Watch out for rattlesnakes! It seems like a clichéd railfan warning. Although, I’ve encountered rattlers on several occasions, I’d not allowed fear of snakes (or heights) interfere with my photography. In July 1994, I was on a prolonged trip working my way east from San Francisco to Waukesha, Wisconsin. Part of this excursion, was a ten-day exploration of Montana. Working on a tip from Blair Kooistra regarding a interesting photo location, I’d driven down the long rocky road to the old station at Lombard, deep within the canyon of the same name. Back in the day, it was here that Milwaukee Road’s Pacific Extension crossed Northern Pacific’s mainline. In 1994, as today, only vestiges survive of Milwaukee Road, while Montana Rail Link’s former NP line is the main attraction (if one hopes to see trains moving; the industrial archeologist is likely more interested in the old Milwaukee electrified line). The point of interest, which I’m told featured some GRS upper quadrant semaphores, required a several mile walk west into the canyon.
I’d made it about a mile or two from the car when I had an unsettling feeling of being watched. Looking around I realized that several impressively large snakes were sunning themselves on the tracks and eyeing my progress. I determined, that while large, these snakes didn’t have rattles on them, and so probably wouldn’t harm me. I made a few photos of this one coiled in the gauge. Then I continued my westward hike when the bone chilling rattle of the dreaded serpent stopped me dead in the tracks. I looked cautiously to my left, and there coiled in a heap, between the tracks and the river, was by far the largest rattlesnake I’d ever seen. It didn’t look nice. Worse, it seemed poised as about to spring and gazing at me with its tongue listing back and forth. Thus ended my westward progress. There I was, a two mile walk from my car in an unpopulated barren canyon, with probably 20-30 mile drive to anyplace with a phone, and me not having a soul on the planet knowing where I stood! Not good.
Without making sudden moves, I reversed direction and carefully retreated on foot back toward the old Lombard station location where my car sat waiting for me. Thankfully, that was the last time I’ve encountered such a beast trackside. Unfortunately, the semaphore I’d hoped to photograph is now long gone. Where’s the photo of the momma rattler? I didn’t make one, primarily because it was lying in deep shadow and I was in bright sun. (Which is as good an excuse as any).