The perfect day, until . . .

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, July 23, 2018

Saturday was one of those days you want to treasure. It was the second time Cathie and I had experienced the Cheyenne Frontier Days train sponsored by Union Pacific and the Denver Post. Thanks to a friend who buys tickets every year, we had seats in the dome car Columbine from Denver to Wyoming’s capital. From a year earlier, I knew that the place to be was in the baggage car three cars forward, where a bluegrass band played country and Texas swing, and you could lean out the open doors, experiencing the fresh air, the staccato exhaust and low whistle of Union Pacific’s 844 in one ear and the compositions of Bob Wills in the other. Cheyenne boasts that its rodeo is the best in the world, and I believe it. Surely, it beats Mike Pribble’s American Legion rodeo every July 1-4 in Sulphur Springs, Tex., where as a kid I first saw calf-roping and bull riding. We watched brave animals tested by fearless cowboys (and a few cowgirls) and had a great time.

We left the rodeo to return to the watering hole adjacent to the Cheyenne station an hour before the rodeo ended. Lucky for us that we did, because a cloudburst engulfed those who stuck it out. Back on the train, we opened the dance car’s wide doors and watched the thunderstorms roam all around us as we returned to Denver. You really cannot describe moments like this. I understood why so many people come from every part of the country each July to experience Frontier Days, courtesy of Union Pacific. Thank you, Omaha.

Maybe a dozen miles north of Denver, in fading light, someone pointed to a drone above us. How interesting, I thought; somebody is making a record of our trip. By then Cathie and I were again beneath the Columbine’s dome, talking to our five companions. Then came the lurch, the brief sound from beneath our car of air exhausting and the unmistakable notice that our brakes had been flung into emergency. We went from 60 mph to a stop in the length of our 20-car train.

Within three minutes, you could see the distant blue lights of emergency vehicles. Within five minutes from our dome window I could see a tarpaulin spread on the ground. Within an hour buses were on the way. Within two hours, Cathie and I were back at our Denver hotel, miserable. Thank you again, Union Pacific, for not prolonging everyone’s misery. Whatever my quarrels with you, you are a class act.

But what happened? This question ruined my evening, crept into my dreams last night, and refused to let go today. In events like this, you seek answers, reason, anything.

Let’s go back to that drone. It saw everything, maybe as well as did the camera on locomotive 844, if indeed there is a camera on 844. The footage appeared on YouTube today. I’ll let you find it for yourself; I don’t want to encourage you to see it.

What I saw was a person (a woman, it turns out) clearly in the path of the train, one foot easily on a crosstie, and remember, a train extends a foot beyond the range of a crosstie. At first, I thought she was living out a suicide wish, because she was so clearly in the path of the train. Then I kept looking. Her right foot was extended, and her arms raised to face level—yes, as if she were aiming a smartphone to capture the moment. On the train’s other side, adjacent to her and not a dozen feet away, are four people. They don’t see a thing, focused as they are on what is coming at them rather than what is beside them on 844’s other side. This is no suicide, I concluded—sadly, because if you decide to take your own life, at least you have made a conscious decision. Instead, what I think I see is fatal naivety, the belief of someone who has never been around trains that if you don’t step on the rail itself, you are okay.

Damn it to hell! You can get mad at people who don’t understand trains and walk on rights of way with music blaring in their earbuds at 120 decibels while a fast freight’s whistle screams noiselessly behind them, or those who stand too close and believe that a train is no wider than the rails that guide it. But still, none of us wish them bad endings such as befell that woman last evening. My conclusion—just my own—is that: 1) She trespassed, 2) put herself in harm’s way without knowing it, and 3) paid with her life for her poor judgement. I wish so much it were not so, not because it ended our perfect day but because it ended hers.—Fred W. Frailey

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