The Caboose Is Gone, But The Thrill Isn't

`Oh, no! Are you a foamer?" yells the red-faced bearded man sitting behind the throttle of Santa Fe Engine No.518. "What's that?" I wonder as I clamber up the huge engine's seven-foot ladder and crawl through a narrow door to the cab. Everything seems oversized, solid, and heavy. On the dashboard in front of me is a big yellow button marked "Horn" and an even bigger red lever labeled "Brake." Hmmm, I can figure this out, I tell myself, feeling a bit like Homer Simpson on his first day at work.

We ease out of the Barstow Yard, a giant switching facility in the high Mojave Desert. Out the windshield, I see a ribbon of rail winding endlessly through a vast desert, green from spring rains. The man shouting at me is Derwin Self, an engineer on the Santa Fe's 166-mile run from Barstow to Needles. And a foamer, I learn, is one of those wild-eyed train buffs who chases Santa Fe trains, snapping pictures, breaking in on radio communications--foaming at the mouth with railroad-induced delirium. I quickly assure Derwin I'm no foamer.

I lie. I know I am one. I just never knew the name for it. Ever since I was a kid, I've loved trains. Train stations, too. I have model trains, train mugs, train key chains, and train history books. Even antique train posters. Whenever I can, I take trains, especially overnight runs where I can eat in the diner and sleep in a berth. There's no explaining it, really. But that's my idea of bliss.

Nothing, however, could ever match this: two days on an Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Co. "shooter"--an express freight, more than a mile long, barreling from Los Angeles to Chicago with 5,000 tons of just about everything: computer components, breakfast cereal, clothing, and beer. Our train would retrace the breathtaking route that helped popularize the Southwest and open California to a flood of Easterners a century ago. Best of all, I would be spending hours on end with real train guys--hog heads, they call themselves (no one knows why).

Hoggers inhabit a world unto themselves: Amid the stark beauty of the desert and mountains, they are largely isolated from the outside. There's no playing music on the trains, no citizen's band chatter, and, of course, no pulling off for a cup of Joe like truckers do. Worst of all, they say, no family or friends can ride along for company.

My trip began at 7 a.m. at Santa Fe's Hobart Yard, a massive facility in East Los Angeles where truckers unload containers onto flatbed cars all night. It's a graffiti-strewn industrial no-man's-land that gives way to hills dotted with condos. After a while, we roll by abandoned citrus-packing stations, artifacts from the days when springtime meant all Los Angeles smelled like one big orange blossom. At least that's what old-timers say.

DOGS AND "GOBS." Soon we're struggling up the Cajon pass, a masterpiece of railroad engineering, linking the Los Angeles basin to the East. For 15 miles of curves and tunnels, the track gains 1,800 feet through a gap between the snow-capped San Bernardino and San Gabriel ranges. After crossing the San Andreas Fault, with its jagged rock formations, we let out on the high desert.

In recent years, L.A. has sprawled up and over into the desert, spewing nondescript suburbia into once-quiet railroad towns such as Victorville. But past Barstow, we veer away from the freeway, and the only sign of civilization is an ancient stretch of Route 66 and, of course, the tracks themselves.

As we start down a long grade, passing sidings with names such as Bagdad, Klondike, and Siberia, we hit our top speed: 70 mph. Even then, there's not much to do. "I try to imagine what this railroad was like in the old days," says engineer Self, pointing out the shells of old houses every 10 or 15 miles where steel gangs once lived and where water towers stood to service steam engines.

Today, the roadbed is maintained by crews of 200 or 300 Navajo men who lay new track at a rate of three or more miles a day. The workers live in prefab houses plunked down on flatbed cars so they can roll to wherever they're needed on the Santa Fe system. Aboard the trains, which until the mid-1980s required a five-man crew including a fireman and two brakemen, only two workers are needed. Gone is the caboose, replaced by a motion detector, transmitter, and trackside device that drones "no defects" every 10 miles. Gone are the lanterns and flags to guide cars onto sidings. Gone, too, are the men who climbed atop the cars to set the air brakes before heading down a grade.

I leave the train and spend the night in Needles, on the Colorado River. Needles was born as the railroad pushed westward in the 1880s and was once the bustling terminus for the Santa Fe before the line extended to the West Coast. Back then, passengers transferred to waiting Southern Pacific trains bound for Los Angeles. To lure settlers and tourists West, the Santa Fe briefly cut fares to $1 for a ticket from Missouri. Later, the railroad hired an army of Eastern artists to paint romanticized scenes of the Grand Canyon and Hopi pueblos. It was a brilliant marketing ploy that gave Americans an idealized view of the Southwest that lasted decades.

Gleaming Santa Fe passenger trains with art deco dining cars and deluxe staterooms are long gone. So is the glamour that once brushed off on dusty spots such as Needles. I awake to a town that seems to have more dogs than people, and I'm happy to catch another freight for my final destination: Winslow, Ariz., 292 miles east. Folks in Needles call folks in Winslow "gobs"--short for good old boys, since they all dress like cowboys. And folks in Winslow call folks in Needles "bakeheads" because the temperature often hits 120F there in summer.

"ALL THAT PAPERWORK." Ray Piles, our new engineer, doesn't like either place much. "Going from Needles to Winslow is like leaving nowhere just so you can get to no place," he gripes. He should know: Piles, who joined the line in 1957, has made the trip nearly every other day for seven years. Still, Piles seems to enjoy pointing out every rock and dried-out creek bed as we make the 7,000-foot climb to the Arizona Divide. We pass through pinyon pines, wildflowers, and, finally, the snowy ridges of northern Arizona.

This patch was always a favorite for tourists on the Super Chief, Santa Fe's flagship passenger train that ran from 1936 to 1971. Ed Wilkins, our soft-spoken conductor, misses the old days when there was more to do on the freights, but not the demise of passenger trains--collecting tickets, "all that paperwork." Even worse, "there were kids screaming and some old lady slipping on a grease spot," recalls Wilkins, a 36-year Santa Fe veteran. Now, Wilkins can spot the elk, coyotes, and cougars along the way. When you get right down to it, he says, railroading hasn't really changed all that much. "It's still just the train running down the track," he says. For a foamer like me, that's more than enough.

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