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Spring Break '96 - part 3

Southbound Again

 

view from trainI got off the stack train and walked over to Union Station. It was a hot mid-April Denver Tuesday night, about 8 o'clock. I stood outside the front door and called my Great Uncle Dave on the payphone. He drove downtown and picked me up. Dave is a neat guy. He's in his late sixties but could easily pass for 50. We went to Starbucks on Larimer Square and had some coffee. We talked about the family and, of course, the recent publicity that Montana's been getting. I was starting to feel more energetic than I had been, and with that came hunger. I hadn't really had a meal since two nights before. We went to a no-name family restaurant on East Colfax. A lady in a dirty t-shirt walked up to us when we sat down. I thought she was probably a waitress.

HER: "What can I get you guys?"
ME: "What kind of soup do you have?"
HER: "[laughs] I dunno. Nobody's ever ordered soup before."

She leaves and comes back with some menus. I ended up having a cheeseburger that I could have gotten at McDonald's for ½ as much. Anyway, we went to King Sooper's, the grocery store, and I stocked up. Dave drove me back to Union Station and I started hiking up to the 31st St. yard. When I got to the south edge of the yard, I hung around, and waited for the next train. North Bound or Southbound. I figured I couldn't pass up an easy trip home, but it was only Wednesday, and I still wanted to get to Phoenix to visit my grandmother. I hadn't been sitting long, when a southbound Coal train started out of the yard. I ran over to it and on the way splashed through a puddle of some foul substance, which turned my boots white. The only place I could get on without walking into the lights of the yard was the third car back from the power (3 SD70MAC's). I was in and I fell asleep quickly, almost certain that this was a rerun of the previous night and I'd be in La Junta in the morning. Wrong! When I did wake up in the morning I was somewhere I didn't recognize with no roads or other landmarks (except the mountains). Also, the train was moving painfully slow. I consulted my maps to no avail. Finally, we entered Walsenburg, CO in early afternoon. Quaint little town. I knew where I was then and I ate some sardines in anticipation of the next town. In Trinidad, CO, the coal train stopped way past the yard office and the crew got off and set the brakes in the first 3 cars. Well, I guess I shouldn't say "Yard Office", there's only three sets of track. After I was sure they weren't coming back, I walked all the way to the end of the train, and up to the Office door. There I met an outbound crew, and one of them bought me a Pepsi after I couldn't get the dollar bill changer on the machine to work. I asked him about trains, and he said both a northbound to Pueblo and a southbound to Amarillo would be through in the next half hour. I asked him if he had any water bottles he could spare, and he said, "Help yourself, they're over there in that shack by the tracks. Hell, I'd give you the whole damn railroad if I could, I don't care." He was cool. So I grabbed a six-pack of water and started walking north so I could catch the southbound. I had only gone a 1/4 mile when it showed up. I had to run to catch a ACF hopper, and soon after, it pulled out. I watched as we crossed the Santa Fe mainline (that runs from La Junta to Raton), and then ate a can of chili and watched the sunset, as the train headed towards Amarillo, Texas. "I've never been to Texas before," I thought to myself, "I wonder if its true what they say, that everything is bigger there...?"

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Everything's Bigger In Texas
I spent Wednesday night on a covered hopper riding from Trinidad, CO to Amarillo, TX., on BN. The train pulled into Amarillo at about 3 am. At least, I was pretty sure it was Amarillo. It was definitely a pretty good sized town. I got off the train, and just started walking. I had a goal in mind: To find the Santa Fe yard and ride west. I hadn't walked for five minutes when I noticed a group of 'bos near a loading dock. I approached them as the train was rolling by, to get some info. They were heading down to Dallas and didn't know anything but BN. So I shared my tobacco and was off again. I asked again, this time at the BN yard office. The guy in there, a grumpy old fart, reluctantly opened the window, when I knocked, and growled, "10 to 12 blocks west", in response to my question. I figured that was all I was going to get out of him so I started walking that way. Amarillo, Texas. Population: about 150,000. As I strolled through the downtown streets at 3:30 am, I was a little surprised by the lack of activity. Nothing. No people, no cars. Only tall, mirrored glass buildings staring down at me. It must be different in the daytime, and unfortunately, I didn't stick around. I walked exactly 11 blocks west, then 2 south, and right there under my nose was a pig train rolling approximately southwest, slowing down. I took a wild guess, that this was my train! It stopped, I got on, hid between the tires for just five minutes and we was off. Right away I was impressed with Santa Fe - This train was fucking moving! I was pretty sure that this was my ticket to Arizona! I sat back, relaxed, and caught some Z's.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: The Santa Fe Mainline
view from train The sun broke at a border town: Texico, New Mexico. It was a chilly morning, as the stack train rolled by Santa Fe work gangs huddled around fires in 55 gallon drums. Santa Fe struck me as different right from the git - go. There were a lot more trains. A lot of them., and damn near all pigs. And they were fast, real fast. I can see why BN wanted to merge them. First possible crew change out of Amarillo, according to my map, was Clovis, NM. It was about 9 or 10 in the morning when the train I was on rolled in there. Right away I had two problems. First of all, the train was being rolled by security, a lady in a security company pickup and a guy in an SF truck. Second, this train was getting yarded. And I was on a CF Trailer, the kind with one axle. I was sure I was seen and busted. I tried to make myself as small as possible, hoping that I wouldn't be found. Clovis seemed like a huge yard, I don't know what all is there, and I didn't want to find out. The sun was shining, the ground was warming, and when my train started backing up, I jumped. I hit the ground and rolled over once, then grabbed my bag and made a beeline for the nearest well. I tried to vault the edge, missed, and had to use the ladder. When I landed on the floor, I curled up and hoped for the best. It took over an hour, but the train I had picked was rolling west again. Unfortunately, I was three cars behind the power. Oh, well. We rolled along through the great desert scenery, passing dozens of train that day. Not too far east of Belen, NM, I saw what I believe is called a "Road-Railer". I just happened to be watching off the side of the well car when we passed it on the second mainline track. It was a regular-looking road tractor, with FIVE regular-looking full size road trailers, except it had steel wheels sprouting from the bottom. There were several SF trucks there and all kinds of people watching. Pretty Cool. Anyway, Belen was uneventful. I just stayed on my well. I was enjoying the sun and getting some reading done. Somewhere near Gallup, NM, An Amtrak train passed going in the same direction. It was about sunset, and I was standing, looking off one side of the train. I glanced over my other shoulder, and there was an observation car full of people watching me. They were advancing slowly ahead, and weren't 10 feet away. I waved at a few, and then started laughing and turned away. Then it got dark and cold again and I tried to sleep but couldn't. I was nearing the end of my trip. In Winslow, AZ, finally, I just hopped off the train and strolled around to the front of the yard office. Nobody bothered me there, but they wouldn't give me much information about Phoenix-bound trains. I made a decision to hitchhike instead. My two-thousand mile or so rail journey was over.

 

EPILOGUE
So I tried hitchhiking at night which didn't work, like I should have known, gave up, and drank coffee at Denny's until dawn. At sunrise, I was actually "Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona". A few hours later it was a fine sight to see a semi stop and pick me up. It wasn't "A girl, my lord, in a flat bed Ford...", but it certainly would do. The trucker drove me to Flagstaff, and an off-duty EMT Medic brought me 130 miles south to Phoenix. He couldn't quite take me to Tempe, though, and my Grandmother is too old to drive that far, so I walked and rode the city bus the rest of the way. 6 ½ days and $1.25 total. I had a grand old time that weekend with my Nana, and on Monday morning, she bought me a plane ticket back home here to Missoula, MT. I missed one day of school, and one day of work. When I did get home I took out my big yellow hi-liter marker and traced my path out on my railroad atlas, which is nailed above my bed. It makes a nice line, but it's a line that will grow with time.

 

PARTIAL GLOSSARY
BN - Burlington Northern Railroad
BNSF - Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad
ACF - Ace Center Flow - particular kind of hopper car
Bull - Railroad police officer
Crew Change - where a train stops to change crews
COFC - Container on flat car
FRED - flashing red light on the end of a train
MRL - Montana Rail Link
Pig - slang for trailer on flat car (piggyback)
power - the engines on the train (locomotive)
SD70MAC - a particular kind of locomotive
SF - Santa Fe Railway
TOFC - Trailer on flat car
UP - Union Pacific Railroad
well - a certain kind of COFC