The first weekend of June 2006 was coming up, and it was time to address some serious youthful restlessness. At the time I was working as an intern at 850 KOA radio in Denver. Specifically, I was working 5 days a week screening calls for the Mike Rosen show, a political talk show with a fair amount of gravitas in the Denver and Rocky Mountain West region. On the first Monday of each month, the Colorado governor makes an appearance on the show to answer listener questions and detail legislative activity. I had to do something interesting in the several days preceding his appearance. This guy is Republican, corrupt and pro-logging and mining, which means I'm not a huge fan, and of course I wanted to feel superior to him sitting in the screener chair that Monday.
Thursday night, I was staying at my mother's apartment adjacent to the interstate. This brand new complex features all the faux western features one would expect: concrete painted tan to look like real granite or adobe, cheap terra cotta roofing, and bronze statues of an Indian chief, a mountain lion, and a bear. From this vantage point I was still able to notice a genuine idyllic western scene - a cattle horn moon setting over the unraped hills to the west. It was decided by unanimous one-man vote that the next night would be a good one to break the doldrums with a quality free train trip. The moon was setting into the hills where I knew the old Rio Grande, now UP mainline through the Rockies lay.
Friday evening I climbed aboard my blue and white Trek 1000 road cycle and proceeded from my dad's house in Lakewood (about 4 miles west of Denver's city center) and cruised over to the BNSF 31st street yard to see if any glaring opportunities were available. This line was not my real plan, as the line runs north-south to either Sterling or Pueblo, but it was more or less on the way to the Moffat tunnel line departure area anyway. There was a parked southbound coal train that was easily accessible, and I considered boarding the rear unit. I reconsidered because I would have been vulnerable while waiting to depart. An access road was there, and the bike presented a problem. I jacked some bottled waters and got back on the cycle, deciding to head over to the Moffat tunnel sub to the west.
An easy 3 mile ride past a stockyard, power plant and strip club and I was at Pecos Boulevard and I-76, where both the BNSF Front Range Sub and UP Moffat Sub leave North Yard in Denver. Darkness was descending as I got to the Moffat tunnel subdivision crossing. As I reached it, I observed a train approaching the crossing heading west. I saw nothing but hoppers in the waning light, and assumed it was a coal train. Bummer. As more of the train came into view, I observed some lumber skeletons and flatbeds, and felt suddenly energized. A westbound freight with lots of good cars, headed to Grand Junction and possibly Utah. I was already totally committed. I stood patiently on the crossing with the bike; I mean who would expect a kid with a bike and helmet to get on board? I figured I would take it a ways into the mountains, camp out, and then enjoy a long downhill ride back the next day. The 6 mile Moffat tunnel definitely came into consideration as a possible danger, but that was only a distant consideration at this point.
After the units crossed the street, I started hiking down the right-of-way west of the crossing, waiting for an acceptable car that would hold a bike. I was feeling a bit frantic when I realized that the train was probably moving too fast to get the bike on. Fortunately, I was on the positive side of luck this evening, and the hiss of brakes signaled that the train was stopping at a signal bridge around a curve ahead. I quickly nabbed a flatbed containing huge-ass pipes stacked 10 feet high. The pipes were considerably shorter than the total length of the car so there was plenty of room between each bulkhead and the pipes, as they were stacked in the middle. This was an older flatbed, and also had several compartments on the outside of each bulkhead. The bulkhead is an acute triangle pointing upward, and there is a hollow space facing the wheels, which has a ladder thoughtfully placed over it to prevent a passenger from falling under them. I wrangled the bike in one of the compartments and locked it there so there was no chance of it falling under the wheels. I reclined in another compartment and less than 3 minutes after stopping, the train got going.
Picking up speed, the train crossed some overpasses and proceeded west into Arvada, a suburb west of Denver. The bike was partially visible but I figured that both the darkness and the high speed would prevent any snitches from seeing definite proof of anything. I ducked totally out of sight when I saw an Arvada police cruiser sitting first in line at a crossing. No worries.
After coursing past neighborhoods and then some ranch houses the train was approaching the Leyden siding, and the beginning of the wide-open spaces. A bright locomotive headlight came into view and I realized that where I was positioned the driver of the parked eastbound might be able to see me. I quickly scrambled to the opposite side and for about 10 seconds was hanging onto the side of the bulkhead as my train raced past the parked eastbound at 45 mph. I realized soon after that it had been a dangerous move. One slack jerk probably would have chucked me off.
I was glad at this point to know that there would be no civilization for the rest of the trip. At high speed the train crossed the old Rio Grande bridge over Indiana avenue and into open pastures. Looking back I could see that substantial elevation gain had already occurred. The Rockies were directly ahead, and after several more miles of pastoral fields it would be time to tackle them.
The approach to the Rockies began and the train slowed a bit as the track snaked around several extremely windy curves on a treeless hillside as it neared the entrance to the foothills. I had previously done this route on Amtrak with a bunch of fogeys and not much visibility through the small tinted windows, and it was definitely preferable to be sitting 20 feet off the ground with an unobstructed nighttime view of the entire Denver metro area and a warm breeze. The moon was a day fatter than the cattle horn I had seen yesterday and already dipping into the hills directly ahead.
After those very circuitous curves traversing a grassy hillside, the train entered a short canyon and curved around, exiting on the opposite side before heading into the first tunnel. Even in this short tunnel of just a few hundred feet in length there was still some amount of diesel exhaust in there, and I was a bit concerned about the possibility of going through the 6 mile Moffat. Having read and heard stories from a guy who knew a guy who knew a hobo who suffocated in the Moffat, deep beneath the Continental Divide, I decided at for certain at this point that I would get off before the tunnel, assuming the train stopped.
The Denver skyline was now substantially lower in elevation to the southeast; at this point the track was winding through the Flatirons just southwest of Boulder. I could make out the Valmont power plant near Boulder, where I had passed closely many times on the BNSF Front Range sub on trips home from university on the weekends. Huge cliffs and boulders jutted out on each side of the right of way, and some times there was almost zero clearance between the train and the rock walls. Not even the simplest of automobile roads would have fit in this right of way.
Another long tunnel turned 90 degrees towards the west while inside the mountain, and upon exiting, the track was no longer in sight of the civilization to the east but instead perched on a steep wooded hillside with a nearly vertical terrain on each side. For several miles the track snaked in and out of tunnels and across steep mountainsides.
The initial plan had been to get a way up into the mountains, get off, and camp out until morning, when I would have an easy, all downhill trip back the next day. This would naturally depend on the train stopping to let another pass in a good place. When the train stopped about 10 miles into the mountains, I got off and considered this location as a place to camp. I made out a crossing further ahead that the train was currently blocking and hiked up there to see if this road would be bikable on my current unit. As I got there it became apparent that it was a steep, windy dirt road. At this point a coal train was passing on the siding, so it would be time to make a decision, and fast. I decided to reboard the freight train just as it started moving again. Without a second to spare I hooked the bicycle handlebars around the ladder of a white ACF grainer and climbed aboard. Unfortunately the bike was protruding sideways from the ladder by at least a foot, and I was still in the area known as the Tunnel District. There would not be enough time to get the bike safely onto the grainer porch before entering the next tunnel, so I held it as close as possible to the side ladder and hoped the tunnel had a good deal of clearance. In complete darkness I was expecting to feel the biked mangled by a rock jutting from the tunnel wall. At the same time I had to cover my mouth with the other hand to prevent diesel exhaust inhalation. I was relieved to exit the tunnel unscathed, but at least 7 followed in quick succession, each without adequate time between them to get the bike on the porch. Finally there I got a chance and swung the bike over the wheels and into safety.
Inside a narrow canyon on the approach to Pinecliff, the track was now adjacent to a swiftly moving, treacherous creek. All the extreme kayak enthusiasts out there should utilize the free ride offered here to access this great creek.
After leaving the tunnel district, the freight picked up speed and passed through the hick town of Pinecliff and soon after, Rollinsville. It would have been nice to stop at either of those sidings as there are paved roads passing through each, but no such luck occurred. There were still two sidings ahead where we could potentially stop but I was now feeling a bit anxious because the Moffat was close. As the topography opened up into alpine meadows the climate was definitely cooling off, and all I was wearing was a pitiful lightweight fleece jacket.
Passing mountain meadows with sporadic campers, there was no sign of slowing down. After highballing the siding of Tolland, there would be only one last chance of stopping. That was not to be the case. The moon was setting over James Peak directly ahead as the train neared East Portal. I noticed some campfires at the campground there and wished I could get off and warm up, but it was not to be. The sort of feeling created in these situations is common with this hobby: a brief glimpse of warmth and civilization in an otherwise cold, isolated landscape comes into sight, but there is no choice but to watch it quickly pass and return to the darkness. I was pretty nervous knowing that the extreme darkness of the Moffat was now certain.
The tunnel entrance was directly ahead, and I was surprised to not see any sort of security or floodlights employed. There was no slowing as the train entered the darkness of the Moffat. I braced myself for the onslaught of diesel exhaust, and covered my mouth as tenaciously as possible with my doubled up shirt. Even though I was probably only 25 or so cars from the units, I must say that the exhaust was not as suffocating as many people have said. Without any cloth to breathe through, a rider might pass out or even worse, but a simple shirt was enough to filter out almost all the exhaust. The trip through the tunnel probably took 20 minutes, and was totally dark but for some evenly placed emergency stations with red lights every mile or so. The warmth of the locomotive exhaust was actually comforting compared to the cold mountain air and I was able to relax and mellow out for the duration of the trip through the tunnel.
Finally the warm exhaust filled air began to feel much cooler and the exit was in sight. It was very refreshing to cruise out the west portal into cold but pure mountain air. The Winter Park ski area was immediately to the left now, with a chairlift only a hundred feet or so from the track.
It was substantially colder now, and I was a bit displeased that my bike ride back was now going to be considerably more substantial than I had hoped. The only return route was via US 40 over Berthoud pass, which is not an easy ride by any means. The train sped through the towns of Winter Park and Fraser, and then ducked into a small canyon on the Fraser River while the highway diverged to the west. By this time I was thinking I would have to wait till the crew change in Bond to dismount, and that was still a very considerable distance. I was a bit concerned about the return trip now because Bond was at least a hundred miles from Denver and I had to be back by Sunday.
Just as I was comfortable and dozing off, the train finally stopped. I came to and made out a highway overpass and a gas station right there. I dismounted with the bike and hiked towards the road. Thick mud overflowed my shoes. I got to the road and cruised over to the gas station and saw the word "Granby" on it. I was glad to be off but it was going to be a long trip back.
After a freezing night huddled in some bushes I got cycling before sunrise. It took a while to pass through Fraser and Winter Park, and then it was time for the grueling ascent up Berthoud. I had to walk pretty much the whole uphill portion, which took several hours. It was frustrating to see middle aged cyclists cruising past in each direction, seemingly unaffected by the steep grade. When finally reaching the top I surveyed numerous sheeple, all but a few of whom had reached this point with nonexistent physical exertion or suspense. I examined the excellent view for several minutes and commenced the steep trip down the opposite side. The grade was even steeper than the side I had come up, and there were times I must have been going 45, which was WAY more scary than the train trip had been. From this point on it took several more hours of nonstop downhill cycling through Idaho Springs and then Clear Creek canyon to finally reach Golden, which is close enough to my residence. I definitely do not recommend cycling Clear Creek canyon. This 15 mile road up a narrow canyon used to host a narrow gauge track, and now accesses the only legal gambling cities in the state, Blackhawk and Central City. Without the incessant tour buses filled with geriatrics crowding the shoulder, it would have been very enjoyable. There are road signs with a bicycle circled and crossed out, but what else was I supposed to do? The alternate would have been to bike an extra 15 miles on Interstate 70. I finally arrived in Golden at 2 PM or so. My mother took one look at me and demanded, "Have you been on a train?"