Tony Vagneur: Laying down some memory tracks
“Tonight as I lay on a boxcar
Just waiting for a train to pass by
What will become of the hobo
Whenever his time comes to die.”
Jimmie Rodgers, sometimes called “The Singing Brakeman” or “The Blue Yodeler,” and if we haven’t run out of quotation marks yet, is considered by many to be “the Father of Country Music.” He wrote the above tune, “Hobo’s Meditation,” which has been covered by numerous singers, Merle Haggard included.
Buck Deane gave me a compilation of Rodgers’ songs, the good old 8-track variety, and in the 1970s, I listened to Jimmie Rodgers across the face of America from Aspen to the far reaches of the Eastern Shore of Maryland and back again. My pickup truck passenger, a German short-haired pointer named Voltaire, slept unimpressed through most of the trip.
Progress takes many turns, and we should remember that the Colorado Midland Railroad gave us the roadbed that Highway 82 from Glenwood to Aspen is built upon. From the late 1880s through 1918, it was a main public transportation system in the valley. Read through old newspaper accounts of comings and goings, such as, “Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so arrived in town yesterday on the Midland, up from Basalt (or Glenwood or Grand Junction) for the weekend.”
Story after story similar to that appeared in the social pages with regularity. A languid reporter could merely sit in the Midland’s Aspen depot and get enough information for that week’s paper. The hustle and bustle at arrival and departure times must have had an unmistakable air of excitement, people on the move, of getting business and pleasure done. And don’t forget, the D&RGW line was just on the other side of the valley.
And lately, the idea of rail has once again entered our conversation about the entrance to Aspen quagmire. If the federal and state governments hadn’t sold out public transportation all those years ago in favor of automobiles, we might still have rail service to town. Clickety-clack.
My grandmother and her sisters, who grew up on the Stapleton homestead that is now occupied by the Aspen airport, used to tell me stories of the hobos that traveled the Midland, hopping off or on the train in view of the ranch house. Many came through during harvest season, looking for short-time work and home-cooked meals.
My maternal grandfather, Bates Sloss, who grew up in the Basalt area, went to work for the Midland when he was 14, and except for the years he served in the Army during World War I and the last four years, when he supplied sheep camp lines in Livingston, Montana, he worked for the railroads in one capacity or another. When he died in Livingston, at 49, the Rio Grande brought him home to Emma in a flag-draped coffin.
It was partially Grandma’s influence, no doubt, but the rails have always fascinated me, from those early days in Woody Creek when the stockyards and the section house were across the parking lot from the Woody Creek store. The Denver and Rio Grande train and the store were one and the same on some days, if we were lucky. The Blough family ran the rails in that neighborhood and their daughters, somewhat older, were easy on the eyes. Outstanding landmark was the huge, red wooden water tank, with tall funnel on the north side and perennially dripping water into the damp coolness underneath. The detritus of its death is still there.
We shipped cattle out of there for many years, a thrill for a young boy, just like you see in some of those old-time Western movies. Only we were living it. My grandfather boarded the caboose, right behind our cattle in a string of boxcars, with a jug of whiskey under one arm and a deck of cards in his shirt pocket. It was a long ride to Denver.
There’s a box in my garage, full of HO gauge engines and cars, the remains of a model railroad I constructed over a period of years back in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. The track and the layout inadvertently disappeared over 20 years ago, but the itch is there to start over with my grandchildren, giving them the thrill of imagination and creativity that comes with railroading.
Jimmie, ol’ pal, we can’t answer your song-ending question, but it’s something to ponder.
“Will the hobo chum with the rich man
Will we always have money to spare
Will they have respect for the hobo
In that land which lies hidden up there.”
Tony Vagneur recommends “Basalt and the Frying Pan” by Earl V. Elmont. Tony writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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A faithful reader, known to his internet friends as “Ski Bum,” sent me the following quote after my last column. It seems fitting this week.