I finally got a stretch of four days off from work so I could try and make it to Salt Lake City with my friend Andy. Due to horrible scheduling, I wasn't able to make any trips the entire summer. Bummer. But now, the day before the first day of autumn, we were packed and headed to the J. R. Davis yard in Roseville, California.
A benevolent friend not only gave us a ride there from Sacramento, but found it in her infinite kindness to drive us around the yard a million times so we wouldn't have to walk with our bags in the late summer heat. The day ended up being a bust. We called on dozens of cars and found two trains going east that night. In our stupidity, we missed them both. We headed home at about 10PM not wishing to get one of the many police officers in the area to notice us circling the yard after dark.
The next morning we decided to head up a few blocks from our homes to Haggin Junction and wait at the intersection of tracks where trains sometimes change crew. When we arrived, there was a strange Union Pacific train stopped on the tracks facing south. It was a few of the Feather River passenger cars pulled by some special Southern Pacific Engine. It was neat I guess, but I don't really care about trains that much. It eventually left, and as it did some dork in a loose blue button up shirt tossed me a Union Pacific hat from one of the cars.
At about 12:30PM I called on one of the numbers we had got from Roseville the previous night. It was from a train that was building up and supposed to be going to Chicago. The automated voice of the Union Pacific tracing system let me know that its estimated time of departure would be at 5:30PM that day. With that new tidbit of information we decided to go home and eat lunch and head over to the Roseville yard again.
After four delicious quesadillas, I went and grabbed Andy from his house and our gracious friend again drove us to Roseville. We called on some cars and found the one we were looking for. All of this was made so much easier thanks to our professional getaway driver. We sat and waited around until about 5:30PM when it started to pull out. Creeping through the hole behind the Roseville Market we scanned the train for anything that could accommodate two novice travelers for a day or two. We found a few grainers and were sprinting toward the train when I spotted a white vehicle trailing close behind it. Not knowing if it was the bull and not wanting to get caught, we marched back to the car disheartened.
We missed our train again, but knew that there was another Chicago-bound train that was scheduled to leave at 9:30PM that night. We headed to the Amtrak station so we wouldn't look too suspicious just sitting in the market parking lot. First we made a quick trip to some Chinese restaurant so Andy could empty his accumulated fluids; soon enough it was 7:30 and almost dark.
Back at the station we saw a freight creep by us, the blue boxcar up front looked very familiar. It looked a lot like the one that should be leaving at 9:30. My suspicions were confirmed when I recognized a few more cars. It looked like it might be going a little too fast to get on but we didn't want to hesitate anymore, so we grabbed our bags as hurriedly and obnoxiously as possible and ran out onto the tracks. Luckily there was only our friend in the car and one old woman around to witness our trespassing. We spotted a grainer and decided this would be the car. By this time the train had gained a bit more speed and demanded a full run to keep up with it. I started first and tossed my gallon of water over the lip and onto the porch. A few steps later I grabbed the second rung of the ladder and hoisted myself up. My balance was off due to the cumbersome bag on my back and I began to swing sideways, unable to pull myself up. I dismounted and ran a few more steps and tried again. This time I grabbed a solid hold and quickly pulled myself up. I looked back to find Andy about half the length of the car back and struggling to keep up. I screamed at him, "Come on!" and it seemed to fuel him to catch up with me. I screamed again as loud as I could to be heard over the roar of the engines. I told him to throw his water to me which bounced right off the side of the train when he did. He managed to not trip on it but his pace slowed a little. I thought he wouldn't be able to get on and that I would have to jump off this train that we had been waiting for two days, for a whole summer. I screamed at him again, hoping that the urgency in my voice would speed him up. It worked. He put all of his effort into each step and made it to where I was standing. His hand reached out and grabbed the second rung and he climbed in.
Out of breath and delirious with joy and fear, we laughed and smiled and high-fived each other in this moment of bliss. We then moved our bags into the filthy hole in the center of the grainer and both tried to hide ourselves from the people of Roseville who could easily see us from the road right next to the train. Luckily it was almost dark and we wouldn't have to stay out of sight as much. The last thing I wanted was for some upstanding citizen to see two scrawny nerds riding a train and feel it their duty to call the police to save us.
Andy and I both rode this line the year before and got off in Reno, Nevada, so we were a little bit familiar with the first part of it. Unfortunately, we caught the train at night last year as well so we missed most of the view climbing our way to the summit. We passed through Auburn, California, where I spent the first twenty years of my life. I always find it interesting to look at a place you have seen many times before from a new vantage point. It made me want to call everybody I knew in that town and tell them I was looking at them from a train. Of course I didn't because nobody would have cared other than my dad who would have been upset that I left without telling him beforehand.
It was already getting cold but my excitement kept me from putting on the layers I had with me. Once we were away from city lights and paved roads, I realized how cold I was getting and put on a wool hat with grey sheep and the words "New Zealand" embroidered on it that I found at my work. After sufficiently warming up, I just looked at the trees and fields and felt that feeling that I get when I'm on a train. It was singularly magnificent.
We had a bulging full moon with us that night which illuminated quite a bit through the mountains. The impossibly large canyons covered in impossibly too many trees are always a great sight. And it's nice to know that you have a better, unobstructed view than the people driving relatively close on Interstate 80.
We went for a quite a while and got a good bit colder before we stopped on some siding in the mountains to let a train pass us going the opposite direction. We were riding the front side of the car we were on and were only about fifteen cars back from the four engines pulling us, which made for a very windy ride most of the time and a very suffocating ride through the tunnels. It felt weird every time we would pass through a tunnel. It would go from very cold to wonderfully warm and poisonous. I imagine that is very similar to what death feels like.
We hopped off the train and started running back towards the end of the train hoping to find an open boxcar or grainer porch facing the rear of the train. The line was primarily comprised of tank cars which were of no help to us. Not knowing how long we had before the train started moving, we sprinted almost all the way back to where we were originally and got on the rear facing porch of a grainer just two cars behind our first ride. Running around in cold night air with a heavy backpack on isn't very fun when you're a frail asthmatic like me, but at least I warmed up a bit. We departed shortly after.
The new porch was covered in a sticky residue. It looked like somebody poured a two liter bottle of Coca Cola all over. The hole was cleaner with the exception of a large folded piece of dusty plastic which Andy used as a seat/blanket as soon as he discovered it. Our new location was considerably less windy which was nice but the tank car behind us was the loudest I had ever heard. It was excruciating and being the moron that I am, I forgot that I had brought earplugs with me until the next day.
The climb to Reno was slow and beautiful. Going through the center of downtown with the towering casinos and pink lights is a bizarre sight after being surrounded by trees and moonlight for so long. After that point the ride would be completely new to us which was exciting and frightening.
A few minutes later we entered the small yard in Sparks, Nevada. We both climbed into the cramped hole at the center of the porch and sat quietly. It seemed almost completely deserted. After a few uncomfortable minutes I saw a white van drive by which I assumed was for changing crew. We started moving shortly after that.
Once outside of Sparks things flattened out and got even colder and darker. Andy went to sleep immediately in his filthy plastic bed while I sat and looked at the few stars that could shine bright enough to compete with the full moon. I put on more layers to combat the desert air that was chilling my birdlike frame and inflated my small cushion to sit on that my dad gave me when I told him that sitting on a train was uncomfortable. Thanks Dad.
I fell asleep a while later only to wake up to my legs burning. There were heavy patches of fog throughout the desert and the moisture which had collected on my legs stung like hail made out of wasps. I grabbed my sleeping bag (thanks again Dad) and climbed in. I took my boots off and put my gloves on my feet and went to sleep again. I woke up every time the train sided that night so it wasn't a very restful sleep.
When I woke up for real, it was almost daylight and we were still in the flat desert surrounded by cold mountains on almost every side. Cows were eating breakfast and seemed not to notice that it was so cold that the puddles had turned to ice. Good for them. We passed small, broken towns where everybody but the farmers was still sleeping. The mountains in the distance turned purple as the sun got closer to the horizon. Everything was so clearly visible in the frozen morning air. It was beautiful like nothing I had ever seen.
I kept walking back and forth to each side of the train to try and stand in the sun to warm up. Andy woke up and we both sat in silence. We passed a town made up of modular homes and spray painted cars. I saw a man and young child riding bikes along the road wearing puffy jackets and wondered where they were going so early. Shattered animal skeletons were spread out on the side of the railroad tracks. The man driving the tractor was busy making a living. The trampoline was missing most of its springs. The sun was getting higher and I was getting warmer. I ate breakfast.
We blasted through the Nevada desert and everything started to look the same. In the exhausted, sleep deprived haze that I was in it was difficult to focus on anything. I drifted in and out of sleep for a few hours. For a while there were no signs of roads or buildings or humans. That was nice. The desert eventually got more interesting and turned into hills and rocks and streams filled with ducks and dirty water. I liked all of the little bridges we crossed to go over those streams. It was very pretty.
Everything turned into desert again and we slowed then stopped. It looked like there was a traffic jam. I could make out a train stopped in front of ours. I took this opportunity to walk around and try and find a few cow bones to bring home. I found none so I spent my time writing stupid stuff on the train with chalk. We eventually began creeping forward and then stopped again for several minutes. It was nice to get a break from the screeching of the car behind us.
Much of the rest of the day was spent sitting and looking at rocks and bushes, drinking water, eating and trying to stay out of the sun. I saw a brothel in Wells, Nevada. I had never seen one before. That was nice. We rode on and on and the earth turned from scrub brush to salt. We were in finally in Utah.
We separated from Interstate 80 at one point and spent a good amount of time either near nothing or just small roads with little or no traffic. We stopped in an area like this and several moths landed on the porch and died. I got out to walk around and spotted somebody walking towards us from the front of the train. He was wearing a reflective yellow vest so I figured he was part of the train crew. I try and avoid contact with workers most of time because I don't want to risk them being tattletales and I don't want to bother somebody who is in the middle of doing a difficult, thankless job. When he passed us he gave us the slightest glance and kept going. He went to the very end of the train and disappeared for a few minutes. The train lurched forward and then stopped again. It was very windy. The man came walking back and gave us another slight glance as he passed us again. He said nothing.
When he reached the first engine we started moving again. I hoped that he wasn't going to stop in the next town and have a cop waiting to ruin our trip. So I held my breath and hoped for the best. We passed a few towns and nothing happened so I silently thanked him for not having us thrown off.
Moths kept flying onto the porch and dying. The land got flatter and flatter until there was no more vegetation, no life, not even the moths could stand it. We stopped in the salt flats with absolutely no sign that this land had ever been touched, save for the train tracks and sagging wires that hung from sunken posts next to us. We got out and threw rocks where they didn't belong. I wondered why Brigham Young liked it out here so much. It was a nice change of scenery from Sacramento, but I don't know if I would want to look at it everyday.
Andy tasted some salt and said it tasted salty. I told him it was poison. A train passed us.
We started moving again. I got tired of looking at the flatlands so I watched the knuckle in front of me buck and move. It was hypnotic. I was happy to be away from everything. Happy to be hungry, happy to be uncomfortable, happy to be surrounded by salt and metal and sky. We rolled through Utah with little changes for most of the rest of the day. The sun started losing its intensity and crept closer to the horizon so I didn't need to keep moving to stay out of it. I slept for a little while.
When I awoke we had just started to cross the Great Salt Lake. The sun was setting directly behind the train and the sky was blue and yellow and pink and the sulfur-smelling water reflected this right back. It was unspeakably beautiful. I will always have that view from the side of a train car in my brain. I had wanted to cross this lake on a train since I first heard it was possible and I was now doing it at the absolute perfect time of day in perfect conditions. I could not have asked for anything more. It was perfect.
The rocks nearest the shore looked as though they were painted white with salt. There were rusted pieces of metal - boxes, pieces of boats and car parts sitting in the water. The sun was down now and we were almost to the edge of the lake. My goal for the trip had been accomplished. We passed fields and roads and saw the lights of a city in the distance. We quickly came upon Ogden, Utah and were near a freeway as the train slowed and stopped. We got off and inspected our surroundings. There wasn't much in the way of a yard and it seemed almost empty.
We walked up an embankment and followed a road until we found a gas station/Burger King where Andy had a cheeseburger, french fries and a Coke and I had a good washing up in the bathroom. I charged my phone and we planned our next step. Andy knew somebody in Salt Lake City who said we could stay with them tonight if we could make it there. We looked at a map to see how far away we were: about forty miles.
We went back to the yard which was only a few blocks away to see if anything had moved. Nothing had. We walked to a train station and saw that Utah has a great public transit system, The Utah Transit Authority, which has a very large train that runs from Ogden to Salt Lake all day long for five dollars. We met a short, fat woman there who told us she cooked meth for twenty-five years and spent five years in prison. She also told us we could ride the train for free as long as we didn't see any police on there. So that's what we did. She was nuts but extremely nice; offering to let us stay at her house and cook us food as long as we left her and her cats alone. It was tempting but hearing her make phone calls to some guy named Brock about picking up a box of syringes that night sort of held up a red flag for me. We got out in downtown Salt Lake City and got directions from several people to our destination. All of the directions were contradictory.
I had read that the blocks in this town were about twice as big as those of other cities. This proved to be true. Thanks a lot Brigham Young. Thanks to our chauffeured rides to, from and around Roseville, I hadn't had to walk any great distance with my bag. Now, after little sleep and a long ride, I had no other choice. It wasn't fun but we eventually made to Andy's friend's house which he had graciously left unlocked for us. I immediately put on new socks, underwear, a shirt and cooked some ramen. It was delicious. I laid out my sleeping bag and fell asleep watching my favorite episode of The Office. I slept hard, waking up only one when Andy's friend, also named Andy, came in and greeted us.
We woke up to my alarm at 9:00AM the next morning and quickly packed our stuff to leave. We said goodbye to our gracious host and asked for directions to the nearest westbound onramp to Interstate 80. I felt refreshed and ready to get moving. I hoped that we could make it all the way to Sacramento in one day but I would be happy with making it to Reno or even Elko. We got lost but eventually made our way to an onramp where I promptly held up a sign for the leering drivers to leer at. It was a pretty great spot - shady, lots of traffic, good area for people to pull over. After about 45 minutes a cop pulled over and told us it was illegal to hitchhike in Utah and that if he saw us again we would go to jail. Bummer.
We walked off of the freeway and decided that we should find out when greyhound was leaving incase we couldn't get out of town on our own. After walking too many blocks that looked like they belonged in the fourth world of Super Mario Brothers 3, we reached The Hub - a bus station/bike locker/Amtrak station. Andy found out that greyhound cost one million dollars to get to Sacramento and Amtrak cost about seventy and left at 11:30 that night giving me plenty of time to try and figure out any way to not have to pay to get home. It was about 1PM.
We sat at the station for a while and looked at the horrible slobs that sat with us. Then I decided to go sit with a sign at a mall a few giant blocks away and hopefully get some charity. I sat down next a booth where a girl was selling purses. She was very nice but I was soon kicked out by mall security that looked like he was fifteen. That was fine. I didn't like sitting there hoping people would give me money.
I decided to walk to the train yard to hopefully find something going west. I found the yard easily. I was immediately approached by the bull even though I was not on Union Pacific property. He asked me if I was going to ride a train and I told him I was taking Amtrak at 11:30 but that I liked looking at trains. "Right on!" he said. We spoke a little bit more and he drove off waving. He was very nice. There was one train being built up and another stopped on what looked like the mainline. I called on both but they were both going to "Industry". I laid around in the shade and drew on stuff with chalk and made some phone calls. A few trains went by but none were headed where I needed to be. Time went by quickly and I enjoyed the solitude and nice weather.
It was almost dark and nothing looked promising. I wouldn't have been in such a rush but I had to be at work the morning after next. I decided to head back to the station to see what was going on. My spirits were a little higher because that benevolent friend of mine did some research and found out that I could get a fifteen percent discount with Amtrak because I was a student. I got back at about 8PM and Andy was still there in the same spot. I told him I had found nothing and that I had submitted to the horrible idea of paying for something on this trip.
We spent the rest of the evening sitting at that depressing bus station with the many other huddled masses. Andy went outside to smoke and was promptly followed by two sixteen year old girls with no eyebrows, both wearing pajamas. He told me they were trying to impress him their art and tattoos and taste in music. He thought that they would have probably both made out with him at the same time. They probably would have.
At 10PM the Amtrak station opened up and we went over there for a change of scenery. It turns out you can't get a discount for being a student unless you buy some card. Bummer. So I paid full price for train ticket I didn't want. We waited around until 11:30 and Andy ate a chicken salad sandwich. As soon as I got on the train I took of my boots and went to sleep. I slept well.