So college ended, and nothing happened. There were some epic freight train adventures - lasting months. But my 25th year was under way and I ain't cut out to be a total nothing in Denver, Colorado. 30 is right around the corner, so is 40, etc. and of course death some years (hopefully) later. It was time for a change so I joined up with the US Coast Guard, to begin basic training at Cape May, New Jersey on February 23, 2009. I learned my exact report date was Dec. 23. In the meantime with no job it was time to hit the rails a few more times. My friend Jeff in Missoula has 6 acres, which are closer to Arlee actually on Hwy 93 north of town. He has a guest house and plenty of space, and offered to let me crash for a week or so before shipping out. My dismal situation in a undisclosed relatives's basement in Lakewood CO would be difficult to bear for the whole wait, and of course trains are a source of so much joy, so the obvious choice was to make way for Missoula at the expense of BNSF and Montana Rail Link. Yeah, it's cold but I have done colder, believe me. On a Thursday night in late January I packed my red and black North Face Patrol Pack, which is about 2500 cubic inches with much to be desired, as the straps are woefully thin causing really achy shoulders, and a tendency to disgorge contents out the top if not tightly cinched. But my better and bigger Gregory Gravity pack was O/s from another train trip. As the bag's drawstring was pulled tight, the interior contained the following: 1 North Face Foxfire sleeping bag, rated to 0 degrees with 700+ loft down. It was purple but is very soiled with train dirt from previous trips and is a lot darker now, with much oil at the head end. 1 windup made in China radio/LED flashlight. No need for batteries ever! 1 set of extra clothes to remain clean and unworn until arriving at destination. 7 Hamms icy beers in cans. 1 radio shack PRO 83 scanner. The Iliad. And some other stuff that must not have been important because I can't remember it.
From Denver to Missoula, a traveler has 3 rail options. All 3 are time consuming and require multiple trains. Here is a complete description of each. Route 1 is the old C&S (Now BNSF) from Denver to Laurel, MT, and then the old Northern Pacific (now Montana Rail Link) to Missoula. The entire distance is 1000 miles (640 Denver to Laurel, 360 Laurel to Missoula) Subdivisions covered are the BNSF Front Range subdivision from Denver to Wendover, BNSF Canyon sub Wendover to Orin,(sharing track for 20 miles with Powder River Basin coal trains) Casper sub Orin to Laurel, and then MRL 1st and 2nd Subdivisions. From Denver to Laurel there are 1-4 trains daily and it varies each day. As of 12/08 the following train symbols could be found on the line: HDENLAU and HLAUDEN daily manifests between Denver and Laurel, HLINLAU/HLAULIN (which also runs as the KCKLAU some days) runs Laurel to Wendover but continues on the Valley sub through Guernsey and Scotsbluff to Alliance and Lincoln (KCK) and the opposite, also a daily GM. HPASSSAG Pasco WA to Saginaw TX daily GM, no northbound counterpart - don't ask me how the cars get back to Pasco. HBRLAU Northbound only Brownwood, TX to LAU. runs with a DPU several times a week. HBONGV Molten sulfur unit tank trains north and south from Bonneville, WY to Galveston, TX, runs with DPU going south only, 2-3 a week each way. QDENTAC and QTACDEN double stack container trains Denver to Tacoma and back, 3 times a week w no set schedule. From Laurel heading west, 4-7 trains a day in each direction, almost all of which travel to at least Spokane and most to Pasco. These were recently the GMS HPASSAG, HLAUSPO, HPASKCK, HPASLAU. All but the PASSAG have EBD counterparts. Then there are coal and grain loads going west, with no schedule or certain allotment per day. Sometimes there are 4, sometimes none. And lastly, the QDENTAC, best of all but rare.
Route 2 consists of the BNSF Brush, Angora, and then either Black Hills and Bighorn subdivisions to Laurel or Valley, Canyon and Casper sub to Laurel, and then the same as Route 1. This requires riding DPUs on coal empties almost the entire distance. From Denver there are 10+ empties a day all with DP which proceed east to Sterling and then north to Bridgeport, NE. From there, depending on which mine the train is headed to, either to Guernsey, WY or Alliance, NE. There is no way I know of to determine which way your headed but most of em go to Guernsey. If ending up in Guernsey, a hobo basically has to wait for the 1 GM a day, the KCKLAU or LINLAU depending on the day,to proceed to Casper and Laurel. Or catch into the mine district on an empty - we'll cover that later. If the train goes to Alliance from Bridgeport, one can board a coal empty in Alliance heading north and get almost to Gillette, WY (Donkey Creek yard to be exact, 10 miles east of Gillette where the Joint Line to the mines branches off south), then hike to Gillette and the crew change there to board coal loads going west, only SOME of which go to Laurel and you can't tell 'em apart. But back to Alliance, NE - if you are patient, there is 1 GM a day from KCK to Pasco, which goes through Missoula. It the only GM on the line. So this route is a minimum 2 trains to Missoula and at least 2 full days.
Route 3 is Union Pacific from Denver to Pocatello, and then north to Silver Bow, MT, with a hundred mile hitch to Missoula. So this one is the Greeley Subdivision Denver to Speer (or Cheyenne), Laramie Sub, Rawlins, Green River, Pocatello Sub and finally Montana Sub to Silver Bow. 3 GMs a day go north on UP, the Denver to Green River, Denver North Platte and North Yard North Platte. Then lots of 'em west to Green River. With car tracing one can find the Pokey trains. But the problem is the UP train to Silver Bow. Its supposed to be daily but I have waited in Pokey and never seen it a couple days. And one time in Silver Bow I saw the northbound arrive light power only (engines only without cars). And I hate hitching. So this was ruled out.
So what I did as most other hobos would is to make way to North Pecos Boulevard to wait for BNSF on the old C&S. At most wait a day, and get the DENLAU almost the whole way. The coal empty idea sounded nice due to the comfort of dupes, but who could tell how long I would wait in Guernsey for the 1 GM. And it was just possible to get a DENTAC the entire distance with quick crew changes and priority, probably just a day and a half total trip if I lucked out.
I got there Thursday night and set up camp after downing 2 beers. The last 2 times I was in Cheyenne, NB GM trains from Denver had pulled in at daybreak so it seemed worth getting the night before my planned departure date. North Pecos Blvd. crosses the yard throat of the ex DRGW now UP North Yard just south of I-76. The BN Front Range subdivision comes out of here too and my exact location was underneath an overpass where the UP Belt Line connecting the Moffat Tunnel and Greeley subdivisions.
In my many stays under this bridge waiting for NBD trains, they had always pulled out at 10 mph and retained the easy speed for at least another mile out of the yard. So my position under the overpass would provide for an easy nab as long as the train was long enough to give me time to get packed. Soon after I had dozed off a NBD indeed pulled out. I looked to see 2 road units on the front of a GM - the DENLAU always has 3, so this was most likely the Longmont Turn local going only 40 miles north and terminating. But more importantly the train gunned it much sooner than I assumed, and before I could get everything packed, the tail end whizzed past at 25 mph. The train had accelerated as soon as the rear had cleared the yard about 2000 feet up the tracks. So I decided to pack and move further up there to not be ditched by the next train. Fortunately some empty semi trailers were parked in the grass much closer to the yard limits, so I got inside one and returned to rest.
The next day a NBD slowly passed at 11:50 am - definitely the DENLAU because it had ZAHORI asphalt tankers and lumber racks. But almost no rides - it was a short train and my stuff was not packed when the first ACF porched grainers passed. Then there was a loaded rail tie car and a rare loaded centerbeam flat. I passed these up as they were not ideal. A string of at least 30 tanks appeared and finally 2 empty lumber skeletons at the end of the train. There was no choice but to board an empty red lumber rack and hope to not be seen. Some lumber cars have a short partition at each end of the car separating the 2 halves of the car and blocking the other half from view - a 50% reduction in the chance of being seen. But this one did not have that partition so I produced my yellow wool blanket and cloaked myself and the pack for the many grade crossings ahead. At least the snitch could provide no description of me to the police dispatch. The train picked up speed and I calmly remained under the blanket for the half hour trip out of the metro area.
The blanket worked completely - there were no stops but for one near Longmont to get a new track warrant from the Front Range dispatcher - it's nice to have a scanner to know what's going on. The train nudged through Longmont at 10 mph, through numerous grade crossings with 50 or more cars waiting - I was at the end of the train after all. Then through a median between streets on each side - but no problemo as speed picked up north of town. The towns of Berthoud and Loveland - unfortunately swelling with out of state soft handed flatlanders - were soon behind, with only Fort Collins between me and the High Plains. The train reached a crawl again as the head units penetrated the CSU campus and then cruised right down Mason Street. I knew this area to be laid back so I made no effort to stay hidden. Instead I grabbed some beers and tried to hand them to students and passerbys - but the brain dead frat ghouls were oblivious. Not one person grabbed one and few noticed me even if standing close to the tracks. I realized that the conversion of freedom loving independent Americans to soulless zombies is nearly complete but for those who have willfully not been gelded by anti-depressants, TV and mindless occupations. I am not sure even one person was paying any attention to the train as it passed - except it was delaying their important business of text messaging, carousing and TV watching. I hope we have a great depression.
The train stopped at the small yard just north of town to interchange cars with the Budweiser brewery close by. It was a good time to find a better ride - and so I walked towards the front of the train. A porched grainer was just ahead of those annoying tankers. I approached and was amazed to see a guy hunched down in the manhole! A Mexican in his 40s or so - I walked up to talk with him. There was some kind of stinky organic material - maybe soybeans all over the porch and manhole. But he had ridden this one from Denver. I knew limited Spanish and he knew some English - but there was no need for a long chat. He was headed to Cheyenne - I told him my plans and he responded "very - frio - you must have warm sleeping bag" I noticed he had only a day pack - hopefully he had a place to crash there because it was approaching sunset and cooling off quickly. I left him to move further up the train. It would soon be dark and cold - time to get in the third unit at the next available opportunity.
I boarded a porched grainer 10 back from the units - it was not quite dark enough to get in there unseen yet. Fortunately the train stopped at a siding 20 miles north. As the SBD slowly passed on the siding, another hobo was sitting on a grainer rolling past and we both saw each other for a moment and waved. Then I made a break for the third engine and got in right in time. The heat was on and I turned the radio to channel 70 to listen in on the conversations.
My hope had been that the train would stop for just a few minutes in Cheyenne. If it was a long wait, there would be time to go get food somewhere. I have often noticed that on this line, the inbound crew will radio either the yard in Cheyenne or the dispatcher for instructions on what to do with the train upon arrival. If the outbound crew is ready to take the train further, the dispatcher will tell the inbound crew, meaning that one crew van will drive the new crew out to the train and pick up the old one. Or the arriving crew will be directed to tie it down (set the handbrakes on the front 10 or so cars and sometimes shut down the engines) if the train will be there a while. In Cheyenne, NBD trains almost always crew change at a grade crossing before entering the yard, rather than pulling into the yard which stretches into the high security FE Warren Air Force base, which begins where the I-25 overpass crosses the yard. But on the approach I learned that there was no crew on duty, but on this occasion they would park it inside the base. Bad news. I would have to stay on the third engine into the base and wait it out - there are cameras at the entrance under the I-25 overpass, so it would not be possible to get off for a food break and walk in later without possibly being seen by Air Force security personnel. Reluctantly I ducked into the bathroom as the train crawled deep into the base and pulled to a stop. Shortly after, a crew member walked in to shut down the engine. He did not check the john fortunately. After a few minutes he left and I emerged to see the I-25 overpass far behind, and the entire length of the train deep inside the base at 7 pm.
My windup radio quickly found some country stations and I sat placidly for a while. I would just keep a lookout for the new crew, and then get in the bathroom when they came inside to start up the engine. A warm ride to Casper would follow. But after several hours I became drowsy. Ordinarily I would just go to sleep there, and hopefully a crew member would be OK with me there and if not, just tell me to leave. But inside the base was a different story - definitely not worth the risk of getting snitched to the feds. So I packed my gear and decided to make a break for a gondola filled with capped pipes I had noticed about 15 cars back. Supposedly there's infrared in this base but I decided to risk the walk. I quickly exited the cab and walked down the ballast in the darkness. I looked back once - GEEZ there were cameras right there pointed at me about 500 feet away. Too late now. I continued walking to the gondola. There was ample room in front of the pipes - but always the chance of getting smushed during a jolting stop. So I crammed into the back of the gondola with not much room to spare and got ready for bed. In the process I noticed some sort of grease on the pipes - I could only feel it, and rued getting in this car already. But I was totally out of sight from the cameras so I sat tight and hoped no one had seen me switch cars.
At 1:30 the train finally aired up and pulled out. Thankfully I remained undetected and after clearing the base the train accelerated into the uninhabited starlit Wyoming landscape. It was not tough to get sleep for a while.
For 40 or so miles out of Cheyenne the terrain is hilly with curves so the speed is not high. But then there is this long descent and straightaway into Chugwater and then Wheatland where good speed is allowed. I awoke to find my gondola swaying violently like a cement mixer - which was surprising as I had always assumed loaded cars were heavy enough to remain stable. I had no choice but to stand up until this section ended. In total darkness the train rocketed through Chugwater - a lifeless landscape with some ambient starlight reflecting off old crusty snow. The speed was exhilarating but mostly annoying due to the rocking. Then the speed dropped off from Wheatland on.
At Wendover the train stopped at the junction onto the busy Canyon subdivision where many PRB coal trains pass daily. There is a dilapidated old 2 story house right where the 2 lines merge, and I observed it sitting glumly there while several empties clacked past. Then it was my train's turn to proceed. The 6 mile Wendover canyon was snow covered and the North Platte running through was frozen and motionless at dawn.
The trip continued up the North Platte for several more hours, during which I lay motionless in my sleeping bag with the hood and blanket totally covering my face. I clicked on the scanner hoping to hear what the plan was for the train after reaching the first few grade crossings of Casper but could not make anything out on account of background noise. I got everything packed in case of being seen by workers or anyone else in the yard. The train entered the yard limits several tracks over from the mainline and finally stopped. I watched intently as the crew dismounted the head unit with their belongings and walked to the nearby depot. They did not set handbrakes so I assumed that a new crew would be right out. But 20 minutes later nothing had happened. I was famished and so decided to find a store or fast food restaurant close by. A Taco John's was close enough to the front of the train so if it pulled out I would probably make it in time.
After the Taco John's I returned to the train for a while and plopped down on a grainer porch. No activity. Hours passed with no end in sight to the wait. Then another northbound pulled in - a good sign that something would leave soon as 2 of 3 full length yard tracks were now occupied and the management, I assume, did not want the crew change area getting clogged up with trains. More hours passed though and I was beginning to get frustrated. Then the more recent arrival aired up and nudged forward so I boarded a grainer porch. It then stopped and the air broke - a brakemen was only a few cars ahead. Immediately after seeing him another brakemen - a 20-something with a hoodie - came from behind and spotted me there. But he was apparently nonplussed, and after asking if I needed to get off he shrugged and said that the train was not leaving yet - this was a yard crew just switching some cars out and that it would be hours before it left. He lugged a FRED up to the new rear of the much shorter train and attached it. "So what about this one - when is it going?" I motioned to the DENLAU. "That's gonna be at least 4 more hours. They have slowed the line down quite a bit now that there's less trains on it" He elaborated that the Brownwood Laurel and PASSAG had been discontinued just a few weeks previous. "How about doublestacks - anything getting close going north?" "Not for several days. These 2 here are it for the rest of today. But neither are leaving for hours. Anyway I can't keep talking to you for too long." I took a hint and decided to wait off the property and perhaps walk around the town since it would be several hours.
With my gear I hiked to the street and hiked the long way up to the yard throat to stash it. From the safety of public property I noticed that I could no longer see the train they had been switching - it must have backed up to add more cars or something. But then I reached the north end of the yard and walked across the tracks there to directly in there - it was gone, for a fact, now probably miles north of town and blazing towards Greybull. Those punks had misled me and I would be hours behind schedule for this. Maybe it was intentional or maybe not - I set my stuff down in disgust and went back to Taco John's.
At dark my train was still there - I checked out the bleak nightlife situation of Casper - surprised to see several posh clubs with neon martini shaped signs. Lots of huge pickups noisily rattled past with young redneck types, and as usual there were zero pedestrians anywhere. I returned to the train very late and rolled out the sleeping bag - who knew when this would leave, it had been here 14 hours already. Finally it aired up, just to switch off cars and remain motionless again for hours. At 4 am it then pulled out towards Laurel - a layover of 18 hours. Filled with frustration, I was certain that I would not return on this route except in event of a TACDEN. The long wait had set me back almost an entire day and I was unable to contain serious frustration.
The next morning was ice cold. When the train pulled into some sort of siding - there were cars on it so it was not meeting another train here - I quickly packed things up to make a break for a unit if possible. The conductor dismounted and the engineer pulled up further and onto a sharp curve - no better opportunity. When the train stopped I bolted up the frozen ballast and got in just as the engineer began backing up. I turned the radio to ch 44 to listen in - and when the engineer spoke I was surprised to hear a lovely woman's voice. I got in the bathroom once again as the conductor attached the engine to some new cars and then walked in for a moment to warm up. He didn't need to use the john and so I remained undetected. Then I heard "in the clear" over the radio, and shortly after we kept heading north. I returned to the cab and looked back - they had cut half the train at least, including my car - and left it on this remote siding! only 35 cars were left. Good thing I had made the move when I had.
In Greybull I was pleased to hear that the new crew was already on duty. A pickup pulled up next to the head engine and 2 guys with duffels got out of the bed and manned the train. Clearly things were a little more relaxed in this small Wyoming town with no police department. I hid once again but nobody came back here this time and the train pulled out just minutes after arriving.
The scenery was fairly bleak from then on, and I lay on the floor most of the time anyway as the crew could easily be seen 2 engines up and so I would be too if they chose to look back. The 110 mile stretch to Laurel passed quickly and I prepared to get off as we pulled into the restricted limits. My plan was to bail on a curve just north of the Cenex refinery where the C&S branches off form the MRL mainline in downtown Laurel, as the train would probably not stop til the east edge of the yard which was miles from DT. There is an open field there and about 50 feet of track blocked from motorists view by the train. I quickly tossed my bag off there and then slipped and biffed it down the ladder, landing on my hands - very fortunately not being dragged by a strap or piece of loose clothing. I was uninjured and had gloves on so there was no problem. Then I got the stuff and walked away from the tracks. Nobody had seen me get off.
It was still light so I decided to hitchhike - the I-90 onramp was a short run from the yard so I could probably nab a westbound if one showed up. But immediately I was picked up by a nice lady from the Crow reservation near Sheridan WY, heading to Bozeman, 140 miles west. Because it was after dark I got dropped off in Livingston instead, which is 20 miles closer but a guaranteed stop for trains to add helpers. I quickly gave up on hitching in darkness and instead walked into the city center and purchased a 6 pack of Full Sail IPA cold ones to wait there. I had been here before and knew that all trains except stack trains stopped right DT for 20 - 30 minutes.
I heard a horn from the east soon after, and a loaded unit grain train cruised past and then quickly stopped. Dammit - the only ride available was a DPU at least a mile back there. I quickly jogged - they did not f around here one bit the last time I had come through here. On the way down there I heard a whistle from across the street and turned to see a silhouetted guy with a cowboy hat standing in the doorway of a business. "HEY - YOU NEED A PLACE TO STAY?" God where was this guy when I really needed him. "I DON'T THINK SO. BUT I MIGHT BE BACK IN A FEW MINUTES IF I DO." "WELL IF YOU NEED A PLACE I WILL BE HERE" I shouted a thankyou back and kept going. It sounded nice actually but I was too far behind schedule to delay any longer.
Further down the track I noticed the end of the train - there was no DPU on it. This train was short - honestly it seemed only half as long as I had expected. I guess I would take the guy up after all. But I decided to see if it had a FRED on it - and it did not. I guess they were adding rear end helpers over the pass. Sure enough I saw engines coming up on the rear to attach. No dice there - MRL uses manned helpers, and they would be taken off either on the fly or in Bozeman. Not worth trying to board. I began walking back to the guy's shop when I had a thought - I had not ever looked to see what was behind the helpers. I turned and ran back towards the rear of the train as it aired up. Then it moved forward, and I kicked myself for being so stupid:the other half of the grain load was behind the helpers - they had cut the train in half, pulled the first half forward, and then spliced in helpers. The helpers pulled the second half up to the first and attached, reconnecting the whole train. There was no chance for getting this one - they gunned it hard to get speed for the steep pass. And indeed there was a DPU, chugging full blast at 25 mph and roaring into the darkness. Another stupid mistake had cost me big time. So I went over to the guy's shop. "THE MONTANA TAILOR" declared the sign on the prefab store building adjacent to the tracks. Indeed I saw the guy through the window sitting in a chair motionless. I knocked and he rose to let me in.
The store was filled with vintage tailoring and leatherworking equipment. And the man - he looked much like Mel Gibson and was dressed from the past with wool trousers and cardigan in addition to the hat. I learned much about him and I can only say that he was an interesting character and generous to feed me. I was soon asleep on the floor knowing a night train would be here but I would probably miss it. And sure enough in the darkest hours I woke up only when the rear helpers roared past on another Westbound. The bad luck continued.
I got up very early - before sunrise to be certain not to miss another one. But it was not until 11:30 that another train came - another grain load. I thanked the man for letting me stay and rushed out the door. "Generosity" had cost me another 12 hours. I stayed on the main road paralleling the tracks as the helpers once again dragged the last 50 cars up to the first. I made it to the DPUs with time to spare and began walking up the embankment to get on when what the hell - a white pickup came around the back of the train towards me. Enraged, I bolted off the property and behind some trees. I could not believe it - MRL as a fact had hired Securitas to patrol the Missoula and Helena yards - but to find one here was amazing. I had encountered them in other yards and could confirm that only the stupidest, laziest losers were hired by this firm - obviously much cheaper than hiring a real railroad police officer. But this guy had to have seen me and now I was looking at another frustrating delay - not just frustrating this time but enraging. Sure enough the pickup slowly drove down the road next to the tracks. I looked at the orange engines there - no way to get there without being in plain view of this dumbass. He continued driving down the tracks. HMMM maybe he did not see me after all. It would be any minute now - I was surprised the train was still here. The security guard was now 1500 feet away. He then turned the truck around to come back as the train aired up. with force of will I said "FUCK THIS" and made a run for it knowing that he would undoubtedly see me. I ran full speed up to a ladder and climbed up, wrenching the door open and then shutting it behind me. The speed was still picking up and I peeked out to see the guard drive slowly past - no indication of being seen! Being the educated hobo I am I turned the radio to the road channel - nothing to be heard. Amazingly I was home free as we chugged out of Livingston. This DPU would provide warm comfort all the way to Missoula. I cheerfully cracked a beer and took a seat.
The landscape had little snow on it from Bozeman to Helena. The pace was fairly quick for a while, through a large canyon west of - . Then the train crawled up some hills for the last 50 miles to Helena. Darkness set in when arriving in the capitol - and thankfully the new crew was already waiting. Then it was time to cut in more helpers west of town. My train was long enough to block a crossing during this process - and once again a white Securitas pickup slowly drove down the right of way! Unbelievable - this kind of surveillance in mid winter - VERY few hobos come through here outside of summer. But again he just drove around like a jackass - I began to realize that these Securitas losers are probably not even allowed to get on cars or engines and are very limited in their powers - really just glorified snitches. The train got going over the pass and then down the other side into the Clark Fork valley for the final 70 miles. Speed was 50 the whole way after clearing the pass and I got my phone out to call Jeff to get picked up. Before midnight the train entered the Missoula city limits, and I bailed at easy speed right before the yard throat. Then it was a 20 mile ride in Jeff's Solara up to his home in Arlee, which shares 6 acres with his used car lot and mini golf course.
As far as the stay went - well, its a nice quiet location with a view of mountains and wooded hills. There is a hot tub on the back porch looking out over icy peaks - very pleasant on a moonlit night. and the rest is the usual folderol that is not part of a gripping narrative.
I decided to give Craigslist ride share a try - I would gladly split gas to get back - or some of the way even. A ride to Laurel or Pocatello would be great and of course Sheridan/Gillette would be even better. Long story short, 3 pothead types called my mobile phone saying they were going - after which 3 pothead types called to flake out. Actually I had to call 2 of em to confirm and instead confirmed that they were flaking out. So after a week it was time to resort to the usual methods to get back.
I got dropped off at the onramp at 12:20 on Sunday the 8th. And all worked as planned - 4 rides had me to Laurel at 8:30 - not much longer than if I had driven myself. The rides were nice - some students, a nice older lady and an 18 year old National Guard member from Livingston to Laurel. But hitchhiking is boring so I won't mention the details.
Anyway, in Laurel my intention was to first check the mainline 1.5 miles east of DT for a possible coal empty going to Gillete, and then wait near the city center in case a SBD showed up. The National Guard soldier drove me east from DT to the yard - nothing was parked in the crew change area so I walked back to DT and went to Hardees. The Laurel Hardees always seems to have a great special - this time it was 2 Cheddar Melts for 3.33 so I got 4. I got them in separate batches to avoid ol' no. 6.66 in this sales tax free state. As soon I finished I saw train headlights coming from the west. With hope I watched as the train approach. I hoped dearly for a coal empty with DPU - a certain ride to Gillette. And it was. Finally a change in luck. This particular train stopped with the head end just past the Hardees - well before the spot far east of here where mainline trains usually stopped to change crews. It was dark but I could make out guys with duffels getting on and off. I guess there is a small MRL company hotel right by the tracks in DT Laurel. Then the empty jolted forward with much slack action. Hopefully it would not speed up before the DP engines passed.
Indeed this was an extra long coal train - I have watched many pass and am certain there were 15 - 20 extra cars on this one. But the speed was low as the ditch lights of two 4600 horsepower late model orange locomotives became visible. I had no trouble boarding at 10 mph. The train cruised slowly through the yard and then gunned it to Billings where speed dropped off through the yard. I slept from there to Sheridan where the train stopped to crew change very early in the morning.
After Sheridan, it got light out and snow started to fall. The completely uninhabited bleak landscape between Sheridan and Gillette passed fairly quickly. I prepared for the next leg of the trip. From previous experience I knew that this train would change crews at a grade crossing just west of the Gillette yard, which is not long enough to hold a coal train between crossings. The train would then proceed several miles further to Donkey Creek Junction and head south into the Powder River Basin coal mine district. The PRB line is better known as the Joint Line (cooperatively owned by UP and BNSF) and is not an efficient hobo line because no trains travel the whole distance - they come in from both the north and south ends of the line and go to mines in the interior, after which they leave in the direction from which they came. A much better plan for a hobo in this area is to walk or hitch on I - 90 from Gillette to Donkey Creek Jct and wait for a loaded train coming out of the Joint Line. Most of the loads coming out of here make a hard right to the southeast towards Edgemont, SD and then Alliance NE. From Alliance any southbound load is going to Denver. So I planned to walk to Donkey Creek because this train would probably not stop there on its way into the PRB - and might be stopped in Gillette for hours anyway.
It was a good idea - but the train aired up just minutes after it stopped. I could not pass it up and so decided to chance that it might stop or slow down through Donkey creek. The small Gillette yard slid past and the train left the city limits at 25 mph.
My first observation was that it was WAAY further to Donkey Creek yard than I had remembered. There is no way i could have walked it - the mileposts just kept ticking away. The Gillette yard had been 600 or something close - anyway, Donkey Creek was 10 miles east. Impossible. And the train was not slowing down as it approached the junction. 22 mph was dangerous territory even for a real pro. The wheels jolted over 3 mainlines before settling on main 4 and gunning it up a hill into the PRB. Dammit - this could get dicey depending on which mine this one was going to. Some of these mines only serviced 1 - 2 trains a day. Two stopped loads were parked right at the Joint Line entrance - both with KCKX markings meaning a certain turn to the right up ahead and eventual arrival at Kansas City energy or whatever it was called. One of 'em nudged helplessly forward after my train cleared - but of no use to me.
Anyway this is a busy area with 4 mainlines, several large hills requiring manned helpers, and LOTS of trains, empty and loaded going in both directions. My train sped up to 45 mph and began passing mine after mine, many of which had manned trains parked waiting to enter the mainline. Miles and miles passed - this train was pulling deep into the district. The fortunate fact was that most of these mines had access tracks from both north and south directions. So a smart traveler could catch one train into a mine and then catch a second train leaving the mine in the opposite direction - not too difficult in theory to travel the whole joint line from Gillette to Guernsey. This method might turn out to be quicker than the Alliance route after all.
40 miles deep in the PRB my train pulled east off the mains into a monstrous mine facility, which was actually about 3 miles off the mainlines. It was snowy with minimal visibility - but I saw for a fact shiny tracks splitting off to the south. Hopefully lots of trains came through this mine and I would not wait long. My train slowed down and pulled to a stop miles off the mainline to wait for clearance into the loader.
The landscape was bleak and snow covered. Some sort of 2 lane highway ran adjacent to the tracks, with plenty of traffic headed back and forth from the mine. I had been to this exact mine 1.5 years earlier in summer - Black Thunder it was called and it was a very busy one with probably 20 trains a day in and out. Half of them were UP headed for North platte and half of the remainder were BN going north outta here, so I could be waiting a while but not too long. As long as I stayed unaccosted by sheriffs and workers there was a chance this might actually save a lot of time. I recalled from last time that the main problem with Black Thunder was that it was tough to tell which way a loaded train was headed at the junction. Trains were moving fairly fast by the time they reached the junction miles 2 from the mine - almost certainly too fast to board there. The idea of bailing out of the DPU upon seeing the head end turn the wrong way came up, but it was risky speed and visibility was minimal anyway so that idea was out. On a day like this I would need to either guess, or ID a train based on the 4 letter ownership markings on the cars. Coal cars are generally owned by the power company they service and so each power company has a different 3 letters written on each side of its cars, always followed by an "X". I had a general idea of which ones went through Denver so this idea was a start.
I walked all the way to an overpass over the tracks right by the loader to wait. A UP train was crawling through at 1 mph and just about finished. It was a slow process loading one of these trains - 1 mph for 120 cars takes several hours. Than a BNSF began creeping forward into the loader - I guess only one at a time can pass thru.
The underside of the overpass was totally blank so I gladly tagged "STOBE KFC 2009" upon it with my paint pen - probably the only tag to ever grace those pillars.
I noticed that another single track branched off further back toward the mine entrance and led directly east towards what I assumed was another mine. Sure enough, some mining apparatus and orange locomotives attached to a train could be seen way out in the distance. Fortunately the snowstorm was subsiding a bit. Anyway, that extra track gave me some hope that a train might come sooner than it would take the empties at this mine to load. Either way, my spirits picked up a bit knowing that no matter what, I would not be stranded here for too long - probably not overnight. As long as whichever train I was on was not headed back towards Gillette and Sheridan.
Sitting impatiently under the bridge with noisy mine trucks passing overhead, powerful traction motors could be heard coming from the east. I got up to confirm that yes, a load was coming down the track I had seen earlier. I excitedly readied my pack to make a run for it. The car markings got close enough to read, and to my elation read: BNBX, and had little red markings on the corners. As a fact I had seen these BNBX cars in denver - there was just no way a power plant company could own plants on the Texas line and the KC line, right? I waited for the lead units to gain some distance and then ran down a steep hill from the overpass towards the track. Fortunately the train held an easy gait the whole time and I easily boarded a shiny orange SD70MAC in the snowy gusts. The speed soon picked up, and a mile later I watched the head end make a definite left turn towards Guernsey and Denver.
After clearing the mine property the train chugged up a steep hill and then cruised down another. The low snow clouds dissipated and a bleak, subtle but gorgeous as always Wyoming sunset unfolded over the Powder River Basin. Pastel colors gradually darkened into dark blue and finally black as numerous mines and northbound trains passed. The speed was an acceptable 40 mph for several hours before approaching the end of the Joint Line. Numerous automatic switches clacked underneath, and then 2 of the 4 mainlines diverged to the east - the Union Pacific route to North Platte. Orin Junction was the next divergence soon after - the lonely tracks splitting off towards Casper and Laurel disappeared into the gloom.
The next 20 miles shared tracks with the first route I had taken - which then clacked off to the south at Wendover. My train entered a long tunnel and then navigated the shore of Glendo Reservoir for a bit before easing into the Guernsey yard at 10 pm. The radio channel had changed somewhere back and so I did not know how long this train would be - but as my DPU came to a stop there was another parked southbound train right next to mine so it seemed safe to go look for food for 10 or so minutes. They would probably inspect the units here anyway.
Nothing was open in Guernsey but for a bar and a gas station - it's a very small and pointless town - but some dumpsters turned up enough pizza remnants to probably last me to Denver. I did not tarry - and when I got back to the train a worker was finishing up his daily inspection of the DPUs of both parked trains. I decided to wait outside to see which train nudged forward first - the other one probably would since it got there first. But it was the BNBX load from Black Thunder that indeed got underway first. I boarded it once again, and sat tight as the DPUs pulled slowly into a drive-thru refueling center and stopped with bright lights everywhere. I had been through these gas stations before in DPUs so I was not as worried under the bright lights as some might have been - after all the units had just been inspected, and the refuelling personnel saw countless trains in a career. Why bother coming inside? And nobody did. My train pulled out again and I hit the hay leaving the Guernsey yard.
Daybreak occurred somewhere south of Northport, Nebraska - the train had covered about 200 miles since Guernsey. With a couple of stops at sidings the train pulled into Sterling, Colorado, quickly changed crews, and continued east towards Denver. I was pleased to see a STOBE KFC tag from months earlier still emblazoned on the crossing box right downtown. Then the rest of the trip was uneventful as the load passed through Brush, Ft. Morgan, Wiggins, Keenesburg and finally into the Denver metro area. I called my dad to come pick me up which he was glad to do. The train slowed down through the Commerce City oil refinery area. I agreed to meet my dad at a cemetary next to the tracks about 1 mile east of the yard throat - hopefully the speed would be doable. Sure enough I saw his red Toyota Tacoma pickup parked by the cemetary gate. The speedometer hovered at 18 mph, which is borderline to say the least. I grabbed my pack, opened the cab nose door and descended the stairs to the bottom. The ground was moving pretty fast. As the train approached the crossing where my dad was parked I dropped the pack and lowered my feet onto the elevated ground of the crossing and let go of the railing. I deftly hit the ground running and came to a stop 10 feet later. I definitely could have got off at a higher speed. Anyway that's the last trip I did before leaving for the Coast Guard.