I'm not afraid to admit it: to a seasoned freighthopping hobo I'm nothing but a a poseur. After all, my "freight journey" began with an Amtrak reservation.
"Hi, this is Amtrak. I'm Julie," the sycophantic voice of the automated Amtrak agent chirps.
"Oper-ator!" I bark into the phone. Julie, despite her bubbly enthusiasm, is difficult to work with when you have a slight slurring of speech after a hard night's drinking.
"I think you said you would like to talk to an agent. If that is corre--"
"Yes!" I cut her off, connected me with a live human who booked me on the next Dunsmuir-bound passenger train from Oakland.
"Dunsmuir!" the conductor barks, waking me. Our train was losing speed and coasting through the freight yard. Gathering our gear, we made for the exit where the impatient attendant waited for the train to stop so he could be rid of us. The radio on his hip began to crackle.
"Was that a freight yard we just rolled through?" I asked, trying to seize whatever information before we were hurled into the crisp morning to fend for ourselves.
"Yeah," he grunted.
"Is there a freight back there?" I pressed.
"Northbound or southbound?" I had nothing to lose and everything to gain from this direct line of questioning.
"Northbound," he looked at me strangely.
We grabbed our gear, laden with pads, sleeping bags, coveralls, books, maps, a bottle and a half of port, the leftovers of last weekend's scotch, a couple of bottles of Miller High Life, meat, bread, fruit, and about 3 liters of water. Overloaded, yes, but we would not go hungry. Or soberly.
It was a misty morning in Dunsmuir. The rails sit about 30 feet above the Sacramento River, a modest creek snaking through the town, 2,200 feet above sea level. Ah, Siskiyou County.
We crept cautiously around the track's bend leading to the rail yard. Sure enough, a formidable freight idled, its two units chugging menacingly. The airbrakes hissed, powering up, and releasing, powering up, releasing, threatening to lurch forward at any minute.
We dumped our gear behind some hulking rolling stock that wasn't, and I moved closer to investigate. A crew shift was underway and a workman was climbing out of one of the engine units, looking tired, harassed and clutching a portable cooler.
"Good morning!" I called out hoarsely, as the railworker looked up, regarding me without speaking. Whatd'ya want? His eyes pierced.
"Yeah, this is - but you ain't riding, right?" thoughtfully supplying me the answer to his question.
"Oh, no no--" I said, pretty unconvincingly, I thought.
"'Cause the bulls'll getchya," he said glowering; the words turning to steam in the crip morning air.
"Where're the bulls?" I asked.
He narrowed his eyes: "They're ev-ery-where."
I figured he was full of it; try and scare the greenhorns off so they don't hurt themselves. But I was nervous that El Toro would roll up in his white Union Pacific suburban. Hired dicks. Rent-a-cops. Private security. Probably bored too. And a bored security guard is like a harassed Doberman on a chain, waiting for someone, anyone, to just try and venture into their yard so they can bite 'em in the butt and please their master.
Taking up our position behind a line of idle flatcars, we surveyed the scene. It was a game of imagined cat and mouse; we knew that the bull was mobile and could appear at anytime. We'd need to make a 100 meter sprint with our gear and find a rideable car, exposing ourselves in the process. It would be a calculated risk, but a risk nonetheless. The freight rumbled and hissed again, inhaling and exhaling, and we knew there wouldn't be much time.
Running along the freight train, it was mostly empty lumber racks, locked modern boxcars that read "DOORS MUST BE CLOSED AND LOCKED BEFORE MOVING CAR", flatcars, and... a boxcar with its door fully ajar - bingo! She was clean, too.
A motor rumbled behind us. I turned, a white Union Pacific Suburban was bearing down on us. We froze like an elk about to be poached by a spotlight hunter. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
The Suburban sped past us, loaded with weary railworkers, being shuttled the half-mile to town. Having just come off their shift, they couldn't care less about two bedraggled hipsters who evidently didn't have anything better to do than risk their lives to ride 75 miles in a dirty freightcar at 15 mph. Some heroic thrill-seekers we must seem.
Swinging ourselves into the boxcar, we realized that most of the danger had passed. We had escaped the omniscient, panopticon gaze of the bull. In the back of our mind, I still heard the refrain: They're ev-ery-where. Nevertheless, now that we were snug in our car, we began to feel cocky; that railworker had been a false prophet.
Now the waiting. We sat. And sat. And sat. At one point, the boxcar lurched so violently at the same time that another train was passing, that I was afraid we'd been decoupled -- left behind. I dared not peak outside. They're ev-ery-where. I couldn't stand it anymore. I peaked outside and caught the eye of a nondescript rail employee. Was that the bull? They're ev-ery-where. We pressed up against the wall on the far side of the boxcar trying to quiet our heavy breathing.
The boxcar shook violently and the train made the sound of a VW bug being crushed into a cube. The line of cars creaked in protest as we gathered momentum northward.
Snaking along the Sacramento River, it was a beautiful sight. The evergreens glistened and the blue sky seemed to shimmer with intensity. The boxcar was loud, communication was hard, but the scenery was such that small talk would've just cheapened the experience. I quickly saw why people ride these hulking, stinking, juggernauts. Like hitchhiking, there's the thrill of being a true freeloader which is a thrill in itself (comparable to finding money, or stealing candy from a young orphan). Yet, unlike hitchhiking, there's none of the element of begging that requires social graces, conversational skills, or other forms of feigned respectability.
A couple of miles south of Klamath Falls, Oregon, our freight ground to a halt. We waited. We paced around. We sat on a flatcar. It refused to budge. A highway was in sight, about a mile away. We picked up our packs and tried to hitch. The locals scowled, leered at my female friend, or ignored us completely. It didn't feel good, this part of Oregon. A dusty Subaru with a trailer screeched to a halt. An unshaven yahoo about our age, grinned: "I'm goin' to Burning Man - how far you guys headed?"
To his disappointment, we didn't "smoke herb" but we chatted awhile before he dropped us off in Tule Lake, a cadaver of a town, 10 miles north of Lava Beds National Monument. For those who are sordid history buffs, chew on this: Tule Lake and its environs are a community of WWII veterans who won tracts of drained wetlands. Much of the government-distributed land had once been the grand Tule Lake, drained almost completely between 1912 and 1958. In order to accomplish this, in the late 19th century, the US Army demanded that the indigenous Modocs relocate to a) southern Oregon to live with their sworn enemies on a sprawling reservation or b) the sunny state of Oklahoma where they had no connection to the land or its people. After trying a) and finding it impossible, a faction chose c) war with the US Army.
We camped in Captain Jack's Stronghold, a natural citadel carved from lava flow in which, 130 years ago a Modoc rebel leader named Capt. Jack and 55 braves with their families, repulsed more than 900 US Army troops for five months in what became known as the Modoc War. The rebel band of Modocs were eventually defeated and their ancestral lake was drained for homesteaders, and eventually (in the interest of fairness) distributed through a special lottery system, involving lucky WWII veterans and a pickle jar.
The next day we hitched back to Dunsmuir, camping on the bank of the Sacramento River among empty pork-and-beans cans and other evidence of hobo activity. We hoped to catch a freight home the next morning.
During the night, several freights rumbled past us, moving quickly, but not stopping. Eventually the sounds of the heavy freights mixed seamlessly into my dreams so that my subconscious was permeated with the sounds of heavy UP freights thundering past. In the morning we decided to spoil ourselves and eat a cooked breakfast at the diner. In the process, we missed a golden opportunity to ride in a southbound boxcar with both doors open. Understandably, the Freight Gods were displeased by our lack of vigilance and not a single train stopped in Dunsmuir the rest of the afternoon. By 4:30 p.m. we were getting desperate and even the Trader Joe's port wine was no longer lifting our spirits.
After consulting with a rail maintenance crew who confirmed that we probably wouldn't see anything stop here for hours, we held a council of war to plot our next move. Since I was due at work at 9 a.m. the following morning, we had to act decisively. There was a night train from Dunsmuir at around 1 a.m. but that was $46 each. Spurred on by my intrepid companion who only recently had discovered the joys (but not the pits) of hitchhiking, we began tramping towards the fearsome beast that is Interstate-5.
A swift ride from a friendly and knowledgeable real estate appraiser landed us in Redding at 6 p.m. We stepped out of the car and nearly fainted. The elevation had dropped 1500 feet and we were not expecting a temperature increase of 15 degrees, 97F. Fortunately a Lakeport-bound woman in an air-conditioned sedan pulled up. She would drop us at Williams, she said. Zero to 70 mph in less than five minutes, not bad.
We chatted about camping and National Parks in general. She had recently visited Point Reyes National Seashore and had been distressed to read in the local paper about an incident where two young adults had been pepper-sprayed by National Park Rangers outside the park and, according to eyewitnesses, after the younger one was already in handcuffs. I was tickled pink. I'd written that article. I didn't expect our local news to travel as far as Tehama County. Her husband called on the cell phone and she told him that she'd picked up some hitchhikers.
"Dumbass!" his voice crackled from the other end. She relayed the anecdote about picking up the pepper-spray reporter, which she said had reassured him somewhat.
At 8:30 p.m. we were in the dusty valley town of Williams. It was getting dark and there was little traffic. We were off the main rail line and I doubted the town would be graced by Greyhound this late on a Sunday. As the light began to fade, we tried not to panic. It was dark. We began to panic, quietly, to ourselves, trying not to let on to the other how screwed we knew we really were.
Just as I was about to pick up my rucksack and hike away - I knew not where, but a lot of places are better than standing on a dusty freeway onramp, a Toyota pickup pulled up.
"Thank you so much for stopping--" I gushed.
"I can take you to --land," he shouted over the roar of the Interstate.
I checked the map, it was 10 miles from Davis, which is served by Amtrak's busy Capitol Corridor service to Oakland. Plus, I knew someone in Davis we could stay with. We were on our way, giddy with the knowledge that we wouldn't have to camp out under an interstate highway bridge.
Outside it had become very dark, the dust from farm tractors reflecting a thick haze in the pickup's headlights, but our outlook remained bright to the end.