The Rat And The Unicorn
December arrives in Aspen, Colorado, which seems suitable. The air is very dry and I wake far too early with a thick abrasive sore throat.
With another fine day dawning there seems little point in moving from this agreeable spot. But I have cut things very fine. I must not miss the California Zephyr this afternoon, nor its connection with the Lake Shore Limited in Chicago, for if I’m anything more than a few hours late in New York at the weekend I shall lose the last vital link in the chain.
But I’ve one adventure more before leaving the Rockies. It begins, prosaically enough, in the municipal car park at six o’clock in the morning. Two enormous vehicles are being assembled here. One is called The Rat, the other The Unicorn. There isn’t much passenger space in either of them, they have no means of independent propulsion and once started they may end up anywhere. They are the one form of transport everyone connects with Around The World In Eighty Days, and yet Jules Verne never mentions them. I’m about to board a hot-air balloon.
Passepartout and myself and Jake the pilot – burly, moustachioed and, like everyone else in Aspen, aged between 22 and 35 – are squeezed into the 4-foot-square wicker and leather-padded basket of The Unicorn. Clem and the BBC New York film crew are in The Rat.
We have to ascend at this ungodly hour before the land warms up and starts giving off thermals which disturb the air current. Hot air balloons do not, it appears, like hot air.
I feel rather silly standing in this little basket on the ground, like a piece of forgotten shopping, whilst each flame of propane swells the shroud above my head.
Then, quite suddenly, without a lot of fuss and bother, we’re rising majestically above the car park, above the hotel, above the neat, clean-as-a-new-pin streets, above the substantial Victorian bulk of Wheeler Opera House, above the Aspen Fresh Fish Co. and The Great Divide Music Store and the eye-catching old bandstand in Paepcke Park. Over Highway 82 and Hyman Avenue and Pepi’s Hideaway and suddenly the town is in miniature and there are shouts from the occupants of the other balloon for me to stand up and be photographed and I’m not sure if my knees will support me.
I can feel the blood draining from my face, God knows where to. If only Jake were wearing some sort of harness instead of just balancing casually on the edge of the basket as if he’s going for a picnic up the Thames. There is nothing to stop me jumping out. I’m not attached to a damn thing. I stand up, feeling queasy as I’ve never felt since that night on the dhow. Think back to the astrologer’s words of reassurance. Everything smooth . . . back in plenty of time . . . no problems. But I’d told him I was taking surface transport only. I’ve cheated, I’ve left the ground and now I’m paying the price.
‘Where are we going?’ I manage to ask in a voice as thin as the air.
‘Aw…I dunno for sure.’
Jake looks around. He looks around without getting off the edge of the basket! He just twists his unharnessed body on the thin leather rim 300 feet above Aspen!
‘You see, it just depends on the way the air behaves.’
‘You mean you don’t know that?’
‘Not until we get up here.’ He consults one of the distressingly few instruments, which shows wind speed. Below me now Main Street has become Highway 82. A long line of Dinky Toys thread their way slowly into the town. What’s a traffic jam doing in a beautiful place like this? Remember to ask Jake this when my voice has broken.
‘Y’see, the cold air flows down this valley like water in a river. It’s not till you’re in it you know where or how fast those currents are flowing.’
I know where. Aspen International Airport, that’s where. A light plane is actually flying in beneath us.
‘Er…Jake…Do…er…do…airport control…er…know. About us?’
‘Oh I guess so.’
So on a swell of currents and hope we drift slowly towards the mountains. And quite suddenly I’ve lost that fear of the unlikely and I’m leaning over the side with the rest of them. We can watch silently from up here without disturbing the wildlife, and I catch sight of a pair of elk in amongst the trees. The view is wide and majestic, from Aspen round to Snowmass as well as the snowcapped Mount Daly, a peak of classic Paramount Films proportions. I may be cheating, but by the time we drift down, making an endearingly clumsy descent into some prickly scrub, I calculate I’ve moved a mile nearer the Reform Club.
Back into Aspen for a late and hearty breakfast, such as the condemned man might enjoy after his reprieve. My Rocky Mountain News tells me that it’s Woody Allen’s fifty-third birthday and that Michael Dukakis’ waxwork has been removed from Madame Tussaud’s after the shortest display on record.
Walk a last time around Aspen. Gaze enviously at the skiers, who, at this early stage of the season, have wide slopes to themselves. Feel glad that I kitted myself out with some new clothes in Tokyo. Everyone here looks as if they’re straight out of the windows of the local boutiques, which proliferate under names like The Freudian Slip, The Hedgehog and Shirtique.
Christmas carols sound from somewhere, and I realise that I want to be back home. As if to acknowledge the wish, I find a bar serving Sam Smith’s beer from my home county. A pint, a bowl of clam chowder, and a last lungful of the cold, dry, reviving air before heading back down to the real world.
Glenwood Springs station could be out of the Scottish Highlands. Rough-hewn stone, overhanging eaves and a feeling of having been nearly glamorous. The same could be said of The California Zephyr. ‘A soft gentle breeze’ as defined in the dictionary, and certainly it’s no hurricane today. An hour passes and still no sign. A massive goods train goes by, quite possibly the longest train I’ve ever seen. Seven diesels of the Rio Grande and Southern Pacific Railroads hauling one and a quarter miles of trucks. The Zephyr arrives one and a half hours late and it’s getting dark as we wind into the canyon, the tips of whose walls are caught by the last rays of a golden sunset and glow like the points of a crown.
All that’s needed to enjoy it is sight and silence. But the train manager has other plans.
‘I’ve collected all the Trivia sheets. Mrs Dorothy Connelly, you got all your questions wrong. I’d like to meet you. You’re the person who got all their questions wrong!’
‘On our left Interstate Highway 70. In construction for fifteen years. The most expensive highway ever built in this country.’
And there it is, in the gathering gloom. Squashed in between sheer rock walls and the much-abused Colorado River – squeezed dry in its later stages to service the lawn sprinklers of L.A. and here in the canyon half-filled with the rubble and concrete of America’s most expensive highway.
‘Margaritas goin’ for a dollar fifty cents in the lounge car. Why don’t you come and join us?’
At five past eight we enter Moffat Tunnel, the third longest in the world. It runs beneath the watershed of the Rocky Mountains, the Continental Divide, reducing what was a five-hour journey for Phileas Fogg to ten minutes today.
Have a cabin to myself and Chuck, the attendant, warns me that tonight’s ride could be a little rough, as we shall be moving onto The Burlington and Northern Railroad and we’ll be switched to their secondary track to leave the fastest free for freight.
Dinner taken as we descend into Denver. Four thousand feet in thirty minutes. It looks as if we’re coming in by plane.
Chuck has some bedtime stories for me. Mostly gruesome and to do with the dangers of modern travel for an elderly clientele. The more modern the appliances, the more neat and clever and labour-saving the designers try to be, the greater the scope for disasters. They can range from a simple dousing for those who mistake the shower button for the lavatory flush, to the Rabelaisian experience of a very fat lady whose fleshy bottom was sucked into the stainless steel toilet bowl by the electric flushing system. Chuck had the delicate task of trying to prise her free, but without success. The train had to be halted and the entire electrical system switched off before she could be removed. The stop was described over the PA as a ‘routine electrical check’.
His most feared passengers are the Boy Scouts. Maybe the strain of hours tying knots and trying to light fires with two sticks provokes a vehement counter-reaction but their behaviour makes Attila the Hun sound like Beatrix Potter. They are in the habit of leaving sachets of tomato ketchup underneath the lavatory seat. At the first heavy pressure the sachets break squirting their sticky red contents down the next customer’s leg.
Boy Scouts or no Boy Scouts, I lifted the seat carefully before turning in. Rocked to sleep on the Burlington and Northern somewhere between Denver and Omaha.