefully and chewing tentatively. Dad and I paused long enough to cast her an apprehensive glance.

“Do you like it?” we asked.

“It’s good,” she smiled, and took another bite.

A few minutes later, only the small piece of thigh bone was left on our plates.

I didn’t grow up with my dad, and maybe because of that, or maybe just because of my nature, I didn’t grow to share his love for hunting. My own hunting days ended after two unsuccessful squirrel hunts at age 10. I still grew to share Dad’s love for the outdoors, though. With my discovery of railroad photography a decade later, I finally realized just how much.

Dad and I left early the next morning, just as the sky was getting light and the fog was still rolling off the Kanawha River. I drove east, upstream, to where the Kanawha is formed at the confluence of the Gauley and the New River. From there we continued east, following the road up Gauley Mountain, out of the river valleys and onto the plateau at the top of the New River Gorge.

“Where are we going today?” Dad had asked me earlier. 

“To one of my favorite places,” I’d told him.

It was the first time Dad was joining me for a day of train hunting. I had no aspirations of making a train hunter or photographer out of him. I just wanted him to see what I did, and to maybe see a little of himself somewhere inside it.

From the highway, we turned onto a one-lane, paved road, and from it we turned onto a single lane of gravel. I parked the car and gathered my gear from the backseat.

“This is Beauty Mountain,” I told him, “and it’s aptly named.”

We started out the trail and admired the trees. It wasn’t the most vibrant fall, but many red and gold leaves still carpeted the ground and clung to their branches beneath the clear, blue October sky.

“I wish I knew the names of more of these trees,” I remarked as I picked up a slender, red leaf. “I need to get a guidebook to bring with me on these trips.”

“I used to do that all the time,” Dad replied.

The comment surprised me. It shouldn’t have, given Dad’s love for the outdoors, yet somehow the image in my mind was that of a monomaniac unconcerned with tree species.

“I can’t take my guidebook when I’m hunting. You have to sit still and be absolutely quiet. And hunting is about the only time I get out in the woods these days…”

His voice trailed off, and he sounded a little sad, but he quickly perked up and continued, “I used to know the names of all these trees, though. I’ve probably forgotten the names of more trees than most people ever knew.”

He hadn’t forgotten them all, though. Presently he stopped, picked up a leaf, and showed it to me.

“Sassafras,” he said, and pointed up at the tree from which it had fallen. “They have three different kinds of leaves that all grow on the same branches. I always thought that was interesting.”

“What about this one?” I asked, offering him the red leaf I had picked up earlier.

“I wish I could remember,” he replied. “I used to know. Put it in your pocket and I’ll check tonight.”

Fifteen minutes of hiking brought us to my spot.

“Here we are,” I announced, picking my way down the rocks to the edge of the sandstone cliff where the trees parted in a panoramic view of the gorge. Eight hundred feet below us rolled the northward-flowing New River, sweeping through a wide bend that afforded long views both upstream and down. One track of CSX’s New River Subdivision ran along each bank.

I told Dad the history of the gorge, and showed him the bare spots along the canyon walls where coal tipples and mining towns used to line both sides of the river. He marveled at the sight, and at the effort it must have taken to build such a railroad using mid-19th century technology.

“I can’t believe I’ve been running around this state my whole life and have never been out here before,” he said. “This is beautiful.”

“Today’s an Amtrak day,” I explained, “and that’s good because it gives us at least one train we can more or less count on.”

“Is it hard to find other trains?”

“It can be. This line is pretty unpredictable. I’ve seen it go completely dead for hours, and then I’ve seen trains running on top of each other. I just like to come out to these big rocks and see what happens. You’ll almost always see at least a couple.”

“That’s a lot like hunting,” Dad mused. “If you find a good spot in deer country and stay there, you’ll almost always see something. Now then, where will this train be coming?”

“It should come around the bend right there,” I said, pointing way down the river. “Most eastbounds use #2 track, on the other side of the river, but Amtrak almost always runs up #1.”

“And when are you expecting it?”

“Well, it was running about an hour and a half late when I checked this morning, so if that hasn’t changed, it should be here in about an hour. In the meantime, I’m hoping for another train.”

My biggest concern in bringing Dad with me was the long waits between trains. He’s a self-proclaimed man of extremely little patience when he’s not waiting for a deer. Up on those rocks, though, looking out at the river and the occasional hawk or buzzard circling the treetops, he didn’t seem to mind at all.

We had only been waiting twenty minutes when the scanner crackled to life and announced an approaching eastbound.

“That’s not Amtrak already, is it?” Dad asked.

“I don’t think so. I think we’re going to get a freight train.”

“They only haul coal on this line, right?”

“It’s mostly coal, but there’s actually a good bit of other traffic.”

Dad listened with interest as I explained the daily pair of mixed freight trains, the rare sulphur trains, and the seasonal grain trains.

“I’d like to see one of those grain trains sometime.”

The scanner crackled again, and this time I could pick out the symbol: G882.

“I think you’re going to see one right now.”

Way down the canyon, rising above the river’s roar, came the surge of two big Dash 8s struggling to lift a heavy train against the river’s flow. We watched together as the headlights came into view through the shadows and then into the sun as the tracks curved below us. The covered hoppers marched by at a mere 15 mph as the laboring engines rounded another bend in the river. We could see nearly the entire train stretched out on the curving tracks below before the canyon swallowed it once again, one car at a time, until only the sound of the river remained.

Dad watched until the last car disappeared, then turned to me.

“I thought the best part would be when it first came into view, but my favorite part was seeing the whole train at once.”

“I try to capture that in my photography,” I replied. “Some people really focus on the locomotives, but I like to back out and show as much of the train and the scenery as I can.”

Amtrak came along 45 minutes later, and Dad thought it looked like a little snake twisting through the bends in the river. We went other places and saw other trains, and by the end of the day Dad was already talking about coming with me again sometime.

“I think what you do and what I do are pretty similar,” he concluded. “In fact, I can only see one difference.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“You can’t eat a train!”

Scott Lothes

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