As a harsh mountain wind blew snow across the railway tracks, the lone soldier got off the train at his stop -- the North Pole.
Army Reserve 1st Sgt. Steven Buckman had come to the right place for presents lying in wait until Christmas Day. Fresh from a nine-month deployment to Kuwait, Buckman's return home in time for Christmas was the most important present his son, 5-year-old Westyn, wanted from Santa.
But instead of wrapping paper, Buckman wore his Army uniform. The North Pole -- not really the magical Arctic locale -- was a stop along the Pikes Peak Cog Railway's annual Santa trains, which bring children halfway up the peak to chat with the Jolly Old Elf and drink hot chocolate. For Westyn, his 1-year-old brother Parker and their mother Leota, Christmas came early when Buckman greeted them Wednesday as they stepped off the Santa train onto the North Pole platform.
To Westyn, the reunion might have felt like holiday magic at its best. But this particular magic took some careful orchestrating.
"I found out that I was coming back two or three weeks ago," Buckman said Wednesday morning while he waited to get a ride up the mountain ahead of his family.
His wife had already bought the family tickets to ride the Santa train, and as a perfect Christmas surprise, she decided that Buckman could meet them on the train platform in Manitou Springs. But employees with the Pikes Peak Cog Railway had a better idea -- they would give Buckman a ride up early, so he could be at the North Pole to greet his boys when they arrived.
By 8:30 a.m., Buckman was on his way up the mountain, as the diesel-fueled train made the 30-minute trek through a canyon and abandoned homestead country to the small platform.
"I am not 100 percent sure on all the plans," he said. "I was just given my part in it."
The two railway engineers with him, Mike Doty and Vic Almen, where delighted to be delivering such a special Christmas present.
"Is it hard to wait?" Almen asked Buckman, while the men waited for the train to start up.
Doty said he often watched videos of these kinds of homecomings on YouTube, but this was different.
"It's kind of neat to be a part of it," he told Buckman.
Although Buckman had seen his youngest son that morning, Westyn had no idea that his father would be waiting for him. Buckman, a reservist, left for Kuwait in March on assignment with the 244th Engineer Battalion, based in Denver. During the deployment, he had Skyped with his family in Fort Collins, but video chats fall very short of being a dad at home.
"There's not a lot of parenting you can do from Kuwait," he said.
Once Buckman reached the North Pole, it was a few minutes before his family arrived in another train at 9:30 a.m. and made their way through the crowded car and onto the frigid platform. Parker, tottering, came out first and walked right to Buckman. Then came Westyn, his mother guiding him toward his father. Buckman knelt down and gathered them both into a big hug. Giggles of joy erupted from Westyn.
"Did Santa bring dadda home?" Buckman asked.
Westyn, with a broad grin, just nodded.
"Yes," Buckman said. "He did."