ESCALANTE, Garfield County — You’ve probably seen a million Christmas displays over the years, but chances are you’ve never seen one quite like what Lenza Wilson concocted in Escalante.
When it's coming toward you, it looks like the whole Festival of Trees is coming your way.
If it looks crazy, well, most people don't seem to think so.
"No, I think they've gotten used to it," Wilson said in a recent interview. "People seem to enjoy it."
Wilson's "Christmas train" is, in essence, a one-man Christmas parade led by a man who hates Christmas music. It takes the streets of Escalante by storm on many nights during each Christmas season. Like so many good ideas, this one started small, back in 1994.
"I started out with a car, with a tree in the trunk, and drove around town," Wilson recalled. "And people liked it."
If you see his creation in daylight, you get a better sense of how his idea has evolved over the years. The truth is, when it's not dark the Christmas Train doesn't look very good.
"Oh, it's terrible in the daylight," Wilson noted with a laugh. It's basically a pile of junk, strung together on junky-looking trailers. "It came from landfills, it came from scrap-iron piles," he said.
But it has grown and stretched out over the years and now reaches more than two-thirds the length of a football field.
"It's about 210 feet," Wilson said. "There's 16 trailers on it."
Wilson is a former mayor of Escalante, but he's also the only licensed electrician within 60 miles. So wiring up his Christmas Train was no big deal … except that the number of lights got a little bit out of hand.
"Between 45 to 50 thousand," Wilson said. "I don't really know how many there are."
The lights are arranged on numerous Christmas trees and other decorative structures that Wilson attached to the trailers. The entire contraption is pulled by a truck that will never win a beauty contest, and it's powered by a diesel generator that makes enough noise to completely shatter the quiet on the night before Christmas.
Wilson typically revs it up around sundown and heads for the streets. He pretty much crisscrosses the entire town at dusk and continues into the evening darkness.
The turning radius is so tight Wilson can do a U-turn anytime he wants, turning his truck west, for example, while most of the train is still heading east. The Christmas Train is often — literally — coming and going at the same time.
"It's really cool," said a young girl who watched it doing its thing on Escalante's main drag. "It's really pretty."
Wilson's favorite stunt is the serpentine maneuver, snaking his train back and forth from curb to curb. He gets away with it in small-town Escalante where there's little in the way of competing traffic. But people who live in a big city would be advised not to try that at home.
There is one very big problem: the Christmas Train is an incredible gas guzzler. Wilson figures he gets about one mile per gallon.
He said the project doesn't really cost him much money, though, because people contribute donations to keep the Christmas Train in business each year. This time around, the train even got some funding from the city.
As each night wears on, people come out of their homes to wave and, sometimes, to give the driver a treat. Michelle Okane ran to Wilson's truck and handed him a paper sack with a Christmas pastry inside.
"I told him that he's a love and a blessing for doing this for our kids and grownups in town," Okane said. "It's incredible."1 comment on this story
One surprising fact is that the Christmas Train is not accompanied by Christmas music.
"I've never really cared for Christmas music at all," Wilson said. "I like the sound of the generator better. I took the muffler off so that it would be louder so people could hear it."
In fact, they can hear it coming when it's on the other side of town.
In Escalante, it's the sound of Christmas.
"Aw! It's the best thing I've seen at Christmastime," Okane said. "If this isn't about Christmas, I don't know what is."