DEJA-VU ALL OVER AGAIN
(This article originally ran in the June, 2013 Camera Bag column in Railfan & Railroad Magazine.
It has been updated for presentation here.)
Yogi Berra, the great New York Yankees catcher and manager, is famous for the unique way he twisted popular sayings into his own "Yogi-isms," that while at first seem redundant or contradictory, on deeper reflection one realizes the stunningly straight forward way they express the true meaning of the thought. "We made too many wrong mistakes." "You can observe a lot just by watching." "The future ain't what it used to be." "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." "Half the lies they tell about me aren't true." "It ain't over till it's over." "It's like déjà-vu all over again."
Déjà-vu: "A feeling of reliving or re-experiencing something that happened in the past." I think it is safe to say we all have experienced at times that eerie feeling of having "been there" or "done that" before, maybe more than once or twice. And this theme is a good way to give some new purpose to your time trackside as well as add interest to a railfan slide or image show.
In the early 1980s during my years at the Arapahoe County jail beside the Burlington Northern / Denver & Rio Grande Western "Joint Line" tracks in downtown Littleton, Colorado (note that I WORKED in the jail as a deputy, I was not IN jail!), I had occasion to see many trains passing through town, and often spent some of my off days photographing in this area.
But since the 1970s, the town's concern had been growing over the many long, slow moving trains passing through town blocking the two grade crossings, potentially delaying fire and ambulances responding to emergency calls. The solution was a mile long "depression" built between 1983 and 1987 to lower the rails under the crossings. The accompanying photo of a Burlington Northern northbound train was taken in 1982 before the depression project had started. The Southern Pacific photo is in the same location, but taken 14 years later after the depression project was completed. Déjà-vu.
RIGHT: Southern Pacific northbound through Littleton, Colorado in the same location but in the Railroad Depression in 1996. Today there is a double light rail line where the tire tracks are.
And including my other activities here along with other photos of pre-railroad depression days, which spark memories of my time working in the jail as well as railfanning in the area (including some photos of trains taken from the roof of the jail with my Olympus XA pocket camera), it has been déjà-vu all over again each time I look at any of these photos or pass by this area again.
At times the feeling is so real I almost believe I can go back to the old jail (impossible, as it was torn down years ago) or walk out to the tracks to snap a passing train from the same view point (impossible, as the tracks are now lined with a high chain link fence). I have to mentally pinch myself to get back to reality. But then, that is how déjà-vu affects.
Another excellent example of a déjà-vu railroad location is the iconic Jukes Tree outside Chama, New Mexico on the former Denver & Rio Grande Western narrow gauge line, now the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic. This tree, a large, mature and very distinctively shaped pine, was made famous by D&RG employee and railfan Fred Jukes' 1908 photo of a little train passing under it. Today this tree is little changed from over 100 years ago.
For decades, going back into the 1950s or even farther, railfans pilgrimaging to Chama from all over the country as well as Europe and Asia have included photos of this tree with a train passing underneath in their itinerary, and it is frequently a location for photo run-bys on the excursion freights held annually on the C&TS. As just one example, in October 2012 I was waiting near the tree for a photo, when a group of German (I think, from the sound of their language) fans in town for the weekend's photo excursion freight drove up and set up their tripods and Video Cams for photos.
Every time I see this tree or photos of it, I get a déjà-vu feeling about Fred Juke's photo as well as the several times I have photographed the tree. Déjà-vu all over again AND again. (There were actually two different Jukes Trees, the second one is no longer standing. See The Mystery of Jukes Tree - Are They the Same Locations? which appeared in the April 1990 issue of Railfan & Railroad magazine.
Creating a sense of déjà-vu for yourself can be done in several ways. First, pick a location you have photographed that you find inspirational and have been getting the desire to go back and photograph again (the déjà-vu part), such as with my experiences on the Joint Line, and show them side by side at a slide or image show. (If the old photo is a slide or print and today you are shooting digital, scan the old image so it can be shown together with the new photo.) Or maybe you have traded slides and have acquired one or several showing interesting or historic locations that you would like to see and photograph yourself. You may have seen an interesting photo from a few decades ago in a book or magazine, and you could go out and photograph that location as it is today.
Or you could re-shoot a location one of your favorite railfan photographers who has inspired you is known for, duplicating his or her composition as much as possible. A photo by Richard Kindig of a steam locomotive in the "Tunnel District" on the Moffat Line west of Denver was an inspiration for me to try to find that location and duplicate it with the Rio Grande Zephyr. Now every time I see Richard's photo I feel like I have been there myself, which I have!
Be it a well known location such as the Keddie Wye, Tehachapi, Cajon, Donner Pass, Doug Harrop's Weber Canyon photos, photos of Big Boys and Challengers on Sherman Hill, O. Winston Link's Virginia, Horseshoe Curve, or just your favorite local railfanning spot..... What brings a feeling of déjà-vu to you?
Or if you have an old photo of a particular locomotive that is now in operation on another railroad, if you have the chance to be in the engine's new location a comparison of the same locomotive in the different locations for different railroads would be interesting.
Also consider extending the déjà-vu experience by photographing the same location several times, over a period of weeks or even years. This might be a good long term project to follow if the surroundings are in the process of change, such as new buildings going up. Especially if this has required changes to, or realignment of, the tracks. In my case with the Joint Line depression location, since the 1996 photo a light rail line has been added here, yielding yet a third variation to the location.
You probably at one time or another have seen those series of four photographs where the photographer took the exact same photo in each season, such as a landscape view with green foliage and wildflowers, then in fall color, then in winter's snow, and finally in spring with the trees budding out. The same can be done with trains. Pick a location where there is foliage present to capture the different look of each season.
Or, collect images of as many types of trains as you can at one location - unit tank cars, coal, unit grain, auto racks, freights, passengers, inspection trains, work trains, maybe even any steam runs, such as the Union Pacific RR in Cheyenne, Wyoming which on occasion runs one of their big steamers (4-8-4 "Northern" #844 or 4-6-6-4 "Challenger" #3985) on promotional trips to other areas in their vast system.
Any of the above approaches will make for a dynamite slide or image show, and might even help create a feeling of déjà-vu in one of the viewers. And you will tend to remember your own good railfanning times - and enjoy them all over again - when you see any of these photos.
There is one type of déjà-vu you will want to avoid. That is, remembering good railfanning times but realizing you can never experience them again. One example of mine is my memories of photographing the Louisiana and North West F units in the 1980s, that I wrote about in the February 2013 Camera Bag. These memories bring a twinge of regret and sadness I did not spend more time trackside there when I had the chance, for today those beautiful old F's are gone. Again, like Yogi would say, "I made too many wrong mistakes."
Ditto every time I look at my photos of the Denver & Rio Grande Western, Southern Pacific and Union Pacific on Tennessee Pass in Colorado. I get a mental "flash" of déjà-vu about those days over a decade and a half ago of listening for the first faint sounds of approaching diesel engines pulling a stiff grade, then photographing the train as it passed through Pando (the site of a WWII military ski training camp), then chasing it up to the Mitchell Curves.
As the UP simply quit operations over Tennessee in 1996 rather than go through the hassle of getting approval for abandonment, the tracks are still in place. Leading to a faint hope that the rusty, weed grown rails will someday be revived again, such as in the event of a lengthy closure of the UP's current east-west route through Colorado, the Moffat Line. Yes, as long as the rails are in place, I feel "it ain't over till it's over."
Would it not be nice to still be able to photograph Missouri Pacific, Southern Pacific, Western Pacific, Pennsylvania RR, or New York Central? And we may wish we could go back in time to photograph old time steam instead of steam tourist lines, but even the tourist lines can fold and one day we may be wishing they were back again.
Think about what you have available now, and what if your favorite railroad or locomotives were gone. Get as many photos as you can before nothing is left but déjà vu.
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