This historic steam train ran on a strict schedule — but as we chased it together, three generations of my ADD family got the chance to indulge the impulse to explore, discover, and share an adrenaline rush.
by Kristen Caven
One of my favorite summer memories was a day out of time with my train-obsessed father and son. We were visiting family in Boulder, Colorado — full of the typical stresses of organizing around various diverse clusters of family cultures and communications — when my dad (whom I shall call Grandpa Gerf in this blog) — called with the news that a historic Union Pacific 4-8-4 steam engine was going to be running a hundred miles up the UP branch from Denver to Cheyenne, Wyoming. The stepmother, in-laws, and husband backed away from the invitation to chase it, like cockroaches disappearing when a light goes on. But eight-year-old Enzo was ready to leave at the crack of dawn, his pockets full of toy trains and cars.
An hour up the road, we put some pennies on the track and waited impatiently for the train. At last it thundered by at full speed, spewing smoke and cinders, blowing our hair from our faces, hurting our ears with its piercing scream, and making our hearts pound with adrenaline. Grandpa Gerf located the flattened coins and, tossing them from hand to hand to avoid being burned, we leaped into the car and began our pursuit.
Enzo was in heaven, exhilarated by the pursuit of a shared dream. We’d catch glimpses of the great black iron horse snaking across the prairie, then hide under railroad overpasses and wait for it to rain pebbles on us as it passed overhead. We put pedal to the medal to beat the train to Cheyenne, where we ran through the streets and stumbled onto the platform just before the band struck up a Sousa march. The great black beast chugged up to the bunting-draped platform where we watched Colorado's VIPs emerge from the yellow vintage passenger cars and pose for the paparazzi. The hiss of steam as the hydraulic brakes released let us know we could relax.
The ride back was as meandering and distracted as the drive up had been focused. We followed our impulses and indulged every one. When we found a bridge, we pulled out fishing poles. When we saw some sculptures made of tractors, we stopped to look, climb, and take pictures. When we saw a sign for ice cream, we stopped to fill up. It was a day that would have driven our neurotypical, straight-line family members insane, but to me, it felt natural and delightful. I was raised by this impulsive, distractible, hyper-excitable train-nut, and I was raising one cut from the same cloth.
GERF stands for Glassy-Eyed Rail Freak, also known as an ERF (Extreme Rail Freak.) When I called him to ask about the name of the train we chased, no less than nine associative train stories poured from his mind before I hung up.