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First Ride

 

November 1973. I was 15 years old. I'd been hanging out a bit with my old friend Sherman, who would later take the name Hank. We knew each other as kids, and we were friends even though he was two years older and usually hung out with my brother. He got slightly mistrustful as we got older when I, the straight kid, stole a bag of pot from him and my brother. The stuff was scarcely distinguishable from oregano, but I thought it was evil and tried to destroy it. Then in ninth grade, I grew my hair long. In the theory that hippie looks betrayed hippie thoughts, I suddenly had a hipness factor among the older crowd. Sherman had long hair, too. Plus he liked trains. Once I met him while on a railfan pilgrimage to Hermosa Tunnel in Wyoming with my dad. When Dad was ready to go, he let me hang out longer and get a ride home with these crazy lads. (Well worth it to hang out with some hip older boys, even though it cost me a cramped ride home in the back seat of a Volkswagen Beatle.

I heard how they had started riding freight trains. Train rides were fairly easy pickings because the tracks ran right down the middle of a paved street through town. This was only half a block from the pinball joint where my brother and Sherman hung out, spending unbelievable (to me) amounts of money on the silver ball. Not hard to run around the corner to Mason Street when a train went by and catch a ladder. Trips to Cheyenne soon followed.

I was never one for the game room, but Sherman came by my house with his friends sometimes to hang out with my brother. I allowed as how it would be fun to go with them on a freight ride sometime. Somehow it transpired that Sherman showed up on a November afternoon with his sometimes barely tolerated friend M.O. and another whose name I caught and then didn't remember. They had cleverly called the railroad agent at the Fort Collins depot, professing to be railfans (which was true). They had gotten information that a train would be along in the afternoon and that it would stop out at North Yard. We hung around until we heard the train blowing its horn tattoo at each of the grade crossings in the south part of town. Somebody had an adequate car, a funny little sedan. We whisked ourselves down to Mason Street to watch the engines go by - three or four big SD-40s and an SD 9 or two. Green and white in the Burlington Northern paint. If you looked closely, some still had the good old-fashioned Colorado and Southern reporting marks, the more-or-less hometown railroad. I would get a chance to drive an SD 9 in less than two years, but I had no idea then that such things were possible.

Someone said to start looking for a car that looked rideable. Eventually, we saw a battered green boxcar that had both its doors open. Looked good: shelter from the elements and observation, but we could still see out both sides. We waited for the rest of the train to go by, then drove as fast as we could to North Yard.

The train was already stopped, its length fully visible along the county road that paralleled the tracks. It wasn't much of a railroad yard: the main track, a passing track, and several storage tracks inhabited by old boxcars awaiting service, almost all of them a dark rusty brown. Up at the east end, there were probably some cars awaiting pickup by a through train. Presumably, that's what the engines were doing. We quickly spotted our car, pulled over, and three of us got out and ran for it. Sherman stayed in the car and promised to meet us in Cheyenne.

One door is wide open, but the one on our side is only cracked open a couple of feet. It wasn't made for people to climb in and out, making for a bit of a tough scramble since the ground was much lower relative to the rails here in the countryside with no paved street laid right up to the top of the rails. We wait and wait - something that I found would be common in the experience of riding trains. Some initial hints of motion arrived as air moved in the air lines and the brakes eased off. Finally a tremendous jerk announced our departure. We're off, the train curving north to Wyoming!

We see Sherman on the highway a couple of times. Once he has driven down a side road to watch us go by. Mostly I remember the cold. It was a sunny but chilly day. Once the train was rolling, it never stopped. In the shade with the wind in the Colorado November, climbing more than a thousand feet up onto the high plains of Wyoming where the winds constantly swept east from a low place in the Continental Divide. The mountains sprawled to the west, but they provided no shelter. We quickly found that the only warm place to stand was by the narrowly open door on the sunny side of the car. Only one person could stand near the opening and get enough warming sunshine to feel comfortable. Nobody wanted to give it up, but fortunately nobody saw any point in being possessive. We stood in a line in the narrow sunbeam, taking turns being the frontmost body in the line.

Cold, uncomfortable, but not cheerless. At 15, I could sometimes only stare at events in my world as they happened to me, wondering how I was supposed to respond. Here, there was no need for analysis. It was freedom, rebellion, exhilaration, and mild criminality, mixed with camaraderie and consideration among near strangers.

Girls were starting to excite me, but this was something no less huge and new in my narrow experience. I had recently gotten the news that I would have to spend the next two or three years of my life wearing a Frankensteinian back brace. It felt like a sentence of death that would all too soon grip me, and I hadn't realized how much it had darkened my mind. Here, I didn't think about it at all anymore. My life felt like it had expanded to the vast extent of the November sky.

M.O. had a joint of the evil weed with him. I puffed on it cautiously when he handed it around. If it had any effect on my perception, I couldn't detect it.

Soon, the train entered rolling hills, and we braved the colder door periodically to look out. Just over the Wyoming line, the tracks made a great loop, showing us a view of the locomotives far ahead as they climbed up a hill and ducked under the tracks of another railroad. Then it was under the Interstate and all downhill into Cheyenne. The wind was a continuous blast on the west side of the car for a while, but at least it hit the narrow door instead of the one that was wide open.

The train slowed as it threaded its way over a long fill and finally crossed a bridge over the double-tracked mainline of the mighty Union Pacific railroad. I had been here many times as a tagalong railfan kid with my dad, but never like this. The train slowed further, the sun was back, and we still rode up on the fill in some mysterious backwater of Cheyenne that I had never seen before. Time to get off. Nothing to hold onto, I just sat on the narrow doorsill and scooted off, hoping to land on my feet.

Oomph! I fell backwards onto my butt - fortunately not tumbling too far backward toward the rails - but soft dirt caught me. The train clicked and clanked along slowly behind us in a friendly way. We ran down the embankment toward a road where Sherman miraculously waited in the car. Everyone seemed concerned about my fall, but I felt fine.

We drove way out west of town, parking somewhere along that mighty twin mainline of the mighty UP, expecting to see the usual parade of trains by the dozens. Instead, we were skunked with a lull. The tide of trains was out. We smoked more pot. I still didn't notice any real effect on my mind and wondered what the fuss was about. The phrase, "Kansas Ditchweed" was bandied about. I felt pretty good already today. At least the smoke wasn't as nasty as cigarettes. I amused myself by using my fingers to make long shadows in the car's smoky air as the sun lowered to the horizon. The other lads allowed as how it looked kind of cool.

Eventually, the sun dipped down to its early autumn bed. We headed back to Colorado in the twilight. I didn't register much else that happened that particular day. I probably seemed no different, but my life had changed forever.