Sometimes I overcomplicate things. One of the reasons I moved back to Colorado Springs from San Francisco is because SF was fun, giddy, sparkly, urbane and a playground for my 20s and 30s. But in my 40s, after having tasted Front Range life for a few years, SF lost its luster when I took a job out there in 2009. The only thing that did not annoy me on my relo back there was the SFGiants and their World Series win. After being laid off, I fled, quickly, back to the simple life.
Today was a picture perfect day (and I’ll have photos later today to post). I went on a train chase. I went on a fucking exhilarating train chase. Screw the projects on my desk, there is a steam locomotive in town, the UP844, visiting on its circuitous path around the southwest to show off its historic, sleek black self. The train was set to pull out of the ‘station’ at 8am (the depot is now an Italian restaurant).
The train pulled forward and backed up and blew a whole lot of steam into the air and kept us waiting for about an hour. I ran into my neighbor – small town. Meanwhile, a little old lady (and she was little and about 80) came teetering over while her son and great-grandson went frolicking off to find the perfect photo perch. She was so sweet in her little housecoat and shawl and house slippers and frail freckled skin. She was all smiles and chatty, so I learned about her life as a child in La Veta, a little old mining town south of here, her pioneer history, her relocation to Orange County, California, during World War II and her recent trip to Alaska. My God, she was the sweetest thing ever, and made me wistfully wish I had a grandma like her to recall from my youth.
Then she nearly fainted in front of me. Maybe she was too cold (since none of thought we’d be standing out there for an hour) or maybe she hadn’t eaten or maybe, well, she’s old, hell, I dunno. But she grabbed onto my arm on the way down and said, “Oh, honey, I feel faint, dear, can you get me to that platform so that I can sit down?” So, I walked her over to the flatbed rail car that was the closest thing to a place to sit that I could find and enlisted the help of a guy that looked like a roughneck to help her up there (a roughneck is a blue-collar laborer, for you city-bound hipsters). He gave her his water. I gave her a lot of calming words. When the train blew its horn, she said, “Now you go leave me be and take your photos, I’m OK now that I’m sitting here.”
The train blew more steam and pulled away past the coal power plant and away from America’s mountain, headed for Pueblo and then on to Oklahoma. Where the wind blows. I snapped away at the engine and the steam and Pikes Peak and the tracks and all that good stuff. A trainman onboard waved and shouted a hearty “Thank you Colorado Springs” to us.
By then, her son and grandson walked back, laughing at her sitting up on the old flatbed. We hoisted her down and spirited her off to their truck; he said, “You coming down to Fountain to shoot more of the train?” Welll…. OK. I am still half dressed in my flannel PJs, having just thrown on jeans and a down vest to get out of the house, but sure. Why not.
I jumped in my truck and pulled out onto the Interstate and floored it. I knew a good train crossing south of Fountain and had no idea where the train was by now. I saw it, spewing steam and looking so fine, so perfectly Americana fine with her yellow cars, chugging down the tracks. We have no passenger rail service south of Denver, so the lucky few riding in that one car with the bubble roof were very, very lucky to be on this leg of their trip. I went careening down the road, got to my exit, pulled into the usually empty dirt lot next to a corn field and found…. most of the people I’d just left behind downtown. It was a party of old men, most of them who recounted all manner of train stories from their years and travels. Listening to them beat out any documentary I’ve seen this year. The old lady and her son and grandson were there, too; she stayed in the cab, though. He thanked me for my kindness toward his mom.
Then, here she comes! Woo Woo! OMG, I was standing about 7 feet from the tracks - close enough to feel an intense exhilaration, a rush, as she passed. My camera wasn’t set properly and hunted for a focus, blowing that close-up. As soon as she sailed through, people ran for their cars. Chase it further south? Wellll…. ok. Sure. Go!
I dashed up the onramp and there was traffic like Fort Carson rarely sees. We were racing that train down the front range; there it is! Whoa! Traffic jam – we went from 75 MPH to 10 in a blink. People were wildly careening off to the median and shoulder to jump out and get a photo of that beauty with the plains behind her. I veered around them all and rocketed on to the next dirt road train crossing, no guards, just lights, crossing that I knew of out her in ranch land. I spooked a bewildered antelope. Jumped out of the truck just in time for a fleeting shot, there she goes! Back on the Interstate.
I sailed up a few more exits and found a great crossing, dirt road, cows, rusted farm equipment and No Trespassing signs… and, of course, the downtown posse and the old lady and her son and grandson. I kneeled down again 7 feet from the tracks, put the camera in continuous mode and down the line she came. That roar as she pushed past us, lasting not even a millisecond, was astounding. I was getting addicted. An old man told me he chased one of these across 3 states one year. Had I brought the dog with me, I would have done it, I know it. Another guy commented on how quiet the UP 844 was. It is quiet. Everyone concurred, before computers, they really built shit well. We laughed. I said goodbye to the son and grandson and old lady, who were next off to Pueblo, where the train would stop for a bit. I stood and looked at the Spanish Peaks and thought,
“Wow. I love this.”
In the simplest of unplanned actions, I smiled more than I have today in a long time.
I then laughed trying to imagine myself chasing anything from SF down to San Jose along 101, 280 or 880.
(and yes, train photos soon).