Riding a memory in the West Railroading: A journey on the Pioneer provides rare sights and insights into the American West.

November 24, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

In Somewhere, Wyo., conductor Art Gilmore passes the word to passengers of Amtrak's Pioneer. "Look out for buffalo. Sometimes they're on your right, sometimes your left."

There, buffalo -- on the right and left. The living humps huddle along the cowboy fence, as passenger Dee Reagan aims her camcorder. Also in coach, Tom Hauser fires a round from his Canon.

"I was riding trains since I was a kid ," Reagan says, her thoughts drifting. "I'm still amazed at how the pioneers came through here ," Hauser says, staying in the moment. Neither stranger discusses what they do for a living; because this is a journey, not a business trip.

Passengers have heard that Amtrak plans to end Pioneer's Denver-Seattle route, which runs through Wyoming, in May. Declining passenger traffic, $30 million projected deficit, "a painful decision" is the word from Washington.

This portion of the Pioneer's route will be discontinued -- unless the affected states can pay to keep it, says Amtrak spokesman Dominick Albano. "We have learned to never say never." As affected states go, "Wyoming has not been in the loop, frankly," Albano says.

"Nov. 11 was supposed to be the last day," says passenger Bob Larson, filling in more details. It was the last day, until Congress anted up $22.5 million to buy this and three other Amtrak routes another six months of time.

"It is sad," Hauser says. "I always wondered what this part of the country looks like."

Now's the time to find out.

Running late

The four-car Pioneer tiptoes out of Denver's Union Station, sneaks through rail yards, and then guns it north, northwest on the $388 round-trip journey to Seattle. This Pioneer, train No. 25, will run strong and run late.

"We have a terrible on-time record," says Gilmore, as in: What do you expect? The bosses at Amtrak want this route dead, he says. "We're just a puddle-jumper. Throw us a bone, would you?" the conductor says, addressing invisible Washington.

Gilmore, a jolly old conductor, worked this route's inaugural run seven years ago. He knows the land like the back of his train, where he sits logging times and shoveling coffee like coal. It's not like he'll lose his job when the route becomes train history. It's just that with every snip of track, a piece of him goes with it.

"I like this route. I like the people," Gilmore says. "It's like old-home week every time we ride."

It's too much like home sometimes. In coach, little Sara flings her pacifier, while brother Scott cries as if pinned under the train. Mom and Dad try man-to-man coverage, then double-team. "Never again will we take the train," Mom says. An appropriate choice of words.

"You know," Larson says, "I was just looking at these kids. They probably will have some vague memory of riding this train." That's important, says the Portland passenger. He rode trains as a kid, rides them as an adult.

"This is a designated jog, smoke, walk stop," the conductor breaks in over the intercom. Two whistles means the train is leaving, "and a word of caution, next train westward is in two days."

The Pioneer runs only three times a week -- which tends to complicate travel plans in southern Wyoming. There's only one flight from Denver to Rock Springs -- one of Amtrak's "intermediate stops" in Wyoming. Interstate 80 gets lined with pickup trucks -- the offical vehicle of Wyoming. But the interstate also closes like a clam during "inclement weather" -- a redundant phrase in winter.

"We're the only game in town," Gilmore says.

"I don't know what we'll do if they end the train," Reagan says.

"I sure hope they keep it," Hauser says.

"We've exploded the population, John. I saw a car!" says conductor Gilmore to conductor John Anderson. They keep each other company. Turns out they can spend a good hour jawing about "the politicians who don't give a damn about trains," as Anderson says. "We know what a condemned man feels like on death row."

Defending the West

Both men swear Amtrak's decision has little to do with declining ridership; this cut is about Amtrak concentrating on its corridors on the coasts. Forget the West.

"This is not," Gilmore says, "wasted land."

That's what happens when news is committed: Folks such as Art Gilmore feel the need to defend one struggling, limited, tardy train route. They feel it's also their duty to defend Wyoming's looks.

This neck of the West is not heaven on earth, more like heaven's anteroom. No roads, no homes, no McDonald's, no Jiffy Lubes. Still, the stunning Rockies shadow the Pioneer, as it cuts through reddish brown, rocky foothills that flatten to prairie, then back to rocky turf.

On a train, everybody can take long looks. Details are life-sized, for a change. People can stretch out, relax. Play cards. And their feet aren't amputated by passing beverage carts.

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