Monday, May 4, 2015

The World-Famous Horseshoe Curve

Aerial view of The Curve

We intended to go to Piedmont this weekend, but an opportunity arose to take a little road trip instead. Every year we visit the famous Horseshoe Curve in Altoona, Pennsylvania, with our very good friends, who also happen to be train aficionados. In fact, they introduced us to The Curve when Andy was very little, and stoked his love of trains into a roaring blaze of devotion. Now, they have their own little guy (who, at the moment, is terrified of the blasting horns and screaming brakes), and of course Ben is just as excited about trains as any other red-blooded American kid. It's a rapidly inflating ball of burgeoning testosterone.

There's always time for fisticuffs.

The Horseshoe Curve is a 2,375-foot long curve around a bend in the Allegheny Mountains. It's quite astounding. Built in 1854, it was constructed over the course of three years with picks and shovels, and no heavy equipment (I'm not sure there was much heavy equipment in 1854). It was so vital to the war effort that the Nazis had a plan to blow it up in 1942. 

It took us almost three hours to reach The Curve, one-third of the way across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. But it was easy driving, and the Allegheny Mountains are so good for the soul. Now, my husband will murmur something about my running a stop sign and blowing through a toll without paying, but that's hearsay. (And who creates a toll booth that only takes $1 bills? I had a $10. There was no human manning the toll; there was no change offered; there was no swipe machine. Screw you, PennDOT. When I get my bill in the mail I'm going to puff up like a chicken, grouse about it loudly, consider making an angry phone call, and then change my mind and pay the bill like a chump.) I had an endometriosis attack in the car and the day's plans were threatened, but we pushed on and with the help of 600mg of Ibuprofen and sheer maternal determination, we made it, and had a great day. 

Why is an entry about a marvel of engineering taking up space on a nature blog?

Because I can't quite decide where The Curve fits. Obviously, it has earned the adjective "marvel". And I fall under the spell of trains myself, so I can understand why little kids are so enchanted. The larger trains we saw were approaching two-hundred cars. We saw a mail train--FedEx and UPS, trains with tanker cars, an auto-train, a coal train, and a few years ago we saw a trash train (who knew that trains haul garbage?). 

I like the way trains sneak their way through the mountains, along riverbanks. I like the way they appear, in PA and WV in particular, in a wild place--like during a paddle on the Youghiogheny River--briefly passing through and hauling pieces of the human world, here and then gone. Even on a day on the river, their presence doesn't offend me. It just feels efficient.

On their commercial, CSX claims that one gallon of gas can take a train 500 miles. In doing a little reading I see that the notion of environmentally-friendly passenger trains is debated, and that high-speed trains may or may not be the environmental godsend that their proponents claim. (Though electric trains are quite green.) In terms of freight, however, there's no comparison. Two hundred cars being hauled by three engines. Two hundred trucks off the road. What a statement.

It was so odd to see the auto-train go through, with over 100 [train] cars, each one carrying 8-12 vehicles which will end up on the road soon enough, just making the problem worse. 

In a sense, railroads are about dominating nature. In another sense, moreso than roads, railroads are about working with nature, or even bowing down to nature. Trains are heavy beasts, and engineers have had to work with the topography of the land rather than plowing through it. The trains need nature on their side to make the system work; they cannot conquer it. Hence, the building of the Horseshoe Curve. We've got an enormous mountain, boys. Should we blow it up and go through it, or use our brains and follow its topography even if it means three years of digging? They wisely chose to go with nature rather than smashing their way through her.

Of course, I'm not dumb enough to think that The Curve has anything to do with respecting nature. It's about physics and economics. But, I'm cool with the final product.

And my guys were happy. We spent the day high in the Allegheny Mountains, tucked into a weird mix of forest and iron. Normally I have a hard time breaking out of black-and-white thinking when it comes to nature vs. man, but on this occasion, the blend felt quite comfortable.

Drone view

They raced every train.

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