THE LAST WESTBOUND
A freight departs with graceful abruptness, and all thoughts are forward.
The Union Pacific engine paint scheme is the oldest in use on the rails. The lower portion of the locomotive is Armour yellow, a thin red band separates it from the Harbor Mist gray upper and roof, and the underside fuel tanks are also gray, making the UP units handsome and sleek along the rail.
Clown has weaseled us aboard the second unit by telling the engineer that her Christian husband and she are trying to get to the Pacific to meet friends who have a painting job for us. It's a rare treat to enter the locomotive with red lettering that dwarfs us, up short stairs to a perimeter platform, then up two more to the cab door, and inside. The vibrating chamber is the size of a small den with two cushy chairs, a front panel of gauges and dials giving off a yellow-white glow, the whistle and throttle. Behind the chairs, illuminated by the soft light of the instruments, sits an electric heater, a refrigerator stocked with bottled water, and a step down to a bathroom.
Now the engine revs and horn blasts.
The track leaves Sparks, slices metro Reno, and starts the desert crossing toward California, an hour away. Then the desert vanishes behind us and the rail tilts into the Sierra Nevada. The train crawls its eastern flank where we shut the sliding windows against the squeals and cold air. The cab is above it all, a small jiggling room with Captains' chairs at either side window. We sit back, and peer past the lead loco at the series of oncoming tunnels. The freight noses into short ones and out the other end before the last car enters, but other bores are five minutes - a mile long - as the diesel smoke clouds outside the cab without danger to us inside the sealed units.
We watch the afternoon sun sink, night fall, and stars spread over the Sierra like a blanket. She flicks on the cab heater and light, and alternately reads Atlas Shrugged and the King James Bible, scrawling margin notes for skits in the second. Clown's Bible has more scribbles than my brother Tom's, an Episcopalian minister, only hers are for parodies. Last year, United States Immigration discovered these notes and since has detained her entries. I offer to her tonight that reality beats fiction. "Toss the books out the window and sketch what happens to you."
The lady and the tramp ride that westbound by the heater all through the night. The train adds "pusher" engines at the steepest ascent. She has Doc Bo in one hand and the Bible in the other when a polite knock at the cab door arouses us. Our engineer pops in from the lead unit, spots the Bible and declares, "Bless you, young Christians, on your life's journey. I just want to let you know that we're adding helpers here and not to get off. It's a downhill run to the Pacific." He looks squarely at Clown. "Glad to see you're holding the Good Book, Ma'am," winks and shuts the door.
The other book she now reads is the "bible" of Objectivism, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. In it, the female protagonist manages a struggling transcontinental railroad tangled in bureaucratic restrictions. What would happen if the world's movers, the CEO's and executives, went on strike? Her encounter with a hobo on the same rail the executives now ride is memorable, as is the later move to a utopia like Sand Valley whose members regard self-determination rather than collective responsibility as the higher ideal. The thousand-page novel provides many readers with a philosophy that rocks their boots. "Like it?" I ask. She nods without glancing up. I grab the thick text and page to the end where Dagny Taggart meets the Hobo:
"When did you eat last?" she asked.
"Yesterday," he said, and added, "I think..."
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know."
Then, almost as if he sensed that this could sound too much like an appeal for pity, he added, "I guess I just intended to keep moving till I saw some place that looked like there might be a chance to find work there." This was his attempt to assume the responsibility of a purpose, rather than to throw the burden of his aimlessness upon her mercy - an attempt at the same order as his shirt collar...
"Only I think it's a sin to sit down and let your life go, without making a try for it."
...The tramp's last sentence was one of the most profound moral statements she had ever heard, but the man did not know it; he had said it in his impassive, extinguished way, simply, dryly as a matter of fact.
"Don't you know that's what it's all about?" I ask Clown. She takes the book and continues afresh from that page.
After the passage, we shut out the light and roll again through the cold, rich night, slowly shaken asleep on the warm floor. So profound is the slumber that we are not awakened until the freight stops on the Roseville Bridge at sunrise. The kind engineer waits us to put ashore out of the bull's harm.
"These are hobo thrones," I proclaim from one of the tall engineer's seats. "How do you feel?" "Like a queen!" she decrees from the other. "You're my King!" and she bends across and kisses me.
Our dream ride ends on the whistle at the bridge, and we bound down to complete the circle.