In the early morning hours of Saturday, January 27, 1968, I rode Great Northern's evening Vancouver-to-Seattle train from Burlington to Everett and suffered the indignity of getting switched off along the way. I completed my journey on a Greyhound bus.
Friday evening I and some classmates left Bellingham, Washington - location of the northwesternmost party college in the contiguous United States - and drove down Interstate Five to Mt. Vernon, location of Skagit Valley Junior College. At Skagit we helped stage a light show for a dance.
In those days, being involved in a light show promised to be a "far-out" experience. Imagine my disappointment when the event turned out to be a bore. Maybe I should have been stoned. A bigger let-down was that some slides I loaned to the show were never returned. Someone left the college with my prized shot of the Goodyear blimp lifting off at Seattle's Boeing Field.
My plan all along had been to leave my colleagues after the show and ride a freight train to Seattle. Dick, the driver, agreed to drop me off in Burlington, a few miles north of Mt. Vernon. Burlington was one of only two places between Bellingham and Seattle that the train would stop to switch cars (the other was Everett). Dick pulled over at Burlington's north freeway exit - he didn't even go down the exit ramp as I recall - and I got out. It was 0115. He and the others continued north to Bellingham while I started walking down the level ramp and toward the freight yard about a mile and a half away.
As soon as I started walking I heard in the distance the sweet industrial music of a freight train. It was the horn of the evening freight train approaching from the north. I was worried that I would not get to the yard in time, so I quickened my pace, alternating trotting with walking. The thought of being marooned in the middle of the night in this small city was not appealing.
But that night fortune was smiling on me: after I had been trotting enough to built up a sweat, a Burlington police car came up from behind and pulled over. The driver, seeing my haste, asked if anything was wrong, etc., and I scrambled mentally to reply in a way that would not blow my plan. I told him I was trying to get to the train depot in town to meet someone. The part about meeting someone was a lie, but I did have to walk right past the depot to reach the freight yard. I'm not good at fabricating untruths and I don't like to lie, so this response was close enough to the truth that it did not burden me with guilt.
He told me to hop in. I did, and in five minutes I was getting out of his car at the depot. After I thanked him for his generosity he drove off to keep the peace, something that existed in great quantity at that hour. I pretended to "wait for someone" for as long as I could see him, then turned south, walked past the depot to the freight "yard" beyond. Then I waited in the darkness for the train to arrive.
Soon thereafter (around 0130) the train pulled in and stopped for switching. I queried the switchman about getting a ride to Seattle and he told me that certain cars up ahead were going that far. Down the ballast I trekked. I found an empty boxcar that wasn't dirty and hopped in. I didn't know it then, but that car had a curse on it, as I will explain soon. I wondered if this was one of the Seattle cars, but stayed on it because I feared the train would leave soon (it did).
The only signs of life were the occasional car driving past the depot, bound for who knew where, and the movements of the switchman walking to and boarding the caboose. From the underside of the train came the haunted house sounds of the brake hardware as the engineer pumped air into the system (I'll bet he has powerful forearms from all that pumping). Then: silence and stillness (Why don't we go?!) Into the night the train proceeded.
From Burlington the tracks went two miles south to Mt. Vernon, site of the light show, then into rural farmland for miles before reaching the outskirts of Stanwood, a farming town. Along the way I passed the "towns" of Conway and Milltown, hardly more than grade crossings with a building or two. Apart from those places, about all there was to see was the occasional street light, illuminated house window, or - at least for a while - traffic on the freeway to the east.
After passing Silvana (another "town"), the train ascended the long grade leading to Lakewood, yet another "town." This is on a flat farming plateau about a mile west of I-5 - close enough that one can once again easily see the traffic. (Two years later I had a nice freight train experience in Lakewood: when the northbound train stopped there for a meet, I accompanied the crew to the Lakewood Store, where we all bought snacks.)
From Lakewood the line continued southeast about three miles, getting closer and closer to the freeway and its shielded-from-nature drivers. From the heavy railroad bridge over the freeway I looked down on the scant traffic and felt a twinge of superiority from my sense of adventure. Of course at the same time I suppressed the realization that I was cold and dirty and assaulted by the noise of rail travel. Years later the bridge was converted into a ground-level route with the freeway going overhead.
Once over the bridge I was whisked through a gentle curve to the right and travelled parallel to the main drag that entered town from the north. Civilization, ho!: houses, gas stations, produce stands, a truck canopy dealer, and so on lined both sides of the road. Two years later, on this same stretch of track, I would be on another southbound freight train that collided with a pick-up truck at a minor crossing, killing the driver. Tonight, though, nothing stopped me. In short order, after setting off one grade crossing bell after another, my train was in downtown Marysville. The only landmark of note was the big water tower.
Right after passing downtown, the tracks went over two crossings of the Snohomish River on their way to Everett, the largest city between Bellingham and Seattle, and another switching stop. Everett's claim to fame was the paper and pulp industries. Smokestack discharges of the pulp mills were noted for their delicate fragrance. Drivers passing the north end of town were in the habit of rolling up their windows, but sometimes the stench was so strong that this was of little use.
Entering Everett from the north on a freight train exposed a rider to the full brunt of this sweetened air. Just past the second crossing of the Snohomish River the tracks turned sharply west, passed a pulp mill (breathe deep!), and rounded the north end of the city out of sight of everyone.
In a few minutes of casual movement the train arrived in Bayside Yard on the city's northwest side. My watch said 0350. Soon the train began those oft-confusing movements involved with setting cars off and picking up others. I heard the whoosh! of the separation of air hoses that signified that my train had been broken into two pieces. When I started moving forward I thought the engineer was going to back onto a yard track to pick up more cars. This thought was undoubtedly an off-shoot of the already-mentioned boxcar curse.
After what seemed like much back-and-forth movement, it got quiet. By now it was 0415. I sat in my boxcar, contemplating the nature of the universe and the thrill of freight-hopping. Ten minutes later, still sitting there in the peacefulness, I was tired of contemplation and ready for action. However, there was none. All I heard was the rare car driving by on the nearby road. There were freight cars on both neighboring tracks, blocking my view toward the main line and the road. It was dark. I saw no moving lanterns.
It didn't feel right, so I dismounted, crossed one or two cuts. Standing next to the main line, I faced an ugly reality: my train was way down the track, headed for Seattle. There was no way to catch up with it. My being switched off fulfilled the curse of the boxcar. If you've ever been switched off and didn't realize it until it was too late to fix the problem, you know how I felt.
It's hard to admit to oneself that one has been careless, yet this is just what I had to do. I should have assumed that I was going to be switched off. Rather than "contemplating," I should have been looking for another car to ride. Chalk it up to inexperience: this was only my third ride. After an thorough but useless act of self-criticism I resigned myself to walk to the Greyhound bus station, from which I could get a bus ride to Seattle.
The 2.5-mile walk took 45 minutes. The station was closed. I was cold. What to do - stand on the street for 90 minutes, freezing my butt off? A quick analysis revealed that such suffering did not qualify as "adventure," so I walked a block to the hotel I had passed on the way. Its lobby was quiet, unoccupied (except maybe for a manager - I can't remember), and warm. "Warm" is the operative word. Here I stayed until 0630, probably drifting in and out of sleep - my first of the night.
At 0630 I returned to the bus station. Thirty minutes later I was aboard a Greyhound bus heading south to Seattle. In Seattle I did a few things of no consequence and caught the 2000 bus back to Bellingham.