John Clark talking about my love affair with trains. I don’t know if Kate remembers, but when we were kids playing on the side lawn under giant locust trees and the humidity was just right, we could hear the train whistle when it passed by the depot down in Warren. The sound carried a good ten miles and made me pause when I heard it. Union, where we grew up, had its own spur line, the Georges Valley Railroad which ceased operation sometime in the mid 1930s. It offered passenger service, but was used mostly to haul limestone from local quarries.
That early memory planted an interest that was further fueled every time I saw or heard a train. Unfortunately, passenger service in Maine ceased in 1956 when I was eight, so I had to wait a long time to ride a train.
It wasn’t until I went off to college at Arizona State University in Tempe back in 1966, that I got a big boost in my train love. I lived in an old dorm my freshman year that had been built by the WPA. It was drab concrete, three stories high with an open courtyard that caught and amplified sounds and smells. The train coming into Phoenix passed south of campus before looping in parallel with the main highway through town. It turned again and went into Phoenix via the huge stockyard south of the metro area. When the wind and what little humidity we had were just right, the sound of an inbound freight train was so powerful you could close your eyes and imagine it coming right through the dormitory. That, coupled by the alternating scent of the stockyard and orange blossoms, created an indelible memory.
Just before Easter break in 1968, those of us who were active in the anti-war movement, heard that there was going to be a huge march in San Francisco on Easter Sunday. We couldn’t snag a ride, so Bill Fortner, Jack Truehauff and I decided to go there by hopping freight trains from Phoenix. Bill did some research regarding the feasibility of doing so and late one night, we found ourselves wandering around the freight yard looking for an open boxcar that might be heading in the direction we wanted to go. Since that was 46 years ago, I’m a bit hazy on specifics and Bill may have bribed a yard employee with a beer or some weed. In any event, we hopped aboard and after a short wait, the car jerked and we were off.
When it started getting light, we were shocked to see how long the train was. We could look ahead of us where the tracks curved and saw that there were seven locomotives pulling what must have been a mile long train. Desert scenery and plenty of wildlife kept us entertained. When the train stopped, as freight trains are wont to do at places and intervals that make sense to the gods and engineers that control them, we hopped off. Welcome to Boron, California (yup, the place where that 20 Mule Team Borax is mined and boxed). We wandered around and Bill ran into a couple bikers who said we could sleep in a junk car behind the shack where they lived. We were tired and dirty, so we weren’t fussy, but when we started hearing strange noises and seeing fire shoot past the shack window on the inside, we beat feet and shelled out for a motel room half a mile down the road. Slightly wiser the following morning, Bill managed to find out from another railroad employee what train we needed to hop. He neglected to learn that there was no direct route from Boron to San Francisco and we rode that train all the way to Rosewood which was just north of Sacramento.
Northern California in early April is as frosty as Maine and by the time the train stopped, we were chilled to the bone. Fortunately the guys in the caboose were friendly and let us warm up and have some of their coffee. The ride from Rosewood to Oakland is one I’ll never forget. We traveled through miles of marsh that was alive with deer, birds and flowers. When we circled around the edge of the back bay, it was amazing to see the huge fleet of mothballed naval vessels at anchor. Unlike the guys in the caboose back in Rosewood, the railroad detectives who met us when the train arrived, weren’t very friendly and were ready to arrest us. In hindsight, I can’t blame them because a lot of munitions, weapons and other stuff destined for Vietnam was shipped out of the Bay area and the possibility that we were saboteurs wasn’t unrealistic, Fortunately we were able to convince them we were a trio of not too savvy college students who were trying a cheap way to travel.
We were meeting a friend of Bill and Jack’s who had graduated from ASU with a business degree the year before. He’d put his education to good use. Allegedly he was the third biggest dealer in San Francisco at the time, using his legitimate job as a conductor on the cable cars as a cover while he sold pretty much everything under the sun that was mind altering. One look at the stuff on the shelves in his kitchen convinced me he was the real deal. He lived one block below Haight-Ashbury and when we headed around the corner and I got my first look at wall to wall freaks, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. There were hippies everywhere, the air was full of incense and marijuana and music was coming from open windows and street bands in abundance. We hit the Fillmore, Golden Gate Park and on Sunday, were part of what was at that time the largest antiwar march in the U.S.
By the time we were ready to return, Bill had done a little more research on how to get back by train without as many unexpected surprises. However, we all know that life is what happens in between your plans. We headed out of Oakland just before dark and not long after sunset, we went through a long tunnel. There are no words adequate to describe the sensation of bouncing on a hard floor in absolute blackness while the only thing you can hear is the amplified roar of the train as it’s hurtling through the tunnel. The next day, we switched from a boxcar to a flatcar carrying a couple trailer bodies. We did so because we wanted to have a better view of the passing scenery. Bad move. Not long afterward, we were flying across the edge of the Mojave Desert when the wind kicked up and we went through a small sandstorm. Even with our faces covered by our t-shirts, breathing was a challenge. By the time the train stopped in the middle of nowhere, we were desperate for a more protected place, but before we could find an open car, the train started moving, so we had to settle for the tiny grated platform at the end of a tank car. Looking back, I’m amazed one of us wasn’t killed during that part of the return journey. We thought we might be able to hop off as it passed through Kingman, but jumping from a train that’s doing 25 miles an hour is not a good idea, so we stayed put. The train started climbing as the sun set. The temperature dropped and when we leveled off in the high country, the train sped up, creating a wind chill that made holding on to anything almost impossible.
Okay, we thought, this thing has to slow down when it reaches Flagstaff. Nope, that sucker went right through at 25 or better and we all had visions of having to ride all the way to New Mexico. By then it had begun to snow. When the train halted half an hour later, we didn’t hesitate. We hopped off. Jack had lost a shoe during the sandstorm and we were filthy with wild hair, scraggly beards and wearing t-shirts in an early spring blizzard. When we found a dirt road, we knocked on the first house we found and I’m pretty sure we scared the hell out of the woman who peeked out a window. She never answered the door and promptly turned off the lights, so we staggered off down the road. A few minutes later, we were stopped by a deputy sheriff. Fortunately, he was an ASU dropout and had been in one of the fraternities. I was in one myself and we knew a few people in common. He drove us into Flagstaff where we cleaned up and took a bus back to campus in time for the resumption of classes.
It was a long time before my next real train ride. When our daughters were in grade school, we took the now defunct Belfast and Moosehead train from Belfast to Brooks where the local church hosted a dinner followed by a play. We saw them put on “The Belle of Amherst.” The girls enjoyed this excursion, especially the staged train robbery on the way home.
Four years ago, Beth and I decided it was time we took a real vacation, so we signed up to go on a package tour that included five old train lines in Colorado. We started with the Durango and Silverton Railroad. That’s the one featured in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid and seeing the place where the stunt doubles jumped into the river makes you really appreciate what these people go through. We saw mule deer and elk as well as plenty of abandoned mines high up on hills. At one point, we passed by and then under a very long and well concealed zip line that’s part of an ultra exclusive resort.
The next day, we went on what was my favorite train, the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad which covers 64 miles. There were times when we could see rivers at the bottom of canyons that looked like tiny streams and at one point we were racing a couple mule deer. Halfway through the ride, the train stops at a restored station in the middle of nowhere at the same time as the train coming from the other direction. Passengers from both trains are treated to one of the best and most bountiful meals I’ve ever seen. Local people pack everything in by truck every day the train runs and have a great time doing so. After lunch, everyone switches trains and off you go
The third train was the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad that took us through pretty remote country that featured lots of wildflowers and mountain views. It was the following day that we went on the only non steam train, the Royal Gorge Route. This parallels a river that’s extremely popular with whitewater rafters. You can also see an old water pipe hanging from the side of cliffs in many spots. The highlight is when you pass under the bridge spanning the gorge. It takes a few moments to truly appreciate just how high and how long this span really is. It’s one that completely insane people bungee jump from.
We were on a bus between trains and there was time built in to enjoy several of the ancient Native American ruins as well as some spectacular high country. I particularly liked the lookout where we could see Monument Valley way off to the west, as well as the mufti-denomenational chapel at the Air Force Academy.
Our final train was the one that took us to the top of Pike’s Peak. Even though it was late June, we arrived at the summit in a light snow storm. It didn’t take long for my body to realize that there’s far less oxygen at 14,000 feet. I had to use the wall in the gift shop to prop myself up until I stopped seeing spots. I was in awe of the folks working in the gift shop and snack bar because I was barely able to walk and they came up every day and worked. Despite the lack of oxygen and summit snowstorm, the view coming up and returning was terrific. We saw golden marmots (think high altitude woodchucks), more elk and mule deer, hawks and wild mountain waterfalls as well as giant slabs of rock that look like they could fall on you at any moment.
Beth and I realized we wanted to do another train trip, but this time go through the Canadian Rockies. That’s on our agenda for next June, so expect a report on it shortly after we return. Our daughters, both married now, remembered the long ago dinner theater train ride and treated us to the abbreviated ride on the Belfast line last Sunday. The train, lovingly preserved by local enthusiasts, goes up the line for half an hour and then reverses. While we didn’t see any game, the woman who took our tickets said that deer are common, one even refusing to get off the tracks a few weeks ago and the day before, the train had to slow to let a beaver cross the tracks. It’s a fun and nostalgic experience, that at $14.00 is a real bargain.