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Edition #203  August 1, 2013

Arkansas, In August

Photographer: Lance A. Wales

                                                                     Photo by Lance A. Wales


Arkansas, In August

 When I first met the woman that would later become my wife I already knew she was from 'down south.' And that was fine, it would give me a chance to go and visit her parents, Junior and Louise, and besides that there were several nice targets to railfan in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas throughout the 1990s. Of course I hit the Arkansas & Missouri along with the Kansas City Southern and the Missouri & Northern Arkansas but her parents lived around Thayer, MO which was (and still is to this day) a crew change point on the BNSF's old Frisco line from Springfield, MO that cuts southeasterly to Memphis, TN. It is a pretty line, with numerous curves and such. Traffic on the single-track line is fairly heavy too. You could usually see at least a dozen trains during most days. I was always happy to go down and photograph trains on the Thayer Sub. But the only drawback was the timing of our annual week-long trip during the Summer--it always fell during the first portion of August. This was because the shop where I work closes for the first part of that month. Hot, humid and hazy conditions were not the best, speaking for photography. But I managed to make it work for me. I would go out early in the day and shoot from sunrise until about 11 am or so, do family stuff during the middle of the day, and then go back out toward evening when things cooled down a bit. Sure I made numerous trips down there in the Spring, Fall and Winter too but the week-long visits were always in August.

Another thing that drew me to the Thayer Subdivision was the lack of photographic coverage of the line. In a time before those photography sites on the internet that some love to hate, there was little you could do to get a feel of an unknown line before visiting it. Unless one of the railfan magazines did a "go here, turn left" article on the specific subdivision, you were on your own. And I was fine with that too. It gave me the chance to explore and seek out new and 'unknown' territory. Hell, I could have been the first one to ever take a 3/4 wedge photograph from the gravel grade crossing at North Thayer!

There was one spot though that bedeviled me for several years. Just after southbound trains leave Thayer, MO with a fresh crew they enter Arkansas and quickly roll through the town of Mammoth Spring. The town is so named because of the large spring that sits just east of Highway 63. There is a state park there and the old Frisco depot is preserved as a local museum. The tracks run alongside the south side of the spring pool. A 12 foot waterfall lets the spring water cascade out of the pool as it becomes the Spring River, flowing south with the railroad alongside for the next 50 miles. It was a neat scene but after about seven years of trying to get a good image here and failing I was about to give up on the spot. The main issue was the scene looked almost due south with the waterfall to the west, so it was never really lit properly. Maybe it would have been ok at 8:15 p.m. on June 22 as the sun swung far to the north before the waterfall dropped into the shadows--then again I didn't know, since my visits were usually in August.

So this was the case on Sunday, August 1, 1999 as I was once again in Thayer, MO to see what the BNSF was going to throw at me. I was following the same game plan: I had been out from 7 until 11 am or so and shot six road trains. It seems like my wife Robin, our daughter Chrisitna along with Junior and Louise went down to Fred's Fish House for lunch ("Best Hush Puppies in the World"--they couldn't say that if it wasn't true!) in downtown Mammoth Spring and then I was back out trackside late that afternoon. After a couple of northbound intermodal trains left Thayer around 6 pm a southbound coal load slid down the hill from Koskonong to make its crew change. A pair of bright orange BNSF SD70MACs panted in front of the yard office as the inbound and outbound crews exchanged a few brief words. There was no direct sun anymore, it was 7:25 p.m. and clouds to the west had sort of muddled the scene. I just about let him go...except I didn't. I went down to Mammoth Spring to give the waterfall shot a look. It was obviously going to be an artsy-fartsy shot--I was shooting with Fujichrome Sensia, ASA 100. But the light had equalized between the waterfall and the background. The waterfall, blown out and pure white with the sun shining directly on it, was now a cool shade of blue. A slow shutter speed of 1/30 of a second would blur the waterfall, along with the train. With the light fading I could barely hear the train blowing for the grade crossing to the north. Although 8000 horsepower on the head end of a coal train is not quiet, the sound of 8 million gallons of water per hour crashing over the waterfall is a bit louder. A few visitors to the Mammoth Spring State Park completed the scene, obilivious to the passing train.

My inlaws no longer live 'down south.' Robin's dad, Junior, passed away a few years ago and now her mom now lives a few short miles away from us. No longer do I make the 500 mile trip down to southern Missouri every Summer. As I look back at some of the images I had a chance to take during those visits I now realize that those images were more than just photographs taken during a Summer Vacation--they were a chance to explore unknown locations and with the opportunity of repeated visits over several years, they let me get the proper light at some difficult scenes. Especially the waterfall at Mammoth Spring.

Robin still has a few aunts, cousins and assorted kin that live down south. She wants to visit them this year and I didn't put up much of a fight. I am looking forward to revisiting some of my favorite spots down south that I haven't seen in more than a decade. So once again I will be going to Arkansas, in August.

Lance A. Wales

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