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In the Land of Deseret

 

It felt a little surprising that I could sleep late in the growing light. The train had rolled without pause for hours. With daylight growing, the seemingly unstoppable machine seems to rumble and rattle along at a brisk and cheerful clip. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the high Uintah mountains in the northeastern shoulder of Utah, to see the rushing river in the narrows of Echo canyon, the two tunnels stacked on top of each other, trains popping out of other tunnels to immediately cross twin steel bridges, the two transcontinental tracks winding around each other trying to find the best grade for uphill versus down, the bent junction where the old branch line took off for mining country to the south.

But I have missed it all. I only heard an occasional roar as the train passed through tunnels in twilight. Now I'm crawling out of my bag as the rails have joined the wider Weber River valley. At least the air has warmed gratifyingly. Hank is rolling out, too. I eat some hippie food, as some friends call it, granola and a bit of dried fruit. I drink some water that has gotten glacially cold during the night. Odd that I haven't felt more hungry this trip. Usually I'm ravenous to eat at almost any time.

Hank looks like he could use some morning coffee, and I smile. "Where's my scotch glass?" He grumbles. It's an old joke that was once a serious question for him. We converse in optimistic tones about where we are and where we'll go next. I notice that our conversation has become much more sparse most of the time. Yet it feels comfortable. We're experiencing the same new things and don't have to comment on them much. A glance or a raised eyebrow can summarize much, warn, convey agreement, ask a question, evoke a laugh.

The river valley narrows promisingly, suggesting a scenic canyon, but soon disgorges us onto a broad flat plain. Clearly we're down from the mountains and into the land of Deseret, the broad flat Great Salt Lake valley. We're almost in Ogden, a huge meeting of three railroad routes. The Union Pacific joins the Southern Pacific it's counterpart of the original transcontinental railroad that built from the west coast across the mountains of California and deserts of the Great Basin. That would take us to central California and San Francisco Bay. To the north, the Union Pacific continues into Idaho and Oregon, ultimately reaching the Columbia River, Portland, and Seattle. To the south, the old Los Angeles and Salt Lake railroad, long since absorbed by the UP corporate colossus, travels to the City of Angels via Las Vegas.

The train slows and quickly winds its way into another enormous yard. We pack up our stuff and try to avoid being seen by standing in the front end of the boxcar, although I hate not being able to see where we're going. Invisibility looks difficult, because numerous railroad workers walk on the ground, and we pass a humming switcher locomotive on an adjacent track. If the engineer looked in our direction, he certainly couldn't help but see us. Our train parks amidst long strings of other cars. I presume they're outbound trains being made up.

We'll have to make a decision here. It had seemed like our magic boxcar is heading for the Southern Pacific. I feel a little reluctant to leave it. Hank wants to get to L.A. to see his cousin. Splitting up doesn't seem like a good option. I photocopied the topo map for this yard, at least. I pull it out and study it. Doesn't look good. I have no idea what track we're on, and there seem to be hundreds. The yard runs south to north, and we came in on the south. To the north are not one but two enormous wyes. Obviously, they funnel traffic off to the west, but which one goes where? The Denver & Rio Grande Western, pesky local competitor with the Union Pacific between Utah and Colorado, has a parallel line from Ogden to Salt Lake, too. There are several yards scattered around this part of town. We're in the biggest, but it's not clear what each one is for, or even which railroad owns it. I don't have enough context for the little photocopy. If we go west, which way do the Bay Area trains go? Should we go to one of the wyes and wait to catch something on the fly? How do we even get out of the yard without being seen? If we go south, where are the tracks to Salt Lake City?

We decide on indecision, to wait and see if our magic carpet will keep its magic and carry us on with its sheltered luxury. We've got some water and food. It might work simply to wait and hope. But the wait turns into a long one. The day warms up as the sun climbs. The train doesn't move. Furthermore, the switch engine starts working the tracks next to us. We pace about the car, shedding our warm clothes and trying not to feel nervous. The workers walk to and fro outside. They must be brakemen, the guys who have to set switches or walk along strings of cars to couple and uncouple. The switcher runs up and down the tracks to shuffle cars from one track to another. The men slowly coming nearer as they work, and the switcher finally passes by on the next track. The engineer glances in, as do several of the men on the ground. Clearly, we've been seen.

The switcher pulls back with a long string of cars, then disappears to shove them down another track. Two brakemen walk up to the sunny door of our car. One of them calls in cheerfully, "Sleepin' in kinda late aren'tcha?"

"Uh, yeah!" I try to sound just as cheerful and confident, but it's impossible not to sound a bit less than certain.

"Where ya headed to?"

"Well," I hesitate and glance at Hank, "We're either going to San Francisco or Los Angeles."

The two men laugh. "Well, you'd better make up your mind, because there's a pretty big difference!"

"We were kind of hoping this train would keep going to San Francisco." I know the train doesn't really go to San Francisco per se. Really it would stop in Oakland, across the bay. But I probably sound pretty dumb already. A little more won't matter.

"Naah. This car's been bad-ordered. It ain't goin' nowhere." Bad-ordered: needs fixing. I guess we could have reasoned that out because of the door lying on it's side on the floor.

Time for a quick conference with Hank. "Uh, well, my friend is in Santa Cruz, so we'd have to get from the bay down to there, and, uh, I don't know for sure if she knows I'm coming." I hate to admit it. It's bad enough that I might show up, much less myself and a friend, even if he is the best company I know. My vague plan doesn't even sound half-baked when spoken aloud. It's completely baked.

"My cousin's expecting me at some point. She'd be happy to put up both of us." Hank's plan is less baked.

I turn back to the trainmen. "OK, so we'll go to L.A. then."

They won't stop grinning. They've been entertained from the start of this conversation.

"OK, then! Well, come on out here, and I'll show you." Hank and I hop down onto the dirt of the yard, grab our packs, and follow the guy who has done most of the talking. His friend walks away, still smiling. Do we look like little kids? Other yard workers barely give us a second glance.

The worker walks us beyond a string of cars and points. "See that tower? Just go up there and ask for Dan. He's takin' some cars down to Salt Lake City. You can get a train to L.A. from there."

"Hey, thanks a lot!" I'm blown away. Hank looks at me with a faint but puzzled smile. I can tell he shares the feeling. How on earth does this reconcile with our imagined reality of how the railroad treats riders? Is this just a bit of good luck, or was the entire reputation of mighty Union Pacific, the feared Uncle Pete, just rumor and illusion? That is disconcerting: how else might we be massively ignorant, our fantasies standing in for a completely different reality?

The tower is a white two-story square wooden affair, jutting above a slightly larger wooden structure underneath. It looks mighty official, and until five minutes ago, we would have avoided it like the plague. Everything is different now. We might as well try it. We find the door of the tower building. Everything is dirty and well used. We see a couple of benches and lockers, a door hanging open to a dinghy bathroom with a few urinals and cinder-block stalls. It was all painted in some remote historic era in a the green color that UP uses on its maintenance-of-way equipment, but dirt has made it a more hideous color perfectly in keeping with a rough-neck workplace like this. A stairway ascends to the windowed top.

"I've really got to take a crap," Hank delicately confesses as he heads into the restroom.

Looks like I'm elected by this event to ascend the steps of authority to enquire. True leadership. Cautiously, I ascend several flights of steep steps. Voices converse somewhere above. I emerge into a room with windows on all sides. One stout youngish man with glasses and a mustache sits with a radio at a bank of switch levers - at least I think that's what they are. I'm trying not to goggle at the immense yards surrounding us, trying to figure out an escape route. He's trying to read from a list and direct activity on the tracks below. He looks half bemused and half frustrated. A couple of chairs sit beside the switch levers, and a tall, balding rail-thin railroader sits there. Boots and jeans, flannel shirt, even in the summer heat, a working man.

"Uh, sorry to interrupt, but I was hoping to get a train to Salt Lake City. A guy in the yard told me to ask for Dan up here."

The thin man responds. "Yeah, I'm Dan. I'll be down in a few minutes. Wait for me downstairs. Fill up your water bottles if you need to." He spoke loud and clear, though quickly - as though maybe he were saying something he shouldn't, trying to hustle me out of sight. I hope I'm not getting him into trouble, blurting out my illegal request like this. Yet, he couldn't have been much concerned, and the fellow over by the switch levers now looked bored by this break in the conversation.

"Thanks a lot!"

I descend quickly. This seems too easy, this continuous stroke of luck. How long can it last?

I find Hank scrubbing train dirt off his hands and face in the restroom sink. "Man, I feel about 20 pounds lighter!" He looks better, too, drying his face off with a wadded paper towel. I should do the same. My body, having kindly held back for a long time, reminds me that this is a convenient and civilized opportunity.

"Me next." Who expected we could use flush toilets in a railroad yard? The awful-looking bathroom now seems the epitome of luxury.

We're considerably cleaner and more comfortable. I even clean my filthy glasses and then put in my contact lenses so I can wear my real sunglasses. I silently curse at myself again for forgetting my clip-on shades. Life is tough when you're blind as a bat with no radar. Dan descends the tower steps. He waves us to come along outside and marches across several tracks. He speaks peremptorily again. Apparently, it's his nature. We might also look uncommonly stupid.

He gestures at a string of cars between two others. "OK, I'm taking that cut of cars down to Salt Lake in about half an hour. Not that cut of cars, not that cut of cars," he adds forcefully, pointing at the cuts on either side of the one he first indicated, "but THAT cut of cars!" Maybe he thinks we're potential morons, drug-addled or alcohol-sotted, hippies tripping on acid so bad that they can't see through the hallucinations. And perhaps we are addled, for being here doing this on such a lovely summer morning. We could be at home bored out of our minds in a comfortable suburban existence.

"Hey, thanks. Thanks a lot!" It seems the only phrase we can utter in the face of such exact advice. Our illusion of the wicked Uncle Pete continues to shatter. We walk down to THAT cut of cars without confusion. There is one nice boxcar, a very old one with a short roof. It's clean and full of empty cardboard boxes. But only one door is open, and it simply doesn't occur to us that we could take the liberty of opening the door on the other side to get a better view. Somehow our inexperience makes even an empty car seem that inviolable. There's an unspoken assumption that we can't change anything, even though it seems nobody gives a flying fuck. Regretfully, for the boxes look comfortable, I talk Hank into riding under a piggy-back trailer, a truck trailer on top of a flat car. It's getting to be a warm day. We'll have shade, and we'll be able to see out both sides of the train. I have romantic visions of a majestic view of the Great Salt Lake, sprawling away to the west with our train flying down the eastern shore.

Instead, we trundle. It's exciting at first as some older engines couple onto our string of cars, air up the brakes, and ease out of the yard onto an enormous wye. It's a little confusing, too, since I know Salt Lake City is south but we had to hike north, and our train appears to be starting out to go west before finally turning to the proper south. The tracks seem to wind through giant industrial warehouses, many of them dying or dead, near ever-present highways where cars and trucks roar in unceasing fury, and the back yards of quiet neighborhoods where it seems that we must be able to see everyone's life on display like so much hung-out laundry. Sometimes we catch glimpses of the used but more weedy Rio Grande roadbed to the west. Our train is a local, not a through train. It stops everywhere to do switching, often with the head of the train frustratingly invisible around a bend, behind some buildings. At one of these one of the brakemen, an muscled Oriental fellow, walks by. I wonder if he'll rag on us, but instead he quietly asks us for a light. Hank smokes, at least sometimes, and obliges. We ask him how he likes working for the railroad. It seems like just another job to him. He seems like a nice enough person but doesn't say much. It's almost as though he sought the company of others, but only the silent company. After about the duration of his cigarette, his radio crackles, calling him to duty. He thanks us for the light and quickly moves off. The train moves, and we're back to our uncomfortable and dirty job of riding.

Mostly I feel vague disappointment. The majestic view of the lake never materializes, just a few grungy salt marshes before we reach the big city. We see ancient beaches high above us, sandy benches on the steep mountainsides. We can gaze at the mountains on almost every side. It's a scenic place, although this isn't the nicest part of it. I visited here once before when I rode the cushions on the old Rio Grande Zephyr. We had to dress up a bit on that train. We traveled in a sleeper compartment, enjoyed dinner in the diner. We stayed with friends with a lovely house up on the hill overlooking the green valley. Luxury. Plus, it became magic because I knew my Beatrice once lived here.

Another monster railroad yard reveals itself ahead of us, sited next to an oil refinery, shoe-horned in between the steep mountains and the interstate close by. A line of military tanks occupies a long string of flat cars. Our low angle makes it look like the tanks are about to crush the state capital building, high up on a hill in the background. We train slows to a stop, and we get off. A dirt road runs down the west side of the yard with a strange little ditch. What on earth could there be in this sere industrial neighborhood to irrigate? But the road offers a good place to walk while trying to decipher the yards, which we quickly deem incomprehensible, even after another look at my photocopied topo maps. A good map still doesn't tell you which trains run on which tracks. We know we'll have to ask somebody where to get the train.

Not wanting to lug our packs on our fact-finding trip, we hide them in a thick field of sere weeds west of the yard. This whole area seems deserted, so it seems safe enough. We cross a convenient pedestrian bridge over the ditch and wonder into the yard tracks. We see someone moving by one end of a cut of cars and approach. We find a good old boy, his western shirt neatly tucked in around his substantial beer gut. I hope he's not a redneck who will dislike us for our long hair.

Might as well be bold: "Hey, how's it going? Uh, we were wondering where we could get a train to L.A."

He glanced at us without surprise. I don't know where he was from, but it wasn't Utah. He drawled, "Whaall, about two o'clock, the Super Van'll be comin' in on track 16. That should get you there about 90 miles an hour."

Whoa. Hank and I glance at each other, our eyebrows subtly rising. That sounds great! Hank has another pressing question: "Where can we get something to eat?"

"Over there is what we call a beanery, a greasy spoon. You kin git somethin' to eat there." He waves toward a white wooden building on the far side of the yards, barely visible over some boxcars. Hell, I know what a beanery is, but it's fun just to hear this guy talk.

Then the chorus: "Thanks. Thanks a lot!"

Hank wasn't impressed with the greasy spoon; it was genuinely greasy. Using the theory that it's hard to ruin breakfast, I get some. It's not great, but I'm famished. My fatigued brain toys with alliterative phrases, gratefully guzzling the grease, good gravy, it's greasy. We get one last use of the shabby restroom, then return across all 16 tracks to our packs in the weeds - hoping no wandering soul had found them first. Yet there they were, intact, this garden spot of a neighborhood deserted as a no-man's land. We lug them back into sight of Track 16 and collapse in the sand under the shade of a bush by the dirt road that parallels the yards. We've got another hour to wait.

We got pretty warm hiking across the shadeless yard in the hot sun. It's a desert here, masqueraded by cityscape. It's comfortable in the shade of the bush, though. Hank and I both seem too tired to move much. We should be hiding out of sight in the weeds, but we don't want to miss our chance. Yesterday we would have played commando for fear of arrest. Today we're relaxed, content, lazy. Eventually, we hear a locomotive approaching, but the music of the diesel engine and clickety-clack is all wrong. Glancing up, we see a little train approaching in the middle of a sea of dry weeds. It's a little switcher loco, waddling by on the wobbly track with a short string of cars trailing like ducklings. It's cute but doesn't speak much for the volume of business on the D&RGW branch to Ogden. That little train might have been our ride - but the D&RGW goes east, and we don't want to go east. We go back to our abstracted contemplation of sky, mountains, weeds, and the grungy hobo's view of the City of Zion. Life ain't so bad.

Another switcher moves somewhere out of sight, a few cars bang together. The traffic on the nearby interstate roars faintly behind us. My eyes begin to close until I notice a slow-moving white sedan approaching on the dirt road. It looks disturbingly generic, some kind of fleet vehicle. It's got to be the bull. We haven't seen a real bull since the guy stopped us at our abortive start in Denver. Oh, shit.

Hank has seen it, too. "Looks like the bull."

We've been too lazy, and now we can't get up to leave without being glaringly obvious, and there's nowhere to run to anyway. We're about to test the railroad's real degree of tolerance. We've gotten brazen about our designs. What else would two hirsute young men with backpacks intend when lying beneath a bush beside a railroad yard? The bull surely has seen us, surely must know. Now he's about to drive past us, not ten feet away. Hank's body language conveys no alarm. He's got the right idea, to play it cool. I hold still, try to relax. We can clearly see a man with a badge and mirrored glasses at the wheel. He glances in our direction - and stares right through us, keeps on going. Perhaps we're not exactly on railroad property, since we're lying on the far side of the road beyond the ditch. The letter of the law is obeyed. I'll be damned.

Two o'clock, almost on the dot. Anticipation. A group of men appear further down to the south in the yard, railroaders with grips and gym bags. They look to the north. A huge roaring sounds. Two of the giant Centennial locomotives appear, sandwiching and dwarfing a more typical unit between, pulling a long, long train: The Super Van, a mighty spectacle, mighty loud. The engines throttle up briefly as the train slows, the dynamic braking making its distinctive noise, the diesel-electric equivalent of downshifting. They stop only a few hundred yards away. The crew gets off, bags in hand, the men on the ground ready to climb aboard. No point in concealment, and no sign of the white car. We heft our packs and walk back along the train, slowly at first, then hurrying. We walk past dozens of empty flat cars designed to carry truck trailers. We're not in a hurry to do that again - and there aren't even any trailers to provide shade. Where can we ride? I'm getting anxious, but then Hank spots a gondola car with three 8-foot-tall wooden packing crates inside. Looks like there's just a little bit of room behind on the trailing end of the last box. There aren't any other rideable cars in sight.

"Go for the vestibule again?"

"Yeah, looks like the only game in town."

We scramble across the road, down the ditch until we find the next pedestrian bridge, back toward our car, almost running. We don't want to lose out. Hurrying. We don't know how tight the crew change will be. It doesn't look like we won't find anything better. We're back in the land where the bull might care, but there's still no sign of him. The head end is a quarter mile away by now. Here's our car, almost home. Hank's up the ladder, his pack over the side. No water in this one. I'm after him, up, up, over the top. Shit, shit, shit. We're here. There's a six-foot gap between the last crate and the end of the car and a layer of compacted sand at the bottom. We avoid the front of the car, since loads can shift forward and crush the unwary. We don't notice until later another danger behind us: a load of pipes in another gondola that could in a sudden stop slide forward like enormous cookie cutters. Looking forward, we see that they have switched a few cars onto the front of the train, then we're ready to go by about 2:15. The landscape starts to move.

We wind through a maze of yard tracks. The yard narrows into a neck of a few tracks then expands again into another yard. I'll be damned! There are the two elegant passenger depots, one for the Rio Grande, another for the UP. Too bad they're not much used. Then, as I look and try to decide if it's worth taking a picture, the head end of our train, magically and at last, curve to the west, diving under ugly highway overpasses, incongruously down the middle of a street, under more freeways, out of town, out of town, accelerating. Wow. Hot damn! The old feeling is back. Riding a freight is not as much fun as driving one, yet it's still mighty fine.

But we're going the wrong way.