I arrived in Montana about a week ago, after a roadtrip through the American West with a dear friend.  We stopped in Salt Lake City and visited the Mormon temple, the world’s coolest bookstore (Sam Weldon’s, I believe), and then drove an hour and a half out of our way to Promontory.  This stop was a particular kind of pilgrimage for me, after a summer in Yosemite and years of studying Western history.  It was a gray and rainy day, and the sun occasionally broke through the clouds and illuminated the rain-covered golden hillsides.  We ran inside, I bought a national parks pass, and we went to look at the railroad tie where the two lines met.

Numerous plaques line the path out from the visitor center to the tracks.  They commemorate the Chinese laborers, the Irish workers, the marvel of civil engineering, and the business sense of Stanford, Huntington, Crocker and Hopkins.  The tracks themselves don’t go anywhere anymore.  Years ago, a second-generation robber baron rerouted the transcontinental railroad and trains haven’t steamed through Promontory since.  In fact, there is no town of Promontory either.  It was just a temporary settlement of tents and shacks hastily slapped together to accommodate everyone who turned out for the placing of the golden spike.  All that’s left now is a visitor center, a defunct crossing, and some benches where during the summer, visitors can watch a reenactment of the placing of the spike.

There are no reenactments in October.  Not when it’s raining.  Ours was one of two cars in the parking lot.  When we walked through the glass doors out onto the plains of Utah, we saw the sign on the door.  The golden spike itself is at the Stanford Art Museum.  We had come almost 1200 miles just to be foiled in our moment of historical glory.  Out at the tracks, a metal tie marked the exact location of the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific.  In true park service style, the visitor center tried its darndest to present a patriotic yet politically correct version of the history.  They shied away from total glorification of the technological marvel and dedicated one display case to the Chinese and Irish workers.  I sighed at the disappointment of only seeing a replica of the spike, but we moved on through the desolate hills and pouring rain that turned the sky a blue shade of purple on into Idaho.

We stopped in Yellowstone, a park on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Golden Spike National Historic Site.  During the last weekend of the summer season, we were soaked by rainstorms and even dusted with a bit of snow.  We pushed on to Montana, where the weather in Billings greeted us with more of the same.  Today it is snowing again, probably three inches so far.  And it’s only the middle of October.


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