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Railroads: My Pursuit of Familiarity that Reflects New Chapters in Military Life

Updated: Oct 21, 2021


Me posing in front of an Army locomotive at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in 2005.

During times of change, people find solace in any form of familiarity — it is human nature. I hate to repeat the cliche Heraclitus quote, but change is the only constant in life. This concept is magnified in the military lifestyle, a staple of which is repeatedly moving across the country or even the world so the sponsor can fulfill their next job assignment. Even though we move with our families, it is still hard to find stability in a new place with culture, geography, and people that we are not used to. A hobby that has brought me familiarity through numerous PCS moves is the observation, photography, historical study, and writing of railroads.


We military brats are influenced profusely by all of the places we live in, despite the quick turnovers. Even if you've only moved within the U.S., you've probably found that local culture varies greatly between regions, states, and regions within states. When we move, we bring knowledge, traditions, accents, and even languages with us, constantly adding to our cultural palette. Similar to the way culture varies from region to region, railroads, their history, and the geography they traverse vary throughout the country, making train watching unique no matter where you are.


My earliest railroad memories are of BNSF Railway hauling brand new Boeing fuselages through the rainy pine forests of Washington state. I later spent four years in the humid state of Louisiana, living next to Kansas City Southern Railway's transnational mainline on which the hum of laboring engines and tones of mellow horns soothed me to sleep. My interest in trains fully took off in Buffalo, New York, where my father and I spent hours watching CSX and Norfolk Southern Railway trains navigate deep lake effect snow. My next two years of life were spent in Arlington, Virginia, (my least-favorite PCS) where the "Metro" subways ruled the rails. A ten-month assignment in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, (best PCS ever!) allowed my father and me to observe the dense Norfolk Southern lines that traced the Susquehanna River and infested the Appalachian Mountains. Today, I live next to the Union Pacific Railroad in Minnesota where I enjoy watching patriotic yellow locomotives haul frac sand across Midwestern farmland.


Though railroad names, paint schemes, histories, freight hauled, and geography navigated are different from region to region, all U.S. railroads use the same locomotive models, track gauge, and general operating procedures. It is thanks in part to their interconnectivity and interoperability that our nation (and continent, in fact) and its economy have a solid railroad backbone. The rumble of locomotives, blare of horns, click-clack of cars rolling by, and feeling these create are the same no matter where I am, and that familiarity has helped me through several difficult moves.


If you haven't already, I strongly encourage finding a hobby that you feel passionate about. They are a great way to relieve stress and help find new friends. Hobbies that incorporate geography tend to tie in well with the nomadic lifestyle of us military brats. Our way of life is challenging, but it also provides unique opportunities, such as being able to experience many different examples of railroading.



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