Monday, August 5, 2013

The Drive

The Colorado Rockies
Once upon a time, long, long ago (actually it was January of 1987) I found myself needing to travel from Fort Collins, Colorado to San Antonio, Texas. As I was required to be in old San Antonio for three months or so, I reckoned that I would bring my trusty automotive conveyance with me. So I was in for a bit of a long drive.

(For you folks who thought this might be an article concerning the series of football plays executed by the Denver Broncos against the Cleveland Browns in that same month and year, which knocked the Browns out of the play-offs. No. But I did watch the game, with a great deal of interest in who won. Note that as I was living in Colorado at the time, I'll leave it to your fertile imaginations as to who I was rooting for. That game took place just days before my own version of "The Drive".)

Now in those days I drove a 1983 Volkswagen Jetta, one of the best cars I've ever owned. Very reliable and fun to drive, it was the last Volkswagen I owned which had actually been built in Germany. The very last Volkswagen I ever owned was not built in Germany, which is why it was my very last VW. Up until that car, all I had ever owned were Volkswagens. German engineering executed by "other than Germans" is not something I'll ever do again.

All that being said, I took the Jetta in for servicing just days before loading him up and heading south down I-25 for Texas. Spent a pretty penny I did at the dealership getting the VW ready to go. (I know some of you are thinking "he went to the dealership? what a rube!". Well poo poo to you. For we who were transients in most of the communities we lived in, being on Uncle Sam's time and dime, we normally didn't have a "guy" we could turn to for automotive repairs and the like. No, the dealership was your best, though most expensive, option. In fact, it was usually my only option.)


The vehicle was serviced, my Thermos was full of coffee, my bags were packed and loaded and on a very cold morning in late January of 1987 I kissed the wife and chilluns goodbye and headed on down the road. For a trip of one thousand miles, give or take a yard or so.

Now the first part of the trip was down Interstate 25 which runs the length of Colorado then down on through New Mexico to the border with old Mexico. I wouldn't be going that far. No, because once I got over the Raton Pass into New Mexico I'd be eastbound towards the little town of Clayton, NM then onwards into Texas.

Now when I was driving down I-25, the first chunk was very familiar. I'd driven most of that road from Colordao Springs to Cheyenne, Wyoming whilst stationed in Colorado. But once I got south of the Springs, I was in unfamiliar territory.

Now here is where that opening photo takes pride of place. For the entire journey so far, the Rocky Mountains stood off to my right. Cold, snow covered and silent. In fact, until you get further south in Colorado, the Rockies are really quite some distance from I-25. At Colorado Springs and points further south, they feel much closer. Especially in winter.

Off to my right, on a very lonely highway for there wasn't much traffic, loomed the Rocky Mountains. While the land around me was snowy and windswept, it didn't have the same gravitas as those big mountains. Silent and eternal, the snow being blown off the peaks. They spoke to me of loneliness and solitude. And cold, down to the bone cold.

Did I mention that my automotive conveyance did not have a radio? Back in those days, I was even cheaper than I am now. Imagine, forgoing a radio in the car to shave 300 bucks off the sticker price. Like in the vast sums required to purchase an automobile, this lowly E-5 would even notice that 300 bucks spread over three years.

So yes, gentle reader, Your Humble Scribe is driving to Texas sans radio. Sans contact with the outside world. This was in the Pre-Cellular Epoch as well. I might as well have been in a Conestoga Wagon somewhere on the lone prairie. (Well, I was out on the prairie. But it was me and the car, not even horses or oxen for company. No radio, nice move Sarge. Dumbass!)

But there it is. No radio. Looming cold mountains with snow blowing off the peaks. I was kind of glad to see the sun set. At least it limited the scope of my imagination. For a while.

Up over the Raton Pass and into New Mexico I went, hanging a left just south of Raton, NM I headed east, into the dark unknown.

Because "Oh my goodness!" it was dark driving along US-87. Nary a dwelling to be seen except maybe off in the distance. That road was little traveled and the area either side of it was sparsely settled back in those days. I think I saw maybe two cars between Raton and Clayton. Both going west.

Now at some point in a long drive, when one has consumed most of a rather large Thermos of coffee, there are certain "needs" which must be attended to. As most of us don't carry "piddle packs" in our private automobiles (and why should we?) there is a need to stop the car and do one's "bidness". Bear in mind, I am in the middle of nowhere.

So I notice a pullover area at the side of the road and I pull into it. Turning of the headlights and reaching for the ignition I...


First, one must understand that while I grew up in a rural area, it wasn't that rural. So for most of my life the night sky had always been somewhat washed out by man-made lighting. But not in the far reaches of Northern New Mexico. I believe I mentioned the lack of settlement along this road.

For when I turned off the headlights, I was struck nearly dumb by the sheer spectacle of what a clear night sky looked like with no man made light drowning it out. It was, in a word, spectacular. Awe inspiring in the most spiritual aspects of that word "awe".

After I shut the engine down, I just sat there for quite some time taking in the view. It's a sight I shall never forget. It's a sight I'd like to see again some day. But soon the moment passed as I was reminded as to the reason for stopping in the first place. Seems that nature was calling and it was an urgent call.

So I dismounted the vehicle and headed to the side away from the road and prepared to, you know, take care of things. As I was finishing up, I could feel a low rumble coming through the Earth. That's odd, I thought.

Then looking up, I noticed a light in the forest (the area was fairly well-wooded). Odd that, why would there be a light in the forest? Out here, in the middle of nowhere.

Of course, now I was feeling a bit of a draft as I stood there watching the light in the woods and feeling some distant rumble coming through the very ground I was standing upon. Bit of a draft, bit of a...

Completing the task (ahem) at hand, I zipped things up and prepared to get back in the car. For it was a bit chilly out there in the boondocks. But what the hell was that light? And the rumbling was getting rather heavier, I could now hear it as well as feel it. And damn wasn't that light getting a lot brighter. Hhhmm, it's moving, that's why it's getting brighter. Hhmm, it seems to be coming my way. Hhhmm.

Now as a lad raised on episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits I had always had what one might call an "over active imagination". Now let's look at the facts and the circumstances so far.

Middle of nowhere, check.

Late at night, check.

Far from human habitation, check.

Rumbling ground, rumbling sound, check.

Large, bright light approaching through the forest with increasing speed, check.


I jump in the car, slam and lock the door and promptly drop the keys on the floor. Yup, just like in the movies. Crap, now what do I do?

First thought, it's a good thing I have already peed. Otherwise, I'd be doing it again. Why is my life not rushing past my eyes in these, what are apparently my last moments on Earth? And, what the hell is that thing?

As it blew past with lots of engine noises and track rattling I realized that the pull-off beside the road was next to a train track. Which ran next to US-87.

Of course, it all made perfect sense now.

So that was a train? I had the bejesus scared out of me by a train?

Why yes, yes I did.

Needless to say, in comparison, the rest of the trip was...

...rather uneventful.


  1. I had a car with no radio.
    It wasn't German, but Italian, a ragtop sportscar, which was why there was no radio.
    I wouldn't have heard the radio.

  2. Had a similar experience (with stars, not trains) on a trip to the Big Bend. Same reason for the stop, but My Lord! there were stars!!!! Just awe-inspiring!

    1. The sight of that night sky will stay with me forever.

      (So will that train!)

  3. Everyone should experience the night sky from somewhere out in the middle of nowhere at least once
    It also gives a new meaning to the words Sounds of Silence

  4. Ah, yes... the night sky. For a couple o' few months... years, actually... after I arrived in NM I'd take The Green Hornet out about ten miles south o' town on US 70 (with her top down, of course), pull over to the side o' the road, lay the seat back as far as it would go and just stare at the sky. I've often thought of doing one of those time-lapse things of our night sky, which is well and truly spectacular. But that sounds too much like "work."


    1. I like the video-clip augmented comments.

      You do understand that it was a recent comment of yours which inspired this post?

    2. I do realize that... and I thank you.

  5. People who ride with me can't believe I don't turn on the radio. While others want to be distracted, I don't.

    Trains out in the boondocks can surprise you. There is a railroad crossing North of Campo, CO on US 287 that will
    sneak up on you. Nothing around it, just the crossing lights, and the middle of a 120 car coal train at 0300 can be
    hard to see.

    1. Being distracted while driving, high up on my list of bad things.

  6. Heh, 287 through Texas, SAME damn thing!!! And I swore the train was on MY side of the road!!!

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one to experience this!

  7. Uh oh, I thought this was going to be one of those Roswell stories. And you know where those stories end. With you strapped to a table. And. . .

  8. We are very fortunate where we live. While it's not big sky by any means, we live rurally (by New England standards) so our night sky is unpolluted. And while we are surrounded by trees we still get a beautiful night sky. Sitting out on our deck late at night with a nice late-night drink of the alcohol variety is one of fave things to do. Reminds us how small we really are; good for the ego.

    1. That's the feeling I get when stargazing. It's a good feeling overall. I'm reminded of how small I am but the same Creator who made all that, also made us.

      That whole sparrow thing. (A favorite passage of mine.)


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