"What's with all the commotion?" That's the question I heard from bewildered motorists wondering why a horde of camera-wielding people were standing along an overpass in the hot sun.
When they heard that a steam train was on its way, it didn't take long for them to pull over and join the horde.
It was Monday morning and a nice crowd had gathered at Rockview, near Chaffee, to watch the No. 844 switch from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks to the Union Pacific tracks in order to continue its journey from Cape Girardeau to Dexter and beyond.
Rockview wasn't a scheduled stop, but railfans knew that this was going to be an even better show. To pass through the junction, the train's crew would have to perform some fancy footwork to make the locomotive move forward, then backward, and then forward again to navigate through the switches.
The two sets of tracks cross immediately underneath an overpass on Route M. Despite the traffic on the highway, spectators were set up on the bridge, next to the bridge, and even under the bridge. Everybody was hoping to find the perfect angles to catch the train's dance routine.
After a series of freight trains passed through, a cloud of smoke finally appeared on the horizon. The No. 844 was on its way.
The crowd was ready.
As the train approached, it started to decelerate.
The locomotive then stopped short of the junction.
Why the delay? It turns out another freight train was rapidly approaching on the cross tracks.
While waiting for the tracks to clear, the steam locomotive idled, periodically blowing clouds of steam and exhaust. It's about the closest thing we have in the real world to a fire-breathing dragon.
Soon the train lurched forward, passing under the bridge.
The next step was for the train to stop, reverse direction, and gently back into the connecting track.
A few moments later, the Union Pacific train was rejoining the Union Pacific tracks.
The train backed far enough to avoid blocking the road crossing. Naturally, somebody just had to drive right in front of it.
After a brief pause to allow the crew to make preparations, the train pulled forward on its final getaway through the junction.
I made a rookie mistake, standing on the bridge directly above the tracks. This of course meant that I got a face full of smoke as the locomotive accelerated right below me.
It's amazing how quickly the steam train can accelerate. Before long it was gliding under the Highway 77 viaduct in the distance, with only a cloud of smoke still visible.
I toyed with the idea of continuing the chase, trying to meet up with the train again near Dexter. But I needed to get back to the office. Hopefully this won't be the last time that a steam locomotive passes through Southeast Missouri.