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.
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.