Tuscaloosa has this train that cuts east-west right smack dab through the middle of town from one end to the other. Over the decades it has carried tons of people and freight; it has also carried a big fat truth that never occurred to me until recently.
Tuscaloosa Train Station Platform: Photos from www.trainweb.com
I have to cross these tracks at some crossing up and down the line, just to get, well, anywhere, say, to the grocery store or the hospital or the library or my granddaughter’s school or Edelweiss to meet my writing group for lunch.
Tracks heading east toward the VA hospital and out of Tuscaloosa
This train parallels one of the main thoroughfares, 15th St. There’s just about the same amount of city acreage north of 15th St. to the Black Warrior River as there is south to Memorial Hills Garden Cemetery on Skyland Blvd.
Amtrak’s 1,377- mile Crescent ride, from New Orleans through Washington D.C. to Penn Station in New York City barrels through here on these tracks – Big Easy to Big Apple. In the old days, when I was an undergraduate here and the Crimson Tide played Tulane in football match-ups, we’d get the Crescent heading to NO, carry on a lot of oranges, fill up the oranges with vodka, and drink the oranges. Ghhaaaa.
The freight these tracks carry every day is probably loaded up in the Louisiana or Mobile ports. I’ve often sat there for what seemed like an interminable length of time – before I could read my e-mail on an iPhone – grousing and screaming as boxcar after boxcar after freight car after freight car chugged by toward Birmingham.
One time a box car came into view with lots of nicely colored, fat-lettered graffiti saying, “George Bush is Gay.” I started laughing at this political statement in this unlikely place. I said out loud, “Why not use that talent to write, ‘The World is Coming to an End’ or something? Or just your initials and a heart?” No one was there to answer.
For decades and decades and decades, residents haven’t had to use the excuse “The dog ate my homework.” They just say, “I got caught by the train.”
A Click of the Light Bulb
Now I check my smart-phone e-mail as Hyundai boxcar after Hyundai boxcar after Hyundai boxcar rattle by en route probably to Montgomery, Alabama, where a plant is located.
My husband and I were sitting at the crossing one day, and he was parked way WAY back from the crossing as the train whizzed by going south. I said, “Why do you park so far back?”
He said, “You know this is the steepest longest railroad grade in the U.S.”
“Whaaaat?” I said in disbelief.
He said, “If the train de-rails, I’ll be ok.”
That pithy piece of info itched and itched my mind. How can it be the longest steepest U.S. railroad grade in the U.S. when we have Glacier National Park up in Montana?
So I started scratching around for the answer, and lo and behold, I found out the answer and then realized something really truthy:
This train is a metaphor for life.
Making the Grade
Looking for the answer naturally took me to the Internet, where I found out about the Saluda line in North Carolina. It’s the steepest grade in the U.S. but not the longest steepest. It’s a three-mile track that rises more than 600 feet in elevation “with a 4.7% but reaching 5.1% between the towns of Melrose and Saluda” in Polk County. Whatever that means. There were so many accidents with runaway downhill trains that they finally had to shut it down.
Then the Aha Moment: I’ll ask a civil engineer friend of mine. I e-mailed him, told him what my husband said, and asked if he knew anything about this longest steepest train line.
Bingo, he did: “I believe that Joe Lee is correct. I remember hearing one of my UA professors say that the railroad grade that goes north past the Veterans Administration hospital [at the far eastern end of 15th St.] is the longest and steepest in the US.
“During the design stage for widening 15th street from a two lane road to a six lane urban street, my job was to prepare a topographical map of the area from US 11 to the middle of the VA property. The map was used to select the final location of the big curve that 15th street makes over the railroad tracks right to the side of the VA. Our biggest danger was that trains from Birmingham would coast down that grade at high speed. There was no engine noise but there were plenty of times that a high speed train showed up from nowhere and scared the bejesus out of us.”
Wow, I thought. Then I e-mailed back: “Dan, This is such a neat little fact to know Now every time I see the train headed south toward the big curve, I'm ducking! Now I have to ask: If it's the steepest and the LONGEST, I wonder where it ends. On the other side of the Appalachians somewhere I guess. Washington D.C.? Thanks, Joanna”
He replied: “Surely you know better than to ever ask an engineer a question like where a certain grade ends! You just invited a 15 minute explanation on the friction between the rail and the steel wheels, the torque to overcome the grade and... eventually the answer you desired. Short answer - I don't have a clue where it ends. So have a great week on me!”
But I persisted: “Oh, too hilarious! I’m laughing, laughing, laughing. You tell me about torque and I'll tell you about the nominative absolute construction. Joanna”
He said: “I call for a truce and a great week for you.”
I got the last word: “Deal. And thanks. Joanna”
So here’s LIFE as told by a train.
You get on down at the Gulf waters, maybe the NO docks. It stops along the way at all these fun places and blows its whistle at all the crossings. Maybe you get off and hang out for a while. Buy oranges and vodka. But you have to get back on and keep going or be frozen in Time. To pass Your Time you can look at all the people stymied at crossings all the way to Penn Station.
Then the tough part starts somewhere in town around the VA hospital. It’s a long and steep uphill ride from then on. Some people were taken off way too early, and you look back; you probably cry. Maybe you get distracted and end up in say, Montgomery.
It keeps on chugging. It gets really torquey. You’ve gotta hang on, because somewhere up the tracks it will be your turn to de-train.
Somewhere on the tracks, it’s the last part of the ride. The end of the line. I don’t really have that part worked out yet. In this political climate, maybe being dumped at Union Station in Washington D.C. is the closest thing to The Flames you can imagine. It will probably be my luck to be shoved out somewhere north of Baltimore, maybe in New Jersey somewhere.
It’s all a real shame. In the last part of the ride, you get smart about a lot of things. You try to scream loud enough about living the train ride for those behind you to hear, but the wheels’ screeching, clicking, and throwing sparks are too much to overcome.
The next time you’re at a crossing, park way back from the tracks, breathe deeply, and try to catch a glimpse of the people in the Crescent’s dining car. Just remember, you’re on that fast train.
Here's the scoop on elevations and locations:
New Orleans: 6 ft. @ 29.95 N 90.08 W
Tuscaloosa: 190 ft. @ 33.19 N 87.56 W
My house, east of VA hospital: 400+ ft.
B’ham: 600 ft. @ 33.51 N 86.81 W
Anniston: 675 ft
Atlanta: 910 ft.
elevations drop from here, except at High Point, NC, at 940 ft.
Union Station: 50 ft. @ 38.90 N 77.01 W
Penn Station: 40 ft. @ 40.75 N 73.99 W