WAY OUT HERE - Steel rails stitch together past, present, future

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One of the things we love about living way out here is that there are railroad tracks that pass by our Walkers Ranch. They're about a third of a mile away - close enough to feel like it's "our" train, but far enough away that it doesn't sound like it's gonna plow through our living room each time it goes by.

We love the trains - hearing the powerful engines and watching the behemoths charge down the tracks. They transport everything from coal and propane to lumber and windows - and just about anything else. Imagining what might be in all those box cars is part of the fun, and just one more reason we feel so at home here in western Walla Walla County.

I have to admit, I even like it when they occasionally wake me up in the middle of the night. Yep. During that time in the spring and fall when neither the heater nor air conditioner is necessary and we've got the windows open.

Sometimes the train rumbles by, just loud enough to draw me out of sleep. I listen to the bass of the big diesels, its many cars of various types clanging on the rails and then it fades off into the night, on toward its destination. I smile, roll over and then drift off back into dreamland, content and happy that I'm lucky enough to have "my own" train.

My late Uncle Ray Roger Winship Jr. loved trains as well. He was a model railroad enthusiast and liked to collect old railroad and train parts. He took thousands of train pictures over the years, too, long before digital photography.

Being an awesome uncle, Ray Jr. passed his love of trains to my brother and me as we grew up. I suppose most young boys have a fascination with trains, but Uncle Ray had a model railroad running through half of his house and real train parts in his front yard!

Anyhow, during our travels around the Northwest our family would always make a point to stop at any railroad attractions - especially, old trains. The steam- and coal-powered trains from the 1800s have always been my favorites.

We even road tripped way out into the boonies of Utah to see where the "Golden Spike" was laid, the point at which the rails of the first transcontinental railroad were joined.

I also remember a time, in about 1980, when my dad, my brother and I were going to a Seattle Sounders soccer game at the old Kingdome.

We usually parked underneath the viaduct or some other funky place to save a few bucks on parking. So as we were walking towards the Dome, a train came down one of the many tracks that pass through the area. We patiently waited, knowing most trains pass by in a few minutes at most.

But this train began to slow down - slower and slower and slower - and just kept crawling by. As we looked back down the tracks, there was no end in sight and time kept ticking by.

It was almost time for the kickoff and we were all getting antsy.

"Dad, it's going slow enough that we can run underneath one of the cars," I said.

"That's not safe, son," my dad replied.

But the train kept rolling on, excruciatingly slow. Eventually Dad said, "All right. Do you think you can get through on your own while I help your brother?"

I was about 9 years old and my brother was 5.

"Yep. No problem, Dad," I replied.

Before I knew it we were madly dashing underneath a rolling box car!

We were quite smooth, just like James Bond would have been. In a flash we were on the other side, without anyone tripping on the rails.

After brushing off a little dust we walked on towards the Kingdome and made it just in time for the kickoff. The Sounders beat the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 that night, as I recall.

The episode is one of my favorite memories of my Dad. (As my mother reads this, I expect it's the first time she's ever heard the story!)

Now, several decades later, I love to wander down the tracks that pass by Walkers Ranch, picking up a stray spike every now and then.

As I walk along I think about days gone by - my late uncle who sparked my love of trains, family trips to see the great iron horses of the past and, of course, my late father, who trusted his two young sons to do something daring, crazy and fun.

Now, I even get to work with train tankers as part of my job for a local propane company.

Yep. Trains were meant to be in my life - connecting me to the past and charging down the rails into the future.

Burbank-area writer Erik D. Walker, author of "In Pursuit of the Perfect Burger," can be reached at erikandtina@walkersranch.com.

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