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Cheyenne West

 

We spent most of our trip to Cheyenne hiding in the rain shadow of the box car. The day looked increasingly cloudy and gray as the train climbed from the flat plains to the rolling prairie hills of Wyoming. Here was the big horseshoe curve that takes us under a part of the parallel Union Pacific line and to the high point near the state line. The old water tank from steam engine days marked the first contact with the UP mainline. As usual, a gale greeted us from the west. The tracks descend slowly into Cheyenne, a sheltered place for southern Wyoming. Sometimes it seems desolate, but it's interesting. A huge refinery burns an eternal torch to the east. Union Pacific's vast yards sprawl. The yards include a huge shop and even a piece of an old roundhouse where the railroad keeps a vintage streamlined diesel, a rotary snowplow, and several huge steam locomotives, one of which still pulls trains. A giant sandstone tower rises over the old passenger depot, once a proud symbol of luxurious train travel.

The rain stops, the train slows. We're cowardly commandos now, keeping our heads fairly low as the C&S tracks carry us over the mains entering Cheyenne from the west. Three tracks were needed to handle all the trains over Sherman Hill between Cheyenne and Laramie. I ask Hank where he thinks we should get off. He suggests the C&S wye, a Y-shaped connection of tracks that would let you turn a train. I didn't know there was one in Cheyenne. The train trundles along, nice and slow. Despite our awkward packs, we both get off the moving train without falling and before we're in sight of railroad personnel at the C&S's Cheyenne depot. We trudge off down the leg of the wye that apparently leads toward the giant Union Pacific yards. We feel smug, looking back at the still-passing train behind us now and then.

We're surprised when we see two men inside an open boxcar coming around the curve of the wye. They look surprised, too, pointing at us, then waving and smiling. They seem almost delighted. We wave hesitantly. I feel glad we didn't ride in the same car with them; I'm already on edge. Are we now in the same brotherhood as these raggedly looking guys? It never occurs to me that we might have learned something from them.

We walk down the tracks, clearly a little-used connection from one railroad to another with a few industrial customers along the way. Cars stop to look for trains and see only two young men with packs. It feels conspicuous. Hank insists we visit a bank, and it's a bit of a relief to step back onto a normal sidewalk. I wait outside, uncomfortably. But Hank's motives become clear when he emerges and insists we visit the nearest liquor store. We barely finish stuffing the bottles of a six pack into our packs when we hear a shout.

It's the other guys from the train. Real hobos. Gritty guys who need a shave. Drab, shabby clothes. Brimmed hats. They look like they've come out of a 1930s movie. The taller one did the talking.

"Hey, fellas, how ya' doin'? We saw you on the train. Didn't know you were there until you got off!" They sound quite pleased, as though they were just friendly neighbors who would have popped in for a visit had they but known we were at home.

"Uh, guess we didn't see you either." We're new to this. We're young. We're paranoid. We don't know how to feel about strangers.

"Do you know this town? Where's a mission."

We don't know.

"Well, where's skid row, then?" He says this with a grin. I feel shocked - why would anyone want to find skid row? That's where bums hang out. Trying to be polite, we point them as best we can to the area around the depot and the bus station. They thank us cheerfully and set off. I feel relieved, and I think Hank does, too. Probably our major concern was that such men would want some of our beer. Yet this was astonishing! Did such people still exist? Are they real wino bums? Such people don't speak or approach others in such a friendly fashion, do they? Out of our comfortable suburban existence, what kind of world have we found?

Downtown Cheyenne presents a bleak face of ugly "modern" buildings in this neighborhood. We set off again, navigating toward the tall tower of the Union Pacific depot - and making sure we don't take the same path as our friends from the train. Hank and I have both heard lots of non-specific comments about UP: that they're tough on train riders; that they don't tolerate anyone; that we'll be instantaneously busted if we're caught or seen. It never occurred to me to wonder where these comments came from - friends who heard rumors, old movies like "Sullivan's Travels"? Yet we still make for the depot because that's what we know in this uncharted land. It's where many railfan pilgrimages began in the past - exploring the steam engines in the roundhouse, walking under the tracks in the remaining pedestrian underpass from passenger train days, sitting in the cab of a giant gas turbine locomotive on the scrap line by the shop - an enormous beast that used to terrify me with its jet engine scream as it pulled seemingly endless trains over Sherman Hill to the west.

It's quiet. We approach through the parking lot and past the enormous Challenger steam locomotive sitting on permanent display by the depot. No trains in the station. That's unusual. Dozens of trains that go through here every day. They all stop here except for a few that go into the yards. Train crew operating from North Platte, Nebraska, on the east or from Rawlins, Wyoming, on the west end up here. Another crew gets on and takes the train to the next crew change point. It's always a fascinating ritual to watch. The enormous train comes roaring up, banking its mighty powers in an enormous revving of engines as it grinds slowly to a gentle halt. Working men in jeans and overalls and with a few possessions stuffed in a gym bags climb down the lead locomotive's catwalks and ladders. They exchange a few words with the new crew, who ascend into the cab, perform a few checks. A few checks, a few minutes, and the monster engines of five or six locomotives roar back into life in an almost musical crescendo, easing the mile-long train of heavy steel and freight back into motion, breaking the pull of gravity enough to move the enormous iron procession away, slowly uphill to the west, rapidly downhill to the east. I always wondered: where were they going? What would it be like to go along with this huge tide of freight, flowing since 1869? In only a few minutes, the entire flashes past faster than you can run. The days of the great passenger trains were gone - but an enormous spectacle of a show goes on here every day.

Naively, we strolled down the old brick platform, right past many windows and the door that apparently goes to a crew ready room. I suppose we could be innocent travelers from the bus station, wearing packs and eying the yards. But nobody is looking. A long string of boxcars sits three tracks over. A light drizzle begins again. Looking west into the gloom, we see five yellow engines in the distance at the front of the string. This looks like a train. Fifty yards away, there sits a boxcar with an open door. We peer around. Nobody watches, here at this alleged heart of the mighty Union Pacific.

It's doesn't seem possible, but this looks like low-hanging fruit.

"Should we go for that?" Hank asks.

"Yeah." This seems like the most normal thing in the world.

We walk across the tracks, giant rails weighing 130 pounds per yard. We try not to make a mad dash but move hurriedly. We toss our packs in the door and boost ourselves up and scramble to the rear end of the car to stay out of sight, breathing heavily.

I wonder, what now? The door of this car isn't just open; it's lying on its side on the floor. The door on the opposite side is open, too. It's a classic hobo ride, out of sight and out of the rain, even though anyone that cared to could look inside from the correct angle and see us. We're on the way!

Well, almost. We're ready to go, but the train isn't. We wait. Nothing happens. Another train arrives from the west. We hear it coming and try to stay out of sight in the shadows of the boxcar, finding that it's hard to disappear when two 10-foot doors yawn wide open on both sides of the car. The new train stops for the crew change ritual, then pulls out of the yard. Still we sit, hoping that law enforcement won't arrive with the inevitable bust. But it doesn't. Finally, we hear the air in the brake line, the groan of rusty metal. Risking a glance out the door on the station side, we see a red signal over the tracks turn from red to green. A mild jerk announces our departure. We really are heading west for the Continental Divide.