Homeward bound, but how?
Anyone who knows me fairly well knows I like trains and train travel. I have since my early childhood. And I have made some memorable trips by rail. But one stands out because of the very unusual nature of the train—a mail train operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. And there were other memorable aspects to the trip.
It was the middle of the spring semester at New Mexico State University in 1962 and I was so sick with a cold I barely made it through test week. Fortunately, my last test was on Wednesday afternoon, so I headed to my off-campus apartment in hopes of getting some rest.
Feverish and congested, I took all the medicines I dared, and found my bed, where I collapsed for maybe nine hours. I managed to sleep until Thursday morning and when I awoke I was feeling like I had never been sick. I felt great. The congestion and fever were gone.
And then I wanted to know how I had done on my tests. The grades had been posted and my test scores were all good. I began to try to figure out how to get home for the next week’s spring break. A train ran from El Paso to Albuquerque, with a stop in Las Cruces—the home of New Mexico State. It was one I had often ridden, so I decided to take that train on Friday and then travel by bus or train home from Albuquerque. Home was the town of Grants, about 80 miles west of Albuquerque.
But fate intervened.
One of my roommates’ girlfriend had studied day and night, taken all her tests and was so tired she was afraid to drive to her home of Belen, south of Albuquerque. She wanted to get home Thursday night, so I offered to do the driving for her. And she happily accepted my offer.
So that evening I drove her to her home—a drive of several hours. Her car was a 1956 Ford with a stick shift that I was totally comfortable driving, and we made it to her front door sometime after midnight. She slept all the way. Her grateful parents were more than willing to help me try to find a way to get the rest of the way home. But it was too late for buses.
As it happened, Belen is a railroad town, and the westbound mail train was making a long stop at the station there. The mail train was about a dozen cars long, mostly baggage cars, railway post office cars and express cars and one lonely passenger coach—a converted Pullman sleeper—at the very end. It ran right through Grants and stopped to offload and onload mail as needed. At the head-end was a combination of diesel locomotives in the famous red and yellow Santa Fe “War Bonnet” paint scheme.
The Belen train depot was closed, but the passenger-carrying trains always had a ticket making kit in the custody of the conductor. There was no problem with me boarding and buying my ticket at the train crew’s convenience. So, all was well.
It was late March or early April, and there had been traces of snow along the way. I was wide awake and spent a little time shivering on the rear platform as the train rolled westward.
After a trip of about an hour and a half the train stopped in Grants, and I paid the conductor and ended up on the station platform, suitcase in hand. It was about 4 a.m. and there was a coat of fresh snow on the ground. I found a pay phone, called a taxicab and was home about 30 minutes later.
I couldn’t make a trip like that now. Mail trains—once a familiar part of railroad operations—are no longer in existence, as far as I know. In the later years of private passenger train service, the mail contracts paid most of the cost of operating the trains. There aren’t that many passenger trains, either. I guess I would have to settle for a bus trip.
It was a fun memory and I never doubted for a second that I would get home. And, in the process, I also helped my roommate’s girlfriend get home for her spring break.
WARREN DOMKE is a columnist for the Pleasanton Express.