Thoughts while waiting for a train

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, January 12, 2013

I am writing this while sitting on a hard, unforgiving wooden bench inside the Amtrak station in Glenwood Springs., Colo., pecking it out one letter at a time with my right index finger, onto an iPad. This is not my ideal work environment. But what else is there to do waiting for a train that never comes? At 11 this morning, Julie, the automated agent, said train 6, the eastbound California Zephyr, would arrive at 1:23. At noon it was expected at 2. At 1, make it 2:30, and at 2, make it 3. You get the idea. Frozen switches west of Grand Junction, Colo., is what the Glenwood Springs agent says, but for the life of me I cannot think of any trains the Zephyr would meet west of Grand Junction.

I think back to my first trip on a train with this name. The date was May 1969, less than a year before the original, pre-Amtrak, vintage 1948 California Zephyr, that magnificent domeliner, was truncated west of Salt Lake City. And what a trip it was for this 25-year-old. I began by riding Santa Fe's legendary 40-hour transcontinental intermodal freight train, the Super C, from Corwith Yard in Chicago to Hobart Yard in Los Angeles. Next came a parlor seat in the observation car of Southern Pacific's Coast Daylight from LA to San Francisco. And the day after that, east I went by sleeper on the California Zephyr to Chicago, laying over for a day in Salt Lake City to attend the centennial ceremonies of the driving of the golden spike of the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah. 

And do you know the most amazing thing about this week-long odyssey?  It was entirely underwritten by the Chicago Sun-Times. Yes, the same tabloid newspaper whose city editor would beg us reporters to hold down the telephone calls to Gary and Hammond, Ind., just across the state line, because they involved small tolls. Yes, the same newspaper that would rather lose a story than pay overtime. But the stars somehow aligned for me. The editor of the Sunday magazine wanted a story about the Super C, and the city editor accepted my idea of a story from Promontory. Because the Sunday editor didn't have much of a freelance budget, it was decided I would report these stories as part of my regular work week. And when the paper sends a reporter out of town, it picks up the tab. 

Well, it was a great trip. I wrote a while back about the Super C part (see my column in the November 2011 issue). The enduring memories of the Coast Daylight are going around the curve on Cuesta grade just north of San Luis Obispo, passing so many yellow wooden depots as we raced up the Salinas Valley, and being hit on by a good looking prostitute just outside the San Francisco station. 

The agent says the Zephyr is at Rifle, Colo., so I better peck faster. I would hate for this to be published half written. I have lots of memories of the day at Promontory. Union Pacific's eastbound City of Los Angeles-City of St. Louis streamliner arrived in Salt Lake City with U.S. flags adorning both sides of the lead E9 locomotive. A special train borne by a brand new DD40AX monster diesel locomotive took invited guests to Ogden, Utah, and from there we traveled by bus through rugged mountains north of the Great Salt Lake to the celebration at a new national park. On the way back to Salt Lake City our special was pulled by UP steam locomotive 8444, and so help me, half the population of Utah seemed to be stopped on the side of roads to cheer us on. I stood in a vestibule and got goose bumps witnessing this sight. 

That day was the first time I laid eyes on Louis Menk, then president of the Northern Pacific and soon to be the first president of the new Burlington Northern. He stood out in a crowd, being the tallest man in sight. During his later years we spoke  many times, and I developed some affection for that plain-spoken man. It was also one of the few times I ever met and conversed with David P. Morgan, the editor of Trains and the guy who taught me how to write, by his example. I wish I could remember what he said. Witty and urbane with friends and professional colleagues, David could be terribly introverted in public, and in my eagerness I don't think I put him at his ease.

Finally, off I went on the California Zephyr again, across Colorado, past the station I am sitting in now and for the first time in my life, through all those spectacular canyons: Glenwood, Gore, Byers, Fraser, Coal Creek, and South Boulder, before descending the east slope of the Rockies going into Denver in a glorious spring sunset. At some point in the descent, again in the vestibule, I saw a freight train directly below us. I swear I could have struck it with a rock. How far in front of us is it, I asked the conductor as he ushered me back into the sleeping car. About half an hour, he said.

After experiences like this, is it any wonder I don't remember anything that happened east of Denver? My story about the Super C was duly published in the Sun-Times Sunday magazine, and it was probably the most juvenile and witless piece of writing I have ever committed to paper--what happens when a kid tries to hit a home run and swings too hard at the plate. The paper promptly paid my expenses, however, and I concluded to myself that this here big city newspaper biz ain't a bad way for an ambitious, wide-eyed boy from East Texas to make a living.

So here we are 44 years later. I'm back in Glenwood and still going strong, and so for that matter is the Sun-Times; I wonder whether reporters call Gary and Hammond today without a guilty conscience. Oh, and here comes the Zephyr! At 3:30! I made it to the finish line. Gotta go. -- Fred W. Frailey

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