GRINCH: My mood was pensive as I boarded my Denver-bound flight in Sacramento, knowing that in just a few hours I'd be abandoning the creature comforts of civilized society to taste yet again the adventure to be found on the railways of Colorado and Utah.
As I deplaned in Denver, I craned my neck for Too-Tall Ken, a
self-described tall, bearded fellow who promised to meet me at the
airport. Not seeing him in the crowd of anonymous faces at the end of
the jetway, I proceeded down the Denver airport subway system to the
baggage claim to claim my dusty gray pack. Approaching the appointed
carrousel, I spied a bearded Too-Tall guy leaning up against a baggage
counter, looking nonchalant and increasingly interested as I ambled
We quickly made the requisite introductions and exclamations about
our coming adventure-to-be. Picking up my pack, we proceeded outside
under threatening skies to Ken's well-worn but very comfortable Subaru
to head into Denver.
TOO TALL: Somehow, it's easy to recognized someone with whom you intend to hop a freight. Maybe it's the evil gleam in the eyes. Last year I met some other hoppers in the same way; they were always easy to spot...
Last year, I made one long and one short hop over the pass. Three cohorts from last year's long trip hoped and planned for another get-together to say farewell to the beautiful pass route. Grinch had planned to go last year but had to cancel at the last minute. This time, ironically, everyone else canceled out and only Grinch was left. I felt glad to be the one constant, glad to have another excuse to go.
On last year's trips, I baked severely in the hot sun and thin air. This year, the weather was lousy for most of the month of May. I'd carefully packed my gear in numerous plastic bags to make sure it wouldn't get soaked by my leaky pack. I didn't have much rain gear to cover myself and fully expected to be wet, cold, and miserable up on the pass.
When I left my home port of Fort Collins, it was pouring rain and the wipers barely kept up. I worried my car would rust away from underneath me. The weather cleared slightly as I drove south toward DIA.
Grinch had a lot of stuff; the only way he could get away was to
come directly from a business trip. It was awkward to carry everything.
Of course, we didn't think until later that he could have just mailed
his extra junk home.
GRINCH: We proceeded directly to the Denver Greyhound station to purchase our tickets to Pueblo - $18 each one way, with the bus leaving at around 11:00 that evening. Seeing as it was only 7:00 or so, we decided to kill the time by driving over to Denver's 21st St. Yard to "railfan."
Parking the Subaru in a shifty area just adjacent to Denver's notorious "Hobo Hilton" - an abandoned, boarded-and-barred brick factory building - we stalked around the tracks as the sun slowly sagged toward the horizon behind dark clouds. Spying a short SP train with empty hoppers nearby, we walked over and "scoped" out the units. They were AC4400s - some of the last and best SP units out there. We marvelled at the sharp black and blood-red paint, a far cry from the faded gray and pink of most poor SP diesels.
Walking back to the car, we decided to fill our stomachs with fast-food grub and find a supermarket to stock up on supplies for the trip. Heading out of downtown on 31st St., we didn't have to go very far before finding a Burger King, liquor store and PayLess clustered within a few blocks. We stocked up at PayLess on hobo staples (peanuts, SPAM, tuna fish, chips and water) and then purchased a six-pack of Fat Tire ale (a brew from Too Tall's home town) to "celebrate" our planned ascent of the Pass.
As we headed back toward downtown, we ate a quick but satisfying
meal at Burger King and called our significant others one last time
before embarking on our adventure. Ken called his brother-in-law, who
lives near downtown Denver, to inquire about where to leave his car. We
wanted to leave the car in a "nice" area, so we finally decided to park
it on the hill above downtown Denver near the Governor's mansion and
very near Colorado's gold-topped State Capitol building.
TOO TALL: As we drove by the Governor's mansion, I flipped off Governor Roy Romer for his support of the UP/SP merger. Not only was the merger killing off Tennessee Pass, it was costing the state at least 1,500 good paying jobs. I guess when the billionaires come to call, the politicians listen, no matter what political party said politicians hail from.
GRINCH: We spilled our gear out of the car and onto the sidewalk, packing and re-packing our gear. With two bags in tow, Grinch was almost overpowered with gear! He ended up bringing what seemed like a ton of heavy canned food and lots of water, and suffered the whole trek downtown for bringing it.
We trekked cross-city down into Denver's downtown core towards the Greyhound station, enjoying the scenery in the warm evening air. Too Tall served as guide, point out Denver's sights to Grinch as we walked through the city. Reaching the station, we arrived in a bit of panic: the buses were already loaded to the gunwales and less than 5 minutes from departure!!! After some quick thinking and confusion with the bus driver, we clambered on board the bus and found some seats near the back.
The two-hour trip to Pueblo went fairly quickly, and our excitement grew as we neared the town. De-busing at a gas station near I-25, we called a taxi, which arrived in very short order. The cab was driven by a slightly impaired cab driver, who was joined in the passenger seat by an EXTREMELY drunk friend. We asked our two chauffeurs to deliver us to the UP/SP railroad yard - which they did with a vengeance!! The driver literally drove us right into the center of the yard, crossing a number of tracks at the UP truck crossings, and delivering us almost right to the jungle area !!!
After a generous tip for their trouble ("They told us not to go into the yards anymore, but it's no problem for you guys...") we waved goodbye and made our way into the small "jungle" area at the edge of the departure yard. It was 1:15 a.m., on the dot.
Not 30 seconds after we dropped our packs, we were illuminated through the trees by the bright lights of an oncoming mixed freight leaving the yard. We laid low until the units passed, then made a split-second decision not to catch the train. It was moving pretty fast out of the yard, and we figured we'd miss the Royal Gorge and TP scenery as it was the middle of the night.
We dropped and hid our packs and began to explore the Pueblo yard. We walked around several strings of cars in an attempt to find an outgoing string, but were unsuccessful. While crossing a dead string of cars, Grinch suddenly saw two headlights coming in the distance and hissed a warning out loud. We dropped down to the other side of the string and hid behind the wheels on the next to last car.
Amazingly, the white UP work truck STOPPED DIRECTLY OPPOSITE US ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CAR AND STOOD STILL. Alarmed that we had been seen and of our impending capture, we stealthily crept over to another string and hid behind it, trying to figure out what was happening. After some time of sitting next to the string, the truck drove away, apparently oblivious to our presence not 30 yards away.
We walked around the yard a bit longer, finding another protected jungle area with some nice cardboard on which to sit. We retrieved our packs from their original hiding place and moved over to this new jungle, spreading our sleeping backs for a quick hobo nap. The morning light and heat awoke Too-Tall at about 6:30 a.m., and Grinch woke up soon after that. Both of us decided to "re-jungle" at our original spot to wait for an outbound.
Grinch snuggled back into his sleeping bag in the shade of a pine tree, while Too-Tall kicked back under a leafy shade tree. Not 20 minutes later, we were startled awake by a horn blast from a train leaving the yard. Only two AC4400 units on the front-it looked like coal empties heading west. But we had to check. When the engines were out of sight around a curve, Too-Tall caught a ladder on the slow-moving train and climbed up the side of a hopper to look inside. He came running back and said, "Cool, it's a taconite train!!! Let's go!!" We quickly packed our bags.
Picking a taconite hopper far back from the head end and about 25 cars behind the two mid-train helpers. We ran toward the train and grabbed ladders on adjacent cars, catching out "on the fly." After climbing aboard and resting for a second, Grinch crossed to the rear of his car and climbed over to Too-Tall's car, which we decided to transform into our "personal pullman" for the day. It was 7:15 a.m.
SIDE NOTE: Taconite is a partially milled iron ore, and takes the form of dusty, marble-sized pellets. UP fills each taconite hopper about half-full of pellets, making for a really nice - if purple - ride. One can "burrow" into the pellets a bit to create a fairly comfortable "seat."
TOO TALL: The ride from Pueblo west is through fairly flat land - at least compared to the giant mountains to come - but it's pretty. A big dam and reservoir on the Arkansas River west of town forced the railroad to relocate in the 1960s, so the tracks climb steeply but constantly out of town, gaining elevation and veering far north of the river. The tracks start on the plains but follow the river ever closer to the north end of the Greenhorn Mountains - and the Royal Gorge.
The two mid-train units and single unit on the rear were unmanned. We toyed with the idea of trying to get a cab ride, but the train never stopped to let us scope it out. Maybe it was just as well.
Riding on taconite really gives you a commanding view: all the cars are the same height, so nothing gets in your way; plus, you're up at the top of the car. We had to be a little careful not to be spotted from the lead units, but the overall curviness of the line kept that from being much of a problem.
Soon the tracks skirt some rock buttes at the edge of the reservoir, ringed by cottonwood trees and still in the morning calm - a calm shattered by the blasting engines of the five AC units dragging their long heavy train uphill. We disturbed a huge heron that flapped off over the mirror surface of the water. Twin volcanos, the Spanish Peaks, loomed off to the south. A distant white shark's tooth marked the Culebra Peaks at the border of New Mexico, perhaps 80 miles away.
It would have made a lovely picture, but it changed before I could grope out of my pack. Memory would have to do.
Life was good, so we cracked our first Fat Tire to celebrate.
The tracks eventually pass by the reservoir and descend back to the riverside. Very pleasant riding with the meandering Arkansas on our left and numerous tall green cottonwood trees close enough to touch from our high roost on the taconite. Scenic rock buttes continued alongside the river.
Eventually, we came out of the surrounding buttes to more civilized areas around Florence and Canon City. (Can't put the little squiggle over the first "n" in Canon; it's pronounced "Canyon".) Pretty little towns, some beautiful old railroad stations, too. But we laid low to avoid prying eyes of those unsympathetic to our artistic cause.
NOTE: this part of the line into Canon City will survive as a real railroad to serve local traffic and a coal-fired power plant. The tracks through the bottom of the gorge will survive as a tourist operation.
At Canon City, the tracks and the river left town together and dove right into the mountains, into the Royal Gorge. The hills on either side loom up higher and higher until they become huge vertical walls and spires. The dirt hillsides get rockier and rockier until they become a jumble of multicolored granite confusion. The previously wide valley gets narrower and narrower until the tracks cling to a slender shelf just above the roaring river and numerous slide fences warn the railroaders when big rocks fall. Finally, a slender white bridge appears high in the sky between the towers of rock and flies through the air 1,000 feet overhead. It's the highest bridge in the US, but ironically, it's just for tourists. Doesn't hold a highway, just goes over the canyon so you can take a look.
This part of the line will survive as part of the Royal Gorge tourist industry, which includes the bridge, a cable car, an inclined railway to a pedestrian bridge over the tracks and viewing area at trackside and riverside. But this is the last time we'll see it by an illicit freight hop.
Just past the viewing area, the rock walls narrow until the tracks are suspended over the rushing water at the famous Hanging Bridge, two pointed arches of steel that hold the tracks up via cables. There just wasn't enough room to do anything else.
Appropriately, there is no one here at this early hour. No tourists on the bridge or at trackside. No cable car. Not even any rafters in the raging river. We are alone to appreciate the deep morning shadows alternating with rugged cliffs ablaze with sunshine. The train roars on, slowly, up the steep grade.
Gradually, the steepness of the canyon walls lessens. The thin thread of the high bridge dwindles. A highway dips down from a narrow side canyon and we pop under it. It's scenic, but US 50, civilization, and prying eyes of motorists will now be our friends for a while as the line heads west. We take the opportunity to get some rest.
Grinch proved to be a good sleeper, but I kept popping my head up to look around. Progressively frequent glimpses of alpine peaks as we approach the north end of the Sangre de Cristo range. Strange little rock canyons with formations like gawking faces. Brief openings of the valley into lovely pastures and ranches. A pair of symmetrical peaks. Dark clouds brooding over the still-snowy mountains, with the vicious scars where winter avalanches ran down through their forested flanks. All above the full sparkling river. Lovely. Unforgettable.
You can see this from the road, but the panorama of peaks and river isn't quite the same. And it can never be quite the same as this ride high above the musical noise of the rails, this effortless flight with the wind in our face as the train pulls us on to the next wonder.
West and west, mountains rising. At Salida, we reach a vast concordia of mountain peaks and valleys. The train travels beside some kind of dusty limestone processing plant and the remains of a once-busy railroad yard. Once, two different narrow-gauge lines set out to challenge the high mountains from here. All gone. And big modern railroading has forgotten how to offer service and chased most of the remaining customers away. Sad.
Across the river and the little downtown looms the northern end of the Sangre de Cristo range (which will still be visible as we reach Tennessee Pass, 70 miles away) and to the west the gigantic peaks of the Sawatch Range with more a dozen peaks over 14,000 feet high- Fourteeners. The tracks turn north, still following the Arkansas River, and we begin to traverse the incredible length of the Sawatch.
Brown's Canyon is the next scenic station. Not as spectacular as the Royal Gorge, but pleasant: the train slowly winds up the east bank of a low walled canyon of rounded brownish boulders stacked in oddly shaped heaps; rock formations loom out and sometimes over the tracks; the Arkansas alternates between placid deep pools and exciting rapids. It's a favorite for rafters, with good reason.
As usual, we see lots of rafters here. Good-looking, healthy, out for fun in the cold late spring waters. They wave and shout enthusiastically when they glance up and see us on our high perch. They appreciate the sporting spirit of freight hoppers.
Grinch is impressed: "Did you see that girl that waved at me?!"
"Waved at us," I corrected, smiling. "Aye, and what a fine pair of shoulders on that lass, too! Takes a strong woman to row a raft." I tried to pull his leg with tall tales of female river rats I have known.
Grinch stays awake long enough for the train to pop out of the canyon onto the flat flood plains and stunning view in front of Mt. Yale. Then we both crash for a while. It's hard to tune out the view, especially when I know this will be my last train ride here. But it has already been a long day, and I don't have Grinch's ability to crash at the drop of a hat. I drop off for a while, then wake to find that the sun has been out long enough to dehydrate me and burn my exposed skin through the thin mountain atmosphere.
Higher and higher. Into and out of unnamed canyons on the Arkansas. Across amazingly flat mountain-surrounded plains called parks. North of Buena Vista we play tag with the abandoned grade of the Colorado Midland, a ghost railroad abandoned in the 20s. Doesn't feel good to know that the old Denver and Rio Grande, here since the 1870s, will soon join its former competitor. A bike trail and the fiber optic lines of a billionaire won't be much compensation.
Cloudy, but no rain yet. Near Malta, the sidings below Leadville, the land opens up again. The flat lushly grassed valley lays in contrast to the steepness of the many peaks, the tallest in Colorado. To the east, another range of peaks and another Fourteener rise against the sky, still completely snowbound.
North through some trees, then across more meadow country at Tennessee Park. On a long straight tangent of track that curves into another tangent, we catch a rare glimpse of the entire train. Majestic Mt. Massive, almost a range of mountains by itself, dominates the view above the lone pusher unit on the end of our train. I look well at the view; seeing it again by train is unlikely.
I looked back down the long Arkansas Valley. There, some 70 miles distant back by Salida, framed by other peaks, lay the beautiful Sangre de Cristos. I considered the possibility of riding back this way tomorrow. I remembered my ride 13 years ago and how fatigued I felt. The fatigue caused a potentially fatal lapse in judgment. Lack of sleep gripped me now. The idea of going back for a final dose of Tennessee Pass made some sense: more adventure, a final glut of riding to make sure I was satiated before the loss, followed by another ride from Pueblo to Denver.
But I already was stealing time from work and family. I feared the danger of fatigue. Somehow I knew I wouldn't be back this way. The mysterious mountains would still be there, but the railroad would never again carry me past them. It seemed a sad to have such a tired farewell to this rolling experience that had become almost a part of myself, to these tracks and this way of seeing this part of the world. But there it was. There was nothing to do but enjoy the departing view, enjoy what would come - and to bother the re-crashed Grinch to wake up again before he missed the sights entirely.
Cloudier as the train approaches 10,000 feet. The chill from the snowy mountains and the lack of sun cools us. At least it never rained as I expected. The tracks climb off the flats onto hillsides. Below us, snow melt covered everything, every meadow becoming a marsh of clear flowing water meandering down to Tennessee Creek, a small headwater of the mighty Arkansas River. Winter seemed barely to have relinquished its grasp on the land. The aspen trees hadn't leafed out yet. Spring had barely arrived, and summer would be brief. So, too, the remaining life of the railroad would be short.
Lugging hard, the front of our train reached the long double track at the summit and dove into the tunnel, for a little longer the highest point on any mainline railroad in North America. I ruefully recalled how Bill Mellman had gotten us thrown off the train here last year thanks to his ride on the top of the car. Still, I missed Bill, Jaz, and Bob, my newfound friends from my ride last year. This ride seemed so much more melancholy. At least riding down the west side of the pass would be a new experience.
The tunnel was smoky but short. No problem. The train seemed to creep down the hill, the engineers paying religious attention to proper braking for the train full of iron. Good reason, too: piles of spilled taconite from a runaway still littered the reverse curves at Mitchell. Further downhill, up on the side of a mountain above the ruins of Camp Hale and the incongruous flatness of Eagle Park, the damage of another runaway derailment scarred the hillside. The train was going 65 mph when it left the track. A cross and a bell at trackside commemorated the two railroaders who met their fate.
We crept along at barely 20 mph (and glad of it) through the pine and naked aspen. Dropping, dropping, incredibly steep for any railroad and a train of this cargo.
Finally, we're at riverside again on the Eagle River. It seems tiny. We wind down through a roadless canyon then reach Red Cliff. The tracks curve along the mountainside above town, hop the river on a bridge, pass under a low highway bridge and a gigantic highway bridge several hundred feet above. Then we're in Eagle River Canyon.
Industrial ghosts are everywhere. Once this line was double tracked all the way to the summit. Now the only remnant is a brief stretch where a passing track occupies the opposite side of the river from the main. An incredible profusion of rusty metal buildings at trackside mark the zinc mine at Gilman. High above a ghost town occupies narrow shoulders of land above the frightening drops into the canyon. The houses are unsafe to inhabit because of the zinc dust. A smashed vehicle that must have rolled a thousand feet down from the highway somewhere above lies grimly in a pile of talus. A drunk? Some poor working Joe who couldn't afford to live in the nearby ski villages and bought it on the long commute from the cheaper living in Leadville? Somebody not paying attention to the road while trying to get a closer look at a train in the scenic canyon, then getting that look? I supposed the railroad soon wouldn't be here to tempt any lookers.
Minturn, crew-change stop, and our first stop since Pueblo about eight hours ago. Back to civilization and getting hotter. We've lost almost 2,000 feet of elevation since the pass. I think longingly of a good dinner at the Turntable Restaurant, an adjunct to the railroad dormitory. A cold beer. But it's not to be. We have time to climb down and relieve ourselves, not much more.
The ride after Minturn is a lot closer to civilization. The railroad parallels I-70, and there is lots of development near the ski areas. We were trying to keep a low profile and had to duck a lot. But soon we reached the volcanic crater at Dotsero where the Moffat Tunnel line from Denver joined the track, and the Eagle River joined the Colorado River.
Spectacular Glenwood Canyon followed. The muddy Colorado ran full, almost up to the trackside it seemed. Cottonwood and willows lined the river banks. Red sandstone cliffs yielded to a whitish pock-marked limestone in huge imposing walls riddled with complicated facets and fractures. The late afternoon sun alternated us between plunges into deep shadow, direct sunlight, or colored alpenglow from illuminated amphitheaters of stone. I-70, the taxpayer-subsidized competitor to the railroad, became an engineering marvel of flying bridges and tunnels, cars and trucks travelling through the treetops. If they had to put an interstate highway through a scenic canyon, at least they did it right.
Grinch even woke up for the scenery here. I only had to kick him a few times.
Popped out of the canyon right into Glenwood Springs. We tried to catch a glimpse of the Roaring Fork Valley and lovely Mt. Sopris to the south. But there are a lot of people here, so we laid low a lot. The land was still quite hilly but much lower. Green scrub vegetation dominated instead of forest. The wide valley of the Colorado made for less curvy track, and our train went correspondingly faster. The heavy ore train paced cars on the interstate quite well in places. But we spend lots of time crashed to avoid prying eyes as we raced west under a lovely blue afternoon sky.
We finally did lose the interstate to the other side of the river at DeBeque Canyon, a final bit of fantastic scenery before Grand Junction. We were now in plateau country with high alpine mesas hovering over dry desert valleys. DeBeque Canyon is wide but has beautiful sweeps of white limestone. The high mesas above caught the last bits of sunlight. It was cloudless and hot.
We hit Grand Junction after miles of travel through flat orchard country. The sun was down, casting long shadows into the air over the desert country that began at the western horizon, lighting a few clouds somewhere over Utah. We stopped by the still-active hump yard (soon to be closed by UP) for our crew change. We were on the outside track of the yard. A deep ditch separated us from any way out of the yard. No visible crossing behind us. Ahead, a bridge was visible near a tower. Railroad workers buzzed about at the head of the train. I worried a bit about UP's "zero tolerance" policy toward riders. But there was no other way out. We shouldered our packs and marched down the service road at trackside.
An SP truck approached. I thought of likely sounding excuses: "Please tell us how to get out of the yards, sir. We didn't know that hopping a train would be so awful and we'll never do it again we just want to get out."
Didn't need excuses. This was a friendly yard on D&RGW, SP was famously hobo-friendly, and UP's policy hadn't changed things. The guy in the truck even waved as he drove by and went about his business. SP forever!
It started getting dark as Grinch found a clever place for us to stash our packs under a bridge. We found our way out of the yard and walked a few blocks to a convenience store. Restocked on water, looked for better food but didn't find much. We got slow-decay convenience munchies, called our respective spouses from a noisy bar, and returned to the yards in the dark.
Grinch found several cuts of cars with westbound FREDs. We planned to part ways here so he could continue west to Salt Lake then to Portland. I would head back to Denver over the Moffat. I was tired, the Grinch well rested. After some indecision and putzing around, he helped me find what looked like a train pointed east, several units with someone inside. I had no idea whether the train would go to Denver via the Moffat or Pueblo via Tennessee Pass again. I could have waited for day to get better scenery or to try for better information. But I didn't want to hang around hot, dusty, dry, inhospitable Grand Junction.
I bade farewell to the Grinch, a fine (if sleepy) travelling companion, hopped a string of cars, and found a rear-facing grainer porch. Only a few minutes later, they aired up the train and pulled away. I tried to wave at Grinch but didn't want to be too obvious to workers in the yard and the tower. Couldn't see him on the other side of intervening cars, then it was too late. I silently wished him happy travels.
TOO TALL'S RETURN
The train picked up speed in the rapidly cooling night. As soon as the train got out of town, I wrapped up in my sleeping bag as I sat against the wall of the grainer and dozed. I woke up to see a huge puddle of water shining in a street light beside the train. Rain dimpled the surface of the puddle. Then I realized that the gentle puddle was a raging torrent. I felt a moment of terror as it seemed the train was rapidly descending into a flood, and I looked for the water to come around the sides of the grainer. Finally, I recognized the place for what it was, the outflow from a small dam and spillway in DeBeque Canyon.
I stayed awake long enough to watch the canyon walls eerily illuminated by car headlights. A glimpse to the south framed Scorpio through the ladders of the grainer. It was my son's birth sign. I thought of him and my daughter, yearned toward home, and dozed again.
I woke up again in time to see what I could see of Glenwood Canyon. Again, the headlights on I-70 cast weird glows on the canyon walls. The lanes of the flying highway were lit up like Christmas trees. Just outside the canyon to the east the train slowed and stopped short of the wye at Dotsero. A pending meet. I hoped I wouldn't have long to wait to know which direction my train would go.
I propped myself against the ladder facing forward. The river song had almost lulled me to sleep again when I heard the rumble of diesels ahead. The headlight of a lead unit with several sets of running lights behind it approached from the leg of the wye that came from the Moffat Tunnel line. I hid back in the shadows as the big units growled past me and the cars followed, touchably close, huge dark masses passing with intermittent whooshes of cold air.
The train passed. The signal ahead dropped green. The brakes eased off, and my train started rolling. Which way? I felt better from having some rest. Tennessee Pass would be a longer and harder way to go, but it would also be gone soon. I wouldn't mind going back, after all...
I saw the lead unit take the track for the Moffat Tunnel. My intuition from yesterday was correct: I would not see Tennessee Pass again from a freight train. Nothing to do but rest and hope morning came in time for the best scenery. I missed out on peering at the dark Sweetwater, Gore, and Parshall canyons by starlight, but I sleep soundly.
Grey morning light woke me from frigid slumbers somewhere near Granby, about thirty miles west of the Moffat Tunnel. It was cold. My breath steamed and it seemed like there was frost on the ground. The sun was by the time I passed through Fraser, once known as the icebox of the nation for its tendency to temperature inversions. Smoke hung low over the cold valley today, but the sun warmed things quickly.
Beautiful day. Some clouds hung over the snowy purity of the continental divide. The Moffat line doesn't go by the incredible string of high mountains that the Pass route does, but it is still lovely once the alpine scenery starts.
The train jumped back into shadow around Winter Park village as the mountains shouldered around on either side. I saw the espresso bar someone had put into an old railroad coach downtown. Hot beverages sounded good, but I could only gaze longingly. We went back in the woods for a while. I saw the grade where the railroad used to begin the brutal climb up over an 11,000-foot pass to get over the mountains. Instead, we skirted the bottom of the Winter Park ski area and dove into the 6.9-mile-long Moffat Tunnel.
For a while I breathed from a small trash bag that I had filled with fresh air before entering the tunnel. (Thanks for the advice, Bill.) But it was soon exhausted. Found that I could breathed through the insulation in my sleeping bag for the rest of the time and it seemed to keep the worst of the diesel soot and stink out. Every now and then an illuminated emergency station glided by like a ghost in the dark.
We popped back in the daylight soon enough and all the interesting machinery at the east portal disappeared behind us quickly. I fumbled with my camera and managed one decent shot of a lone schoolhouse at Tolland, backed by dark shadowed hills and a brilliant snowy peak in the background.
The drop from Moffat Tunnel to Denver is incredible. Lots of rushing streams, then up on the side of Eldorado canyon. Amazing views of cloud-shrouded mountains and sun- and lake-dappled plains as the tracks pass through a series of about 20 tunnels before a final double horseshoe curve down off a mesa that juts from the foothills. Everything was lush and green. An empty coal train with midtrain and end-of-train remote power waited below the loops. Probably going up the very scenic Craig branch, rare miles for hoppers because all the traffic is coal. Someday I'll find a way.
Through suburban Denver and into North Yard, north of downtown. BNSF evidently had a new container yard up there, and the train stopped with me between the container yard (no doubt bull-patrolled) and the UP tower. They dynamited the air and pulled the units off to shunt them to a servicing facility. Time to test the zero tolerance policy again. I had to go straight south down the length of the yard to central Denver. Shouldered my pack and hiked down the length of the train. Popped out right in front of the tower and was completely ignored, all 2.04 meters of me, 120 kilos, huge nylon pack and all.
It was a long hot hike through the Denver yards on the way back to my car. Finally, I got to drop the pack and rest in the shade of an elegant new viaduct that carried cars above the gritty reality of railroads and hobos. I was back by the "Hobo Hilton" where Grinch and I had snooped around before beginning our travels just two nights before. I saw several guys with packs hanging out inconspicuously behind one of the giant bridge pylons. Hard to feel intimidated by them, as big as I am and in broad daylight. I grabbed the plastic bag with my plentiful remaining food and hoped they wouldn't feel intimidated by me.
"Hey, you fellers need some food?" I didn't give them time to think about it. "I'm going to be staying with my brother-in-law and he'll be feedin' me for a while, so I thought maybe you could use it." I don't know why I made up the story; maybe I didn't want anyone's false sense of pride to stand in the way of sustenance. I'd met a few people like that. Besides, I really was going to my brother-in-law's house to bum a cup of coffee.
They looked surprised for a second, then smiled.
"Yeah, sure we'll take any contribution to the cause." I handed off the bag to a grinning dirty man. It felt good.
"Yeah, we just saw you come down the line there."
"Yeah, just got off a train from Grand Junction..."
"Oh, so you had to hike all the way from Ute Junction? That's a long hike!"
"Yeah, it is!" I think he meant Utah Junction at the very north end of North Yard. I hadn't hiked that far, but it was far enough. My clothes felt like a sauna. I could almost wish for the cold rain that had begun the trip.
We chatted a bit, then I set off again, straight for Union Station, marching across empty lots that used to be filled with railroad tracks. A crew readied an Amtrak train outside the station.
I got cleaned inside, then found my way across the street into one of my favorite brew pubs. I was thankful for its convenient location. Even though they weren't quite open, they kindly poured me a couple of cold Railyard Ales to slake my horrible thirst. I sat in the nearly empty bar and gazed out past Union Station to the way I'd come. It was sad to know I had seen the Pass for what was almost certainly the last time.
Each sip of beer was a toast. I toasted Grinch, that sleepy sonofagun, a heckuva nice guy and a good road companion. I toasted my own safe return, tired though I was. I toasted life being good for having a few bucks for a cold beer at the end of an adventure and a job and a family and a home to go home to. (Not every rail rider would see it that way.) I toasted things I couldn't put into words.
A friend wrote a song about the pass. He sang that the rivers and railroads always run. Likely only the river would be running when I returned. It's only a piece of railroad, not essential to my life. But it meant something to me and soon it would be gone.
It seemed a too-short wake for Tennessee Pass, and no friends were here to share my grief. It might have been appropriate to stay and get drunk. I wished I could, but there were miles to go, promises. I finished my last beer and shouldered my pack for the hike back through the urban wilderness to my car and for home.
The last through train over Tennessee Pass was a westbound taconite train, OMIGV19. It departed Pueblo at 11:25, August 23, 1997 with two lead engines, three mid-train remote units and 96 cars. It arrived at Minturn at 20:07 for the final crew change in that town. The train departed at 20:16. A local from Grand Junction will continue to serve the Black Cloud mine in Leadville until October, and a work train will work its way west from Pueblo picking up whatever supplies and material UP wants to keep. A sale to a short-line is a remote possibility, but it looks doubtful. The tracks have to sit for one year before UP can abandon them. There probably won't even be a final train to tear up the rail.
By all accounts, August 23 was a beautiful day. The final train went past all of the best scenery during the daylight hours. I wasn't there, but someone could've had one last free ride through the Royal Gorge and up over Tennessee Pass.