SI Vault
Bob Ottum
March 14, 1966
In Los Angeles, Union Pacific loads a 22-car train with skiers, dancers and lovers and then aims the whole shebang at Sun Valley, 1,100 miles away
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March 14, 1966

Wild Watusi Weekend On The Snowball Special

In Los Angeles, Union Pacific loads a 22-car train with skiers, dancers and lovers and then aims the whole shebang at Sun Valley, 1,100 miles away

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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. Faberg�. 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.

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