CALIFORNIA - Isn't it time to do something different? Something that will hike an eyebrow from that smug friend who's done everything and been everywhere?
How about manhandling 1,500 horsepower sheathed in 120 tons of steel? How about doing something Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Yeager have done... in fact, how about doing it in the same seat they used? Then welcome to the Portola Railroad Museum at the crest of the Feather River Canyon.
OK, so you ride Metrolink, took an Amtrak once; you've ridden the Skunk Train out of Fort Bragg and sat in the same seat Richard Harris did in ''Unforgiven'' at Jamestown, enjoyed Mother's Day brunch on the Fillmore & Western and spent the day on the Tecate run with the San Diego Railroad Museum's restored steamer out of Campo - but did they let you DRIVE?
Lori gets instruction from Skip Englert
The Portola Railroad Museum not only has one of the biggest collections of cars and diesel engines from America's railroading history, but they'll let you play with their stuff. For $95, you can drive a diesel engine, learn some of the lore of the Western Pacific Railroad that operated trains across the Sierra Nevadas.
It's fun, noisy and creaky - a lot like Skip Englert, your instructing engineer. When you call for an appointment to learn to drive one of the many operating diesels, you call Skip. This affable volunteer who runs the rent-a-train program teaches railroading at community colleges and travels on speaking engagements as an ambling database on railroading. He is as enthusiastic about teaching people how to drive an engine as they are to learn; he knows most people waiting for a train to pass a crossing wonder what it would be like to be at the throttle - and he's eager to put that daydream into motion. All 120 tons of it.
The lessons don't disappoint, and the whim and whimsy of driving a diesel around a mile of track, starting, stopping, hitting marks, ringing the bell and blowing the horn behind unsuspecting visitors are as fun for train buffs as the skeptics who think everything could use a good scrubbing.
Our party included grandpa (me, the train nut), grandma (the tolerant one), son (pop, it's only go . . . stop), daughter-in-law (what're we supposed to do?) and the 8- and 2-year old granddaughters (where's the horn?).
Kids are important to Englert and the other museum volunteers . . . they are the generation that will have to keep America's railroading heritage from rusting away. ''If they can reach the throttle, they can drive,'' he said, hoisting 2-year-old Savanna onto the engineer's seat. After a few instructions about what to push, which to pull, how to fire off the horn, the engine grumbled and we moved.
Children at the throttle of a diesel engine get cartoon-sized eyes and grins become permanent. Everyone gets a turn at the throttle. The bell is a Kodak moment when the blast of air hits the surprised engineer in the face; and tugging on the horn's rope makes up for all those late nights when passing trains wailed their way through town.
We spent two hours with Englert and his diesels, maintaining yard speed, tweaking the brakes as he instructed as if we really were trying to keep a string of cars from slamming together.
My son's right; driving a train is pretty much go . . . stop. It's all in the wrist bring a hundred tons of steel to a stop where Englert says to, lining up with marks, gauging when to throttle off and begin the braking. Did you know train brakes are either on or off? By flicking the brake, you create the same sensation as if you were slowing down the family wagon.
When you learn there's a foot of play between cars and multiply that times the number of cars, it takes practice and skill to keep a train taut so passengers and freight don't break. Even grandma Lori and daughter-in-law Jennifer, neither one much bigger than a minute, got the hang of it under Englert's tutoring.
There's lore in Skip's instructions. ''This engine's an ALCO S-1 built in 1941 for the U.S. Army. It worked for the military all during the war. We finally got it from the Air Force a few years ago and painted it like it would have been for Western Pacific during the Forties . . . The paint on that engine cost $110 a gallon . . . This engine is called a covered wagon because it has this streamlined car body . . . Diesel engines are really big electric trains, you know; the diesels power the generators that turn the wheels.''
And there's safety. ''This boy put a quarter on the track to flatten it,'' he tells 8-year-old Marissa, mesmerized by this kindly ex-federal marshal. ''Well, the train came by and it squirted out, hit him right in the chest like a bullet; you want to flatten a penny I'll be happy to do it for you . . . You get a train a mile long and it takes about a mile to stop it; people don't realize that being an engineer is very stressful. It's dangerous.''
When Englert was explaining how being an engineer was one of the most stressful and dangerous jobs, he asked my son Jason what he did. ''Uh. . . fighter pilot in the Marines.'' Consummate yarnspinner Englert segued into how pilots drove the trains to relax, including Yeager, famous for breaking the sound barrier 50 years ago, and a pilot who flies the SR71 Blackbird, the fastest, highest-flying plane in the Air Force inventory.
Englert presented everyone with dandy certificates indicating the engines driven and for how many hours; good for convincing school pals and friends you really did drive a train on your vacation.
Some 2,000 people a year come to Portola to drive trains; some for the adventure (where else can you muscle a hundred tons around?), the thrill (be the first on your block to drive a train) and the fun of it . . . they shudder, rattle, hiss, growl, creak and thunder - and when you make it do all these things, it's fun. Let your friend top that.
Rental rates begin at $95 per hour, and several types of diesels are available, plus rentals for special occasions. The Portola Railroad Museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; weekend train rides are conducted Memorial Day through Labor Day; and charter trains are available.
The Feather River Rail Society,
P.O. Box 608,
Portola, Calif. 96122.
For museum information, call (916) 832-4131.
There is a "sidebars" to this article, describing the Western Pacific Railroad Museum,
Copyright 1998 - Rocky McAlister, used with permission
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