If you are a cyclist who loves your data – your average speed, total feet of climbing, monthly mileage, rank on Strava etc., you know it can be hard to look up from the computer on your handlebars and enjoy all the beautiful places you ride. I’ve been trying, but I did get a new Garmin for Christmas and the gravitational pull back to my handlebars is hard to resist. Now my Garmin shows me the grade — the steepness of the climbs — so I have a number to go with the pain. It’s almost irresistible when the road pitches up.
Despite the new data and other, still unlocked features of the new computer, I am determined to ride my bike in new places, see new things, stop at more stores, view more vistas – and basically lift my head up and look around.  When I looked this time, a steam locomotive was headed my way.

I had hoped to snap a shot of the bike with the train in the background. Sadly it wasn't to be.

I had hoped to snap a shot of the bike with the train in the background. Sadly it wasn’t to be.

So as my wife Mary and I were out for a ride on Saturday, I noticed a father and son and two other men sitting in lawn chairs as we crossed some railroad tracks on the west side of Roanoke County.
“Is the 611 coming through by any chance?” I asked, referring to the famous J-611 steam locomotive which recently returned to the tracks and is drawing visitors from all over the world to Roanoke.
“Any time now,” they said.
This seemed like the perfect opportunity to not only see the famous locomotive, but to put into practice my hope of making the bike more than just an outdoor piece of cardio equipment. We leaned the bikes against a utility pole and joined the others in looking down the tracks in eager anticipation.

Slowly, at first. people began joining us at our remote outpost.

Slowly, at first. people began joining us at our remote outpost.

After about ten minutes I began to wonder what “any time now” actually meant. For a while, we learned, no one in our small group actually knew.
Then a few more people showed up and said the train had left Christiansburg an hour ago. “Any time now,” felt pretty accurate. So we waited and stared down the tracks some more.

Mary yawns while waiting for the train.

Mary yawns while waiting for the train.

We saw a light on the tracks, but it turned out to be one of those white Norfolk Southern pick-up trucks adopted for rail travel. Big disappointment.
Then we heard distant horn. Ahhh that’s the train. No. People more learned on railroads said, “That’s a horn, not a whistle. Steam engines whistle.” It was a diesel locomotive on a different set of tracks. Of course.
Then a man pulled up with his family, held up his cell phone and said, “My brother’s on the train… It’s almost here.”


Suddenly there were cars and people everywhere.

And about then I began to witness something even more interesting than the train itself. People started pulling up and jumping out of their vehicles almost before the wheels stopped moving and running to the tracks. It looked like the FBI had just cornered Bonnie and Clyde – only these people were carrying cameras instead of guns. The had every kind of camera you can imagine — from high end Canons and Nikons to sophisticated video cameras with fuzzy microphones and two guys who actually had their cell phones mounted on tripods.
This was an eclectic group of people – made more so I admit, by Mary and me in our spandex bike attire. One man, who clearly felt he was a train man among train men was loudly espousing train watcher/waiter/photographer philosophy, like “Well, it will get here when it gets here.” Thank you sir. Very helpful.

IMG_2169The people-watching made the time pass more quickly. These were colorful people with lots of character and a certain amount of charm. Imagine a country auction — only everyone has a camera.
And in truth, it was easy to get caught up in the energy that came from the sudden flood of arrivals panicked that they might have missed the train. If nothing else, all these people verified that the train was in fact coming, “any time now,” which my wife pointed out had been about 45 minutes.

Gone was my plan to grab a shot of the famous train at some lonesome, rural rail crossing with my just bike or my wife in the foreground. Now it was every man for himself staking out a position to get some kind of photo of the great locomotive.


The 611 comes around the bend

Then, there she was. The 611 came steaming around the corner, blowing her whistle and shooting steam in the air. Set against the mountain backdrop with the sun over my shoulder, I snapped a couple of shots of the train in the distance. Then I flipped the phone around for the obligatory selfie and promptly put my finger over the lens. Oh well. I recovered in time to gather an image of the passenger cars. Not bad.

locomotive watching

Happiness and a steam locomotive

Then it was gone. The train went out of sight, and all the people with all their cameras jumped in their cars – presumably trying to catch it at another crossing down the line. We waited on our bikes while the cars filed out of the impromptu parking lot.
Once it was clear, we hopped on our bikes and headed home to complete the 40.2 mile loop. I’d go on about the average speed and so forth – but you get it. Hey, the data is still important!
But on this ride we gathered rare photo and a bit of a story to tell.