The Hill Country Flyer has been ushering passengers through the Hill Country between Cedar Park and Burnet for 20 years. The diesel-electric locomotive, operated by the Austin Steam Train Association, leads coach, excursion and first-class cars on a 66-mile journey with a two-hour layover in Burnet. There, passengers disembark near the historic square for shopping, dining and a Wild West showdown.
Overseeing the tasks of the flyer is an all-volunteer crew, ranging from 12-year-old junior car attendant Avery Mitchell to 79-year-old docent Maurice Beckham, who’s made more than 1,300 volunteer trips. Volunteers also handle the train’s technical operations as brakemen, engineers and conductors, as I learn firsthand riding the train in late summer.
Despite inviting family to join me on the ride, all bowed out. Would I still go alone? Yes.
That’s one thing I’ve learned as a reporter: Always say yes. You never know what adventure awaits.
At about 10 a.m., I find my seat, 41W, on the train among pairs of chairs lining a carpeted aisle. The 1920s restored car has no climate control, but my spot is a window seat, and all the school bus-style windows are open. Soon, the Hill Country Flyer is rolling over a 130-year-old track, the cars’ repetitious clanks, screeches and whirs increasing in tempo as the train reaches its max speed of about 35 mph.
The flyer pauses in Bertram to pick up “Sheriff” Tex Copsetta, who boards wearing a gray cowboy hat, silver star and an 1872 Colt .45 Peacemaker holstered on his hip. He and the Burnet Gunfighters will be performing a Wild West gunfight in Burnet today. Don’t miss it, he warns, or he’ll issue a warrant.
During the layover, alluring treasures at the Burnet Farmers Market booths and in the Burnet Antique Mall tempt me, but my rumbling tummy demands lunch before shopping. The peach-colored storefront of Tea-Licious on South Main Street draws me in for quiche.
By the return trip, I feel confident in my “train legs,” as Mitchell calls them, so I navigate the jostling coaches to the back window of the last car. There, the tracks speed out from under me and run off into the distance. I return to my seat without a stumble—unlike earlier when I was so off-kilter that Daniel Doggett, the Austin Steam Train Association’s community outreach coordinator, laughingly told me I looked drunk.
As the Hill Country Flyer approaches Cedar Park at about 4:30 p.m., conductor Mike Hitzfelder leans out the door of the last rail car as it glides over a Y in the tracks. Once the last axle passes over, he jumps from the barely moving train to manually throw the switch, a lever that redirects the tracks. He throws his full weight into the task of pulling the waist-high handle over an arc.
The train backs up, screeching and puffing on its new course to the Cedar Park depot. After it halts, Hitzfelder is all business, arranging to park the cars and engine in the yard. Despite the stern expression Hitzfelder wears under his black conductor’s hat as I approach, I asked for an up-close look at the engine.
That’s another lesson I’ve learned as a reporter: Always ask. The worst one can do is say no.
But Hitzfelder doesn’t say no. He nods and slips off his work glove to shake my hand. Escorting me to the front of the train, he waves toward steps leading onto the nose of the black and red engine. I climb up.
Inside, brakeman Jimmie Burleyson welcomes me aboard the No. 442 engine. Engineer Brian Smith sits on a stool mounted near a control panel. With a grin, he asks if I’d like to ride along while he parks the cars and engine. Yes.
With three blasts of the breathy horn, Smith throws the throttle into reverse. We chug back and forth until all the cars are parked, and Smith puts the engine in neutral. He asks if I’d be up for a task: Just press this button when I tell you to and don’t let up until the engine turns off. Do you want to power it down? Yes.
Suzanne Haberman, staff writer