With his right grip fore and his left grip back a few, engineer Harry pumped the levers in unison once, twice, thrice, paused, and then pushed and held them in like a conviction. A low whirr led to a short rev and then–KA-WHUMP–the 70-year-old diesel-electric rolled coal to the roof and chug-chug-chugged thunderously to life, shimmy-swaying like a quaking drunk. Surtch Pherther’s jaw dropped. It was thrilling, but suddenly he wanted to get the hell off that stirring beast. He clutched Harry’s hand, shook involuntarily, thanked him for everything, and then jittered down the nearest ladder and watched from terra firma as Harry drove out for the noon tour…
Surtch had landed in Culbert at the posted speed that morning after low-flying at 90 the final forty-five miles. He’d been worried about missing his appointment. It turned out, having not figured for timezone hop, he’d arrived about an hour early, so he wandered the sleepy few streets of the old smelting- turned ranching-town. Finally, after some pleasant hours with curator Dan at the cute Culbert Museum, Surtch had eagerly headed for the old Saxton Depot and Railyard, fifteen miles on.
He’d been solo-strolling the engine house for a while when Harry had approached and said, “Come, I’ll show you my favorites”. They bypassed three locomotives–two working, one wanting–for a wrecking crane and a rotary snowplow, all steam and from the early 1900s; in a forge at the back, they gaped at a great pneumatic hammer, yet another mechanical monster in the railyard’s little land of giants; and they discussed Saxton’s evolution from mining bust-town to rail tourism and how the City of Contradictions and its outliers North DeLusiville and Witt have their own similar pasts.
After the depot and following a brief stop at the charming regional hodgepodge of the County Museum in Saxton, Surtch was drooping from the early start, the long ride, the full day, and the heating afternoon, so he hit the nearest gas station for drinks. In the lot he met a Cadillac Texan who momentarily marveled that the F800’s twin wasn’t a single, “though that’d be a helluva single”, and then went on about crazy Europeans who were supercharging Triumph Rocket Threes so that “no mere mortal could knee-clench those torpedo-cruisers”.
Grabbing a Gatorade for refreshment and a Coke for a fix, Surtch rolled down to Saxton’s big city park, unusually green for the desert and delightfully bordered with ancient Cottonwoods. He took a shaded spot just as a group of bagpipers walked in and began playing.
It was surreal: From dawn in little, middle-of-nowhere Aridia, where he’d downed coffee and breakfast beneath a casino’s e-marquee flashing “Extreme Midget Wrestling!”, to the time machine railyard and his excitement on the waking locomotive, to a dozen bagpiping pros practicing in the park in small, desert town Saxton… He was tempted to think, smugly, “only here, in my corner of the world,” but he knew that wouldn’t have been true. And Surtch was grateful for that.