Riding the Iron Horse in Cowboy Country

by Gerry Evans

I have fallen in love with American names,…
…The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost-Mile Flat.
Stephen Vincent Benet
1894-1943

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My friend Jim, a retired deputy sheriff in Salina, Kansas, once told me there “are only two ways to see and appreciate the southwest of the good old USA – from the back of a horse, or the observation coach of a train – and you and I don’t have enough time left for horse-riding at our age.” I agree. I try to travel by train whenever I’m in the USA, and 21,000 miles of track means plenty of country to explore. I always get to the station early, eager to set off. There’s an air of excitement about a long distance train starting its journey that reminds me of ocean liners on sailing day. The trains are impressively large. Most long distance trains are double-deckers with restaurant cars, sleepers and an observation coach.

On departure day, the train’s stores are loaded with enough meals for three days, plus sufficient beer, wine, and Coca-Cola to help passengers watch the scenery roll by. Stewards with lists wander about trying to look important. The uniformed conductor strides around the platform with all the authority and dignity of a ship’s captain. There are tearful farewells as some passengers leave friends and family to cross the continent for work or study.

Amtrak have names for all their long distance trains. There’s a romance about them that always starts the wanderlust tugging at me: Empire Builder, Starlight Express, Texas Eagle, SouthWest Chief, Coast Starlight, and the train that will take me to my destination this trip, Californian Zephyr. This time I’m leaving San Francisco and traveling the 1400 miles to Denver, Colorado. Chicago, the train’s final destination, lies a full 2438 miles down the track.

As we pass through lush Californian valleys, the conductor points out old gold mines sites tucked away in the bush. At twilight we reach Truckee, the last stop in California. It’s a small town situated near the historic Donner Pass on the summit of the Sierra Nevada mountains, where many perished in the California gold rush. It’s night when we cross the Nevada state line. Lonely casinos and cactus bloom in the desert night. It’s sad to see the neon lights of a casino shining in what was once a magnificent wilderness home to coyotes, foxes and rattlesnakes.

At daybreak, the train stops at Salt Lake City. Utah is one of most arid states in the US, but its stark beauty enchants me as it did Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, who often hid out in its lonely canyons. The blue desert sky is huge and wonderfully pure. I understand why the Mormons love Utah and call it Zion – they need only look at the desert sky to feel close to their god.

I stop off at Green River, a small town with a population of 800 and a museum dedicated to John Wesley Powell. Powell has long intrigued me. He was a civil war veteran whose arm was amputated after the Battle of Shiloh, later leading the first successful expedition by boat down the Grand Canyon. He was a great explorer, mapmaker, and, unusually for the time, both a conservationist and friend of the Indians.

The conductor tells me I’m the only one getting off at Green River, and as they are running late, can I be downstairs by the door and ready to leave. By the time I have my case on the platform, the train has gone. I wait for a while hoping a taxi will turn up. The town has its back to me; it’s like looking at the façade of a cowboy film lot, but from the rear. A magnificent red mountain range dominates the skyline behind. All that’s missing is the tumbleweed.

Wondering if I’ve made a mistake in stopping at this apparent ghost town, I begin the trudge into town. A muddy, battered Dodge pick-up appears out of the desert fringe and pulls alongside me. “Where are ya going?” asks the driver, a grizzled old man in a cowboy hat. He grins when I tell him I’ve been waiting for a taxi, need a motel, and then want to find the museum. “There ain’t no taxis in Green River friend, throw your case in the back. It’s too hot for walking, I’ll drop ya off in Main Street.”

I’m taken to the ‘Robbers’ Roost’, the first motel we come to on Main Street, and I wander in with my case. The woman at reception looks puzzled to see me arrive without a car. “Where did you come from, and why stop in Green River?” she asks, but with a smile. I explain how I’d arrived by train and want to go to the museum. “It’s too hot for walking”, she says while booking me in, “And it’s a mile to the Museum. I’ll get my son to look after the desk while I drive you.” Ignoring my protests that I actually like walking, she also makes me take her phone number and promise to ring her to be picked up once finished.

The receptionist at the museum is a little person dressed as a green pumpkin. “Strange”, I think, but pass no comment. I meet the same woman the next day in the post office and she offers me a lift back to the motel. “I actually enjoy walking, but thanks anyway” I reply. She grins, “I like how you never even blinked at the way I was dressed yesterday. I was going to a Halloween party.” I’d already found out about Halloween the hard way. The night before, I’d gone to Ray’s saloon hoping for a beer before dinner, followed by a meal at the chicken joint, but both were shut. “Why is everything closed so early?” I ask an old bearded man sitting on the sidewalk smoking a pipe. Looking at me as like I’m from Mars, he replies “Gosh! It’s Halloween, stranger, everyone ‘cept thee and me is home with their families.”

I stay for two days, finding the place one of the friendliest I’ve ever stopped on my travels. During a pleasant hour using the library computer to email home, the assistant librarian explains how she’d lived in Denver for 40 years, and has just returned to look after her elderly father. “The population of Green River was 800 when I left, and it is still 800” she says.

I’m sorry to leave. Standing on the platform waiting for the train is surreal. It’s eerily silent. No insect or bird song, no sound of traffic, nobody in sight…just me in the bright sunlight, waiting for the train to appear around the distant bend. It’s as if I’m the last person alive in the world. Then I hear the mournful whistle of the train coming down the track. I’m on my way again.

It’s easy to tell when we cross the state line – the geological chaos and desolation of Utah is suddenly replaced by the lush green of Colorado. Where there was desert, suddenly there are ranches, rivers, and bountiful vineyards. First stop Grand Junction. From there on to Denver – the scenery making even the most talkative American passengers go quiet in awe. We rattle through a canyon with massive rock walls just feet from the train. Later we sweep past a majestic and languid river stretching for miles. The tiny log cabins of the fishermen, tucked away in the trees like nests for humans.

Denver is a true cowboy town. The Denver Art Museum has one of the finest collections of Native American art in the USA. I particularly enjoy the paintings of Frederick Remington. His paintings of the old West were worth the long journey. Denver has a great bus system. You can travel all over for $1-50. I board a bus to go downtown and don’t have the correct change. I go to put a $5 note in the machine and the Hispanic woman driver stops me, horrified. “It doesn’t give change don’t waste your money, you can ride free” she says. “I can give you a dollar,” says an old black woman sitting by the door. I can’t take her money and she doesn’t want to swap my five for her one. I eventually find enough small coins to pay my fare, and as the bus speeds off down the road, the rest of the passengers give me a cheer. Such kindness is not unusual when traveling in the USA.

On Saturday some American friends take me out to the hills to the Buffalo Bill Museum and grave-site. Buffalo Bill led a remarkable life. At 15, he was an early pony express rider, then an army scout in the civil war. He was also one of the world’s great showmen. He was buried on Lookout Mountain in 1917. My friend Lisl told me the people of Wyoming always felt Buffalo Bill should have been buried in Cody, Wyoming, and threatened to dig his body up and take it back there. The Denver locals responded by pouring concrete over his grave. “Buffalo Bill ain’t going nowhere now!”

I enjoyed the Museum, and so did my American friends. From the mountain top outside the Museum, the Colorado Rocky Mountain peaks with their cloak of snow, loom up behind to the west. Denver spreads out far below, from this height it looks like a toytown. The plains stretch beyond that to the horizon in the east. The breezes from the high peaks of the Continental Divide, carry the smell of Ponderosa Pines. The plains Indians once roamed here, the Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne, and the greatest horsemen of them all the Comanche. Standing there I could understand their passion for this mighty land, it has captured my heart too.

Postscript: If you want to see America, and meet Americans at their best, then traveling by train is the way to go. In Denver railway station, there is a bookcase full of books, and anyone is welcome to take one, provided that once finished, you pass it on to someone else to enjoy. A great idea – and I took one and left it on the train for someone else to enjoy. I leave Denver heading for Raton in New Mexico. I had thought to go to El Paso from Raton, but change my mind at the last minute and go to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. The great thing about an open ticket is that you can go wherever you like. Turning west, I still have a long way to go. But I’m heading towards the Pacific and home.

The Booklist:

Milagro Beanfield War
By John Nichols

In the southwest water is more precious than oil, and this magic book tells of a fight for water rights in a small New Mexico village. Also a great film by Robert Redford. (F)

Desert Solitaire
A season in the wilderness.
By Edward Abbey

Reputed to be the originator of Eco terrorism, Abbey spent three seasons as a park ranger in southeastern Utah. Desert Solitaire was originally ignored outside of the southwest, but is now recognized as an American wilderness classic. (NF)

Beyond The Hundredth Meridian
By Wallace Stegner

This biography of John Wesley Powell, and his epic voyage down the Grand Canyon is a scholarly, but nevertheless a great, read plus a fascinating history of the west, especially Utah. (NF)

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