Note: This article was originally submitted to CTC Journal magazine in 1996. They never published it, so I'm just doing it myself! Some of the observations are dated, so I have inserted a few comments by some guy named Ed.
We pulled into the KOA in Cotopaxi, Colorado at 11:30 p.m. I was the only one still awake, and I wasn’t even really sure about that. It had been raining and the night was moonless, making it impossible to see anything of our surroundings, but I knew that we were close. The tracks were out there somewhere in the darkness. I just didn’t know exactly where.
I had heard earlier in the year [1996-- Ed.] that Union Pacific was planning on abandoning the Tennessee Pass route after acquiring the Southern Pacific. It occurred to me that I should plan a trip to photograph the historic line while I still could. Circumstances intervened, however, and it began to look like I wouldn’t get the chance before the merger happened. The summer waned, September 12th (merger day) got closer, and I tried to reconcile myself with the fact that no trip was going to happen. It would take several days to do what I had in mind, which was to get a good sampling of photography of the whole line from Canon City to Dotsero. Then I learned that the Day in North America photography event, promoted by CTC Journal Magazine, was scheduled for August 17th. The last available weekend before school started up for the kids just happened to coincide with the rail photo-op. A little lateral thinking produced a workable vacation plan which included some things to do in addition to train-chasing, and before we knew it I was waking up the proprietor of the Cotopaxi KOA in the middle of the night.
After a rather abbreviated check-in, we got our spot, shoved the sleeping kids into their bunk, and went to bed without even unhitching. Sometime shortly after midnight, we were disturbed by the sound of a freight train coming through the walls of the trailer, or so it seemed. Funny how loud that seems when you’re mostly asleep. Of course I bolted out of bed, scrabbling around for my glasses in the dark, too disoriented to actually see anything. My wife looked at me strangely-- husbands can see these looks even in total darkness-- then went back to sleep. Things had worked out even better than I’d hoped. The tracks had to be within a hundred yards.
Seven fifteen a.m. and the dogs have to relieve themselves. I stagger out to the truck, hitch up the first dog, the big dumb one,
and head for the pet walk. I bring along my two friends, Minolta and Sony, just in case. Now I can see the tracks, visible through the trees which line our
side of the Arkansas. The rails perch on the opposite bank, as if daring the river to wash them out. No trains yet. I go back for dog number two, and no
sooner get her to pee when I hear the sound of horns up the canyon and dynamics howling against the grade. Sprint for the gap in the trees, slide halfway
down the bank, pop lens caps, turn on two cameras (whoops, better focus and frame the Minolta while I can still use two hands), activate video, and wait.
Two AC4400s appear in the viewfinder, being shoved downhill by a long string of empty hoppers. Change eye to Minolta while holding Sony steady, or so I hope, squeeze off a shot, then go back to video. This juggling act gets complicated. A hundred or so cars later, the sound of squealing flanges is receding down the valley. Where’d I leave the dog? She’s over bothering some RV argonauts, who look at me strangely. Seems like a lot of people do that to me. It doesn’t matter; the day is off to a good start.
It was Friday the 16th, and the day was allocated to family activities-- you know, tourism, shopping, that sort of thing. So, a few hours and a couple of trains later, we had unhitched and were headed down to the Royal Gorge. Along the way, of course, I was trying to scout for potential picture locations for tomorrow’s event. The only rail action, though, was the maintenance-of-way crew working on a siding near Texas Creek. A ballast spreader like a giant street sweeper was throwing up clouds of dust, rock, and noise. It didn’t look like the SP was giving up on the track just yet.
We arrived at the Royal Gorge and paid a significant amount of money at the ticket booth. After taking the kids on the mini-train (example of scenic attractions: "Boot Hill", a pile of leather footwear), we took the inclined railway to the bottom of the gorge. However touristy it may be, the incline is a pretty spectacular engineering feat. Like everything else in this country that goes up and down, it was built by Otis. Once at the bottom, I vainly tried not to show how much I was hoping to see a train on the Hanging Bridge, a stone’s throw from the landing. Sadly, it was not to be. We walked around and discussed what a good idea it would be for someone to purchase the right-of-way through the gorge and operate a tourist line, perhaps with open gondolas. A sober review of my income ruled out personal involvement in the business (to put it mildly!), but we concluded that the operators of the park should look into it. They must have been listening, because later we heard the tram operator say that there should be passenger trains in the gorge by this time next year. I was intrigued, to say the least.[This idea became the Canyon City & Royal Gorge Railway, starting service in 1999 -- Ed.]
No sooner were we back at the top than we heard a train in the canyon. Rushing to the nearest overlook, we saw it inching slowly downgrade beneath the suspension bridge. You could see the radiator fans turning lazily in the breeze quite clearly, even from eleven hundred feet up. We’d missed it by ten minutes. My wife felt genuinely sorry for me... We saw a few more movements down in the gorge during the day, including a Norfolk Southern standard-cab GE running second behind an SP Dash-9, leading a short string of NS coal hoppers that looked a long way from home.
The next day was the photo event. Morning found me hunkered down by the river below the campground, at a spot I’d picked out
the previous evening. I managed to beat the dawn, thanks to a ten-thousand-ton wake-up call that had blasted by at 6:30 or so (complete with mid- and
end- train helpers). No video this morning; I wanted no distractions from taking that perfect picture. A tall ponderosa leaned over the river, clinging tenuously
to the bank, and I had decided that it would be a good frame for any westbound movements. The SP was kind to me, for three trains passed headed uphill
within that first hour. I finally saw a Rio Grande unit in the consist of the third one, a nice way to close out the morning’s proceedings.
Expecting things to quiet down in midmorning, we went swimming with the kids. One train got away since I had left the camera back at the trailer, so I started keeping it with me at all times (except in the water, obviously). The afternoon was slated for train-chasing, though. Needing ice and paper plates anyway, we pointed the Ranger westward on US 50, towards Salida. I kept a weather eye on the rails and my artistic director looked for picturesque scenery as we wended our way through the canyon. Rounding the last bend before Coaldale, we saw the Sangre de Christo range framed in the canyon mouth, and she declared that this was The Place. I couldn’t have agreed more.
As luck would have it, not five miles beyond we spotted an eastbound manifest. I dove for the shoulder and hit the flashers, waiting for a break in oncoming traffic in order to pull a U-turn; she downed the window and began rolling video. After turning, I waved at a highway patrolman whom we had passed earlier; he, too, looked at me strangely. I later discovered that I’d forgotten to kill the flashers, but luckily he didn’t pull me over to ask me about it. Anyway, I paced the engines for a ways, taking stills while my wife steered (warning: these are trained professionals-- do not try this at home), then punched it so as to beat the train to the Ideal Spot. I found a bit of shoulder, parked it, ran for the opposite guardrail and jumped it with seconds to spare. The SP hi-tech GE’s certainly looked pretty in the viewfinder against those magnificent mountains, with the Arkansas river in the foreground. It saddens to think that this scene might not be possible for much longer.
We drew a total blank the rest of the way to Salida and beyond. Lots of fly fisherman and boaters in the river, even one very photogenic kid wading below a vintage truss bridge, but no trains. Towards evening, we headed back through the gathering thunderstorms, hoping for something coming up-canyon. I was beginning to understand why people invest in scanners. Now the wind began to lash the road with hail and sheets of rain. We had gotten a few miles below Cotopaxi when we rounded a curve and my copilot blurted out, "Oh! There’s one!" Exhibiting nerves of steel, I promptly swerved all over the road and nearly hit the guardrail. I found a piece of shoulder against the canyon wall just about wide enough for a bicycle and jammed the truck into it, all the while muttering "Wheresmycamera? Wheresmycamera?". With barely enough time to get the lens cap off and focus, I hit the shutter. Click... clack. Not enough light! Back the lens off to wide angle and try again. Still no good, the exposure was at least a quarter of a second. And now I knew why I always use fast film when taking action shots. The rain, the deep canyon, and the impending dusk were conspiring against me, me personally (I was certain), robbing me of light.
We knew that time was short, so once again I U-turned and tore back up the canyon, playing leap-frog with the train. The only hope was to find a break in the clouds which would allow sufficient light for pictures. We finally got smart and switched drivers, and I tried some full-manual shots, hoping that engine headlights would compensate for lack of ambient light.
TRAIN: Rumble blaaaat blaaat rumble
KIDS: Daddy! A train!
WIFE: (resignedly) Go.
ME: (amble nonchalantly toward riverbank, but sprint the last few steps) Click crank Click crank Click (wave)
GEEZERS AT NEIGHBORING RV: (look at me strangely)
One of the nicest things that could happen to a dyed-in-the-wool Rio Grande fan, happened that last morning. A coal train came down, headed by three D&RGW tunnel motors and one SD40-2 in GM Demonstrator paint. No SP units at all. The lead unit (No. 5364) looked to be equipped just as it had been delivered-- no ditch lights or other obvious modifications. It was a nice look at some vintage Rio Grande.
We saw one last train headed into the upper canyon as we entered Salida, consisting of four dirty Southern Pacific units in original paint. In fact, save for the new GE’s, I had seen very few speed-lettered repaints at all, which rather surprised me. Nor were there very many four-axle units to be seen, and practically no intermodal traffic. Coal, taconite, boxcar freights, and auto racks were about it. But there was a lot of traffic, nonetheless. Recently I heard that the UP must prove the Moffat line can handle the additional traffic before the Tennessee Pass route can be abandoned, and I would venture that they have their hands full.[This prediction has been amply borne out-- Ed.]
I had gone to the Arkansas valley with several goals in mind. First, obviously, I wanted to participate in the photo day. Equal to this was the desire to get a last look at part of the Royal Gorge Route before it is abandoned. I was sorry not to be able to get to Tennessee Pass, but I’m sure that others will archive that portion of the line. Third, I wanted to see the Southern Pacific once more before it turned Armour Yellow. And finally (and most privately) I wanted to try to get one more glimpse of what was left of the Rio Grande. That coal train with the orange-and-black power fulfilled my wish. I’ll always be able to remember that image-- even the sound of the horns with only two chimes working.
Two days later we were headed for Wolf Creek Pass and home. We came into Monte Vista on US 160 and happened upon the local, doing its daily switching chores. It was lunchtime; GP40R number 7107 had left its caboose (a caboose! In Rio Grande colors!) and its string of covered hoppers at the San Luis Central interchange. It was sitting all by itself some distance down the track, astride the main, crewless, directly across the street from Pizza Hut. And I thought, at least some things never change!