In an earlier post I discussed of memories and nostalgia as it relates to our leisure pastimes. It turns out I’ve had several such moments related to railfanning in which I found myself sans camera, and all I had to remember them with was my own senses. Here’s a selection of a few such events. Maybe this will inspire you to dust off your own recollections and relive some of those magic moments of your own.
Sledding and Surprises
It was the winter of 1978 and I was a senior in high school. I had a good friend, Curt, and the two of us were oddly obsessed with snow– and sledding on it. One Saturday morning we decided to load up his VW and go west until we found something white to slide on. Not our first such attempt; on a previous occasion we had gotten clear up into the Indian Peaks wilderness west of Boulder in a (vain) attempt to find snow. Now, a couple of months later, we reckoned that we had a better shot at it. I guided the expedition to a place west of Rollinsville, in the upper reaches of South Boulder Canyon. We followed the snowy gravel road through the steadily-falling snow past Tolland and pulled over just east of a railroad overpass. I knew the area pretty well, since even as a child I’d been obsessed with the Moffat Tunnel. We were just a couple miles east of the tunnel and it was a good hillside for sledding.
[Google earth: 39°54’08.21″ N 105°36’50.30″ W]
Being both in the prime of youth and reasonably fit, we steadily built a toboggan run from the top of the hill down towards the road. This was no mean task considering the deep and drifting snow, the cold air, and the elevation– right at 9,000 feet. By the way, I use the term “toboggan” only loosely; our only equipment was a couple of Mini-boggans. Remember those? A rolled-up piece of stiff plastic with a hole for a handle in one end, suitable for getting oneself intimately acquainted with the ground, and getting killed during the introductions. They were almost large enough to hold a fourth-grader, or to cover everything between my collarbone and my knees, if I were careful. Anyway, the snow was falling in huge flakes and we were completely covered in it. The day was dim due to the thickness of the clouds and density of the snowfall. And yet, not long after our arrival, I was able to plainly hear the muffled call of train horns down the valley to the east. I’d secretly hoped we would see a train or two, and my wish was to be fulfilled in the most unexpected way.
The tracks here follow a sweeping S curve that brings them from the south to the north side of the broad valley, climbing all the while to reach the upper bench where the tunnel is located. Much of that climb is hidden back in the trees, so when the headlights finally shone through the snowflakes I was amazed to see that the train was led by an F unit. A string of F units! In beautiful golden orange paint.
(As an aside, keep in mind that I was not a “connected” railfan, or a railfan in any real sense of the word, at this time. I hadn’t seen an F unit in a decade, since I was a child, and had no idea that any still existed.)
I can see the scene now, some forty years later, like a movie playing in my head. The train in its matching golden paint rounding the curve below us through the dim light, diesels muttering, snowflakes glowing in the headlights. Mixed in with the power was something that looked like a steam locomotive tender. Behind this was a passenger train, painted to match the locomotives, and even then I recognized them as being old heavyweight cars. I stood dumbfounded at this relic from the past, and recorded the scene in memory as it clattered around the curve towards Moffat and was lost from sight.
Later I learned that this was the Ski Train; the F units were the F9 trio normally assigned to the Rio Grande Zephyr; that the strange car shaped like a tender was in fact a steam generator car. Furthermore, I’m 90% sure that this was February 26th, the day of the Moffat Tunnel 50th Anniversary ceremonies being held just up the hill from us. This is why the F units were on the Ski Train that day. If only we’d known!
But that snowy morning during my last semester of high school, all I knew was that I’d gotten to watch a rare and beautiful railroading scene.
When we were newlyweds in Boulder, night-time drives in the mountains were often a thing. Not infrequently these would put us in the proximity of railroad tracks. (This is hard to believe of me, I know, but nonetheless true.) Two such excursions come to my mind, brief little episodes that I still see in my memory. Considering that it was completely dark and no photograph would have worked had I even tried it, my memory is all the recording device we have on it, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
Nocturne the First: One such evening, guessing early 1983, we drove up above Boulder and onto the Gross Dam road. This gravel road winds around and crosses South Boulder Creek below the eponymous dam, climbing the south side of the canyon where it crosses the Rio Grande’s right-of-way and ultimately emerges on Colo. 72 below Wondervu.
[Google Earth: 39°55’45.25″ N 105°20’36.51″ W]
This particular night we parked north of the tracks to see if there might be a train coming by. Shockingly (considering my luck most of the time), a we soon heard a westbound train approaching in the darkness. Even more shockingly, I remember most of the details. It had several locomotives up front, 38 piggyback flatcars, and a helper shoving on the rear. A lot of power for not much train, I remember thinking. Too dark to see much of anything, but the scene conveyed the message that the business and drama of railroading goes on continuously, even in dark, remote places.
Nocturne the Second: Another meeting was more deliberately designed. It is entirely possible that it was the same night as the story above, but I really can’t tell you one way or the other! We (I) wanted to watch the Rio Grande Zephyr on its descent into Denver. This is definitely early 1983, probably February. At the time we were borrowing my parents’ 1972 Suburban, as our own Mustang II hatchback had recently bent a rod one cold morning. This night we drove the gas-guzzler down to the Blue Mountain Road crossing, on the south shoulder of Coal Creek Canyon’s mouth. South cheek of the mouth? Right canine tooth of the mouth? Sorry, I got lost in the mixed metaphors.
OK, back to Blue Mountain road. From there you can watch trains descending from Tunnel One and loop around the canyon mouth until they pass you and round the corner towards Clay siding. We parked on the south side of the track and watched the show. Finally the train passed close by us– headlights on, Mars light flashing, and white class lights illuminated on F9 No. 5771’s cheeks (there’s that word again). Why the class lights were on I do not know, but I swear they were. Maybe just to get more illumination on the front of the train? At any rate, this night’s train was incredibly short. All three F units and the steam generator were up front, followed only by a combine, one dome coach, the diner, and the dome/obs. It was a mid-week run during winter so I suppose this wasn’t too surprising, but I usually observed the train on Saturdays when it was filled out with most or all the cars available.
Within a couple of months the Rio Grande Zephyr was no more.
Nocturne the Third: It’s now Spring 1984. Though we lived in Boulder, we had won some contest on a radio station for free ice cream cones down in Westminster at a shop I no longer remember. As dead broke as we were, any chance for something to do was welcome. By now we were driving an incredibly unreliable 1971 Renault R10. This car is worthy of a blog post of its own– the adventures we had in that vehicle when it broke down at the most inconvenient times would fill a book. It was French, and looked French, and it attacked us without warning, so we dubbed it Kato, after Inspector Clouseau’s sidekick in the Pink Panther movies. Adopt a Peter Sellers accent and shout “Not NOW, Kateau!” and you get the idea. It would break down and we’d yell “Not NOW, Kateau!”
Yes, I know, technically the Kato character was Asian. Don’t quibble with me.
Well, this night Kato was operating within parameters and we collected our free ice cream cones without incident. The night was young so I decided to go visit North Yard. [Google Earth: 39°47’26.84″ N 104°59’57.81″ W] At that time, access was not nearly as restricted as now. I drove right up onto the gravel road along the west side of the yard and we just watched and listened to the activity for a while. The sun was down but the yard was brightly lit by the floodlight towers; the steady throb of diesels and the rattle and pop of yard activity formed a constant background of sounds. As we sat there, we noticed a caboose rolling along to the north, all by its lonesome (the switcher must have kicked it down the track). This looks interesting, we thought, so I began pacing it next to the tracks. The caboose was perhaps a dozen tracks from our side of the yard, not terribly close to us; the yard was fairly clear of cars and obstructions that night. We followed our quarry for quite a ways at about 15 MPH, when suddenly BANG! the caboose slammed into the back of a string of cars. I mean, it was really moving when it reached its train. Now, I realize that rolling stock is pretty durable and all that, but this seemed a bit… sloppy… on the part of the switch crew. But, no matter. I’ve seen baggage handlers who treated my suitcases no better, and those aren’t made of heavy gauge steel.
Business Train at Coal Creek
Have you ever made a decision that later had you asking yourself, What the heck was I thinking?
April 1989– We were visiting family in Boulder again. I invited my cousin “Dan” for an obligatory train-chasing morning. This time I decided not to take a camera– “I’m spending too much on film on this stuff” I told myself. We went up to Coal Creek as usual, parked and walked up near Tunnel One.
[39°52’44.87″ N 105°16’37.97″ W]
Well, guess what? An officer’s special was operated by the railroad that morning. I stood there dumbfounded and watched a pair of GP40-series locomotives lead a train consisting of three gold-painted streamlined passenger cars. A vista dome, a flattop car [I now know it was a diner], and a very familiar-looking observation car. These were, in order, lettered CALIFORNIA, UTAH, and KANSAS. And there I stood, thirty feet from trackside, watching this priceless photo-op roll past me, with no freaking camera!
What the HELL was I thinking? #KicksSelfInTheButt!
Pretty sure “Dan” gave me a pretty thorough heckling over it, too. Thanks for rubbing in the salt, Cuz.
Yeah, sure, I saw this trio many times on the Ski Train in subsequent years. But not like this. Not alone. Not in 1989.
I learned my lesson about taking a camera with me, after that.
A brief vignette, this. We were in Colorado Springs to attend a Phil Keaggy concert in October 1996. This was about a month after the Union Pacific – Southern Pacific merger, and we were staying in the La Quinta just off Austin Bluffs / Garden of the Gods Road. Being adjacent to the Joint Line, one would expect that there would be constant trains going by, but that was not the case. I haunted the tracks for a half hour one day when I had some free time, with no success. Then, the final morning of our stay, I happened to hear the rumble of approaching diesels, and ran for the car where I thought the camera was. Turned out I had left it in the room on the second floor. I knew I did not have time to retrieve it before the train arrived from the south, so I simply ran across the street and watched the train.
[Google Earth: 38°53’43.21″ N 104°49’36.93″ W]
The head end consisted of eleven– count ’em, eleven– locomotives. Nine were Southern Pacific and mostly pretty tattered-looking. The other two were D&RGW tunnel motors. I noted their numbers: 5390, 5411. The SP units were far too numerous (and frankly not interesting enough) for me to note all their numbers or even their types, other than being pretty much all EMD products. The Rio Grande being my first railroad love, I paid more attention to these two.
After this time those two units spent most of their time around Helper, Utah, where I managed to photograph the 5390 in November 2001, five years later.
Nothing but memory to help me remember the roll-by, but it’s still fresh in my head. The last days of the Espee / Grande combo, or the first chaotic days of the UP regime, depending on how one looks at it.
Now I have a very nice digital camera– have have some kind of digital camera for 10 years now– plus there’s always a cell phone camera if one gets caught completely unprepared. Such camera-less moments happen rarely these days. Back when incomes were less and film was a real cost to consider, it was far more likely for one to get caught short. As it is, I am hoping that I actually remember all these stories aright. But on the other hand– who’s going to prove me wrong? <wink>