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Baggage Claim

 

I blew into Wishram, Washington; once a proud railroad town, now it's a shell of its former self ever since the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad scaled back.

The Wishram Amtrak office led straight into BNSF's office. Having heard tales of friendly crews in the offices dispensing advice to train hoppers, I thought: What the Hell.

The office was deserted save for one white haired man, which seemed good. No witnesses to snitch on him after he helps me. His face betrayed no emotion as I approached, literally cap in hand, trying to look humble.

"Uh... excuse me, I was just wondering if you have anything going eastbound today, Sir," I stammered.

"Amtrak runs at 7 in the evening and 7 in the morning," he deadpanned, his eyes looking me up and down.

"And the Burlington Northern?" I was trying to be subtle.

"There's no PASSENGER service on the BN," he said flatly. Conversation over.

Back in the dusty yard, I retrieved my pack out of its hiding place in the thistles. A whistle blew. There's no sound like it. Even in the afternoon glare I could see the bright light of the front unit rolling up, inching slowly. Crouching in the bushes, I got into position.

The train crawled past me, hauling a long line of grain cars. It stopped. I found one with a porch and settled in. It was hot in there and we messed around for about 45 minutes before finally the lead engine gave two short blasts. Highball! We were off to the races.

Four dusty dry hours later, we pulled into Pasco, Washington. This yard in the "Tri cities" area of Washington State is one of the largest in the region. We pulled into the northwest end of the yard and I heard "Wiiiisssshhhhh," the sound that any rider knows can only mean one thing: decoupled again.

I hung on for another 10 minutes, on the off chance that we'd be reconnected. Then I saw our locomotives back up on a parallel track into the yard and I knew the game was up. Making sure the coast was clear, I made my escape out of the yard.

It was broad daylight. I hiked to a nearby truck stop where I enjoyed a dinner of fish and bread washed down by a cold Miller High Life and returned to the yard at dusk. Just before dark I found a brakeman making up a train. He didn't look unfriendly.

He reminded me that I was trespassing and that there was a Ford Explorer with "tinted windows" which meant rail police. "And he'll take you to jail," he warned.

"Now you didn't get this from me," he prefaced, before explaining where the departure tracks were in the heart of the yard. "You see those strings [of cars], once they hook up to some power, they're off," he said.

I thanked him and slunk deep into the yard. There was a long line of "reefers" refrigerator cars with front balconies that didn't look ideal but appeared rideable. Four locomotives pulled in and hooked up. I knew there wasn't much time.

I hoisted my pack onto one and laid low. We pulled out of the yard soon after, passing under heavy floodlights. I saw the railcop driving around a couple of times and felt giddy that I was escaping Pasco.

We picked up speed and the balcony began to do the shimmy-shimmy. It wasn't fastened on very well and I was being jostled about so much it hurt. Plus, since I was in the front, sleep would be out-of-the-question as an abrupt stop would throw me forward and into the wheels if I wasn't holding on tight. In a word, it sucked.

A few miles out of Pasco, we stopped and let another train pass at a siding. A few miles later it happened again. We're not very high priority, I reasoned. At the next siding I figured I could jump off and scout to find a better car. The previous stops had been almost 10 minutes long so there'd be plenty of time, right?

We stopped soon after. I buckled my pack onto the reefer car so I would be light and fast on my scouting mission. Sure enough, about 100 yards back there was a grainer car with a comfy looking porch. I began to run back towards my reefer car. The train lurched forward and began to pick up speed fast. The passing train had been very short and as my train was empty, the engineer was able to really gun it and pick up speed.

I began to run, sort of panicked because it was dark and there wasn't much to ride. I caught onto the grainer but I wasn't running fast enough. I lost my footing but held on and was dragged by my knees, the train picking up speed.

Being dragged along for several hundred feet, I realized that I was unlikely to get my footing and moreover, I was risking my legs over a backpack. I wanted to let go but was worried I'd slip under the wheels. With my remaining strength I threw myself clear of the train, doing a roll and coming to a stop in the loose shale. I was mad at myself for taking such a stupid risk as I watched the train roll into the inky blackness. The red light of the FRED (Fucking Rear End Device) winking at me in the distance. It was gone. Goodbye backpack, goodbye brand-new camping gear.

I found myself in the middle of the high desert, somewhere north of Pasco off of US-395. I began walking down the highway, there was nothing for miles. I must've walked for hours, I was very tired and began to hallucinate. On my map it showed a small town called Mesa. I found the town and descended into a valley where the temperature dropped about five degrees. I found a park, but it was popular with the local mosquito population. They fed well. I tried to sleep, forcing myself not to think about the mosquito repellent in my backpack that was on its way to Spokane.

By this time I was delirious. While ambling around Mesa, I was in a dream-like state and I thought I was in a reality TV show with a Mr. Smith. A running commentary talked about the merits of different lawns to crash on, narrating my exhausted wanderings looking for relief from the mosquitoes and cold. Sprinklers were everywhere and it was hard to find a dry spot. I finally did and got about an hour's sleep before sunrise.

The next morning I walked along the highway under the white DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS sign on US 395. There was little traffic and I was running out of water. An old timer in a blue pickup took me to Connell, about 10 miles up the road where I got coffee and water.

I continued on past Connell. I saw a sign, "State Corrections Next Left." There's not a better place to hitch than next to a prison, I thought glumly.

I passed a broken-down van and immediately a truck stopped.

"Is that your van?" the driver asked.

I laughed, told him no, I was trying to get to Spokane.

"No problem. 'Cept I got two girls in the front, so you'll have to ride in the back, sorry." I looked inside the plywood camper shell. Nothing but cardboard and pillows. Not a problem, I told him.

In Spokane I made for a spot that was supposed to be a good place to catch trains. Within about 20 minutes the rail police pulled up. I immediately got out my camera and began snapping pictures.

I told him I was a railfan and was waiting for the Amtrak that wouldn't arrive until 1 a.m. that morning (which was true). He told me that I "didn't look like a terrorist" but that my presence would spook the crew members. (What bullshit). He was very polite but took my name and said he'd have to escort me off of railroad property. He went to great lengths explaining who rail police are and what they can and can't do. He told me that train riders were dangerous, a lot of FTRA (Freight Train Riders of America / 'Fraid to Ride Alone / Fuck the Reagan Administration), in which there were "a lot of bad apples who'll hurt ya" were around, and that under cement overpasses was no place for a person like me.

I nodded gravely.

After pronouncing that I "didn't look like a transient" (he was full of compliments that afternoon) he gave me a ride back into the downtown.

My luck running out, I decided to hitch to my next destination: Sandpoint, Idaho. A few friendly lifts later, I was at the Wal-Mart on a buying spree to replace my gear. After checking out, I went and checked my voicemail messages.

"Uh... hello this is Dan -- of the Columbia Basin Railroad in Warden, Washington," one message said. "We found a black backpack with your name on it."

I couldn't believe it. It's handy being this lucky when you're as dumb as I am. Or vice versa, I'm never sure which. Wal-Mart gave me a cash refund on my new purchases.

The next morning I spoke to Dan who gave me his home number in case the depot was closed. I hitched out to Warden, a farming community in the middle of the basin.

Dan gave me my bag, telling me that he went through everything, "I could tell it wasn't junk - then I found your name in there, so I had to do the right thing."

I hefted the pack up, from the weight I could tell it was all there.

"Now hold on, if you don't mind I've got some questions for ya," he said.

We chatted for about an hour sipping orange drink in the office. He told me all about railroading and I told him what I knew about riders. He had questions about the FTRA, hobo gatherings, and other general things. I filled in the blanks the best I could, though I don't know much myself.

One funny part, I learned from Dan, was that the train that ditched me was only going as far as Connell, about 15 miles from where I was stranded. Either way, I would've been screwed.

After about an hour, the sun setting in the sky, I pointed out that I had to get going as there wasn't much light left. He took me to his town, Moses Lake, where Interstate 90 runs through. I got a lift straight through to Spokane just as it was getting dark.

Walking down the highway on the edge of town, I though What the Hell, and flew an Idaho sign as a last-ditch effort not to camp in the city of Spokane.

A Chevy pulled up driven by a very attractive woman. "I'll drive ya to Idaho if you got any gas money, it's on E," she said.

I was naturally suspicious. Beautiful women seldom pick up people like me in the dark and take them to places they're not going to in the first place. Right? Wrong.

I bought her $10 worth of gas and we hit the bars in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. She was bored that evening, she said, and was looking for something to do. We snuck into a ritzy hotel, stole towels, logo coffee mugs, and rode the elevators like little kids. She said she had to work at 5:30 a.m. the next morning so she drove me to the north edge of town where I found a nice place to camp. She handed me her number and told me to call.

I'd be a fool not to.