Since coming to California, I have gloried in escaping the puny scale of the East, where diminished people live in tragic and despairing cities, where every square inch of land has been abused by man. Hopping freights throughout the West constantly reminds me of that truth.
My latest scheme was to ride the freight-only Craig Branch, which extends from Craig to Bond, Colo. There it joins the UP/SP mainline over the Rockies to Denver. The branch has not hosted a passenger train since the elimination of the Yampa Valley Mail in 1968.
Having endured another putridly uncomfortable torture session on Greyhound, I staggered morosely into the Craig yard. The start of a journey always arouses mixed feelings: how long am I going to wait? How fast will I have to run? Why can’t America support a decent passenger- train system?
I slept on the deck of an idled grain car that night, behind the boarded-up local depot. A light drizzle eventually faded and left me alone.
Thankfully, I was spared the horror of a return trip by bus. At 11 a.m. a couple of rails began stringing together a modest mixed freight. One of them said yes, they were headed east, but only for 60 miles to Phippsburg. “There might be a coal train to Denver tomorrow, maybe.”
After I had taken a seat aboard a grainer, he handed me a sandwich, a bag of potato chips, and three water bottles. Jesus, did I look that bad already?
The run to Phippsburg was a pleasant and sunny jaunt through Steamboat Springs, along pastures and mountains. As the rail had warned, the little freight went onto a yard track and stayed put. He spotted me again in the yard.
“Hey!” he barked. “There’s a coal train comin’ through tonight. You can ride in one of the swing helpers.”
He had given me part of his lunch and now advice on my itinerary. The generosity I meet on the rails astounds me constantly.
I retired to an empty crummy and alternately dozed and ate sausage. Finding some clean-up kits lying around, I gratefully scrubbed the grime off my hands and face. About five hours into this boring vigil, the promised coal train materialized on the main.
On branch lines, I keep in mind the old Chicago alderman’s maxim: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.” Passing up a train could mean a 20- or 40-hour wait. So I reluctantly accepted a dark ride for the last 40 miles of the Craig Branch and planted myself in a swing helper. The engineer’s padded seat made for a safe and comfortable trip.
In that kind of clear-skied wilderness, a full moon can be quite bright. We spun into Rock Creek Canyon and I stared, entranced by the eerily lit landscape. This was one of those rare canyons where the tracks run hundreds of feet above the river. Disappointed by my failure to ride through in daylight, I resolved to return someday and nail down this loose end. Then I went to sleep in my reclining chair.
Two hundred and thirty miles out of Craig, as dawn turned into a blazing hot morning, we charged dramatically into Denver off the face of the Rockies. The city glistened like a mirage and a promise. From so far away, you can’t see the big-city ugliness.
I bailed out well away from the bull-infested North Yard. There were conventional things to do in Denver, like eating buffalo steak and inspecting the famous Tattered Cover bookstore. As usual, though, my thoughts strayed to future rides – I am running out of routes – and my first, exuberant journeys. The latter grow more precious with every passing year.
When I was younger, I dwelled little on the past, imagining that better things lay ahead. Now I mourn it intensely, for many of my freshest hopes are imprisoned in that place beyond reach. The past is another country.
Abdul Rahimov has a Ph.D. in Russian history from Stanford. He studied earlier at Harvard and grew up in Illinois in a railroad-dominated town.Rahimov prefers to use a pen name to avoid attracting unnecessary attention from railroads. He lives on the East Coast.