I felt ‘kidnapped’ after hopping aboard the train to Royal Gorge

My plan was to hit two separate lines, the Royal Gorge route and the Santa Fe’s Raton Pass route. The former lies between Pueblo and Minturn, Colo.; the latter between La Junta, Colo., and Albuquerque.

The Royal Gorge route, which I first rode in 1992, was the more poignant. It dashes along the bottom of a 1,053-foot-deep red-granite Arkansas River canyon, topped by the world’s highest suspension bridge. Because the canyon is so deep, the bottom is shrouded in darkness except at midday. A mysterious and enthralling effect is the result. The line later crosses the Rockies at 10,000-foot-high Tennessee Pass, another scenic bonanza.

It is a hobo secret because there has been no passenger service since 1964. Back in 1877-78, the Denver & Rio Grande and Santa Fe section gangs fought the very real Royal Gorge War over the rights to lay the only track the narrow canyon could hold. A court ruled for the DRG. The old DRG logo boasted, “Moffat Tunnel – Royal Gorge – The Scenic Line of the World.”

Royal Gorge (Wikipedia Commons)

Now, a mere 120 years later, a pending merger by the corporate heirs could result in this magnificent asset’s abandonment. Railroad abandonment makes me long for a pinko European-style government that would squander tax money to keep lines running.

Pueblo is the gateway to the Gorge, so I jumped a full coal hopper in Colorado Springs for the brief ride south. I could endure it for a short trip.

In Pueblo, which was as sweltering and ugly as ever, I hurried to the catch-out point near the water-treatment plant. A generous hobo couple kept offering me beer and chicken, which I could never accept in good conscience. At 7 p.m., a mixed westbound appeared.

I got to my feet and broke into a run. The years of loneliness and self-doubt flew away; again I was in my element. Now surely my luck would change, the jackpot would be mine, someday I’d get the girl.

I was briefly parallel to the ground when catching my grainer, but righted myself and climbed on. The Gorge lay 50 miles away. When we reached it, twilight was passing. While the cliffs’ color was lost, their detail was not. For this ride, a tribute and farewell more than anything else, I went “up on top.”

Like four years ago, we hit Tennessee Pass in darkness and cold. I was more preoccupied with preserving body heat than with enjoying the light show overhead. The grainer’s cubbyhole provided some protection.

Misfortune struck at 4 a.m. Made stupid by the cold and never having used the Minturn yard, I missed my stop! When I came to my senses, we were already rocketing to Grand Junction, 150 miles farther west. I felt kidnapped.

Salvation came 80 miles past Minturn. The train halted again, on single track no less. I flew off, crossed somebody’s field, and put out the thumb on I-70. My luck was extraordinary; within a few minutes a retired Minnesotan and I were heading for the Minturn exit. He reminisced about his Finnish-American childhood in the North Woods. Words cannot express my gratitude to the man who literally saved the day.

Infuriatingly, a Minturn policeman stood on the brow of US 24, peering down into the yard. I breakfasted with the rails at the Turntable restaurant, then hiked to the opposite end of the yard and climbed a bushy hill, where I literally lay in wait. My hill is taller than yours.

The ride back to Pueblo was splendid. It had taken three trips, but I finally saw Tennessee Pass in the daytime. Rustling stands of aspen, freshly leafed in a pale but brilliant green, surged up the slopes of the pass. Around this amphitheater sparkled the Rockies. I moved to the rear of the train, out of the crew’s sight. As soon as we hit the Gorge, this time awash in the rich light of late afternoon, I climbed up on top again, enjoying the unobstructed view of the canyon walls soaring into infinity.

If I could keep only one memory from my hoboing days, it would be this: shooting through the Gorge atop a freight train for the last time.