They started dancing as soon as the train pulled out of the station, jumping up and down through Pomona, while Trombonist Lloyd Ulyate blew chorus after chorus of A Taste of Honey. Their dance hall was a converted baggage car, with a small bandstand and a bar, and a wire-mesh fence was locked across the open doors so they wouldn't Watusi overboard. On either side of it was a lounge car, each with its own bar. Already both were filled with people, all of them swaying with the train, their Bloody Marys sloshing in their paper cups. There was chuckwagon buffet service in two stand-up dining cars, huge cans of free ice cubes and paper cups spotted in the vestibules between the cars. There were 314 men and 223 women. The girls were all stunning—in sweaters and stretch pants—because there are no ugly girls aboard the Snowball Special, the last of the great ski trains.
Union Pacific's Snowball—26 happy, headachy hours from Los Angeles to Sun Valley, Idaho—is a Stutz Bearcat in the age of supersonic aircraft. In a time when rail travel is dead it is the liveliest thing on wheels. And any skier who would fly is out of the contest.
The Snowball was sold out (it is always sold out) three days after Union Pacific simply whispered on one radio spot, "There will be a Snowball Special to Sun Valley January 8," and southern California skiers came running, money in their hands. As little as $154 would guarantee them a week of wonderful mayhem, lifts and lessons at Sun Valley. But, most of all, a chance to get on that train.
In the old days when the train was new, back in January 1958, Union Pacific promoted it vigorously. On the first two trips there was free beer for anyone stout enough to drink it and spend those wracking hours in sit-up coach cars. But every trip since that time has grown more expensive, more exclusive. Wilder.
March 14, 1966
On the first of two Specials of 1966—the other goes this week—the Snowballers came spilling into downtown Los Angeles at 7 a.m., materializing out of the early haze at Union Pacific's haciendalike station carrying luggage, skis, boots and poles and wearing fat, padded parkas in the morning sun. The ski club from Downey, most of them escapees from aero-space plants, took up one entire coach car and overflowed into another. They rallied, yelling, "Charge!" Many were in cowboy hats, and all wore new sweatshirts stenciled "Car 4."
By 11 a.m. the train had rolled quietly out of town, through the city scrap-yards and across freeway bridges, where California's morning traffic was locked in tight, shining rows. More skiers climbed aboard at Riverside, some carrying buckets of martinis on their shoulders, and the train slid along the valley floor, pacing the mountains to San Bernardino before swinging north.
Pianist Dave Grusin, a thoughtful, introspective man with sideburns, let the band take its first break and observed over a morning beer: "Have you ever seen anything swing like this before noon? It's a long way to Sun Valley, but time seems to have stopped in here. The whole thing is upside down. Those people dancing—they're wild."
By noon Grusin, Bass Man Joe Mon-dragon and Guitarist John Martizia were swinging along, composing—on the spot—a hammering, rock 'n' roll tune called The Snowball Special, with Ulyate filling in the bridges with pieces of the Stanford Fight Song, Summertime and tunes from My Fair Lady.
"You guys," said a little blonde accusingly, her stretch pants quivering with indignation, "are improvising, that's what you are doing." Then she softened. "But are you ever good," she said.
But the entire train—22 cars long, chuffing into the foothills toward Las Vegas—was good. There were Union Pacific name tags for everyone—jot down your name, pin it on your sweater. It didn't mean a thing. The names were assumed. How many guys do you know named Erick Violence? It all was in the daylight, with the mesquite outside and no sign of snow in the rolling desert, a scene of rattling surrealism.
Back at Los Angeles headquarters, Union Pacific's Assistant Traffic Manager N.E. Luthi had explained it. "When all this began in 1958," he said, "Union Pacific owned Sun Valley, and we were interested, of course, in keeping the place full. Sun Valley was rather hard to get to—it has always been hard to get to—and we heard that in January the place was sitting half empty.
"Several of our people were in on planning the first Snowball Special. We got up the idea, went out and knocked on ski-club doors and sold it. We ran just one train the first year. By the next year the word was out, and we ran two—one in January, one in March. We have been running two a year ever since. This is the 16th Special. And if Sun Valley could hold more people we'd run more Specials."
As it was, the January train was long—a heavy train for the run. Twenty-two cars is not long for a freight, but passenger cars run to 85 feet compared to just 44 feet for most boxcars. Then there was the problem of feeding that many people. Oldtime dining cars would be too slow, so Luthi came up with the idea of installing chuckwagon buffet cars, letting the skiers pick up trays of food, then eat anywhere on the train from their laps. It worked. It was beautiful; there is now a trail of trays running from Yermo, Calif. to Shoshone, Idaho.
Luthi made up January's train with a dormitory car behind the engine (to which the hired help could escape), two coaches, a chuckwagon car, four more coaches, a bar car, then the swinging rumpus car—in the middle of the train—backed up by another bar car, four coaches, another buffet diner, four sleepers and the two baggage cars.
The lurching walk from one end of the train to the other, with the train winging along at speeds of up to 70 miles an hour, could take a social hour or more through a jungle of legs in the aisles, through knots of little parties, over empty champagne bottles clinking around on the floor, through some of history's great, dramatic love scenes being played out along the way. There was a crap-game roadblock in one of the lounge cars where the walkers had to detour, climbing up over four overstuffed easy chairs and across the bent shoulders of several people to get to the bar.
Some men with business suits and steely, sober eyes stood out starkly in the setting. They were Union Pacific executives assigned to guard the train to make certain all the cars were still hooked up after every stop. But Jack Ramsey, who was to the Snowball Special what Ward Bond was to Wagon Train, took it all in low-keyed stride.
"Don't be fooled by a rolling, 22-car party," said Ramsey. "This is not the world's biggest sanctioned wingding. If this were taking place in a private room at the Waldorf-Astoria you wouldn't notice it as much. It is the setting. Remember that this is a ski train, and skiers are a gregarious bunch.
"Most of these people, these skiers, are in the same age bracket—from their mid-20s to mid-30s. The quieter ones among them have private bedrooms toward the back. Those who want to play their way to Sun Valley have seats in the coaches."
"Taking tickets is the problem," said Luthi, who had done that, too, in his pre-executive days. "These people all have reserved seats, right? But they're never in them from the time they get on the train. I remember the last train I worked, I hunted for one guy from Los Angeles all the way to Las Vegas and didn't find him. But I knew he was on the train somewhere. He was just roaming around with the action. Finally, about two days later, I found him in his room at the Sun Valley Lodge, knocked on the door and said, 'Ticket, please.' "
Luthi was right about the seating arrangements, which had been carefully plotted out in advance on master charts. So much for master charts. By daybreak, beyond Las Vegas and Utah, the makeup of the train had changed magically overnight. Seats that had started with two boys somehow ended up with a boy and a girl. It all seemed more equitable.
The cocktail hour came as the train headed across the desert toward Las Vegas. It was a study in fashion logistics. Girls who had been riding all day in sweaters and stretch pants suddenly turned up in other sweaters and other stretch pants, having changed, wrigglingly, in the cramped rest rooms. The air was thick with the smells of the Snowball Special. Hair spray. Fabergé. Lanvin. Lipstick. Martinis. Beer.
In both chuckwagon cars the main course was called, with typical railroad clarity, meat patties. They were slippery, crumbly little devices that tasted suspiciously like oatmeal under meat sauce. The meal only sharpened appetites for Las Vegas, jewel of the desert—the big Snowball sprint.
"We have to change crews in Vegas," Ramsey explained, "and it usually takes about 20 minutes. We tell the skiers that the stop is only 10 minutes and warn them not to get off the train. Hah! Just watch. They'll come pouring off the train; they'll stream across the mall to Fremont Street. Everything in a matter of minutes. Drinks. Floor shows, gambling. Sure as hell, someone will miss the train. We try to get them all back on. But someone always misses the train. It means that they have to dash over to the Las Vegas airport, catch a flight to Salt Lake City, take a cab downtown to the train depot and reboard our train when it comes in. Some of them do it. Some of them drop out of sight and are never seen at Sun Valley."
As the train slowed down, they came running. It was cold. In stretch pants and after-ski boots, in Moriarty caps and parkas they poured out of the train doors. It was as though the train was going to blow up. In 15 minutes they came streaming back.
"I lost $100 in five minutes," one skier explained, looking stunned as his friends helped him back aboard. "One hundred clams on one spin of the wheel. Has anybody got a drink?"
Another woman, waving a fistful of bills, said, "My husband just won $150, just like that. He has just bought me a pair of new Head skies and some boots." She vanished, happily, back into the train.
The Special rolled on across the night, and the Car 4 crowd, after a paper-cup census, announced proudly that two of its group were missing—left behind at Las Vegas. The Snowball Special's record was intact.
At midnight, Grusin and crew began slamming out a bunny hop, and the rumpus car began to teeter. The amplifier burst on Grusin's portable, electrified piano. He improvised, banging out the rhythm by beating on an empty beer can with a screwdriver, while horn-man Ulyate blew 22 consecutive choruses of The Snowball Special without once repeating a melody. Overhead, the light fixtures began to swing ominously back and forth, and the beer started spilling over from half-filled cups, as though the car had been seized by a savage storm at sea.
One conductor, lantern on his arm, came through the car and did a frightened double take. "You guys will have to stop," he cried, his voice unheard, swallowed up in the din. "You're all going to tip this car and derail it with that dancing. Look at those lights. Look at this tipping back and forth. Ye gods, these cars are never this bad with just plain cattle in them."
But the music went on, and the rumpus car went tipping from side to side along the tracks. Even those standing still (or intending to stand still) were thrown into impromptu dance steps, bouncing from one side to the other.
Ahead in Car 4, Den Mother Dee Bushman, who runs a ski and trophy shop with her husband in Downey, was busy with Snowball Special activities. The Car 4 people, as Snowball veterans knew, were the ones who often showed up on the train with empty ice buckets on their heads and paper toilet-seat covers around their necks like Mae West lifejackets.
"We started with a snowball fight this morning at San Bernardino," Mrs. Bushman explained. "Except we used ice cubes. All sorts of crazy things always happen to our bunch. On the way home last year one of our skiers got off with his girl friend at Pocatello, Idaho. He wanted a beer, she wanted an apple. And, sure enough, the train pulled out without them.
"They rented a car and drove like the wind to Salt Lake City. And they missed the train there by just one minute. Then they dashed out to the Salt Lake City airport and caught a jet to Los Angeles. Some friends met them there and drove them back to San Bernardino. When the train pulled in they got back aboard, just to ride into Pomona. And what do you think happened? They forgot to get off at Pomona and rode into Los Angeles with us."
The young man was on the train this trip, wearing his U.P. get-acquainted name tag. It said "The Pocatello Kid."
For this year's activity the Bushmans had planned a Snowball king-and-queen contest and had brought along little cardboard crowns for the occasion. "We have real crowns back in our shop," Dee said. "You know, like in the Rose Bowl Parade and like that. But they're too perfect that way. It isn't in keeping with the spirit of this train." For royal coronation robes, Mrs. Bushman explained, "we plan to steal those entry curtains from the men's and women's rooms.
"These Union Pacific people are nice to us," she said. "They don't say anything as long as we don't get too destructive. Gee, sometimes we sleep up there in the overhead suitcase racks. The trick is in knowing the town where a railroad inspector will get on. They always walk all through the train and look at everything. So our members now know when to climb down out of the racks and sit on their seats. When the inspector gets off they go back up into the racks and sleep."
But all through the train there was little sleep in the excitement of the season's first ski trip.
In Car 9, Dick Eastman, 35, and Cheryl Smith, 20, were eloping. "Well, we've been engaged for two months to ourselves," said Eastman, curled up on the coach seat alongside Cheryl. "By that I mean it has been a secret from our families. And I organized this trip for our ski club, and I figured I'd organize my wedding at the same time. That way we can get in some skiing...."
Up ahead, 22-year-old Legal Secretary Joan Kubic, dazzling in slacks and crisp, white blouse, found it all especially romantic for a single girl from Pasadena. Life was never like this at staid, old Brydolf, Gray, Whyte & Harrison, where they pay her $425 a month. She saves her money for ski vacations.
"I came up on the train last year," she said, "and it was so exciting. This year I have three girl friends with me. I told them it was the perfect vacation." All four girls, three secretaries and a dental assistant, were getting a big play from the boys. Dancing. Dining on meat patties by fluorescent overhead light.
One of them, 25-year-old Virginia Taylor, was perfectly candid about the Snowball Special. Sun Valley? "I don't really even like to ski," shrugged Virginia. "But this trip is sure a lot of fun."
In the rumpus car brunette Diana Newell, secretary to the society editor of the Los Angeles Times, summed it up: "This train is no different from a resort, really. If you're aboard looking for the man of your dreams, forget it."
And one of the Los Angeles ski-clubbers, tall, willowy Bette Sutter, flashed a smile that lighted up her end of the car. "Remember that the very logistics of going skiing are tough in southern California," she explained. "But with the Snowball Special it is all handled beautifully for you. All you have to do, really, is present yourself at the Union Pacific depot, and everything else is taken care of for you—the transportation, lodging, ski-lift and ski-school tickets. For Californians it is perfect."
The organization was a wonder, really. In one of the lounge cars, impervious to the sounds swirling around him, Sun Valley Staffer Irv Silver issued ski-lift and lesson tickets and handed out room assignments. He had flown down to Los Angeles to catch the train, carrying a canvas bag with $40,000 worth of lift passes. "This way, when they get to the Valley they will be ready to go," said Silver.
In the growing Idaho dawn, 26½ hours and some 1,100 miles out of Los Angeles, the Special chugged through new snowfields. Inside, equipped with morning Bloody Marys, the skiers were suiting up. Many of them had boots on (those who had smuggled their skis into the vestibules) ready to race directly from the train to the lifts for their first runs of the season.
The Sun Valley Lodge, the Challenger Inn, Baldy and Dollar mountains were waiting. The "train people," as the Valley staff calls them, came in like conquering Huns. Which is tough to do with wrinkled clothes and red eyes. Some of them went directly to Baldy—the experts—to slash down the manicured slopes. Others went in direct, unwavering lines to The Ram for drinks. Some went, heavy-lidded and exhausted, to their rooms to sleep one, two, three days. Some of them clearly had no intention of going skiing. Ever.
One hour and 15 minutes after the train people had arrived, one of the girls slipped and fell over her unpacked suitcase, putting a four-stitch gash in her chin. She was the first Snowball Special casualty. There would be others. But there would be everything else to make the trip worthwhile. Romance, a whirl of parties, skiing—or just breathing air without smog.
"The trip back to Los Angeles is always pretty calm," explained Wagon Master Ramsey. "They are a pretty subdued bunch by then, and it is nothing like the trip up here."
"The trip back home," said one of the train people, "means an end for one more year to this glamorous week. It means back to those damned meat patties on that chuckwagon car."
It was worse than that. The band was too tired to play. The crowd was too tired to dance. Everybody slept.