It was a cold and rainy late April afternoon as we neared our 330 mile, 3:30pm driving limit. Ahead was North Platte, Nebraska so it was decided that this was a good place to stop on our journey to the East coast. There was a large storm in front of us that went as far up as North Dakota reaching all the way down to Texas. Staying put was the best option as we waited out the massive storm. It was time to explore.
The North Platte river runs through North Platte and it well known for the annual sandhill crane migration. The locals explained that the last two weeks of March and the first week or April is the prime time to view the estimated 600,000 sandhill cranes.
The Sandhill Crane is one of my favorite birds. I got my first taste of them while hunting pheasant in North Dakota years ago. Fields were covered with thousands of these large birds. On one hunting trip, we were fortunate enough the have a group of the endangered whooping cranes fly directly over our heads. At first we didn’t believe our eyes so later that day, back at camp we looked them up in a bird book and sure enough, whooping cranes. To solidify that viewing, the very next day another small grouping of whooping cranes flew about 30 feet above our heads.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is another sandhill crane location that my wife and I had Roadtreked to several years back in the early weeks of December. There were thousands of cranes in a field with signs warning us of cougars in the area. The highlight there was watching a bald eagle stalking the cranes landing in the field causing the cranes to form a large wary circle around it. Hopefully, we can visit that area again in December and share a first hand accounting of this great place.
Anyways, back to North Platte. Darn, we missed the sandhill crane migration by a few weeks so we gathered information and plan to travel back here hopefully next year during the migration season. My wife is envious of my whooping crane encounter and hopes that she too can see these incredible birds.
We awoke the next morning to rain. The weather forecast showed the storm slowing so we decided to stay another night here. I was satisfied sitting tight, reading news and maybe watching a movie in our Roadtrek. Not my wife. She wanted to explore. See, I may sound like the explorer, but its actually, Kris, my wife that drags me around to all these cool places. I simply write about them as she prefers to remain anonymous.
Kris found a railroad yard and wanted to go see it. My first response was no. I wanted a quiet relaxing day and a railroad yard was of no interest to me. Eventually, she managed to get me up and going so off we went to find this place called the Union Pacific Bailey Yard as I quietly muttered to myself.
Just outside of town we drive up to a tower that is named the Golden Spike Tower. Wow, it looked nice and shiny standing 8 stories tall. Still, all I could see was a some rail cars nearby so my interest really didn’t change much. Regardless, I diligently snapped a picture just in case.
Inside we went to find a gift shop/museum store. Now I’m starting to see train stuff. Quietly, my brain reminds me how much I loved trains. Still, I tell my brain to be quiet. My interest changed to thinking there was neat stuff here to buy for the grandkids. Maybe its not a wasted visit after all.
It was time to ride the elevator to the 8th floor for the panoramic view of the Bailey yard. Up we went. The doors opened. I stopped and just stared. There were trains, rail cars and tracks for as far as I could see.There was so much to see, my brain couldn’t process it all. My wife later told me how funny I looked as the elevator doors opened. It was simply amazing.
An older gentleman walked up and asked if I had any questions. I think I mumbled something to the effect that I didn’t know where to start. For the next several minutes this gentleman walked me through the main parts of the yard. There was the Diesel Shop that services about 300 locomotives a day. A car repair shop would service several cars a day including changing wheels as needed. There are westbound and eastbound (run through) coal yards that service the 13 coal mines in Wyoming.
The best part though is the original (eastbound) Bailey and westbound yards. One has 50 tracks with the other 64 tracks. Each has what is called a hump that rail cars are pushed over so that they roll down to the proper track to get resorted. There I stood memorized watching one car after another roll down the track.
Eventually, I realized the gentleman was still talking to me. Somewhat annoyed, I decided to pay a bit more attention hoping he would go away. He just smiled and explained how the whole system is computerized. As each car is pushed over the hump, it gets weighed, wheels are counted, checked for roll-ability and speed. Wind direction, speed, temperature and humidity are taken into account then retarders are used to slow each car so that it rolls to it assigned track and stops just as it kisses up to the other cars already there. Fascinating! This guy was a walking goldmine!
I spent many more long minutes just watching and absorbing the whole process. Pictures! Finally it dawned on me that I must take pictures and tell about this awesome place. Sadly, I found it just as hard to take pictures of this 8 mile long yard and 300 miles of track as it would be of the Grand Canyon. The photos just don't do it justice. All that can be said is that you have to see it to really experience it.
There was one last thing that fine gentleman told me as I was ready to leave. He pointed to an empty corn field near the tracks and asked if I ever wanted to view sandhill cranes? Of course I did! He said that it would be filled with them during the migration. I’ve already told my wife to plan for a return visit next March. She just shook her head at me, said nothing and smiled. She’s slowly turning me into a travel junky one surprise stop at a time.