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Dunsmuir to Eugene

 

The alarm clock beeped at 0500 on a July Wednesday, waking me from what was my final California sleep of 1998. Today was the start of my return trip to home after having spent five days visiting North Bank Fred and exploring the area around Dunsmuir. My plan was to eat in Dunsmuir, then catch a northbound UP train, hoping it would go all the way to Eugene.

I loaded my gear into North Bank Fred's truck and rode with him to Dunsmuir. The only place open at that hour was a 24-hour restaurant on the main street. What a bizarre experience to eat there: Christmas decorations and lights hung from the ceiling! Fred said the owners keep them up year 'round. Weird decor, but the food was all right.

 

ARRIVED AT YARD
When we arrived at the yard at 0610 there were two northbound trains sitting there. One was on the west main and had two purple and gray EMD units. Someone was in the lead unit. The other train, unoccupied, was parked on one of the yard tracks. Fred drove on, parking half-way down the yard. From there we walked toward the back end of the trains, where we'd have the best chance of finding a car headed north. Fred planned to wait with me until the train departed: what a guy.

We crossed over the parked train and examined the train on the west main. An empty boxcar was close at hand, so we hopped in. It was a beautiful sunny day: the early morning air was invigorating. We sat down on one of the several sheets of cardboard and waited. As we talked we listened to Fred's scanner for signs of activity, but nothing earth-shaking was going on. In fact, nothing was going on. It should be said that we didn't know for sure that our train would be the first to leave; we just assumed so because of the presence of a man on one of the units. To firm up this assumption, the ever-resourceful Fred made a "special call" on his cell phone. This confirmed that our train was indeed the first one to leave Dunsmuir, but that it would spend about an hour switching first. Amen.

The pack rat instinct in Fred caused him to lust after the cardboard we sat on. He thought of "liberating" a piece of it when the train departed. Then he thought that taking two pieces would be even better. But wait: he'd have to carry the large sheets over the other parked train and lug it half a mile back to his truck. This would be awkward and tiring, not the best possible way to expend his precious bodily energy. What to do?

Out of the blue Fred had a brainstorm: maybe I could throw the cardboard out of the boxcar at Black Butte Siding, where he could drive his truck to within yards of the "landing site." In awe of the man's analytical ability, I agreed at once to the idea. With the cardboard problem solved, Fred decided that he might as well go home and drive over to Black Butte Siding later to "meet the goods." I said I'd call him on my cell phone when my train pulled out of Dunsmuir. We shook hands and said good-bye, and he headed back to his truck.

All alone now, I set up my hammock and took a picture of myself in it. Soon thereafter I noticed two railroad employees approaching from the rear of the train. They were walking along either side of the train, inspecting it as they went. I had no time to grab my gear and move to the rear of the car, so I resigned myself to being seen by them. I hoped that they weren't conducting a hobo sweep.

As they walked by, I said "Hello" in my best tone of voice. The man on the west side, wearing a trainee's orange safety vest, looked up at me without expression in his face and said nothing: a zombie. Suddenly a depressing thought came to mind: this trainee, possibly fresh out of orientation classes, might feel compelled to report a trespasser. The guy on the east side was older and definitely alive: he looked at me and smiled. I hoped that he had indoctrinated his younger colleague in the fine arts of compassion for and tolerance of hobos. Neither of them hesitated at all: they just kept walking. They receded into the distance at a slow but steady pace. Occasionally they stopped to check an air hose.

 

SWITCHING IN DUNSMUIR
A while later the older employee returned. Based on what I had heard on my scanner I figured that he was coming to break the train for switching. This is exactly what he did - just one car in front of mine! Talk about lucky... When the air hoses parted he climbed onto the ladder of the last car and hung there with his arm hooked over one of the ladder rungs. He was on the shaded side, where he could avoid the blaring morning sun. Slowly, ever so slowly, he faded into the distance. The train's movement created an interesting pattern of ever-changing shadows on the hillside next to the yard.

To pass the time I prepared the cardboard for ejection at Black Butte. Fred had hoped for two sheets of the stuff but I decided to surprise him by tossing out four sheets. With the awl on my handy dandy Swiss Army knife I punched string holes in two opposing corners of all the sheets. Then I tied the sheets together with nylon cord. With nothing left on my agenda, I laid in the hammock, listening to the scanner. What I heard wasn't very exciting, stuff like "Three cars, Tom; two cars; that'll do it."

The older guy returned on foot yet again. I got out of my car and talked to him while the train backed down the track to re-connect to my car. He was wearing a neat black nylon mesh vest for holding his radio and other things. After he re-connected the air hoses, he started to walk back to the units. I asked him to give me a good ride.

 

DEPARTED DUNSMUIR
About 20 minutes later (1130) the train started moving. I called Fred to report my departure and position in the train. For most of the passage through Dunsmuir I stayed out of sight. As the train wound its way up the canyon of the Sacramento River, I looked nostalgically upon things that had acquired meaning for me in the past few days: the road crossing near the arched concrete bridge; the place where Fred and I dismounted our train almost a week past; the site of a toxic chemical spill several years ago; The Rock; and the orange light tower at Mott Airport, where I had rented a car.

The city of Mt. Shasta revealed little of itself to me as I passed through because I kept away from the boxcar's open doors. Crossing Interstate 5 provided a great view of Black Butte. I imagined the view from its summit, something I had experienced two years earlier when I had hiked to the top. (It's a great place to see the railroad's path through the area. Bring binoculars. Maps showing the summit trail and how to get to it are available at the ranger station on Alma Street in Mt. Shasta. The trailhead is at the base of the eastern slope.)

 

BLACK BUTTE SIDING
Suddenly there was the hill that separated the two tracks at the south end of Black Butte Siding, meaning I was very close to the cardboard-jettisoning point. I rushed to the front of the car to get the cardboard. My left foot came down onto a loose piece of cardboard, causing it to slide across the metal floor. Down I went onto my butt! For a split second I had awful thoughts of being injured and unable to throw the package. But the only thing damaged was my pride. After regaining my composure, I got up, grabbed the package of cardboard, walked over to the door, and waited for the right moment.

In no time at all my car was moving through the counterclockwise curve, approaching the long straight-away of the siding. The water tower came into view over the top of the train. Just before coming out of the curve I jettisoned the sheets of cardboard. The force of the wind flipped the package around as it fell to earth. For a second I thought it might fly under the train and get mashed. But fortune was smiling: the cardboard landed next to the tracks. A few seconds later I zoomed past Fred, who was standing on the embankment south of the water tower. I waved and took his picture, which turned out to be poorly aimed. With my speed about 30 mph, I passed by him quickly. I was sad to leave his turf. Then a surprise: the train ground to a halt at the top end of the siding. We sat there for about 20 minutes as a southbound train switched on the west side.

At 1240 the train left. It got up to about 25 mph and stayed there all the way to Grass Lake Siding. I passed lava flows, the light green tank car at Andesite (moniker of "the General" was visible), and the trestle. The view down into the valley northwest of Weed was beautiful. The glaciers of Mt. Shasta were magnificent. In this stretch of track there were several curves where I could see the front of the train far ahead.

 

GRASS LAKE
As the units crested the grade at Grass Lake Siding I felt the train speed up. At this point the front of the train was going downhill and the rear was still going uphill. I wondered how challenging such events are for engineers, those anonymous chauffeurs of hobos. Fred's moniker was plainly visible on the water tower by the siding. I noticed the man-made "goose-habitat" islands that had been build in a pond between the tracks and the highway. Fred had explained to me what they were while we rode from Klamath Falls to Dunsmuir six days earlier.

Arrived at Penoyar at 1355, two hours and 25 minutes after leaving Dunsmuir. There was a southbound pig train waiting for us to go by. Also waiting there was a man in a car on Tennant Road. Seeing him reminded me of the deep philosophical discussion I had here with Fred about the occupation of a continuum of space (see "Klamath Falls to Dunsmuir"). Penoyar was gone in a flash, and soon I was at Bray, formerly the site of a siding.

Bray is hardly more than a grade crossing, some trees, and a house or two. One home, east of the crossing on the south side of the tracks, can be seen from a passing train. You should see it from Tennant Road: what a dump!

 

KEGG
The train rounded a curve and starting the descent to Kegg Siding. As it approached the siding it slowed down. A southbound freight was parked there, waiting for my train to go by and free the track. Once the end of my train cleared the uphill switch, the other train crawled up the grade and disappeared. Then my train stopped. It was 1415, almost three hours after my departure from Dunsmuir. I was in a cut. Atop the embankment (right side as you're going north) I saw a small wooden structure about four feet tall and five feet wide. I wondered what the heck it was...

From here I could gaze down upon the curve of the train below me. Beyond it was the dark red at Kegg. In the background, standing above everything, was Mt. Hebron. I was awakened from this topographic reverie by the deep rumbling sound of a train approaching from the north. Its horn blasted as it neared the grade crossing below, then came around the bend and climbed the grade toward me. In about three minutes it was gone. My forward movement resumed at 1425. As I passed the quarry, I wondered how long it had been there. To my dismay, I had to forego some photography just north of the quarry because of a big contingent of UP signal workers.

For most of the way between here and Dorris I relaxed in my hammock. When I came out of the tunnel north of Dorris, I saw southbound highway traffic crawling upgrade behind some slow trucks. To the north (downhill) was the old railroad grade just east of the current one: trees were growing on it.

The stretch between Lake Miller and Klamath Falls was dull as dirt. The sight of the zillions of ponds along the right-of-way reminded me of my 1976 trip by freights (Hoboken, New Jersey to Portland, Oregon). On that trip I had thrown stones into the ponds, watching with fascination as they made splashes in the water. This day I threw no stones. I saw several ducks and a couple of pelicans in the ponds.

 

KLAMATH FALLS
Well south of the yard, possibly at Texum Siding, the train slowed down. Here I wanted to solve a geographic riddle that had bothered me since 1996, when I drove through here on my way to the Tehachapi Loop. The riddle was the exact location of the highway that passes over the tracks in this area. The highway doesn't appear on the topographic map (USGS Klamath Falls). I determined that the highway passes over the tracks in the middle of the curve in the tracks just north of the Modoc Line cut-off. This calmed my geographic psyche: I rode into the yard a new man.

The train stopped in the yard, placing me about a quarter of a mile south of the Sixth Street overpass. It was 1545. The sun beat down, turning my boxcar into an oven with the temperature set at slow bake. Pigeons flew about in search of piles of grain on the ground. A red-wing blackbird sang its sweet song nearby. A growing pressure in my bowels forced me to forget these pleasantries and attend to another aspect of nature. After cutting a piece of cardboard, I squatted over it in the boxcar and let fly. Sweet relief! Then I buried it and the poop in the ballast between two ties, using my plastic backpacker's trowel. Two southbound manifests went by as my train just sat there.

 

DEPARTED KLAMATH FALLS
All good things must come to an end, including my exciting stay in the Klamath Falls yard. At 1800 I was under way again, headed for Eugene. All the way from Dunsmuir I had hoped to cross the Cascades in daylight so I could see the tunnels and the views, but it looked doubtful that I'd get my wish.

When passing under the Sixth Street overpass I saw North Bank Fred's "White Port Line" moniker on one of the abutments. I laid low past the yard office and AMTRAK station, then viewed some familiar sights: the place where I had de-trained a few days earlier ("A Trip to Fred") and the place where Fred and I had waited for a train ("Klamath Falls to Dunsmuir").

As I went by the high school I felt far removed in consciousness from the people playing on the football field. Here I was, a guy from Washington State, passing within 100 feet of these strangers while they while they played whatever they were playing. They were unaware of my existence. I existed and knew of their existence, but they existed without an awareness of me. This cosmic circumstance was made even more profound by my realization that there were at least two Union Pacific employees who might still be aware of my existence: the crew members who inspected the train in Dunsmuir and got off at the crew change in Klamath Falls. Had they told the engineer who got off with them? Did other railroad employees know of me? My mind reeled under the influence of these thoughts.

North of town I stayed in my hammock to avoid being seen by do-gooders. Rattlesnake Point and Hagelstein State Park were soon left behind.

 

MODOC POINT
The train stopped at Modoc Point at 1840 (seven hours and ten minutes after leaving Dunsmuir). The sunlight was still bright, but had the typical yellow-orange glow of evening. Shadows were long. At one of the houses in the little Modoc Point community, several people were hanging around the front yard. Kids were playing. A soft breeze caressed the bushes and grasses below me. Behind me, towering above the flat terrain, was Modoc Rim, a ridge that parallels the highway and railroad. I thought that it would be fun to scramble up the grassy, rock-strewn slope to its crest. Other than the noise of traffic on Highway 97, the little world I observed was peaceful.

Two southbound trains went by. The first was a hotshot full of trailers. Then a run-of-the-mill manifest rumbled past. Nature called again, so I took a few steps down the embankment and urinated behind a bush. With a sense of renewal I then set up my camera and took a picture of myself siting next to the train. It was 1920 when the train got under way again.

The endless forest north of Modoc Point bored me to tears, so I retreated to my hammock. At 2038 the train stopped at Yamsay. To pass the time I took short walks on both sides of the tracks. A southbound AMTRAK train zoomed by, its two red rear lights getting smaller and smaller as the train advanced southward. Then a southbound BNSF manifest went by. It was lonely there, all by myself. In ten minutes my train was again in motion.

Movement up the line was steady and boring. I just wasn't in the mood for gazing upon mile after mile of forest, but it got tolerable briefly when I had a view over the undulating terrain. By the time I reached Odell Lake it was dark. All I could see was lights of houses or street lamps. Into the summit tunnel I went...

As I came out the western portal I was enveloped in fog. There was no point in looking out the door any more, so I got into my hammock again and let the gentle rocking of the boxcar lull me to sleep. I awoke in Oakridge and got up to watch as the train passed through Westfir. It was too dark to see much except lights and the silhouettes of trees.

Sleep overcame me again. This time I woke up at Dougren. It was 0100 Thursday. Lights of houses shined in the distance. A southbound train and southbound light units passed. At 0130 the train left for Eugene.

 

EUGENE
My fear of being seen by a do-gooder kept me away from the boxcar doors all the way through "downtown" Eugene. The flashing red lights and clanging bells of the grade crossings accented an otherwise uneventful passage through town. Aside from the cars at the grade crossings, the one thing I remember well is the tall building north of the AMTRAK depot. I think it's an apartment building for senior citizens. Before I knew it, the orange yard lights came into view. Plodding down the track, the train took forever to get into the sprawling yard.

Deep in the arrival yard, the train stopped between two cuts (time: 0220, fourteen hours and 50 minutes after leaving Dunsmuir). Out with the earplugs! The engines departed, causing the familiar air brake "whoosh." Having been left behind by the crew, I felt alone in this huge field of metal and gravel.

By the light of my head lamp, I collected my gear and stuffed it into my backpack and shoulder bag. After placing the bags next to the doorway, I hopped onto the ground. Then on with my pack and shoulder bag. Off toward the front of the train I headed in a narrow, dark corridor between my train and the cut on the neighboring track. This corridor gradually widened and became paved. When I spotted a yard shack and a control tower, I decided to turn right and exit the yard.

So I crossed a cut at a tank car, walked about 300 feet through grass, and encountered a road called Northwest Expressway. I turned left and headed north on the west shoulder. My destination: the north end of the departure yard about two miles ahead. There I would catch a train for Portland ("Eugene to Portland"). I didn't know it at the time, but I would be in the Eugene Yard for another ten hours.