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"Sir James... Highball!!"

 

The embankment was slippery with mud left over from the torrential rain that had made itself known here in Portland. Not wanting to spill headlong into the dirt, I carefully made my way under the 42nd Street overpass at Champ Siding in anticipation of a stack train, heading my way, ready to whisk me off through the Columbia Gorge to La Grande.

A familiar low vibration reverberated under the pass and through instinct, my ears strained to hear the holler of an incoming freight. Sure enough, a train was on its way, the brakes already screeching as they struggled to slow the freight down. I nervously perched myself around the edge of the wall separating me from the tracks as I waited for the eastbound to roll in. I prayed for it to be a stack train, yet even if it were, would I be able to get on it? While I was here and ready to go, my partner, Gerry, had still yet to arrive. It was two in the early morning, the time we had agreed to meet, and sure enough, I was here, as was our train.

The freight rolled in as I ducked beneath the glare of the lights. Damn - Grainers!! Frustrated, yet a tad relieved due to the fact that my partner had yet to reveal himself, I retreated back under the sanctuary of the bridge and settled down to wait for Gerry. My usual riding partner Steve had driven me out to Champ from my house and decided to hang around, both for reasons of keeping me company and to meet this individual whom I had yet to meet as well.

With nothing but a few e-mail conversations, a phone call and a recommendation from North Bank Fred, a friend of both of ours and a fellow rider, I hoped for the best. Out of patience and eager to be on my way, I decided to haul myself to the top of the overpass and wait and see if I could spot Gerry.

Sure enough - in the distance, I spotted a lone individual carrying a small bag. This must be him. I waved my arms wildly in hopes that he would see me, but no doubt he wasn't looking up. Without hesitation, he made his way confidently toward the siding. I shouted down to Steve that he was here (I hoped) and scurried back down under the pass. The sounds of someone climbing over a grainer echoed under the bridge, and seconds later a man poked his head around the corner.

Greetings shortly followed, as this was Gerry, and what followed was the typical tramp ritual of sizing up the train already lying on the tracks before us, gathering around the scanner for "vital" information, and scrawling our road names up against the wall.

Gerry is "Grinch", a name that I know little of the background about other than he received it in college, but for some reason seemed to suit him. Talking commenced, as I was trying to sum up Gerry and pray that he and I would make it to our destination without killing each other. Steve - tired, cold and still feeling a tad under the weather from his last trip - decided to head home. He wished us the best of luck and advised us not to take that grain train and wait for a stacker, where we might have a little protection in the "wells" and have a greater chance of not breaking up in Hinkle.

With Steve gone, Gerry and I decided to walk the length of the train and try to wrestle some information from our crew. We approached the head end, where the sounds of the diesel engines became almost deafening. I glanced up to the cabin, where the lights were dimmed. Was there even a crew inside? We crossed over the tracks and stood, rather brazenly near the units, waiting for God knows what.

After standing there for thirty minutes or so and realizing that this was getting us nowhere, we decided to head back and pick a ride, making the decision that this was to be our ride through the Gorge. We had only been waiting three hours, hardly any time at all, but already I felt cranky and exhausted. Perhaps it was my lack of sleep that made the decision for me to curl up on this grainer and head to Hinkle, regardless of the dangers of getting caught or set off.

We scanned the train, searching for a rideable porch upon which to settle. Pickings were slim, but eventually we found one. Without hesitation, I tossed my pack up and settled down, leaning up against the grainer's rungs and began watching the stars. Gerry ran down the tracks to grab some cardboard we had spotted earlier.

As time flew by, two westbound freights roared on through. Surely it was time to head out. I made the comment that I rarely heard the old shout "Highball!" on the scanner anymore and that now would be a good time for that. Moments later, Gerry's scanner crackled and the UP dispatcher's voice filtered through: "Sir James... Highball !!!" My eyes widened with amusement and we laughed out loud. It was as though the dispatcher had heard me voice my complaint.

Finally we were off and in anticipation we waited for the slack to gather and the air to begin hissing. None came. Minutes flew by, yet instead of feeling the air rush upon our faces, we waited, with nothing but the train and the stagnant rusty odors of the nearby factory to keep us company. What was going on? Why weren't we leaving? Wasn't that highball for us?

I huddled near the scanner, waiting for whatever info it would muster. Finally, a crewman stated that our FRED wasn't working properly (something about its battery being dead) and that someone from Albina would have to come out to check it out. Great. This could mean hours. Shrugging my shoulders I proceeded to make myself comfortable by setting up my bedroll and succumbing to my exhaustion.

As Gerry and I drifted off to sleep, I was vaguely aware that someone fixed our FRED faster than I thought they could (this was the Union Pathetic, after all), and soon our train began to pull out of Champ. Too exhausted, I slept through Troutdale and most of the Gorge. At one point I awoke, blinking my eyelids against the blinding sunlight. We were on the outskirts of the Gorge, a breathtaking view even for someone who has traveled this route often.

I shook Gerry awake, shouting to him above the clamoring of the wheels that we were missing the best part. We stayed up a bit, a tad cold but comfortable nonetheless in our bags. Gerry took photos for a while, then we chatted a bit to pass the time. In exhaustion, I would still doze off every now and then. There's something about being on a freight train that lulls me to sleep - whether my body demands it or not... perhaps it carries a weight of comfort.

While Gerry practiced the art of balancing oneself against a grainer while answering nature's call, I strained my eyes towards the signs of the highways, trying to catch a glimpse of where we might be. We were no longer in the Gorge and I knew that Hinkle wouldn't be that far away.

But Hinkle was further away than I had remembered. Bored with our scenery, I decided to sleep off some more time. As time flew by, I became aware that our train was slowing down. Gerry shouted down to me that it looked as if we were approaching a yard. Having no idea what Hinkle looked like due to the fact that I was usually asleep in the safety of a 48', I perched myself over the edge of the porch, once again straining my eyes to figure out where we might be.

Gerry was right. Our train was pulling into Hinkle. Quickly we scrambled to gather our belongings together, in case we had to make a hasty retreat. I was concerned about a bull, but in actuality, I was more afraid of being cut off and left in Hinkle. Hinkle is in the middle of nowhere, not a great place to wait around. What's more, there seemed to be little to hide oneself behind. As we pulled into the yard, I glimpsed a large sign saying "NO RIDERS!" and "NO TRESPASSING!" I inwardly shuddered, knowing that what I do and love is illegal. Right now, I really didn't want to deal with authority.

Our train finally screeched to a halt, thankfully remaining on the mainline. Usually the crew change takes about thirty minutes. My eyes automatically scanned the yard for any signs of a tell-tale vehicle which could be our impending doom, yet to our relief, none came.

Gerry grew impatient and jumped over the edge of our ride and scoped out the view. Not much. Cars were passing us every now and then, but nothing to worry about. At one point, two elderly women stopped right alongside our car, inquiring as to when the train was to leave. Gerry responded "soon," just hearing on his scanner that we were to have clearance as soon as Amtrak came through.

One woman narrowed her eyes, asking us if we were rail workers. I grinned sheepishly - never really knowing what to say to people in these situations - responding "not exactly." She then asked if we were riders. Gerry and I both responded yes. She squirmed some more and her friend drove off in a huff. Gerry made the comment that he hoped they wouldn't report us. All it takes is some good law-abiding citizen. I groaned - I just wanted out of Hinkle.

Our train was finally given the clearance to leave, and as the slack began to gather, Gerry suggested that I wedge myself into the small hole alongside the grainer's wall, while he hid behind the slants that make up the grainer's body. My view was slighted as we began to pull out of the freight yard, adding a rather surreal feeling to this whole experience. For me as a rider it is easy to feel invincible while outside of civilization, but the moment one pulls into the rail yards, the fears and worries of getting nailed can often times consume you.

As Hinkle grew further and further away, these fears began to dissipate and once again I felt unstoppable. I pulled out my sleeping bag, curled into it and began to relax as we climbed higher and higher into the Blue Mountain range. For a while, Gerry and I spoke of college days and such, but after a little bit, both of us again fell asleep. At one point I found myself waking to a light snowfall falling onto my face, but the lull of the rails just allowed me to fall back into oblivion.

Some sixth sense once again woke me as we approached closer and closer to the La Grande yards. In confusion, I twisted my body around the framework of our grainer in an attempt to locate where we were from reading the signs off the highways. Sure enough, I spotted a turnoff sign for downtown La Grande. Realizing that we were near the yard, I woke Gerry up and we began to get our shit together. Within moments we found ourselves rolling into the yard.

It seems that when you let your guard down or become too casual, all hell breaks loose. As I was stuffing my rather bright and noticeable sleeping bag into its stuff-sack, a cop car whizzed by - within six feet of our grainer. Shocked, I leaned over the edge to see if the cop had noticed up and was turning around. Not at all. Relieved, I looked the other way. To my dismay, I saw another patrol car up near the head end of the train. What was going on? If they knew that we were here, why weren't they approaching us?

Paralyzed with indecision, I just turned to Gerry and stared at him. What should we do? I just wanted off that porch. Quickly and very nervously I began to adjust my pack and hauled myself off the car. I felt that the best thing to do was to get our asses out of that yard! Without looking back, the two of us scampered off the train, ran across a few tracks and soon found ourselves on an overpass with a direct view of the yard.

For the moment, we were "safe" and I relished it, know full well that some difficulty may lay ahead of us when it came time to catch out.

As we crossed the overpass, we "disturbed" two very young ladies ahead of us. In humor (I think) they ran a ways ahead of us, mumbling something along the lines of "train people" or "tramps." I turned to Gerry and laughingly told him to stop scaring the girls. I found the situation humorous yet I understood the deeper meaning of what was going on: this was a rail town, and tramps were hardly invisible despite Union Pacific trying to "crack down" on such travelers.

As we walked through the closely connected neighborhoods towards Safeway, I became acutely aware and conscious of my probable filthy state. Gerry himself was the picture of a simple tourist, having stashed his gear back in the yard, but with my frame pack and disheveled hair, I began to fear the effects that my appearance might have on others. I asked Gerry if the rail grease had in some way found itself to my face. Perhaps realizing my plight, he responded kindly that it had not. Reassured at least for the moment, I followed my partner into the grocery store for some lunch.

Gerry wasn't feeling well, so after we got some food, we decided to head on over to the yard and try to find our ride back to Portland as quickly as we could. We came upon a rather large beautiful building, in which the Amtrak passengers waited, so, feeling rather bold, we walked inside.

Gerry immediately went up to some yard officials, and I used the moment to head off to the bathroom. When I came out, Gerry was still in deep conversation with the "rails." I decided to make myself as invisible as I could, so I walked outside to begin munching on my chicken fingers and soda - all the time my eyes scanning around the yard, trying to understand it more, and waiting for the heat to descend upon me.

I have to admire Gerry for his ability to ask questions of anyone. I usually try to figure things out for myself, and admittedly I am afraid of the workers. Many times I have been treated well by them, but often I choose to ignore them as much as they choose to ignore me.

Gerry's informants supplied us info that a westbound intermodal train was indeed heading our way from Nampa in the next couple of hours. Still plagued with a headache, I supplied Gerry with some aspirin and he took a few moments to sit down, relax and eat his large sandwich. After he finished, he suggested that he head back into the yard to get his gear that he had stashed inside a large shrub under the overpass.

Realizing this was a good move in order to be ready for our train when it finally did come in, I wished him well, told him to be careful and get back soon. While he was gone, I amused myself with the want ads of the tiny town of La Grande. When this paled, I found myself fascinated with the window cleaner doing his job. Taking notice of my attention, he offered to buy me a soda with some extra cash that he had found. Not one to refuse such an offer, I accepted gratefully. I was decidedly getting bored with everything, not to mention a bit nervous. A new crew had arrived for an eastbound, and as they walked into the doors to the office, they handed me stares of inquiry, many of which I simply greeted with amused shrugs - all the time acting as if I really belonged there.

Gerry returned with his gear in tow and plopped down onto one of the benches with a sigh. By this time, a few elderly women had made themselves at home, apparently waiting for the incoming Amtrak. As we shared the same space, just staring at each other, eventually their curiosity got the better of them, and they began to make inquiries as to our presence. Were we waiting for a friend coming in on Amtrak? No, I replied blandly. We're waiting for our train.

When they realized we were riders, they, in great excitement, replied that they had heard over their sister's scanner (the sister being a paramedic) that some riders with a blue sleeping bag had been spotted in Kamela, not 20 miles outside of La Grande. I knew we were the only ones on our train and yes, my bag was very blue, as was Gerry's.

So that explained the police "welcoming committee" when we arrived in La Grande. I was at first humored when I heard this, but it wasn't long before uneasiness began to settle into my stomach. As we continued our conversation with these ladies, I noticed that a man, who was sitting near us and was obviously a UP crew member, was staring at Gerry and I rather intently and was listening to every word we said with vigor. We had to get out of there before we said something we might regret.

Crap! What should we do? Luckily, our decision was literally made up for us. With a loud shudder of the windows, the Amtrak had pulled in. Knowing that our freight was on the Amtrak's heels up the hill, we discreetly (sort of) made our exit and began to walk away from the yard, all the while striking up a loud, fake conversation about us heading to a restaurant of good taste somewhere in downtown La Grande. We circled around the yard, then I simply suggested that we head directly into it, knowing we would have better cover plus the darkness and our knowledge of the yard on our side.

Within moments, Amtrak pulled out, causing us to act quickly. Already I could see the headlights of our incoming westbound. For a few moments we debated about where to hide. I knew that we were too far down from the head-end, knowing that the crew change would be farther up. As our train grew closer, I prayed for it to be a stack train that would give us better coverage from the prying eyes of La Grande.

When our train pulled in, I swore in disgust. Damn it - Pigs ! But this was all that was heading our way, and both of us just wanted out. As we ran alongside the pig, searched for a ride, Gerry noticed another train heading east, slowing down. Wow, I thought, two trains meeting at once for their crew change. When Gerry saw that the eastbound was a stack train, he lamented in despair, saying something along the lines of giving up his left testicle for our train to be that stack train heading back to Portland. I chuckled. Rather gruesome image there, Gerry !!

At first it seemed that our train wasn't going to stop, but it slowed down enough to catch out on the fly. Determined, I threw my pack onto the platform and yelled at Gerry to grab on. As I was saying this, already the sounds of the brakes filled the air, and gradually our train slowed to a stop. Still, I crawled up, stashing our gear beneath the axles and trying to hide. Fortunately, that eastbound stacker hid us from the main road where a cop or bull might have been patrolling, so for the moment I relaxed. We waited a while, then soon the air was pumped back through the train and within moments we were on our way back west.

At first, I was comfortable. Nice and toasty in my bag, I propped myself up and enjoyed the full moon casting its glow about the snow in the mountains. However, as I grew more and more tired, the temperature began to drop rather noticeably. Frustrated, knowing that I really couldn't do anything about it, I curled myself into a ball at the bottom of my bag and prayed for the train to haul us as quickly as it could back home.

For a few hours I slept, then I was awakened as our train rolled into Hinkle. Gerry woke up after we had been sitting there for more than 30 minutes, then promptly fell back asleep when it became apparent that no one was even aware of our presence. Soon after, I followed suit and drifted off to sleep.

I awoke with a rush, panic surged through me, worried that we may have missed the intersection of the tracks in Troutdale that would determine whether or not we would head back to the Champ Siding or directly into Albina. Instead of being close to Portland, I found our train off on a siding, only God knows where. I could hear the rumble of a diesel engine fast approaching and for kicks, I leaned over the edge of the pig's platform and watched the lights from the oncoming freight play on the railings below. All of a sudden I saw a little black kitten (I think) rush across the tracks and stop, looking up at me. I exclaimed my find to Gerry, whom, in dismay, admonished me not to call at it.

Gerry, like myself, is a cat lover, and I think the last thing we wanted to see was smashed-up kitten brains. Stuck between the curious impulse to leap onto the tracks and snatch the kitten up and sit and watch in horror, I was relieved to see the kitten tear into the nearby woods just as the freight blew through.

As we began rolling again, I drifted off a bit more, then bolted awake again, fearing that we were in Portland. Yet as my head leaped out of my sleeping bag, I saw the majestic, yet very touristy Multnomah Falls to my right. Realizing that we were indeed close to our final destination, I awoke Gerry to inform him to get ready. We were only 17 miles away from Portland.

To my annoyance, our train took the Graham Line, meaning that instead of parking us nice and quietly at Champ, we would have to jump off as the train crawled into Albina. Soon, we found ourselves along I-84 and preparing to jump off. As the train rounded a rather sharp corner, the brakes ahead slowed us down to a crawl. In haste, I leaped off the edge, after having dropped my pack before. Gerry jumped off after, throwing me his backpack while running alongside the train. Our running slowed down to a jog, then a walk as we watched the FRED winking at us in the darkness of the early morning.

Our adventure was complete. It was four in the morning as we hiked up a steep embankment and found ourselves in the heart of downtown at the Lloyd Center. Without hesitation I called Steve to wake up and come get us. In the distance I heard the wail of another incoming freight from the east. I flippantly made the comment to Gerry that it was probably the stack train we wanted out of La Grande if we had only waited a few more hours. Laughingly he agreed.

Oh well... we got here in one piece, another trip under our belts and our addiction is still running as high as ever...