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Denver to Chugwater

 

rider on grainerWay the hell back in December 2005, as usual I was bored and restless. A month break from Colorado State University and the complete uninteresting nature of 2 more holiday meals - one with each divorced parent - as well as a complement of geriatric relatives from out of town for their requisite 5 days a year with the family left me in an unpleasant state. It was time to get out of town, and fast. BNSF Railway seemed the best way to see the country and save on gas money. The day after Christmas, my dad dropped my friend Spike and I off in front of Union Station in Denver. After seeing nothing going south, we headed over to the wye right by the Platte river to wait some more. Some coal trains came through in each direction but that was it, and the night ended up being a bust. We caved and got picked up after it became apparent that nothing else was coming through.

Two days later we rode the bus up to Pecos Street where the UP Moffat Tunnel and BNSF Front Range subdivisions leave their respective yards. The plan was to get out of town as soon as possible, regardless of the route. It was windy as hell, and we had to huddle under the Belt Line bridge, where UP coal trains from the Moffat cross the Front Range sub. This was Spike's first time, and in the middle of winter he was not as enthusiastic as I was about going a long way. A short BNSF freight came around the bend, and the 2 light power SD-40s were the standard power of the train to the Coors brewery in Golden, 10 miles west. He was up for getting on this one, and I was considering it too, as we were getting cold in the late afternoon, and my grandmother's house, with warmth and tasty grub, was very close to the brewery. However, the force of will to run after it and nab a back grainer just wasn't there this day. A UP coal train headed west soon after, but empty coal hoppers did not look that appealing as a ride. It was getting late, and I was afraid this day would be shot like the last one, as I cracked a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli under the bridge. It was decided we would not wait past dark, and we headed back out to the street to wait a bit more.

rider on grainerI then noticed 3 BNSF road units plodding into view on the Front Range sub. They were still a ways from the yard limit but I knew this would be the one when grainers and other freight in tow came into view. We sprinted down to the crossing as soon as the head units passed and waited to see a good car. After a healthy number of boxcars and tankers, a string of empty lumber skeletons looked as good as any and we had no trouble boarding a yellow one as the train was doing 10 mph tops. It was almost dark as we inched through several crossings near the yard, and then the speed picked up fairly quickly. I recall how smoothly the acceleration was; there were no slack jerks whatsoever. The driver gunned it and soon we were whizzing past apartment buildings and baseball fields, and the Westminster shopping mall. I could tell Spike was a bit unnerved by the high speeds, it seemed like about 45 or 50 on the way out of Denver. The driver slowed down going through Broomfield, and we got a great view of the Flatirons Crossing mall. My mom called Spike's cell phone at that point, wondering where we were. She didn't seemed too concerned, as she had been aware for some time about my fun new hobby.

We coursed through Boulder and along a divided highway for a bit until deceleration signaled the approach to Longmont. I can't figure out why the train slows so much here. Out of darkness we inched across US 287 with headlights glaring, but I am sure the mostly Mexican population here was cool with what we were doing. Passing the small yard here, the train headed up Atwood Street, in which the track lies upon a narrow median with street on each side. After a few more crossings we were back in darkness for a while. There was good speed til the Longs Peak siding where the train stopped in a rural field; no problem, another train had to pass. During the downtime we upgraded to two Montana Rail Link blue grainers with opposing porches. This was more spacious as we each got an entire porch to stretch out in, and cubbyholes to hide in if necessary. We each produced sleeping bags from our packs and sprawled out, waiting for the southbound to pass so progress could continue.

A southbound manifest soon passed, with standard stuff and also some weird fuselage looking deals. We got going soon enough and there was good speed through Berthoud and Loveland and on the approach to Fort Collins. Speed was reduced as we passed through the CSU campus and down the middle of Mason Street at 9:25, according to the large digital clock on the 12 story Key Bank building. It seemed about 20 degrees. There were very few spectators so we were not worried about being visible during the street running section. This is always the best part of this route, as cars drive right past on the pavement, just a few feet away.

The train then made a turn to the east and was soon stopped in the small yard north of town. I understand that these stops facilitate the exchange with the nearby Budweiser brewery, and almost all freights on this route stop here. We both burrowed into the sleeping bags and were almost asleep when the cars jerked and we were moving again. There was high speed until the next siding, when we passed another southbound freight. After that the driver gunned it and there was good speed once we passed the Rawhide Power Plant spur track. There were no hitches as we entered Wyoming, raced around the enormous horseshoe curve south of Speer Junction, and the approach to Cheyenne. There was gradual speed reduction until we stopped on the mainline south of the yard, where trains always stopped. Now previously, I had only had to wait about an hour for the crew change and continued northward progress when stopped here. Spike was looking ready to quit and go find a hotel, but I was not in favor of spending money and waiting in the light of morning for a southbound. It was already midnight, and that means not getting my money's worth paying the same price for the night as someone who got to the motel at 4. We agreed to at least patronize an all night truck stop close by, in order to warm up for a bit. It is the place just west of the BNSF line and north of the UP route.

My usual reluctance to spend money on restaurant food was reinforced at the truck stop. I have always figured that if I must spend money on a restaurant entrée, I had better feel al least somewhat full. The wispy Reuben sandwich was tasty, but I was hungrier after eating it. I guess the burly truckers ate somewhere else.

I had figured that our ride would depart shortly, but it was still there each time I peeked out the door to check. By this point it was severely freezing. The frumpy waitress directed some scowls in our direction after we had been long since finished the grub, so we figured maybe it was time to head out, before being told to do so. Outside in the frigid air, our ride remained parked. I made the decision to return to the MRL grainers and spend the night there. After getting situated we hit the hay, and fortunately we were exhausted enough to get to sleep on the frozen grainer porches. I convinced him that even though he wanted to get back to Denver, we would be better off staying on the train and boarding the next southbound we passed rather than waiting in Cheyenne.

At dawn the next day we were awakened by some minor stirring and air in the brakes being released. I looked ahead and saw the head units detached, heading to pick up some cars. No worries, in 10 minutes the units returned and the train was ready to go. After the brakes clicked for a bit the train began inching forward. It was time to get out of sight as we passed through the small Cheyenne yard, so we each sat in the triangular folds of each grainer. After passing the yard office I figured we were safe and relaxed a bit. Just before passing under the 1-25 underpass I froze as I saw the cop parked exactly where he had been the last time I passed through here. Immediately west of the I-25 underpass a white Cheyenne Police Dodge Durango was parked 10 feet from the tracks. What the fuck, this dude is here every time, I thought. There was no time for a frantic dash into the cubbyholes, but we were fortunately already in the triangle deals. I was on the forward facing porch, and I knew that Spike's red sleeping bag could have been easily spotted by the fuzz if he was paying careful attention. After passing the SUV we both remained out of sight for a minute or then I carefully peeked back there. I was extremely relieved to see the white Dodge remaining stationary. By this time we were picking up speed and heading north out of Cheyenne at decent speed.

view from grainerThere was some concern as the train decelerated soon after clearing the city limits, and further bewilderment as we firmly came to a stop on the mainline. At this point, there was not a chance of hiding anywhere. Sparse plains stretched to distant hills in the west, and a similar situation to the east. A 2 lane paved road was right there, 30 feet from the train. "Pack your shit dude", I said emphatically. Someone must have called the cops. Before we were ready to split, I realized it must have been a false alarm as the train got going again and this time it was the real deal. Speeding north, all signs of civilization soon vanished. The attached photos are more effective than words in showing the bleak landscape north of Cheyenne. Many folk do not get the appeal of this state but to me it has always been very special. It is nice to see a part of the country that has yet to be blighted with Blockbuster Video, Home Depot and Outback Steakhouse retail outlets. There is one paved road that runs more or less on the same route as the railroad, but for many miles it is completely out of sight.

The tiny settlement of Federal marks the first passing siding north of Cheyenne. If a train was waiting there I would have been the good bud and ended the trip here. Fortunately the driver hauled right through there and we continued north. A sporadic ranch house here occasional cottonwood grove passed by for several hours. We must have crossed under 1-25 somewhere as it came into view to our left (west). I recognized the unique sandstone butte immediately west of the interstate as many family road trips to Yellowstone or Montana. At this point the train began markedly slowing down. I peered ahead to see a southbound BNSF freight patiently waiting on the siding, which is east of the mainline. More importantly, the conductor was standing just feet away on the west side. "Dude, get out of sight!", I asserted. We took refuge in the triangular folds before passing a middle aged guy in a black hoodie firmly facing south, towards the rear of the train. After passing by I looked back to see him standing firmly in the same position.

Here is where things got dicey. I had agreed to switch trains as soon as we passed a southbound. This line is track warrant control, which means manually operated switches. Theoretically, the conductor of the first train will position the head end switch to allow the second train to pass. However, the second switch should still be positioned in the direction of the first train.

A rational observer would expect the passing train to stop, in order to position the switch exiting the siding in the proper direction. Somebody's got to do it, and who the hell was at the north switch I can't figure out.

Anyway, the train slowed, but it became clear that the driver had no intention of stopping. Impulsively I prepared to dismount the left side of the car. Spike followed suit and I gingerly lowered my left foot to the rail bed. It was clearly going too fast but I lowered the other foot anyway, and attempted to get off running. I let go of the ladder, and my legs were simply unable to move fast enough and I ate it big time, tumbling end over end for at least 10 feet. For a moment I was horrified too see juggernaut steel wheels less than 3 feet away as I tumbled. Fortunately, I knew immediately after coming to rest that I was OK. My right knee definitely had taken the brunt of the fall, along with my right palm, but nothing was broken and my head was fine. Not the case for Spike.

I saw him lying only 30 feet ahead. I hurried to see if he was ok. He was conscious and at first everything seemed fine, until I noticed an inch long gash on his forehead. "Dude, are you alright?" I inquired. He was definitely stunned, and I was mortified as he asked in a trembling voice "Where are we?" He then grabbed me forcefully and was demanding "WHERE THE FUCK ARE WE?". Well, that was not the whole story. I then inquired if he remembered the last road trip we went on, who his mother was, who I was, etc. He had no recollection of any of it. Amidst the din I realized exactly where we were: "CHUGWATER", stated black letters on the white railroad station sign. This was definitely not the best place for such an incident.

view from grainerRight about now it was time to think fast. If he had a serious injury, I would have to take it like a man and get him medical attention, and fast. There had to be warmth and a phone in one of the several run-down buildings making up the entirety of Chugwater, Wyoming. There would be a lot of shit to deal with, but I clutched his arm and we trudged toward the highway exit where the gas station assorted residences stood. Going through my mind were some of the consequences I would surely face. The bill from the ambulance and related hospital visit would be enormous, and there was no way I would be able to afford it. The wrath of Spike's mother towards me would be torrid and perhaps violent. She had made it clear that he was never to board and ride a freight train, and had no idea that we were doing it regardless, and in midwinter to boot. But of course the worst thought was that he might be permanently altered, and it was my fault, period. This entire trip, and train riding concept in general had completely been my idea. Usually this fact might be bragging rights but here it was dreadful. I anticipated my taking responsibility for the entire thing to frowns and furrowed brows very soon. Not doing so would be chickening out, and in poor character.

I inquired again, "Do you remember our last road trip?" "Wait a minute, yeah, we went to Yellowstone". I stopped our progress immediately. Who is your mom? Where did we go attend community college? Slowly but surely his memory was returning. I thought for a second and then made an executive decision to return to the train. Whatever was wrong, it was not life threatening, and could be handled hours later, and after a good alibi had been created. As we headed towards the tail of the southbound train he still could not remember how we got here, and I had a hell of a time convincing him that yes, we had arrived on a freight train and now we had to board this one for the 180 mile return trip.

We hiked a down the service road towards the rear. There was nothing but tankers, box cars and full lumber cars until a solitary red grainer and adjacent gondola 10 cars from the rear unit. At this time I was unaware of the fact that nobody's ever in the rear unit, so we selected the black gondola as our ride. Unfortunately, when peering into the interior, ice and snow glared back at me. Goddammit, what the hell here. I guess the single grainer porch would have to do. When I saw the entirety of the porch covered with concrete mix, I decided the gondola was a better choice.

Soon after boarding the gondola, the reason for our continued stoppage became apparent: another northbound train was coming into view. While it was still a half mile or so away, we got out of sight immediately. As it neared, I carefully peeked and saw a solitary locomotive towing an enormous steel tube on a flatbed. That was the entirety of the train. It was time to go, I hoped.

During the entire ordeal, we had been in plain sight of Interstate 25. The train conductor or any other spectator could have easily spotted us until our final arrival inside the gondola car, and a half hour's time had elapsed while we were on the ground. While waiting in the gondola I was uneasy about the possibility of our delay being caused by a long wait for law enforcement to arrive and escort us off the train. A quick getaway would probably be possible, for the siding access road was covered with snow, and we would see cop cars coming long before they could arrived at our immediate vicinity. The landscape on the side of the train opposite the service road and interstate stretched endlessly to the east, but there were various ditches and some cottonwood groves that could provide cover. No one would be eager to do much searching out here in the cold. Regardless, I was uneasy about the thought because we would have to find another ride back if the fuzz showed up.

Soon after the odd one car train passed, the charging of air brakes signaled our departure and a jolt in the slack began our return trip to Denver. I was relieved that from this point on, there was now some certainty for the remainder of the trip. This train was destined for Denver, there were no industries on the way where a scrap metal gondola would be cut, and the mileage signs told us exactly how far we were from Denver. As the train pulled out of the siding, I was pleased to know the cops were at bay, and all we had to do was sit tight for the long, scenic return trip.

After pulling out of the siding, I was expecting to return to Cheyenne at a similar speed to the 30-40 mph we had utilized while cruising up here. For whatever reason, the train stayed at a measly 20mph after leaving the siding headed south, and after several miles we were both wondering what the deal was. Eventually it became apparent that this would be our speed all the way to Cheyenne. The good news was that Spike had pretty much returned to normal, but for a nasty cut on his forehead. My knee had swelled a bit from the fall, as well as Spike's ankle, so we were not able to walk or run very well, but that was the extent of our injuries.

While the scenery was definitely great, as the day progressed we were beginning to get frustrated. The mileage markers slowly counted down. 160, 159, 158.23, etc. The Cheyenne yard was about 118 and Denver was naturally 0. At this pace it could be tomorrow before reaching Denver. We fortunately had managed to scrape enough ice and debris from one spot to sit without getting wet, but it was still cold. I had also noticed several holes in my North Face down sleeping bag with down leaking out, so I had packed it up tight and was reluctant to pull it out unless absolutely necessary.

Unsealing a can of pinto beans and digging in was in order soon, and I also cracked the sole Corona I had brought. That has to be the high point of the trip in retrospect. There was no need for despair, and the sun had finally warmed the air to above freezing. The progress was slow but certain, and my only worry was the police SUV that seemed to be permanently fixed at the Cheyenne yard.

The train slowed to a crawl as we neared the tiny burg of Federal. I knew there was a passing siding there so I was not concerned about a possible stop. Passing through one crossing, Spike and I saw just one guy in a van waiting patiently. He saw us immediately, but he was fortunately not a tattler and gave a friendly wave. After he was able to cross, we had a chuckle when we realized that for whatever reason, the road he was on crossed the right of way again further south. He was there waiting patiently at the second crossing.

Soon we were stopped on the siding of Federal, adjacent to the old depot there. It was now run down although it had definitely been in use since passenger service had been discontinued. There was ample time to dismount our gondola car and walk around in the waning sunlight. I was a hobo novice at the time so I made sure to avoid being in sight of the rear unit. I had always assumed that someone had to man the pusher engines, which seems pretty dumb to me today.

After a half hour or so we heard a train whistle to the north. It had to be miles away at this point, but it was unmistakably to the north and rear of us. As it gradually neared my guess was that this was a coal train headed to the power station just south of the Wyoming border. That turned out to be incorrect. As the train came into view in the distance I made out intermodal double stacked containers as the sole cargo. While sitting on the wet gondola floor waiting for the head units to pass, I felt frustrated that the entire earlier ordeal with the botched bail-out had been entirely unnecessary. If we had stayed on the first train, we would not only have experienced more scenery, but would have also returned sooner. I had initially considered the possibility of boarding the 48er but it was moving way too fast , and as the last cars passed I was mildly upset but nothing more. In the cold I had to make a valiant effort to stand up, as my right knee was now locked in a straight position due to swelling.

Soon after, we were under way again towards Cheyenne. There was about an hour of light left so I definitely was a bit concerned about police presence there. After passing into the city limits the train slowed a bit on the approach to the yard. It was difficult to establish the exact distance left until the yard limits, as there seemed to be countless red brick buildings lining the track. I noticed 2 cop SUVs parked on the shoulder of the road adjacent to the right of way, and we got out of sight immediately. They definitely were not paying any attention and I was not too concerned. As the train finally pulled into the yard I saw no police SUV in sight, and that was a real relief. The dirt service road was entirely vacant.

Since we had waited more than 8 hours for our train to leave the yard the previous night, we decided this time that if the train waited around for more than an hour, we would hitchhike on I-25, which conveniently crossed over the yard. We definitely wanted to get off the train and walk around a bit regardless. The sky had stayed light much longer after sunset than just a few weeks ago, and oddly enough I could already sense the change in seasons even though the solstice had occurred just a week earlier. I was glad that the darkest part of this winter was now over and warm days would be here soon.

As we were hiking past a long string of empty red railtie flatbeds, the train began moving again. There was no time to return to the gondola so we boarded a flatbed and lay low. It was possible to stay out of sight because there was some apparatus on these flatbeds that obscured a horizontal view of us. The driver gunned it and we were soon sailing over I-80 and back home. I unsealed the final can of Chef Boyardee ravioli and scarfed it down as the last vestiges of sunlight disappeared in the west.

The trip was uneventful for the 40 miles to Fort Collins. Reclining with my pack used as a makeshift pillow, the train appeared to be flying far above the landscape, as I was unable to see the steep slopes on each side of the berm on which the tracks lay.

Upon arrival at the Fort Collins yard, we dismounted the flatbed and returned to the gondola. Fortunately there was not a long wait this time and we pulled out of the yard at 7:45 pm.

You've got to love riding down Mason Street in Fort Collins, I have now done it at least 50 times its great every time being right there on the road with motorists and pedestrians. This evening found the downtown area deserted of Fort Collins citizens, as extreme cold and the post-Christmas lull had occurred. The rule is that the engineer cannot exceed 15mph until the head end crosses Prospect street, which is roughly ¾ mile south of Mason street. Due to the length of this particular train, our gondola began accelerating long before reaching the end of the street. That's always fun.

Everything seemed to be going great as we exited the city limits. Both of us reclined and tried to get some rest on the snow-free area we had cleared. I was very familiar with this route so I was fully aware of all the slow spots and possible stops on the route. The problem is that some additional, unexpected stops can occur. I soon became aware that this was the case now. I became aware that we were stopped and for the longest time I could not gather the muster to see where the hell we were. You know those times on road trips when you doze off, and then when you wake up you're there? Well those times don't happen on freight trains. We were still stuck at mileage post 55 and had been here at least an hour. It was not getting any warmer but finally the train resumed progress. It then stopped at a siding to let a doublestack train pass. This was at least an additional half hour. Neither of us were awake for the slow passage through Longmont, and when we came to once more we were stopped again. I gingerly rose to peer out over the rusty steel walls. CELESTIAL SEASONINGS blared a neon sign on a large rectangular warehouse building on one sign, and US 36 was on the other. At least 40 miles out. Goddammit, this was nuts. Previous to this trip, it had never taken more than 4 hours from Ft. Collins to Denver, and it was now 12:30 am, already 5 hours. After another hour wait the train commenced. There was one remaining possible stop ahead, and I winced when considering the possibility of getting tied down out here in this cold.

Fortunately, the train kept its speed when passing through the Broomfield siding and accelerated for the remaining 13 miles to Denver. Soon we were on the approach to the yard, and we both decided to risk going through the yard to deboard at Union Station, rather than dismounting in safety outside the yard. At this hour there were no buses on Pecos or Federal boulevards, and zero chance of getting picked up by a motorist. The train plodded into the yard and we paid careful attention for cops. Fortunately, our car afforded us complete invisibility from all sides, and there was no watchtower or anything. There was a lot of activity in the intermodal yard even at this hour, but we remained unseen and dismounted in darkness just several hundred yards from Union Station.

The trip was over, except for the fact that Spike's apartment was 5 miles away. Due to the extreme late hour, buses had discontinued service, so we hiked the whole way, and crashed heavily as the sky was lightening.