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Derailed in Portola

 

Another stuffy evening in Sacramento. The downtown is dormant, as it usually is after the Capitol egos and businesspeople retire to their easeful ranch-style homes in the suburbs. Moving purposefully up 21st Street, heading for the old Western Pacific Railyard, the street is illuminated by the halogen headlights of hurried automobiles, while colorful flowing neon lights advertising Cold Beer, Cigarettes and Money Orders create an inner-city ambience of reality. Passing the Press Club I nod "hello" to the blurry-eyed smokers exiled from their weekend residence

There is something magical surrounding the walk through a hometown, pack strapped securely on your back, determined to embark on a journey where your name is misplaced and your home becomes wherever. Re-adjusting the load-straps of my pack, I pick up the pace focusing only on the sounds of one foot after the other.

The South Sacramento Railyard at night is a barren desert of railcars, whores turning tricks and taggers working intently on their next masterpiece. Spent paint cans, broken bottles and cardboard dot the landscape, creating a reminder of those who had blown in on previous storms. Several strings of cars are "tied-down" for the weekend with the yard being used sparingly for storage and a siding.

I take up temporary residence on the back of an idle grain car, sitting patiently, swigging ice beer and wondering "how long until a train going east will slow or better yet, stop on the "siding" or "main," shit who cares I have more beer." In the distance I make out the headlight of an eastbound train bearing down on the yard. I begin to slowly pack-up my temporary lodging in hopes that this would be "the train."

"Not just any old train, but "the train," I silently muse. "The one which would wisk me through cities, float across fallow fields and ultimately enter the mellow green forests... 'blowin' a hole in the wind.'"

Lurking motionless in the shadows of empty rail-cars as the train draws near, I stare vacantly into the headlight. With the train rumbling nearer it becomes apparent that this will not be my ride and seconds later the train explodes by leaving only the heavy odor of diesel exhaust.

Slightly discouraged I return to my former home (the grain car) and begin to pick at a loaf of bread, gazing at what stars could be made out through the haze which blankets the Central Valley of California in the summer. Lost in the moment was a westbound entering the yard, ultimately grinding to a halt on the siding. I took this as a positive sign and once again packed up my thoughts and belongings, crossing over several dormant tracks and clambering over the loitering westbound. Safely across the westbound I positioned myself on a vacant loading dock.

The loading dock was a remnant of a time passed. Years prior it was undoubtedly teaming with merchandise, waiting patiently to be delivered on the old Western Pacific via faraway Oroville, Winnemucca and Salt Lake City, where it would greet "Uncle Pete" for a jaunt to Omaha and points east. Voices of mischievous, weathered box car loaders, telling unspeakable jokes, while wondering if the Solons would make the playoffs, have now been replaced by a few scavenging rats and one silent traveler.

My hunch or semblance of one was validated when an eastbound train, braking hard, entered the yard. As the burly, pulsating locomotives passed, I began to survey the train for a ride... all "piggies." I debated on letting the train pass, but with the hour approaching 2:00am, and desiring sleep, I tossed my pack on the deck of a car and scrambled to the front, slithering between the bulky tires. The westbound on the siding blew the "highball," while the engineer of my ride pumped air the length of the short (approximately 40 cars) train. With a crack and a bang the train lurched forward, easing out of the yard while rapidly gaining speed. We pushed through downtown Sacramento and I looked yearnfully at my beacon porch light promising to return home by Sunday. Once safely past the suspect eyes of local do-gooders I dove into my pack emerging with my sleeping bag. As I smoked my final cigarette before bed, I was overwhelmed with excitement, knowing that I would view the Feather River Canyon in the sublime morning light. I crawled into my sleeping bag and looked skyward imagining Woody Guthrie staring back and shouting "Take it easy... but take it!" With much warmth I fell asleep...

I awoke in Oroville with the train creeping through the small but stacked yard. I saw no activity as well as no reason to be awake and drifted back to sleep, rocking rhythmically on the same tracks which once carried Chicago bound passengers aboard the WP's Zephyr train. Throughout the pre-dawn hours the train climbed the gently foothill grades, occasionally taking the siding for seemingly more important, but less impressive trains.

About twenty rail miles outside of Keddie, I awoke to the sun peaking over the Northern Sierras. I pulled myself from the simulated environment of my sleeping bag and was greeted by the crisp, almost caffeine like morning air. I laced up my boots and marveled at the jagged canyon carved by the once feral Feather River. Rooting through "my bag of tricks," I found a semi-cool can of ice beer and toasted the tramps who had ridded before, as well as humanity in general.

Upon approaching the Keddie Wye my train began to slow and I was rewarded with a clear view of three pristine BNSF units hauling general merchandise. Off to my left was an incredible view of the river below. We picked up speed after passing the once bustling (with people) Keddie.

Passing the town of Quincy I looked at the steam-belching Sierra Pacific sawmill and felt at home. Although not a friend of the timber industry, I grew up on the North Coast of California, a place where men and women sweated hard for a five dollar bill... and I will never forget them or their spirit for life.

With Quincy fading into the distance I began to pack my sleeping bag, wistfully yearning for a hot cup of coffee and a good stretch. Rolling through a lush meadow outside of Portola, I spied a lonely buck staring at the train from a distance. Being the first "acknowledging living creature" I had seen in hours, I gave a hearty "How do ya do," laughing silently and wondering if the "old man" understood.

At the outskirts of Portola I once again moved out of sight. The train was a short one, approximately 40 cars and I brazenly decided to ride it into the small, compact Portola yard. At 8:30am we ground to a halt in gorgeous Portola, California - Yee fuckin' hah!

Throwing my pack on, I hastily scurried from the yard. The city streets were "bustling" with proud parents and little leaguers entering a community building for an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. I pushed my way through the crowd like a Hollywood Celebrity and crossed the overpass, landing on the main drag of Portola, Highway 70.

I crossed the main drag, paying little attention to the three Highway Patrol cars parked in front of the local eatery, and headed for the Sentry Market. Entering the parking lot I had one thing on my mind: food and beverage.

Upon entering the store with pride and purpose, I was greeted with a bellowing... "You can't bring that pack in here!"

The voice came from a barrel chested middle-aged man.

"Sorry sir (maybe overkill)... where can I put it," I swallowed.

"I don't care, just not in the store," he replied.

"Bite me, I am not a thief," I mumbled underneath my breath, exiting the store to find a clerk sweeping the walkway.

"Would you be willing to watch my pack," I politely asked the busy clerk.

"Sure," he replied, cheerfully removing the "edge" of his employer. "Nobody is going to take it around here, though."

"Thanks," I squeaked.

I re-entered the store heading straight to the produce aisle, picking out several apples. I walked to the front of the store asking the clerk if he had any bulk granola... hey it was worth a try.

He replied "no," so I settled on some pre-fabricated cereal bars. Moving towards the cooler I looked frantically for something "fortified," but was out of luck and settled for the heavily caffeinated Mountain Dew. With supplies in hand I traveled cautiously to the check-out counter, for the first time becoming obsessed with my diesel and dirt aroma.

"Been traveling," the middle-aged man asked with beer and Lucky Strike breath.

"Oh yeah... traveling," I answered, piercing his preconceived notions with my blue eyes.

"I've done some traveling," he said, while placing my apples on a seemingly antiquated, but working, scale.

"Great, how much do I owe you," I enquired... surprised at my directness.

"Sure is nice day today, a little chilly last night, but should warm up nice," he said, oblivious to my question.

I paid the morning-drunk clerk, walking past the staring stock clerk and returning to my stoic upright backpack. I put the groceries at the top of my pack, adjusted the load straps and headed back to the yard.

Now I was set to spend the morning sitting under an overpass reading, smoking and waiting for a train. Scampering down the steep embankment I settled on a nice piece of cardboard, reading the "tags" of previous tramps.

The yard was crowded with several westbound trains "made-up" waiting for crews. I stayed put enjoying the coolness of the morning mountain air. In hindsight I probably should have found a ride on a long, mixed-freight changing crews on the "main." But I was in no great hurry to get home.

About this time, two Plumas County Sheriff patrol cars entered the yard. Not wanting to be seen I stayed still, but felt concealed. The patrol cars circled the yard obviously looking for someone. I felt sorry for the poor soul who they were looking for but felt secure. The patrol cars turned to exit the yard when the second car whipped around and sped toward ME... PUBLIC ENEMY NUMERO UNO - fuckin' great, but no problem. Preparing myself mentally for an imminent questioning I took a deep breath.

Slamming the car into "park," a short, clean-cut, country cop emerged, marching rather smartly towards me.

"Do you realize you are trespassing on the railroads property," he sternly shouted.

"No," I said, in truth because I thought I was off the property.

I stood up upon being ordered and interlaced my fingers being my head, waiting for the pat down.

"Do you have any I.D.," he asked while working his hands across my body.

"Yeah somewhere in my pack," I said.

With this he handcuffed me and placed me in the back of his patrol car.

"Uh, am I under arrest?" I questioned.

"Yes," he emphatically replied.

"For what? Sitting under a bridge?," I asked.

"No sir - 369i PC - Trespassing on the Railroads Property," he gleefully chimed, quite proud that he had captured such a menace to society.

The deputy waddled over to my backpack, dumping its 5000 cubic inches of contents on ground. Over the radio I heard him call in my I.D. Within a few seconds the dispatcher replied that my license was current and I had no warrants.

"Good," I thought, "he will give me a ticket and show me the highway."

The deputy placed the contents of my backpack into their place and put the pack in the trunk of his car.

"Fuck this place," I thought.

Returning to the car, he started it up and we proceeded out of the rail yard.

"Where are we going?" I asked, almost certain that I was being driven to the middle of nowhere, where I would be shot by the power hungry cop.

"Quincy," he said.

So now I am in the back of a late model Ford heading for Quincy. The deputy tuned the radio to a Country and Western Station and began asking me a slew of "Why would you" questions. Although the questions were entertaining, I decided to attempt to steer the conversation away from freight hopping and to a more pertinent topic - the poisoning of the local lake (Davis) by the State Department of Fish and Game. Surprised at my knowledge of the situation the Deputy perked up and we began to communicate.

We pulled into the Plumas County Jail at lunch time. The jail was supposedly full, which I was excited to hear, believing that if full I would be released immediately. After being "buzzed" in through the back door, I began the official "shakedown." Off with the clothes, more questions asked, on with the ugly green outfit, take a picture, and placed in a lovely concrete chamber. After all of this I was given two choices, if I had the means I could bail-out, if not then I would rot in the jail until Wednesday when I could see the judge. Being that it was Saturday, I decided to bail-out.

Bail was set at $1000.00, meaning that to get out without assistance I would have to pay the money. The other option was a bail bondsman, which would cost me $1100.00 of which a thousand would be refunded at the time of my court date. I took the second option and began a three hour quest to find somebody, anybody to come bail me out.

After an eternity I finally arranged to get out. Feeling quite elated after arranging my first bail-out, I turned to the Corporal sitting behind the glass partition and said "I am outta here." She chuckled and asked me if I really wanted to bail-out? The question caught me off guard and I stared blankly at her.

"Well I was thinking that I would just cite and release you, being that it is the end of my shift." She said.

"Cite and Release" why hadn't we discussed this earlier. Why couldn't we had done that before I was forced to eat a crappy spam sandwich with some cosmic, powdered drink? Why, Why, Why?

"I would really appreciate that." I said, humbly smiling.

The Corporal filled out the ticket and handed it to me, leading me to a room where I could reorganize my back-pack and then showed me to the road. I was free.

 

In the end I returned to Quincy a month later for court. The judge and DA had a chuckle over my adventure. Upon asking how I plead, I replied "Guilty," and was sentenced to "time served" in the County Jail. No fine, but a decent lecture... with the judge finishing with "don't get off in Portola."