Author forenote: This chapter is much longer, more than 5000 words as I introduce my main character. I'm really proud of what I created here, especially in the second half of the chapter, most of which came to me in a single stream-of-consciousness session. Writing it really connected me to the character...I hope reading it does the same for you.
Richard J. Stanton stepped onto the platform in Moab, an almost mythic scene for him—vibrant orange light on the great cliffs rising beyond the train and the green cottonwoods of the river’s edge. From his first memory he had wished for this and right now it seemed worth the wait—almost.
That first time was with his parents on this same platform looking at “Gaganga chain! Gaganga chain!,” a very-excited three-year old’s interpretation of “great-grandfather’s train.”
Richard’s great grandfather, Robert Brewster Stanton, had surveyed and engineered the route for a railroad all along the Colorado River, and then persuaded people to build it—one of the greatest engineering and marketing achievements of the early 20th century. Popularly, it became known as the Grand Canyon Railroad, despite that the canyon was only a quarter of the original route.
Richard had assumed that his family would, some day, take a ride on his great-grandfather’s train, but the day had never come. When he was eleven, on yet another far-flung family vacation which would have them pass it by, he finally asked out loud, “Dad, why don’t we ever take Gaganga Chain?” It was the last time he ever used the cute family nickname.
“Why would you want to ride on that two-bit tourist hauler?!!” His father was near rage at the mere suggestion. “That thing was obsolete before it was finished! Great engineering, I’ll give you that…but what a waste!” Years later, Richard would learn he wasn’t far off the mark.
“It takes four days, at least, to get to Las Vegas! Modern lines will get you there in a day, and soon we’ll build one to get you there in half that time!” His father became upbeat at this, “How does that sound, kid? One hundred and twenty miles per hour…maybe a hundred and fifty, eh?!”
Indeed. Hardly three hours ago, Mainline 70 had speedily left Richard’s life behind him in Denver. If he had cared, he would have arrived in San Diego by dinnertime. But he didn’t care anymore. And he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do—certainly not what he had told his mother and his father, and his professors and all of his friends—at least until this morning.
Sometime after two in the morning, the revelry of his all-night going away party had calmed to a restless slumber, spilling Richard and his best friend, Julie, onto the patio of the small house that she rented with another student from the culinary institute. He had an hour before leaving to the station and she offered to drive him there since, “It’s likely you won’t be sober until lunchtime!” They talked while they waited in the damp predawn chill of late summer.
From the day he met her, Richard had a crush on Julie. They both worked at a local restaurant; she an aspiring chef, he a waiter working through a mechanical-engineering degree with greater dreams of shipbuilding.
But there was Bill, her boyfriend. It was months before Richard met Bill, who was a couple of years older than he and Julie and going to pre-med at CU. With him so busy and living in Boulder, Richard and Julie had discovered a fondness for jigsaw puzzles and television game shows as they spent hours passing the time.
The three of them usually met only at parties, but they got along great together. Bill, currently upstairs and passed out in Julie’s bed, was a really nice guy. He and Julie had known each other since childhood and he respected that. The tension was relieved because Richard’s goals were taking him to the Naval Engineering Academy in San Diego for his post-graduate degree…a departure from the family line of work, but still something to brag about.
And, really, he had been accepted to attend…he was good enough to go! But Richard wasn’t going. Even if his father hadn’t died, he wouldn’t have gone. But his father had died—seven months ago. Now it seemed too easy. Why was he hiding it now? “Screw you, Dad! I’m doing what I want!” That was the almost part. Running away didn’t have the same satisfaction anymore.
Julie was surprised but melancholy at the revelation. She confided to Richard that Bill had been offered a residency at Northwestern in Chicago and he was going to accept it. She didn’t want to go to Chicago. They’d been going in different directions for years and this move brought it to sudden death. She knew it was over and now felt terribly lonely.
“I once asked him to marry me…he said ‘no.’ Just like that. Didn’t even think about it. That’s when I knew. I think he knew for a long time. I was so mad at him, but I loved him…love him, I still do. And I think he loves me too…but it’s all weird now. I swear, if I just now met Bill, I’d hardly notice him. We’re just not the same people anymore.”
Richard told her of his plan far as he had any. “I’m not sure about Rio,” she said, “I hear it’s rough down there…but Tucson sounds like a nice place.”
After the Grand Canyon train, he would take the old line from Las Vegas to Rio Colorado, at the mouth of the river on the Sea of Cortez. He’d hang out there a while, see if there was good work in the shipyards, or maybe head east to Tucson, capital of the Gadsden Territory. It was easier to stay lost in the territories.
They’d driven in near silence to the station, a hint of sapphire blue twilight glowing with Venus on the eastern horizon. He wanted that moment to last forever. The last thing she said to him just before boarding the Mainline, “Call me. I don’t care when, I don’t care where from…I can’t go away now, but I don’t want you to leave me behind.” And then they had kissed—not goodbye but not with passion either, a kiss that spoke of so many things that could have been. Their cheeks lingered and a second deeper kiss was shared—and then broken as she turned and walked away without another look.
Now Julie was his only regret in leaving. Richard’s mother was the only family he was leaving behind and she was quite happy with her social life, wrought by the popularity of her late husband. They’d comfortably come to terms with his leaving the nest, mostly by not talking about it. They’d said their goodbyes on the phone yesterday morning. He would miss his friends, they’d had a lot of great times together—but most had also graduated and were moving onto other things.
Richard made his reservation the day after his father died. Not because of that, it was the day he meant to; the day they posted the next summer’s schedule. He’d been saving his tips for three years to pay for it. This was going to be the last year of service for the original Grand Canyon train, the Stanton Line. It’s coal-fired steam locomotive was powerful but inefficient and polluting by today’s standards, made worse by a half-century of wear and tear. She was to be retired at the end of this year, her golden anniversary. The last run was scheduled the same week Richard would need to leave for San Diego. He wasn’t one to believe in fate, but that begged it.
Richard thought it was ironic that it would take him five days to appreciate Great Grand Bob’s railroad, while his father’s greatest contribution to railway engineering had taken only a few minutes to appreciate, and most of that was in the dark.
James Brewster “Jimmy B.” Stanton, had continued the family legacy of great railroad engineering feats in the west. His team had surveyed, designed and built Mainline 70 between Denver and Grand Junction, including the Eisenhower Tunnel, two sections totaling twelve miles long with four lines of high-speed rail blasted under the Great Divide. It was the second western link in the young high-speed interstate mainline system.
The sun had just been rising as they entered the eastern end of the tunnel, casting a peach-colored alpenglow on the barren rocky summits above. It was designed with the east entrance at the summit, creating the illusion of increased steepness as the train accelerated to full speed within the tunnel. Six minutes, eight seconds, with the 2-mile break near Dillon—he timed it. Almost 150 miles per hour, on average, maximum sustained speed on the descent was claimed to be 164 mph.
Jimmy B. was a household name in the west due to a huge marketing campaign—he was the man who built The Tunnel! It had opened to great fanfare almost six years ago. Even President Kennedy (the first one) had been there but Richard was hustled away when his parents met the man. He listened to all the speeches alone inside a trailer behind the temporary bandstand erected for the occasion, while Secret Service agents staked out and prowled the area. He thought he caught a glimpse of the President coming back during his father’s speech. Several of the agents had become agitated and a knot of them moved from the band stand to the President’s limousine and it drove away with some motorcycles in precession.
Beyond the tunnel, Mainline 70 soared down the high Colorado River Valley to Grand Junction. It’s future route continued to Green River at the border of the Utah Territory. The federal government was in negotiation for financing that portion of the route. Most Utahans didn’t want or need high-speed rail, let alone be expected to help pay for it, but the government wouldn’t budge their position and everything was hopelessly stalled. Instead, the development of Mainline 21 was given priority. All high-speed trains currently went southwest to Moab, then to Bluff and across the Pueblo Indian State to join Mainline 40 at Flagstaff, just inside Arizona. From there, the Interstate Mainline system connected between Albuquerque and Las Vegas and on to the great cities of California.
Between Grand Junction and Moab, Robert Stanton’s original route along the Colorado River had been abandoned and Mainline 21 was realigned across the plateaus north of the river, and the famed Arches National Park. Where it still existed, the old rail bed had been converted to horse and hiking trails. Richard’s father had no direct involvement with that one, but he had taken great satisfaction over the choice of the new route. His father had also lived to see the sunrise in Denver, and watch it set in San Diego on the same day.
And too many times he dragged me along, thought Richard with a sudden burst of inner rage. Stepping off the Mainline train had felt like shedding his ego. Now he was nobody, or anybody, it didn’t matter anymore.
Folks headed to the Grand Canyon Railroad had to pick up their tickets at a kiosk in the Mainline station, then walk two blocks with their bags to the old depot location. Construction in the area showed the old depot wasn’t going to be around much longer. A group of hippies, about his age, were hanging out behind the building, a cloud of smoke wafting on the breeze around them—pot, from the hint of its aroma. Mingling with his still semi-intoxicated state it brought back the close memory of his friends at the party.
He stood at the edge of the platform, taking it all in. The sun was now shining brightly on the western cliffs and a few passengers were milling about with others coming up the walk behind him, but otherwise it was very quiet…the only noises coming from idling locomotive and the occasional horn sounding at the mainline station. This was it!
The hippies, finished with their activities, came out from behind the depot and walked toward the conductor standing near the middle of the train. He heard the conductor’s deep voice ask something about a problem. The response was inaudible but he saw everyone nod and raise their hands, at which the conductor allowed them to board. They all turned to the front of the train, presumably headed for the dining car.
Driven by a lifetime of habit, Richard automatically approached the conductor with his ticket. They made eye contact about fifty feet apart and the conductor broke into a grin and started to walk forward. Wait—that’s him!
“Mr. Stanton, they didn’t tell us you were coming. It’s an honor!”
“No!” he blurted out while nervously glancing to see if anyone heard. “…er, I think there’s a mistake.” With a submissive tone he said, “Please, just call me ‘Richard.’ I don’t want people mistaking me for a celebrity.” He had considered giving the ticket agent a false name, but in the moment he gave his real name…the enthusiastic young woman didn’t make the connection. He handed his ticket to the conductor, “I’m just another passenger, thank you.”
Gibson looked at the name on the ticket and stared back at Richard, puzzled only for a moment, then nodded and declared, “Yes, sir, Mr. Richard. I understand. You have #9 in the sleeper. You can sit anywhere in the dining and viewing coaches. Welcome aboard!”
“Thank you.” With that Richard felt a weight drop off him and he smiled. “I really have been looking forward to this.”
“I’ll bet you have, kid…now hop aboard!” The conductor swatted Richard on the butt with his clipboard to prod him up the stairs.
He realized his mistake as he reached the top of the stairs—he’d wanted to board at the front of the train. Now he was halfway to the back. Not a big deal, the hippies are up there somewhere anyway.
He turned right across the open viewing coach to the sleeper car. His berth turned out to be the last. It could sleep three with an overhead bunk, or two comfortably on the lower bed which opened to span the cabin—and one person in relative style.
His entire life was now contained in one suitcase and a backpack, which he set down on the bench opposite the bunk. Looking out the window, he could see the concrete run of Mainline 21 sweeping a graceful arc down the canyon wall north of town, finally soaring over the river on a palisade of arched supports giving the impression of a great ancient aqueduct.
It wasn’t the technology or the pace of progress that bothered him, what would the world be without wonders? It was what that silver line represented on a personal level.
The second time Richard saw Gaganga Chain was when he was five years old.
Whenever his father had to travel for his job, which was often, he would take along Richard and his mother at company expense, even if it was an otherwise pointless trip. He felt it was a luxury they should enjoy and indulge in. Young Richard, always an afterthought, had been left in the care of babysitters from Seattle to El Paso, while his parents went to places and events he could not fathom at his age.
Such was another trip which found just Richard and his father in Moab, mom probably faking the flu and having a good time with her friends back home. His father had meetings to coordinate activities with the regional construction managers. Though it was probably a coincidence, the Stanton Line pulled into the station shortly after their train had left. She was to be prepped for a departure later that day.
He was a bit scared when his dad told him to wait at the station and that he would be gone all day. “Don’t go anywhere else, don’t touch anything, and don’t bother anyone. Here’s $2 to buy some lunch.” Richard wadded the bills and stuffed them into his tiny pants pocket. The only place to buy ‘lunch’ was a few shelves of chips, nuts, and candy bars for sale in a kiosk at one corner of the depot. Of course, that sounded pretty good to him, and $2 would buy a lot!
He didn’t know why his dad left him alone like that. There must have been no babysitter. His father had not thought to bring him any books or toys so he just sat on a bench with his back to the wall of the depot building. For over an hour he watched the train and the various people getting off and going about their business. At such a young age, he made no sense of the jumble of faces and legs and crates. But the train was clear.
He noticed that there weren’t a lot of people near the front of the train, the coach there seemed to be empty and ignored. There was another bench not 20 feet from a step stool and set of stairs that would aide his glorious child-crafted plan of sneaking aboard the train. He just wanted to look—he had to look!
He moved to the other bench and sat…watching…waiting. The conductor, a big black man who was obviously in charge, was moving up and down the train, inside and out, doing various things the entire time. Finally, he saw the man climb aboard near the back of the train and he made his move. In slow motion, as if the slower he went the less likely that the grown-ups would see him, he stalked toward the train. Even with the step stool to aid him, he had to pull himself up on his knees to the first step. From there, he stood up, peeked back out to make sure the coast was clear, then took the giant steps up and opened the door going into the coach.
It was empty and ignored. He quickly sat in the first forward-facing bench on the far side, looking out away from the depot. All he could see outside in that direction was the river and the soaring cliffs. He pretended the train was in motion and that soon they would be on their way to Great Grand Bob’s house!
He froze deathly still at the sound of the door of the next coach opening. He heard a woman, standing there and calling out orders to someone below. He dared not look, hoping the seatback blocked him from view. If his father found out he had snuck onto the train!!
There was a few minutes of commotion as things were hauled up the steps and moved into the other coach. Then it became quiet for a while and he took a cautious peek around. He could hear the muffled sound of thumping and clattering in the next coach but otherwise it was calm. There was little activity on the platform.
For a few minutes he wandered the coach freely. He remembered it having a funny smell, his young nose not aware that it was subtle rancid odor of years of tobacco smoke and spilled alcohol. It was different than the trains he was used to riding with his father. The seats weren’t crowded so close together and they were made of wood with red cloth-cushioned bottoms, instead of steel with fake leather and cotton padding. But even though it looked old and a little bit worn, it also looked handsome and important. This was a train for important people—like Great Grand Bob!
While gazing dreamily out the window, he realized that the conductor was passing on the platform directly below him. He panicked and ducked down out of sight, thinking he saw the man’s head glance in his direction as he went down. His heart raced and tears came to his eyes—no, don’t let my dad find out!
He slipped off the seat and crouched onto the floor, waiting for the footsteps that would come up and find him. They never came. He cautiously crawled to the aisle while clinging to the bench. Nobody in sight. Not knowing which way to go, he crept to the front looking for a better hiding place.
The front of this coach had no doors and simply ended in a blank wall, the sides curving in slightly before meeting the bulkhead. Beyond the windows, there was a single dark bench on the left side of the coach, opposite a large locked closet that may have once been a lavatory. It was perfect. He sat on the bench and scooted over to the wall. There was no way anybody could find him now! Not unless they came to open that closet.
He wasn’t sure how long he sat there, hours maybe. Nobody ever came to open the closet. The muffled noises next door also stopped. He daydreamt of riding the train into a child’s world of playful landscapes and friendly guides to take care of every need.
His world was interrupted when the door of the adjacent coach slammed open and somebody bounded down the stairs. It was quiet again on the train but he could hear voices outside—not very close. He crept back to the first window and peeked out.
He knew the woman’s voice now and saw her waiting with the conductor near a door of the depot. The engineer had also stepped off the train and, together with the person that bounded out the door, they all went into the depot.
This was his chance to get off the train, but he was still curious. Standing at the outside door he hesitated which way to go—down the stairs and quickly back onto the bench twenty feet away; or—
Richard stepped across the deck above the coupler and reached for the door of the next coach. It opened easily and he peeked in, nobody in sight. He crept in. On the right was a sink and counter divided from the rest of the room, on the left was a closet like the one in the other coach, only the door was open and there was a toilet in it.
Past the closet on the left was a short wall with another door, then long counter top, just about his eye level, with stools going down half the coach. Across from it, tables and benches similar to the other coach’s benches were lined up along the window. Richard remembered thinking that there should have been tablecloths and silverware, but there were none and he was confused. A silly thing that a five year old would worry about.
He wandered past the naked tables to the end of the counter. Beyond it, the same pattern of tables resumed on both sides with an aisle down the middle. He was halfway to the door when, without warning, a woman came through it right in front of him.
He was so startled he couldn’t say anything and just froze in his tracks. The woman took no notice of his condition. “Hey there! You’re a little early.” Her smile was instant magic and most of his fear waned. She was beautiful, with long straight black hair tied back with blue beads, and brown eyes that spoke of wisdom and kindness. Her skin was dark, not as dark as the conductor’s, but she was different—surely an Indian mother-princess.
She walked forward. “Come here,” she said, “have a seat.” She gestured to the table nearest the end of the counter, behind which was the narrow and cramped kitchen. Richard silently did as she said while she went into the kitchen and retrieved a plate with a wrapped sandwich and bottle of orange soda pop. She unwrapped the sandwich and set them in front of him. “Here you go, son.”
She sat down opposite of him. Richard hadn’t realized how hungry he was and ate quickly. Tuna fish—he’d never had tuna fish but he’d smelled it before and knew this was it. It was the best sandwich he’d ever had. Then she asked him playfully, “So where do we go today? Anywhere you want, just name it!”
Richard didn’t know if she was pretending and wasn’t sure how to answer. He didn’t know where the train went—except the only place he ever imagined it going. But it couldn’t go there…could it? “I want to go Great Grand Bob’s house! Gaganga Chain! That’s where it goes!”
Had Richard been older, he might have understood the tear that came to her eye. Her smile broke and she looked a little sad. “I’m sorry, I don’t think we can go there. Oh—maybe we could pretend—no,…” She hesitated for a moment then cheered herself up.
“Look, hey, we can do anything we want! What do you say, kid? Maybe the Land of Oz?” Her magical smile had returned but Richard was starting to get nervous again. He glanced out the window toward the depot, where he could see the bench where he was supposed to be waiting for his father.
“I don’t want to get in trouble.”
She leaned toward him and said softly, “Okay, maybe you’re right.” She thought for a moment. “I’ve got it, there’s no one else on the train right now. There’s a safe place all the way at the back, and when you need to get away, there are stairs going down right there!”
With that she stood up but remained crouched in the aisle and gestured to Richard. He quietly got down and did likewise as they both crept to the door. She peeked out first and made sure the coast was clear then, standing up, she stepped out between the coaches, opening the opposite door and holding both open for Richard. Without looking he dashed across the opening into the next coach.
“Okay, remember what I said, kid!” Richard took a few tentative steps into the coach before looking back. She was still there and gave him an okay sign and waved goodbye. Then she let the door close and went back into the dining car.
Richard turned to the rear. The next set of doors were propped open. Both of these coaches had more rows of the same wooden benches and along the roof were metal racks like all trains had for luggage. With only a quick peek, he rushed across the next opening and quickly to the far end of the next coach. He stealthily opened that door to find his favorite “tent car” was next. He didn’t really get the concept of an outdoor observation car, but thought it was very cool that they would put tents—shade canopies—on top of trains, instead of walls and a roof.
He walked out beneath the yellow tents and found what he’d been looking for—the wonder that he never experienced on other trains; the open air and the view. He walked to the handrail on the left side and leaned against it, looking out at the canyon once more…where there were no lines of silver coming down the great rocks.
Aware he was visible to the depot, Richard did not linger and made his way through the next two sleeper cars, looking into a few of the cabins…not all that different from others he had seen. They were older, certainly, but well cared for.
At the end was another tent car. It looked clear and he eased out, staying near the door of the coach for a moment. The only car after this one was the caboose…and he knew about cabooses! Most trains didn’t use them anymore, but they used to be important…almost like the engine. He was in youngster awe.
Forgetting that he was out in the open, he walked slowly down the viewing car toward the caboose. This one had some red trim on it, but mostly it was yellow, not like the red ones you saw on TV and in books. But that didn’t confuse him, this one was supposed to be yellow. He slowed down as he got near. He wasn’t going to go in—he just stopped and stared.
In the corner at the far end of the tent car was a raised podium with a small tent of its own and behind it was a tall chair. When Richard noticed it, he thought of the hiding place the woman mentioned at the end of the train. Was that it? With rungs on the legs, the chair was easy to climb into.
From up here he could see across the entire car and over to the platform and depot. It didn’t seem like a very good hiding place, but there were stairs to get down right here. He climbed off the chair and went over to the top of the stairs, then turned to look at the door of the caboose. Reaching for that handle seemed like the most exciting, and scariest thing he could ever do.
He took a quick peek back toward the depot and cautiously grabbed the handle, opened the door and crept in. It was very bright with almost everything painted white. But he was disappointed, it looked just like a sleeper coach at first. The aisle was off center with a wall of cupboards on the left. On the right was obviously the door to the bathroom, he could smell the chemicals. Enticing Richard beyond were two sets of brass step-plates; ladders climbing both sides of the caboose. This was the cupola, and each ladder climbed up to a small bench and a set of windows where the conductor could see the entire train, and signal the engineer if needed.
Richard approached the ladder on the left side and considered climbing up. An old brass lantern was mounted on the wall near the top. He was afraid he might break it—not to mention get caught up there, so he decided not to. The rest of the caboose looked more like the inside of a camper trailer…they had gone camping with people that had one. There were several more cupboards and a very small stovetop and sink on the left and beyond that a simple bench to the end of the shortened car. On the right was a large sliding door marked with red letters that Richard could not read. Beyond it was a neatly made bed big enough for two people; though he knew if it was like the one in the trailer, it could convert into a table with benches around it.
And that was it. It was just like a tiny home. Richard didn’t hesitate opening the back door, feeling confident that he had seen everything there was to see. The deck on the back of the caboose had a circular metal railing around it, making it a bit larger. A metal bench was bolted with its back to the rear wall of the caboose, while a small stool rode unsecured near the railing. He sat on the bench for a while, staring back at the tracks and the trees and the canyon walls rising beyond.
Richard could hear people milling about on the platform now but was well hidden from view. Suddenly he heard the conductor’s whistle and voice call out. They were boarding the train! He peeked out and saw the conductor helping some passengers several cars away. Richard had to unlatch a small gate in front of the stairs leading down and lowered himself to the bottom step. Waiting until he was sure the conductor wasn’t looking , he hopped off to the ground below. Within a few seconds he was among the milling passengers, casually making his way back to the bench next to the depot.
He did it—and nobody would ever find out! The excitement of that day was still a part of him. The train had rang its bell and set off before his father returned, who was probably confused by a happy child after a day of abandonment at a train station. But Richard didn’t remember anything about that.
Richard heard the clangs and knew the train would be departing soon. Brooding in his berth was the last thing he wanted to be doing. Some folks were in the aisle of the sleeper bringing their bags in, so he turned onto the rear viewing car.
The same raised podium stood on the far corner of the coach with the same caboose beyond. Everything looked just the same, though a bit older—a bit more worn out. The canvas awnings were dingy and several tears had been repaired and the bench seats were nearly worn of their yellow paint. There must have been little point in replacing such things lately.
The train’s bell rang out again as Richard stood next to the handrail looking out at the depot. The last apparent passenger shouting out while scurrying up the walk to the platform. Gibson waited patiently to help the man aboard—they chatted for a few moments, clearly they knew each other.
A more interesting scene developed from Richard’s point of view. Beyond the conductor and the man, a lone figure sat on the bench near the front of train, The figure stood up now, apparently a woman with a long dark ponytail trailing over an equally dark overcoat. She stood just for a moment, glancing toward the engine then the conductor, and quickly walked across and onto the first coach of the train.
Author afternote: The title of this chapter is an homage to my own grandparents' family nicknames. As the story goes, my then three-year old cousin, Stacy, approaches Grandma...but calls her "Ganga." Grandpa is dubbed "More Ganga" Upgrading it to Gaganga for great-grandpa seemed like a fun no-brainer to me.