On Friday night at 11:43 pm, caught my 12th train out of San Jose for Los Angeles. It should be my last ride of 1991 (10 trains this year, 2 in 1981-82).
The wait was tedious as usual. I arrived off Caltrain shortly after 7 pm, read in the depot for 2 hours, then headed out to wait near the slowdown point, having been instructed by two kindly switchmen. While I waited, a car circled the block several times. It honked. Thinking the man was lost, I prepared to confess my ignorance. Instead, he asked," You wanna have a little fun?" I suppose that somebody standing in a junk-filled vacant lot MAY look like he's cruising for chicken. But I sent him on his way.
The train rumbled past, surprising me yet again with its silent approach. At about 10 mph, it was catchable. Seeing a long long string of unrideable auto containers, I desperately hopped onto a tanker car. It was the worst of rides. A narrow grilled deck, maybe one foot wide and in front of the wheels, runs along the front end. I perched on it, grabbing onto a sooty rail. It was cold, and I knew that I could be counted on to fall off and die in a few hours.
Two hours later, the train pulled into a hole to let an oncoming train pass. I jumped off and ran toward the end in search of a better ride. Fourth from the end of 60-70 cars was a grainer, with a rear deck wide enough for dancing and a nearly ideal hole drilled into the car's core. One can crawl into that hole for shelter or concealment.
It was still a miserably cold and dark and sleepless trip. Night rides never improve. The sun did rise tentatively when we were barely north of San Luis Obispo. The sky turned a rich orange for a few evanescent moments. Below us a highway streaming with cars wound through the hills. The train traversed some curves so sharp that at one point I was FACING the locomotive.
We'd been mostly inland until mile marker 297, 298, when we ended up running closer to the sea than Highway 1 does. As it grew warmer, my mood improved. In Santa Barbara, with the train stopped, I talked to a homeless man who lives in the bushes beside the tracks. Although not a rider, he knows many of us, and relayed some advice on the approach to L.A. Another of the invariably civil conversations I've had with down-and-outs.
The ride took about twice as long as Amtrak, because of various stops and a slow climb toward Chatsworth. After a long tunnel, as is usually the case, the train swooped into a swift downhill. We just barreled along, picking up speed gleefully. I was a bit concerned about having to ride full speed into Colton, 50 miles east of L.A.