Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hump Day

The term “Hump Day” applied to Wednesday is how the North American working class hero describes the dead middle of his/her 5-day work week (the German name for Wednesday is “Mittwoch,” literally translated as “mid-week”). A hero of the working class, as described by its poet laureate John Lennon, is a person who works for someone other than himself, so you can bet your ass he’s counting the days.

On the East coast of the U.S., the word “hump” is a noun, a slur, a demeaning, invalidative name for someone that is more than derogatory. On the West coast, at least in the Northwest part of it where I’m from, “hump” is a verb that is used to mean to exert oneself in the effort to accomplish a difficult, physically demanding  task; and sometimes, as a noun, as a description for that difficult, physically exhausting task.

But as I watched the trailing edge of the freight train while shooting this short video, the hump that came to mind was Tehachapi Pass, that geological barrier negotiated by the slender route carved along the natural crease between the northeast limit of the Tehachapi Mountains and the southwest end of the Sierra Nevada range. The two railways that use this route are the two largest in North America—the Southern Pacific/Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (or BNSF, a 1996 corporate merger of the Burlington Northern and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads).

CalTrans (the California Department of Transportation) estimates that for the BNSF alone, there are an average of fifty 6,000-ft.-long freight trains per day that move through the Tehachapi Pass. That is some serious humpin’.

Talking recently to my buddy Bill Pettyjohn, we were considering all the forms of freight and cargo transportation, ever, in the history of the world. Had there ever been anything that approached a freight train for the sheer magnitude of freight transported? In the history of Western or Eastern civilization, absolutely not. No contest. The cargo on Phoenician trade ships? The volume of stone moved while building the Egyptian pyramids or Peruvian walls? Impressive for sure, but not even close. This planet has never seen the kind of humpin’ happening on a freight train.

The sheer magnitude and amplitude of effective work accomplished, represented by one single freight train bound for glory and prosperity across the Tehachapi Pass with a load of broccoli or Ford trucks or natural gas, defies comparison with anything in history. Forget mere Yankee ingenuity. Yankee industry is what fires this engine.

And get this. Remember the Steve Goodman song that Arlo Guthrie made famous, “The City of New Orleans?” Remember all the conductors and porters and engineers and the “disappearin’ railroad blues?” Likely as not, the mythical 3:10 to Yuma, or in this case the 5:08 to Mojave that you see in my video, is now operated buy one person. Aided by satellite communications and a Mac laptop, the engineer is the chief, cook and bottlewasher for the whole enterprise.

Good luck getting over your hump today.

No comments: