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A Trip to Fred

 

In June, 1998, I headed south from Seattle to meet North Bank Fred, with whom I had been communicating for months via e-mail. After seeing his web site I got the urge to meet the man and explore his favorite haunts: Black Butte Siding and the Dunsmuir yard. This was not the first time I was to be in that area. Two years earlier I had passed through Dunsmuir by car on my way to the Tehachapi Loop, but did not visit those two places because I was fixated on getting to the Tehachapi Mountains. This new trip would give me an opportunity to avenge that oversight. The plan was to for us to meet in Klamath Falls and ride old dirty face together from there to Dunsmuir.

Naturally, my intention had been to ride freights all the way. But at the last minute I changed my mind about the Seattle-to-Portland leg and rode an AMTRAK Talgo train instead. This happened because I didn't feel like having to deal with the challenge of hopping in Balmer Yard in Seattle, and because I knew that the ride from Seattle to Portland would be a bore. The Talgo ride was quiet, smooth, and clean. However, starting the trip at Seattle's King Street Station was a major let-down: the waiting room of that building was a dump. (Note in 2004: the station is going to have a much-needed renovation that will restore its former grandeur.)

 

ARRIVAL IN PORTLAND
I arrived at Union Station in Portland at 1715 on Tuesday. My plan was to hop a southbound freight at Brooklyn Yard in the "morning departure window" described in personal communication with K-Line, so I had time to kill: what better thing to do that inspect Champ Siding for my return trip? Getting to Champ was fun: from downtown I rode "Max", Portland's streetcar line, eastward: the ride was smooth as glass. Then I transferred to a northbound bus which took me to within a block or so of Champ. The crew gate at Champ looked just the way it did in a photograph I saw on the Web, but there was a pleasant surprise: several pairs of railroad-issue ear plugs hung on the chain link fence. They resembled little ornaments on a Christmas tree. After examining the place, I returned to downtown.

When it got dark I rode the #19 bus from downtown to Bybee Boulevard and walked to Eastmoreland Golf Course a block away. Damn those tinted bus windows - you can't see a thing through them at night! I found out that walking on a golf course in the dark, while sprinklers are on, is an interesting experience. After dodging the sprinklers I found a place to sleep among the cedars near the tracks, an often-used "waiting area."

The next morning (Wednesday the 24th) I was faced with miserable weather: steady rain, sometimes heavy. After packing my gear I waited around for hours, but the only thing that crawled out of the yard was a train full of trailers, which I did not want to ride. Thank God I was wearing polyester underwear: I got soaked to the bone. Thoroughly demoralized, I gave up on Union Pacific and rode an AMTRAK bus to Eugene. After my misery in the rain, the $9 fare was well worth it.

 

ARRIVAL IN EUGENE
The bus pulled into the Eugene train station at about 1500. Per my agreement with Fred, I called him on my cellular phone to let him know where I was. Now that he knew that I was in Eugene and that I would be heading south that afternoon or evening, he knew when to hop a freight in Dunsmuir to take him to Klamath Falls, where we planned to meet the next day.

The next order of business was to get a city bus ride to UP's big yard in the northwest part of town. I walked briskly about seven blocks south to the downtown transit center to get the #50 ("Park") bus and arrived just in time to catch it. To my surprise and chagrin it went seven blocks north and turned left in front of the AMTRAK station! Sometimes ignorance is not bliss.

When the bus turned onto Maxwell Road I got off. From this point I could look west and see Maxwell rising to go over the freight yard. A few blocks down the street I went into the Community Market - a small grocery store on the north side of the street - where I bought a muffin and chocolate milk. Hmmm, good. Continuing west down Maxwell (up, actually, because it was rising to go over the yard) I felt the need to urinate. Seeing a portable toilet below me on the baseball field next to the church, I scampered down the grassy embankment and relieved myself therein. No one else was around. Feeling rejuvenated, I donned my pack and walked onto the bridge to look for a southbound train.

Scattered clouds dotted the afternoon sky. The presence of locomotives to the north identified its string of cars as Portland-bound. To the south it was difficult to see locomotives because the ends of the strings were so far away. I thought I saw the 45-degree angle of locomotive cab roofs, but wasn't sure. A side view would have helped a lot, but the angled things were between two others stings of cars, blocking any view from the side. I finally concluded that they were indeed locomotives, which meant that I was looking at a Klamath Falls train, which meant I had to hurry up and get on it! All this time I had been listening to my scanner for clues about the trains, but had heard nothing of value.

First I had to memorize some freight car details so I could find a suitable car quickly once I was in the yard. About eight cars south of the overpass was a set of three gondolas that looked promising, so I decided to check them out first. I hurriedly packed my scanner, donned my pack, and walked in a purposeful manner toward the far end of the bridge. Racing through my mind was the awful thought that the train might pull out before I had a chance to board it. (My haste was all for naught: the train sat in the yard for four hours more.)

After crossing to the north side of the street at the west end of the bridge, I followed the faint path of loose dirt and berry vines that heads downhill to the yard (thanks, Fred, for the yard description!).

 

ENTERED EUGENE YARD
At the base of the slope under the bridge was a messy "jungle": all that trash lying around made it an ugly place to wait for a train. After looking left and right for signs of railroad trucks (bulls) I quickly crossed the yard road and into the yard. With care and haste I climbed over three cuts, the third one containing the gondolas. Now I was out of view of the people in the yard tower to the south. The shoulder strap on my hand bag allowed me to use both hands when climbing up and down ladders and across end-of-freight-car walkways.

As I walked toward the gondolas I continued to appeal to the gods of freight-hopping to not let my train leave yet. The train sat still. All three gondolas had high walls and were loaded with steel products. The middle one was the best ride candidate; it had two piles of bundled angle steel in it, one pile up front and one in the back. The front pile extended up to the front wall of the gondola: it seemed like a safe place to ride. I couldn't believe my good fortune: within 45 minutes of boarding the bus in downtown Eugene, I was on a train. It was 1630.

I set my gear on top of the bundles of steel, taking care not to get my pack wet from the puddles in the steel pieces. But I didn't "unpack" because I wanted the ability to dismount the car on short notice; once the train departed I would get out whatever gear I needed. The first thing I did was to check my shorts to see if they were dirty from climbing aboard the gondola: I had sat on the top lip of the car and swiveled on my butt to point me toward the inside of the car. I figured that my shorts were now decorated with a big rusty dirt spot. But surprise! - they were clean. So I sat down on a relatively dry section of the bundles of steel, protecting my butt with a folded parka and a sit pad.

The pile of angled steel was composed of perhaps a hundred bundles, each containing about 60 pieces of steel stacked in layers and bound together with steel wire. The top-most layer of each bundle faced "up", acting as a set of troughs in which rain collected. Each trough was about an inch wide and 20 feet long - great lap pools for insects. The light of the sky reflected in the pools, making a pleasing visual pattern that vibrated now and then. However, the pools forced me to take care when sitting down or setting things on the bundles.

In spite of my experience with endless waiting for trains to arrive, to be assembled, or to depart, I got bored sitting in the gondola. Listening to the infrequent chatter on the scanner and watching highway traffic go by on the Maxwell Road bridge didn't help much. To get some relief I explored my riding accommodations. Between the two piles of angle steel was an empty space about five feet wide (front to back). There I spotted two small pieces of plywood that would make an excellent base for my sit pad and further protect my butt from the water in the troughs. In a few minutes I had an improved sitting platform: plywood spanning the water troughs of the angled steel, a sit pad atop that, and a folded parka atop that. This arrangement was comfortable and kept me dry.

For safety's sake I bent down the ends of the bundling wires, which were twisted together and standing straight up. This was no easy task, even with hiking boots: I had to stomp on them to bend them over to a horizontal position. Sneakers would not have been up to the task. Aluminum tags on the ends of the bundles mentioned a manufacturing company in McMinnville, Oregon.

I passed more time by writing in my journal. The scanner continued to provide snippets of conversations that were of no value: co-ordination of meets in the Cascades and communications about activity on the yard hump. At 1800 the cut next to mine crawled out of the yard going south. I hadn't noticed that it had acquired units and hadn't heard any charging of its brake line. (Its leaving without me aboard pissed me off because riding that train would have taken me through the Cascades before it got dark. One of the things I was looking forward to on this trip was seeing the tunnels and curves in the mountains.) Then a northbound train departed. I told myself to be patient.

A bit later I noticed something depressing: a white mobile crane appeared next to my train near the units. To me this meant that there was no hope of getting into the mountains before dark. Several guys in orange safety vests stood around near the crane. The crane moved around a little over the course of about an hour. I figured they were re-railing a freight car, but I wasn't sure: the scanner yielded nothing about it. My mind reeled with the nightmarish thought that the repair work could cancel my train. A cloud dropped sprinkles of rain on me for a minute, then gave up, possibly taking pity on me. The crane and the workers disappeared. Now what?

 

TRAIN LEFT EUGENE
At 1930 the scanner finally revealed something useful: a crew was on board and sought permission to leave. My spirits soared! The dispatcher asked the engineer to set out two bad-ordered cars before departing. The crew spent the next 20 minutes setting out a boxcar and a tank car. Then an air leak had to be fixed. At 2037, I started to move: under way at last. This was my first ride in a year: in July, 1997, I rode in well cars from Seattle to Scenic and back.

When my train lurched forward, the water in the troughs of steel angles rushed backward, draining onto the floor of the gondola in a series of small waterfalls. As the forward movement stabilized, the water merely vibrated in place: weird sight! When the train stopped shortly thereafter, the water rush forward, creating small waves in the troughs. I grabbed my gear to save it from getting wet. Water cascaded off the forward ends of the angle-steel: more waterfalls!

To avoid being seen I stayed low in the car all the way past downtown; I didn't switch to scenery-watching mode until I was near the University. On the north side of the track I saw the brightly-illuminated University greenhouse. At Dougren the train pulled onto a siding. It was almost dark; house lights stood out in the distance. Did a train pass by?

On the way again... With darkness and speedy movement came a cold wind, so I bundled up to endure the elements. On my torso I wore a polyester T-shirt under a polyester turtleneck under a polyester fleece jacket under a synthetic fill vest under a rain parka. I also wore a cap, gloves, polyester long johns, hiking shorts, rain pants, and boots. Standing on the bundles of steel at the front end of the car, I watched the night scenery fly by. The wind in my face made my eyes water. I was excited. It was great to be on a train again!

The dam and Lookout Point Reservoir passed below me in the darkness to my left. To my right, occasional lights of highway traffic saturated the night air. A westbound train passed me at Crale. Rain showers came and went. As I passed over the bridge at the head of the reservoir, I conjured up a mental image of the map of this area: I'm big on maps and geographic awareness.

 

WESTFIR
In short order I was breaking out of the thick forest and entering Westfir. I saw the lights of the town and the river, but it was too dark to see the covered bridge that I has walked across during my Tehachapi Loop trip of 1996. It was fun going through the big curve: it felt as though the train were wrapping itself around the town. Then through the short tunnel and into Oakridge, which looked deserted. Somewhere after passing through the "Oakridge horseshoe curve" I fell asleep sitting in one of the forward corners. I woke up just before entering the tunnel that is downgrade from Fields. It was foggy: the block signals made solid red shafts of light in the air, and that's all I saw for miles. My flashlight was like a light sword.

Around midnight the train stopped in the fog at Cruzatte and was passed by a westbound mixed freight, a westbound pig train, and westbound light helpers that zoomed by. As each train rounded the curve in the distance up ahead, the fog was faintly illuminated and I could barely see the headlights. As it got closer, it illuminated the fog more and more. By the time the locomotives were close, the light was blinding. The effect gave me a visual orgasm.

 

[Now it was Thursday the 25th.]

The fog endured all the way to Cascade Summit. But just east of there, the fog disappeared, revealing a zillion stars! It was cold. I stayed huddled in the corner, watching the stars, the tops of trees, and the lights of the block signals. Fatigue overwhelmed my excitement and I dozed off again. Somewhere south of Chemult I woke up. I stood at the front of the gondola and watched the boring night scenery go by. The only things that broke the monotony were street lamps, house lights, and the occasional car or truck on a nearby road. I dozed off again and woke up just before reaching Klamath Lake, sleeping through a thoroughly boring stretch of track.

When I was just south of Hagelstein State Park the train stopped. (This park is 4.5 miles southeast of Modoc Point, next to the highway where the tracks and the highway curve to the southwest.) The water of Klamath Lake lapped at the base of the rocky causeway beneath me. Highway 97 truck traffic roared by on the other causeway. I felt alone, detached from the world. Ahead was the flashing red light of another southbound train. Eventually it disappeared from view and my train got under way again, maintaining a slow but steady pace all the way to Klamath Falls. Near Wocus the dawn's first light appeared in the sky and I could start to make out some details of the terrain.

 

KLAMATH FALLS
The cityscape yielded to my prying eyes as the train crawled toward the yard. The train came to a stop and I found myself between the two street underpasses just north of the yard. Here I dismounted, first lowering my heavy pack to the ground with nylon cord. This worked extremely well and was much better than wearing the pack while climbing down. Leather gloves protected my hands from string burns. The shoulder strap of my hand bag proved its worth again.

Near the north overpass I sat on the railbed cinders and changed into street clothes. At the bottom of the track embankment were a few houses. At one point I was stripped down to my underwear, but it was still dark enough out and early enough (0440) that no one saw me from their homes. As I put my boots back on my train advanced slowly into the yard. The sky got lighter. It was almost light out when a southbound pig train came in. Riding THAT train would have been cold indeed. Now dressed properly, I crossed the tracks, walked down to the sidewalk, and headed down the street for the Maverick Motel, where I was to meet North Bank Fred. The town was quiet in the crisp morning air. By now there was enough light to see colors. I remembered driving down this street two years ago. In five minutes I was at the motel.

 

MOTEL
When I walked into the lobby to rent a room, the woman behind the counter surprised me by saying "He's up in room number so-and-so." Huh? Then it dawned on me that she was referring to Fred. I joked with her, saying that I couldn't believe my situation: I, a stranger to her, walk into a motel lobby in a strange town and the person behind the desk knows who I am and that I'm meeting Fred. She knew who I was because Fred had arrived about ten minutes earlier and told her I would soon be arriving.

I walked upstairs and met Fred in his room. He arranged to get a bigger room so both of us could sack out for a while. We chatted about trains and our sense of timing. I gave him the bottle of Fairbanks White Port that I had hauled all the way from Renton and he thanked me for saving him the trouble of walking a few blocks to get "supplies." We chatted a little more, then went to sleep at 0530. Woke up at 1100. Showered, dressed, and checked out. Off we went to Gino's for snacks before catching a ride to Dunsmuir.

It was a beautiful day, I had met North Bank Fred - the man behind the web site - and I had another freight train ride under my belt.