One Train, Two Trips

Somewhere around Tabernash it dawns on me that my Dad and I, even though we are sitting next to each other on the same train, even so, we are not really taking the same trip.

“I’ve always thought the train air horn is such a lonely sound”, he says in a distant voice. “I remember laying in bed in my room in Omaha, listening to the train horns across the valley. Or really”, he corrects himself, “the train whistles. They were whistles back then.”

It grabs my attention. I know that my Dad is old, I know his age precisely; he is 78. But it is hard to grasp what that really means. The things he has seen, the worlds that he has known that I never will.

My Dad remembers when trains were steam trains, not diesels. Coal-burning, smoke-spewing, steam-powered locomotives. The kind one sees in transport museums and touristy Old-West attractions. Those trains. My Dad remembers when they were normal, part of daily life.

Steam trains.

It started back around Dad’s birthday last April. I didn’t want to get him more stuff; he has plenty of stuff. We both do, filling our shelves, clotting up our lives like arterial plaque. Some of our stuff is useful, some of it is beloved, maybe even treasured, holding memories that one can unlock simply by seeing the item. But still, it is stuff, and there is a cost to having so much stuff. A weight of psychic inertia and weekly dusting.

I wanted to get him something that would be more of an experience, but I was stuck for specifics. So I asked him, and he came up with this, the train trip we were on, an eight-hour jaunt from Denver to Grand Junction on the California Zephyr and another eight hours back the next day. A weekend spent passing through the Rocky Mountains: the Continental Divide, Middle Park, Glenwood Canyon, some of the loveliest scenery found anywhere in America.

The train passes through places that have no roads at all; the only way to see some of it is via train.

There are details to work out, and issues to resolve; it takes four months to convert a birthday promise into a reality. But here we are. A short plane flight brings me to Denver, a shorter ride on the light rail system brings both of us downtown to Union Station. “All aboard” comes the call (yes they still really say that) and we are on our way.

There is always small talk, with Dad and I, the details of the day. How is he doing? How am I? What are my kids up to? Who has seen whom doing what? How are our sports teams doing (Go! Broncos!)? This is most of our conversations. But I arrived the day before; for the most part, the small talk has been used up before we ever get on the train.

No, we are going to have to find other things to discuss. For sixteen hours. This is not an intimidating prospect, not at all. My Dad and I are close, an easy relationship where we can talk about most things. Maybe everything. I already know that he loves and is proud of me. And he already knows that I love and appreciate him. So we don’t have to deal with as much of that father/son baggage as some other fathers and sons may.

Some of this bond is through shared grief; I lost my wife several years ago, he lost his last October. We have that in common. And we were each there for the other, as much as one can be, that kind of grief eventually has to be faced alone, and I think Dad still has a lot of that road ahead of him. But even so, even though it is a solo battle, it can be fought while holding each other up and together, and that is how we both fight it. Alone, but together.

That battle takes up some of our phone conversations too. Broncos, family, personal battles, trivia.

But a sixteen-hour train ride is going to be different.

My Dad checks his Pebble constantly. “78 degrees, with a 20% chance of rain”. Okay Dad, good to know, thanks. But the real point is that my Dad has a Pebble. And an iPhone (a 6, of course) and at home he has a network of Macbooks and Mac Minis that he uses to write articles. My Dad is a writer, and writers write. In his case, he writes articles for a website that pays him by the hour; even at 78 he is still a professional writer.

My Dad’s home office workspace. For reals.

My Dad writes web articles. He starts websites too, like this one, the Healthy Dog Times. And this one, the Echo Magazine. He is constantly looking for ways to “monetize” them; he researches ways to earn money from the web, attends seminars, and then applies the stuff he learns. He knows about Google Adwords. He knows how to find the most searchable phrases.

My Dad has more tech than I do, even though I am a programmer. He knows how to use it all too; I never get calls asking ridiculous tech support questions. My Mom is not like this; I once got a call from my Mom asking if she should stick her finger in a hole she’d found in the back of her computer while looking for a power switch (my answer? No! And I’m coming to get your computer, it never occurred to me that you might kill yourself trying to get email!).

So that is my Dad. Active. Creative. Technical. Old, yes I’ve come to realize that he is old. That may seem obvious when you are talking about someone who is 78 but the aging of a loved one is not like that; it happens one day at a time. You don’t even notice, until one day you see the sun shining through your Dad’s hair and realize all at once that he has wispy old man hair. And then the real shock, as you realize that he must therefore be a wispy old man.

Not my Dad! No way! He has a Pebble! Except yes. Even my Dad. Way.

“For three weeks, I was a dragline operator helper in Wyoming for the Union Pacific.” This simple statement leads to all sorts of questions. Starting with, what is a dragline? Isn’t that something they use in logging? As it turns out, it in fact is similar to a logging dragline, except it is built onto a special train car chassis and is used to gather up train rail.

It seems that Dad was part of a crew that was replacing train rail. An isolated crew, slowly working their way across the High Plains, ripping up old track and laying down new. Except he really didn’t have that much to do. “I was an operator helper, not an operator. The operator worked all day. Me, I just greased some things in the morning, and again when he went to lunch. I spent about two hours a day working, and the rest of the time I sat up top of the dragline and just tried to survive the wind.”

It is hard for me to picture my Dad as part of a blue collar work crew. This was a job he had during the summer; his parents paid for part of his college but expected him to earn the rest himself, so he worked every summer. He would have been a teenager.

The farthest back I can remember my Dad clearly, where I can remember how he looked, was the Seventies. He had shaggy hair and a Sonny Bono mustache. He wore gold-rimmed Sonny Bono aviators and had a neck scarf. Not at all the kind of guy I can imagine working the High Plains on a railway crew.

But he did.

The train is bringing back memories for me too. Not of trains themselves, but of the country we are passing. I grew up in Colorado. I spent years clambering over these mountains. We pass hill after hill covered with sage and craggy orange-rimed rocks, and I remember how a field of sage feels when walking, I can imagine the green clusters of lichen on the rocks even though I can’t see any from this distance. I remember how sage smells in the rain. And the rocks, they have a rain smell too, and I am feeling/tasting it as we travel by.

We roll by fields of loose scree and my muscles remember the tension of trying to keep one’s balance while climbing the loosely-piled rockfalls. Dangerous, but exciting, in the way that one is always challenging oneself with tiny challenges and accumulating tiny victories as a young man. Yes! I made it across!

There are walls of granite and walls of aggregate and walls of a kind of rock that always struck me as solidified mud; yes it is a rock, but it is a brittle rock. It tends to break off in sheets, and sometimes you can break the individual sheets apart with just your hands. Even though it is rock. I remember the feel of that rock as we pass it.

We go by places where I skied, or camped, or worked. It is a memory trip for me too. But a different one; I am remembering the mountains and the places we are passing. My Dad is remembering the trains themselves, and a life that was very different than the one he lives now.

I am on my trip, and my Dad is on his. But we are together, and we both do our best to share our separate trips with each other as we go.

“I was a Paper Scout”, He says. He was only a child during World War II, but he remembers it clearly. “Did he see the newsreels back then?” I am eager to know, “in the movie theaters?” Yes he did. But that is not the memory that comes out first. Instead, he is remembering how everyone in the country, everywhere, was part of the war effort.

“I don’t know if we could do that now. Everyone on the same page, everyone working together. Even us kids, I was … seven? I think? But I was a Paper Scout. I had a mission, to gather paper that could be recycled, and I had a patch. A special Paper Scout patch, that my Mom sewed onto my shirt. And every time I brought in enough paper, I’d get a stripe, like a sergeant’s stripe, that my Mom would sew under my patch.”

“And I remember my Dad sitting there trading food ration coupons with my uncle.”

What a different world it must have been when even the children were mobilized and people were willing to constrain their food purchases for the good of the country.

My Dad was there. My Dad lived in that world.

The World Scrolls By

And that is how sixteen hours can fly by like it was only a few moments. I don’t mean to imply that I spent the entire time cross-examining him; there was ample time for other conversations, time for the Denver Broncos, and my kids, and the water that keeps accumulating in his crawlspace. And plenty of quiet, when no one was talking at all, and the beauty of the Colorado Rockies scrolled by and filled our windows and minds.

I wonder if I will ever again have that opportunity to go so deeply into my Dad. To learn about the ’53 Ford that his parents gave him when he was a senior in college; the way he handled punch cards for the Union Pacific back before there were computers (although I wonder why they were using punch cards if not for the purpose of computer data entry); the time he had to take a sixteen-hour train trip on a seat that didn’t recline and had to stay upright the whole way.

Another world. Really, not one, but several. My Dad was a kid during World War II, a teenager during the sock-hop 50’s, an ad man in the Sixties (yes, just like Mad Men, which is apparently pretty accurate a lot of the time).

Other worlds. And I got to visit! Some of the stories I’d heard before but not all, and none in such depth and context.

This trip was supposed to be a gift for my Dad. But it ended up completely different; it ended up being two trips, not one, even though we took both of them together at the same time.

And even more unexpectedly, it ended up being a gift to me. I am the beneficiary. Me.

I wish we’d stayed on that train, and gone all the way to San Francisco.