A visit to Promontory recalls a golden era of unity

Lists are overrated. For starters, many are simply too long. In this age of internet-fueled short attention spans, I find myself losing interest long before most lists end. Or, if I somehow remain focused, the seemingly never-ending array of options overwhelm me. Extensive lists of “places to see” or “foods to eat” fill me with dread. I feel guilty if don’t see or eat everything. I inevitably find myself bewildered by what my dad calls the “tyranny of choices.”

So, when Vamoose asked me to make a list of “newsworthy points of interest” in Utah, I balked. Sure, I could have listed something newsy like a trip to the site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Or, maybe, I could have suggested heading out to the Salt Flats to see where speed records are set. I even thought of Sundance Resort. This is where Robert Redford told me about buying the film rights to the book All the President’s Men. But, to be honest, my heart wasn’t in it. The fact is there is only one newsworthy or historical site I really wanted to see and write about: Promontory Summit, the place where America’s transcontinental railroad was joined.

So, stopping only for a tasty, nutritionally challenged meal at the Maddox Family Drive-In (1900 S. Highway 89, Perry, 435-723-5683), I made my way out to the Golden Spike National Historic Site (32 miles west of Brigham City, via Utah Highway 83) . Even though it was overcast and blustery, there were already plenty of cars in the parking lot. After spending a few minutes in the gift shop eyeing various train trinkets, I made my way outside to the G-spot … um … the spot where the Golden Spike was hammered into the unifying ground.

I patiently waited for my turn to do what every tourist there does; take close-up pictures of the area commemorating the meeting of the Union and Central Pacific railroads. It’s marked by a silver-colored plaque on a modern-looking railroad tie. It bears the date of the completion of the transcontinental line: May 10, 1869. In the iconic black-and-white photo of that event, there are scores of railroad types toasting the historic occasion with Champagne (it’s not clear if the DABC approved of this alcohol-soaked celebration).

Visiting the first week of April, it was a bit early for peak Promontory season. When things warm up, there are re-enactments of this historic event. But I was able to venture down a short unpaved road to see the refurbished locomotives used in the summer tourist shows. These choo-choos are housed in a nearby maintenance building, hibernating during cold northern Utah winters. Having been fortunate enough to ride trains all over the world, seeing these 1869 replicas was one of the highlights of my visit.

But as intriguing as the Golden Spike National Historic Site might be, I didn’t really make this Promontory pilgrimage to see what was there. I went because I’m afraid the true meaning of the site is being lost—specifically, the treasured ideal of a nation coming together.

The National Park Service website calls Utah’s 1869 railroad celebration “… a defining moment in our nation’s history.” This is why the site resonated on my newsworthy list. In my mind, it’s truly hallowed ground, a place where the United States became whole. Just four years after the Civil War ended, Promontory promised peace, prosperity and a unified future.

But as we near the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike ceremony, I find myself worrying about the health of our nation’s unity. Modern-day politicians no longer appear to be on the same track. They seem to be pulling out the spikes that keep us together. Instead of laying down rail to connect the East and West coasts, California and the U.S. government are currently suing each other.

Of course, I’ve reached an advanced age where I’m no longer naive enough to wholly buy into the Golden Spike myth. My guess is there was plenty of financial chicanery that took place to get the transcontinental railroad built, not to mention whatever indignities thousands of Chinese workers might have endured doing the actual construction. Still, I find myself wanting to believe in an America where we still work together toward a common goal.

As I left Promontory, I wondered what has become of America’s can-do spirit. The completion of the transcontinental railroad was an incredible and joyous achievement. Determination and imagination brought together a country and, in so doing, made it stronger. In 2018, however, “infrastructure week” has become a snarky punchline on Twitter.

Perhaps, as instructed, I really should have made a list full of newsworthy Utah sights. I only went to see one, and it left me feeling slightly wistful. But at least I got an Oreo milkshake from the Maddox Drive-In. I would describe its taste as being truly golden and everlasting.