Willoughby: Caboose — an end of a train and the start of adventure | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Caboose — an end of a train and the start of adventure

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Cabooses of the Rio Grand Railroad trailed trains into Aspen well into the 1950s.
Russell Lee/Library of Congress

Railroad buffs have aged. As youths, they worked on trains, rode them, or simply felt charmed by the iron horse. If you visit the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento and enjoy a nostalgic few hours, you see more adults than children. “Star Wars,” rather than steam engines, enthralls children of today.

When I was a child, model trains dominated my friends’ and my indoor play time. On cold winter days, we worked on our train layouts and sped our tiny trains through circular routes. They raced under bridges, over trestles and through small towns. When not guiding our miniature engines, we paged through the Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogues for items to add to our rail-related collections.

In summer, in town we wandered down the real tracks. The Denver and Rio Grande Rail Road offered freight service to Aspen. Rail yards comprised much of the area on the flats below the Hotel Jerome and Court House. The depot stood, though soon-to-be-deposed.

Farther afield, we ventured over the railroad trestles that crossed the Roaring Fork. There, we stepped carefully to avoid catching our shoes between railroad ties. Who could forget the crunch of cinder as we walked the line and the creosote odor of the ties?

In their younger years, my elders rode steam-powered trains. I remember they would take the train from Glenwood to Denver. And my parents encouraged our interest in model trains. But they eventually betrayed their love for the rails and obsessed, like all Americans, over automobiles.

When I turned 10 I went on my first train trip. I rode the California Zephyr from Glenwood to the western end of the line in Oakland, California. I repeated that trip a handful of times and never lost the thrill. I would stay up most of the night inside the vista dome, watching the stars and the deserts of Utah and Nevada as we rolled along. By my third trip, I memorized most of the stops. Salt Lake City interested me most. When I felt impatient to get to my destination, I would walk the aisles as the train jostled me from side to side. Or I would order soup in the dining car. I liked the way it sloshed around the cup.

My most memorable train experience occurred in Aspen’s rail yards. My sister, some of her friends and I played on the tracks. We wanted to test a rumor, to find out whether a train rolling over a penny on the tracks would flatten it. We had also heard that a penny might derail a locomotive. While we were running around, a freight train pulled in. A train looks big when you stand next to it, even bigger to a child. We slowly absorbed the height and width and breadth of it. And then the conductor poked his head out the caboose window.

As with most encounters between adults and children, we assumed the conductor was about to yell at us. We assumed he knew about the pennies, would shoo us away before we got hurt. Actually, he asked whether we wanted to see the inside of a caboose.

We leaped aboard, into as cool a place as any model-train lover could imagine. The conductor’s seat perched him high up within the caboose. When he looked out the window, he could see up and down the track far away.

The train started to move. Panicked, I thought we were headed to Glenwood. I could hear my mother demand why I would need her to pick me up. But we traveled just far enough for the train to pick up boxcars on a side track. Then the conductor said we had to jump off.

School trips to the fire station and a climb onto the engine excited me. But rumbling down the track in a real caboose, a red one as I remember, tops my list of childhood delights. Compared to that ride, our research project yielded underwhelming results. Perhaps from the train’s vibrations, our pennies fell off the track.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.