Off to Get Drafted - part 3

denver to ogden

In the previous story, I rode a Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy (CB&Q) freight train from Chicago to the CB&Q yard in Denver, most of the way on a piggyback car, a flatcar carrying highway semi-trailers. The last 150 or so miles I rode unseen in one of the locomotives. In Denver the train ran from the CB&Q yard to the Denver and Rio Grande Western (D&RGW) yard; for this I was on the piggyback car again. The train I had come in on was the one that would leave for Utah. Time of arrival in second yard in Denver: early Wednesday morning.


It was about 0100 on Wednesday and light snow was falling, melting upon contact with the ground. Yard floodlights created an eerie glow on the descending snowflakes. Relieved of the need to look for a train to take me west, I relaxed a bit, even taking a time exposure photograph.

The next leg of the trip involved traveling through the Rocky Mountains. No cars had been added to the train when I arrived in Denver, so again I was faced with the choice between a piggyback rig and a unit. Figuring that the weather ahead would be even worse than what I had recently experienced, I resolved not to ride out of Denver on a car that exposed me to most of the weather. The units called to me again.

In spite of my recent success with riding a unit, doing it again seemed to be tempting fate. Visions of being arrested and hauled off to jail again flashed through my mind. This went on as I stood between two cuts, near the five D&RGW units. Just as the train started moving, I overcame my fear and climbed the stairs of the last locomotive. Inside the cab, I turned on the heat and settled in for the ride through the Rocky Mountains. The train climbed steadily toward the Moffat Tunnel.

Snow fell the whole time. The weather amazed me: I had not expected to see snow in early October. It got light out. My mind wandered to thoughts of seeing my friend Celia W. in Washington State, with whom I had enjoyed an "enlightening" spring. I put a new roll of film in my camera and took some pictures of the snowy landscape through the cab's windows. I relished the thought of seeing the pictures later.

(When the slides came back from the Kodak lab, I was shocked to find that I had double-exposed the roll! After exposing the roll the first time, I forgot to wind the film completely into the cassette. Later I mistook the used roll for a new one. I learned the hard way from this experience and never repeated that mistake. It all became moot years later when I "went digital.")

Once through the Moffatt Tunnel, I slept now and then, lying on the floor. Between naps I sat in the engineer's seat, adjusting my position so crew members in the lead unit wouldn't see me in the curves. Seeing a track maintenance crew working in the snow (cleaning switches or something) reminded me how fortunate I was to be warm and dry.

To pass the time I performed an experiment: I washed my face and neck with as little water as possible. With a corner of a wet bandana I moistened my skin. Then, with another corner, I applied soap and washed the skin. With a third corner I wiped the soap off. I think I used about half a pint of water to complete the work. The efficiency of this effort was gratifying. This pleasure was tempered by the discovery that my wool scarf was missing: it should have been in my pack but was nowhere to be found. This vital piece of clothing kept my neck warm and shielded it from air-borne railroad grime. I imagined it on the ground of the Rio Grande yard in Denver, where I had last fussed with it.


The miles continued to pass beneath me. Snow was left behind. Colorado eventually gave way to eastern Utah. At mid-day I was running parallel to a long, colorful cliff on my right. (Later I would learn that this formation was called Book Cliffs.) To my left, in the distance, was the interstate highway, its traffic composed of mere specks in the flat terrain. The cliff endured for a long time, finally merging with mountains.

The train slowed as the grade steepened. The towns of Price and Helper quickly became memories. Upward I slogged in a river canyon, heading for Soldier Summit, the high point of the line between eastern Utah and Salt Lake City. (On this trip, however, I knew none of these geographic details. All I knew was that I was just traveling on Rio Grande rails, headed for Salt Lake City. It wasn't until 2002, when I drove over Soldier Summit, that I realized why it had not made an impression on me during this freight train excursion: it is a boring, feature-less plateau.)

In mid-afternoon I passed through a huge U-shaped curve. At the downhill end of the "U," I looked to my right and saw the caboose at the uphill end, going in the opposite direction. I found this fascinating. There was still enough light to take a half-way decent picture with Kodachrome 25 film.

As fate would have it, an even better feature two miles downgrade didn't capture my imagination: the horseshoe curve at Gilluly. Here the double track winds around a low hill. But riding through this curve six years later would form a lasting memory.

Staring at the scenery put me into a trance. After the sun went down the spell of adventure was shattered by the sudden opening of the cab door. A brakeman walked in: gulp! Luck was on my side, though: he wasn't at all bothered by my being in the locomotive. Following some conversation about my trip we both went to sleep.

I woke up somewhere south of Salt Lake City. The brakeman was already awake. He advised me on what to do when we reached "Roper" (Roper Yard in Salt Lake City). At the yard I'd have to dismount before the units stopped in a well-lighted area near an office building. If I were seen there getting off a unit, the crew would get in trouble. The consolation, if one could call it that, was learning from the brakeman that after the stop in Roper, the train would continue to Ogden, where it would terminate. He said good-bye and re-joined his colleagues in the lead unit.


Roper Yard was bathed in the illumination of numerous floodlights. The train pulled off the main line onto a yard track and slowly rolled toward the other end of the yard. Well before it stopped I dismounted to keep my part of the bargain with the brakeman. As the train continued to crawl down the track I walked toward the caboose, looking for a car to ride. The train eventually stopped moving. The air was bitterly cold.

I came upon the piggyback car I had used earlier in the trip. It, like the rest of the train, had been blasted with snow in the Rocky Mountains. The snow had melted, causing the floor of the flatcar to become all wet. There, on the wet, cold steel, next to the wheels of the semi-trailer, was my wool scarf. Somehow I had dropped it while riding the car from yard to yard in Denver. Now it was a soggy mess. I left it there. Then I noticed that my bamboo hiking pole was gone. It had probably rolled off the flatcar in a banked curve. Riding this wet car to Ogden would be the pits, so I continued walking, hoping to find something better.

Farther along I noticed a weird sight: the image of yard floodlights was distorted by a disturbance in the air. It was directly over a set of gondolas. I climbed up a gondola ladder and discovered huge coils of freshly-rolled steel inside. The coils were about six feet in diameter and were so fresh that they still glowed from the heat of manufacturing. Cool! (so to speak). [Note in 2004: These gondolas had come from the huge Geneva Steel plant, since closed, in Vineland, south of Salt Lake City. They were probably picked up by my Denver-to-Salt-Lake train while I was asleep.]

Examining the rest of the train only turned up a dry piggyback car, and it was close to the glowing coils. It would have been stupid to sit on that cold flatcar and freeze to death, so I got back in the gondola, where I warmed myself. When I unzipped my jacket and opened my shirt, the heat poured in. Upon hearing the train's brakes being charged with air I returned to the piggyback car and climbed aboard. The train departed for Ogden, where, I resolved, I would send that telegram.


I fell asleep during that cold ride and woke up in Ogden, short of the yard. The train was sitting still, probably waiting for clearance to proceed toward the yard. I was too cold to just sit there, so I dismounted and walked down the right-of-way toward the glow of floodlights up ahead. Conversing with the engineer I learned that I should ask about connections with the Southern Pacific up at the junction. It was after midnight on Thursday the 8th. Here I would soon experience the biggest surprise of the trip.