Continuing the mini-saga of my first trip west in January 1973. Part 1 ended with the Amtrak’s San Francisco Zephyr just rolling out of Denver in the snow. As I transcribe this, I’m successfully suppressing every editorial impulse to jump in and correct the worst of the punctuation and other errors I see. But I am including a couple of bracketed inserts where I think my generic references to some of the people I mention are confusing.
Crossing into Wyoming, there was little change from the Colorado ranch-land. We started to go through low scrub hills just before Cheyenne, and the tracks on both sides were flanked by rows of snow fences.
Cheyenne: It was snowing there, too. It looked like a small town (I guess it has about 50,000 people), but all I could see was down streets ending at the tracks. A few people got on there: a young guy, a picture (to me) of the rodeo cowboy. He was thin built and small-boned, his face was freckled, and he had a redness in his cheeks. His hair was short cut and wavy light-brown above a pair of clear grey eyes.
The other (that caught my attention), was an old Wyoming railroad man1. He was about seventy-five, I’d say: he climbed on, taking off his cream-colored Stetson. I saw his face, I still see it: a red bulb for a nose, a watery glitter behind his spectacles, seemingly coming from behind his eyes. And a grin that seemed never to leave his face. His eyes were the indicator of the grin: they told me if it was mirthful, bored, or derisive, and I saw all three.
And the train moved off westward, again. I went to lunch with my friend from Green River, and the young rodeo star, and another kid (going from Denver to Ogden, I think) sat at the same table.
We talked: The rodeo man was going to Rock Springs where a friend was going to meet him and drive him to his hometown (Cokeville2) where he was picking his car up en route to Jackson. He wasn’t a rodeo star at all.
The other kid (Denver-Ogden) was out of school and was travelling around. Mostly, the four of us talked about Wyoming. It’s vastness, and loneliness. The incredible wilderness to the north,, the Tetons.
At one point: (Denver-Ogden) [said,]”I didn’t think Wyoming had any mountains,” in a puzzled sort of way.
Rodeo replied, “Heck, the whole state is a mountain.” It turned out he was out of school, too, and was just kicking around on the money he had earned on a construction job. He had a lot to say; I listened to him and was pretty fascinated.
“Well, a couple of weeks ago I saw a guy drawing down on an eagle with a .22. I had a 30-ought-six with me, so I just dropped a couple of shots next to him, and he took off.
“I’ve only shot towards a man twice in my life. The other time was, well, we have a lot of trouble with Utah fishermen. We had a lake and stream on the ranch I was working, and these guys come and fish them. It’s OK except when we have feed growing, because these guys drive their four-wheeled trucks and jeeps down there and rip everything up.
“So one time this guy came down, and I politely told him to get off, and not to fish there. Well, he left, and parked his car outside our fence, and walked back in. I came back to make sure he was gone, and he was there. So I politely told him to get off again. And he started to walk off, but as soon as I was out of sight, he walked back down.
“I came back a third time and found him. I was carrying a .22 hand-gun, so I took it out and layed about five shots into the water right front of him. He ran all the way out, saying, ‘I’ll get the sheriff on you, you god-damned fool!’
“He went into town and got the town constable and told him ‘Some crazy, god-damned idiot was shooting at me on the range.’ So the constable asked him to describe the guy. When he heard the description, he laughed and said, ‘Get out of here. That crazy fool was my son!'” And so on.
And crossing southern Wyoming, I got my first taste of the west. Crossing the country of Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith, and the riders of the Pony Express. The day was cloudy, the snow had stopped, and the Union Pacific moved slowly upward; through high and dry range hills covered with four feet of snow.
In the dome car, I heard the old railroad man talking about wrecks (we were stopped for one just out of Medicine Bow, right off of Route 30). The sky was clearing, the sun shining bright off the hills and meeting the sky on a ridge top. Antelope ran from the right of way as the train moved through: tiny, springing creatures darting on the white fields. Deer, bounding over fences, grey in their winter hide, and looking for food under the deep snow cover. Everybody pointed to an animal running the brow of a ridge a hundred yards from the train. Bobcat, fox, coyote?
The trainman said it was a fox, and smiled when anybody suggested anything else. I thought it was a coyote, and my rodeo friend agreed. “I never saw a fox run like that before.”
Towards dark we pulled through Rollins3, passing and running alongside Interstate 80. I could tell it was going to be a clear night, and it made me feel good. And we went over the Continental Divide, and started heading for the Pacific.
At dark I went to dinner; I shook hands with my friends from Rock Springs and Green River, and headed through the cars to the diner. This was my celebration dinner, and I ordered a steak, and it was pretty good.
At Denver, a one-legged guy got on who was going to Oakland. He had a tired, harassed-looking face, and was having a pretty tough time hobbling down the aisles of the train on his crutches.
I saw him in the dining car talking to a long-haired guy in his mid-twenties who was headed for San Francisco. I was finishing my dinner when he [the one-legged man] walked past me and stopped, saying, “Young man, come back to the men’s room and have a smoke,” and I nodded, feeling very confused. At the same time I nodded, I thought, “Here’s a come-on” and simultaneously, “Forget this shit.”
I paid my check and walked back, and he was sitting with the same [long-haired] guy in the dome car, and as soon as he saw me, said, “Come on.” He started off down the aisle, but I sat down where he had been and tried to talk to the other guy. “Where you going,” I asked. “San Francisco.” I told him, “Yeah, that’s where I’m going, too,” which didn’t seem to thrill him. Meanwhile, the one-legged man walked all the way to the end of the car before realizing I was not behind him, and returned.
“My name is Jack,” he said as he sat down opposite me. “How’re ya doing,” I replied. And after about two minutes, after Jack had engaged himself in conversation, I took off back to my car. He didn’t follow, but I was afraid he would, and afraid to go back to the dome car because he was there.
End of Part 2.
- I’m a little hazy on how I decided this gentleman was a railroad man. I’m sure he must have said something I overheard to that effect. Later, I describe him talking about train wrecks along this part of the route.
- Look up “Cokeville elementary school hostage crisis.”
- Rawlins, obviously.
3 Replies to “Dispatch from ’73, Part 2: The One-Legged Man and Other Strangers on the Train”
Great story about a bygone era.