At 5:55 a.m. on Saturday March 29, I parked my car near the Champ Siding on UP's Kenton Line running through Northeast Portland. After hoisting my pack onto my back and pinching a wedge of "party dirt" (Copenhagen) between my cheek and gum, I climbed over the railing and down the embankment toward the train that was silently awaiting me on the tracks below.
As I reached the ground below, I flicked on my trusty scanner and simultaneously heard the "pssshhhhhh" of the train's air going up. Knowing I only had five minutes at best to find a ride, I made the quick decision to turn left toward the head-end of the train, seeing several boxcars ahead in the pre-dawn mist.
I half-ran about 15 cars up the string, finally finding an appropriate Missouri Pacific boxcar with one door wide open and the other open about one-third. I hoisted my gear and trusty Canon onto the cold floor of the car, rummaged for a couple of spikes to jam into the doors of the car, and clambered aboard. As I rolled over the doorsill, my scanner squawked:
"Dispatcher, UP 9340 requesting track warrant from Champ [C-H-A-M-P] along Kenton Line east [E-A-S-T]."
The engineer was promptly rewarded with, "UP 9340, Dispatcher affirmative, warrant granted eastbound Champ siding Kenton Line 0603."
At that, the train slowly "graunched" to life and I spit a satisfying mouthful of Cope juice out the open door. We were on our way.
As we began heading eastward through Portland and its suburbs Gresham and Troutdale, the sun's pink glow began illuminating the landscape brighter and brighter. We rolled approximately 35 miles and the train began noticeably slowing down as we entered a siding at Cascade Locks on the Columbia.
After a few minutes, a westbound three-unit UP train rolled by; then I heard the "bang-pshshsh" as the units on my train disconnected themselves from the train. Looking out the open door (I was about 25 cars back from the head end) I saw a rail walking back toward a switch on the siding, disappear between two cars for 10 seconds or so, then walk over to the switch. Carefully keeping out of sight, I heard scanner activity to the effect that 15-20 cars would be left on the siding.
After some backing and switching, it was plainly obvious that my car was on the string to be leaving my string on the siding. The train was reconnected on the main and the units hooked up. As I heard the air go up in the cars beside me on the main, I squeezed through the partially open door between the strings and high-tailed it to the first available car I could find - the dirtiest, rustiest empty gondola from hell.
As we started up again, I wiped my brow and surveyed the floor of the gon: a few rusty bolts and nuts of all sizes, some random car and truck parts, scrap metal and a crumpled-up Mountain Dew can. Using a spare piece of wood I cleared some rust away from a corner and lowered my pack.
Travelling through the Columbia Gorge in the morning light is always a treat, but on this particular morning it was stunning. We passed through Hood River, then the dam and fish ladder at The Dalles, and various other beautiful landscapes. I snapped picture after picture, greedily documenting the rapidly brightening scenery for posterity.
After about 5½ hours, we slowed down and I saw two smoke stacks in the distance... clear evidence we were getting ready to pull into UP's gigantic Hinkle classification yard. We dropped into the hole about 2 miles outside of the yard at Munley, and I stood up in my gon to stretch my legs. Walking around for 5-10 seconds, I looked over the gunwale of the car and saw a county Sheriff's blue and white Ford Bronco not 50 yards away on the other side of a fence. I ducked down, sure that I'd been spotted and awaiting the inevitable orders to disembark myself. Peeking out a hole welded into the side of the car, I surveyed the Bronco, which gunned its engine and took off in a cloud of dust along the fence paralleling the tracks. Holding my breath, I stared after it and hoped it wouldn't return... on MY side of the fence. It was high noon.
After a couple of more minutes the train began rolling and eventually rolled into Hinkle for a fresh crew. I de-trained and walked into the yard, passing the unit shop on my right (about 25 UP units were neatly lined in rows) and fuel storage tanks on my left. I walked up to the yard tower and began snapping photos of the yard's hump. Not 1 minute later a fellow came out of the building and asked me to kindly stop taking photographs, and could I please take off. Something about liability and corporate beauracracy. "Did you come in on a train or something?" he asked. I answered with a question about whether they had a pop machine inside, which he confirmed and directed me to. I purchased three cans of Coke and a box of Hot Tamales and set off across the yard toward the meandering stream on its south side, adjacent to the main.
Comfortably settling in the shadow of a huge scrub bush, I gulped Tamales and Coke and settled in to wait for a westbound coming in on the main. Falling asleep and waking up to a CNW-engined eastbound grain train, I looked at my watch with a gulp... it was 3:10 p.m. and I was SOL.
Turning on my scanner I listened for any signs of life in the yard. I was rewarded shortly thereafter with the Hinkle Tower confirming the departure of a westbound train from the departure yard. Standing up and scanning the horizon (this is a BIG yard) I saw a train slowly snaking westward. "SHIT!!!!" I thought and gathered my gear. The tower was talking to another westbound which was preparing to leave in 15 minutes. Hurriedly crossing the yard in broad daylight (not caring about anything but getting across that damned yard) I hiked to where I had seen the train snaking westward previously. I reached a well-used track and found a 15-foot-high gravel pile to hide behind. After 10 minutes, I saw the train slowly heading toward me out of the departure yard and scrunched down behind the gravel so I wouldn't be seen.
After the head end passed, I rolled the train and cursed: all I could see was enclosed car carriers. After 50 or so cars passed, I began seeing a mix of sealed boxcars and tankers. Finally, a grainer rolled into view, which I surveyed for rideability. I was rewarded with a rideable porch on the back-side and sprinted out the catch the slowly accelerating car... nailing it. It was 3:30 and I was one happy tramp.
Stowing my gear in the cubby I laid low and enjoyed the sunset on the way home. We only went into the hole once as we came into Portland, for about 3 minutes. At Troutdale we split off onto the Graham Line, which parallels I-84 through Northeast Portland, not six blocks from my house. As the train began slowing down as it rounded the final curve near Portland's Lloyd Center area, I carefully hopped off and surveyed where I was... about 15 blocks from home. Familiar territory at last.
The train's FREDDy blinked as it passed me, as if to tell me it heartily approved of my latest adventure.