Many times I've sat in a freezing boxcar on a siding somewhere and watched the sleek Amtrak trains glide by, with happy, smiling people sitting in warm, comfortable chairs, and using warm, comfortable toilets. "How hard could it be to hop one of these?", I thought.
I figured that I needed to learn as much about riding with a ticket as I could in order to prepare me for what might happen when I rode without one. The plan was to pay for a trip that would include at least one or two stops enroute, so I hopped a freight from Dunsmuir to Eugene and purchased a ticket for the ride back on Amtrak.
Fortunately I got a fairly clean boxcar to ride in on the way up, so I didn't look like a zombie while mixing with the paying patrons on the way back. Bailing off on the fly as soon as we slowed enough coming into the yard, I realized that I didn't have a clue as to what time the southbound Amtrak train would arrive. Mistake number one. Not wanting to have it pass me on the mile or two walk back to the depot, I hurried as best I could and staggered up to the ticket window at the precise time that the arrival of my train was announced over the loudspeaker. I was informed that I would have to purchase my ticket from the Conductor once I boarded the train, as they stop selling tickets at the window at some period before arrival, which I immediately forgot. Mistake number two.
Tempted as I was to merely "board" the train and then not buy a ticket from the Conductor, I relented and after climbing into the nearest car once the train stopped I found some nice carpeted shelves inside to leave my pack on, and then walked upstairs and to get my bearings. The first thing I noticed was that there were actually several people walking around in what I assumed was an Amtrak uniform, and I wasn't sure just who was the Conductor. Am I supposed to seek him out to buy the ticket, or does he find me? How does he know that I need to buy a ticket in the first place? I didn't look any different from a number of the people on board, so what would give me away as someone who hasn't payed yet?
Finally I couldn't stand it anymore, so I thought that I'd go forward (or was it backward?) to the "Lounge Car" and await my fate while swilling a beer. As I suspected, everything sold on the train was a rip off, and I tried to suck as much enjoyment as I could out of my overpriced Budweiser. Emboldened as I was after guzzling the beer, I approached the first Amtrak person I saw and offered to buy my ticket, but was informed that I need to find the Conductor, who was now supposedly making his rounds in the next car. I thanked whomever it was I'd been talking to, then walked into the next car, almost colliding with the Conductor in the narrow vestibule between them. I told him that I need to buy a ticket and he asked me what car I was in. Since at that instant I actually was in whatever car we were standing in, and I had a slight feeling that it wasn't the car he was asking about, I said that I was just hanging out in the Lounge Car. This caused a slight grimace on his face, and I noticed that I was now back in the Lounge Car, strangely enough, and sensed that he might have thought that I was making a jest of his question. He then asked me where I was going, to which I answered Dunsmuir, and he said that I should just take my seat in the "Dunsmuir" car and he would be there shortly to sell me the ticket. Not having a clue which of the almost identical cars was the Dunsmuir car, I walked away in the same direction that he seemed to be travelling, hoping to find some clue as to which car I was supposed to wait in.
Making it through the next vestibule without a collision, I was horrified to discover that I didn't have a clue as to which car I stowed my pack in. Not wanting to put off the impending ticket purchase any longer than was necessary, I decided to stay put, as I noticed some small colored bits of paper sticking out of slots in the luggage rack above the seats, and several of them were labelled "DUN". To doublecheck, I leaned over and asked a woman reading an Amtrak schedule if this was the Dunsmuir car, and she said that it had better be, because that's where she was getting off. Feeling much better now, I found an empty seat and plopped down. The first thing I realized was that it was very warm in this car, almost to the point of being hot, and in my haste to board the train in Eugene I had left all of my cold weather freighthopping clothes on. Another thing I noticed was that, with all of the interior lights on, it was almost impossible to see anything outside because of the reflections in the glass. To my delight as I was beginning to peel off a few layers of outer clothing the Conductor arrived, and immediately stopped alongside me and asked "Dunsmuir, huh?", to which I replied yes, and then he asked where I got on, to which I replied Eugene, and he countered with "Thirty-three dollars, please". Fortunately I had the correct amount, and before he left he put one of those little scraps of paper in the slot above my seat and, almost whispering, said that I could have got the same ticket for $24 if I'd purchased it from the ticket window at the depot.
Finally free to wander at will, I used the now-sleeping Amtrak schedule-reading lady as a landmark so I could find my way back, I set out to find my pack, which ended up being a couple of cars away. I stuffed all of my outerwear inside, and retrieved my last bottle of wine, then ducked into a closet-sized restroom, lowered the diaper changing shelf, sat down, took off my boots and socks and stuffed my feet into the tiny bowl that passes for a sink and took a scalding hot footbath. Between sips of wine I tried to sort out all of the information I had gleaned in my first half hour riding Amtrak. There were designated cars on the train to arrange for all of the occupants to get off at the same stop, I guess so that the engineer would know exactly where to stop the train at each station. It seemed that the people going the greatest distance were in cars at the rear of the train, but I wasn't completely sure about this, since I hadn't walked through every car on the train yet. Another thing that tripped me up was since the ride was so smooth, unless you could see outside it was actually difficult to tell which direction you were going, and since all of the cars look alike, I had to be very careful that I ended up in the same car as my pack when it was time to get off. After my footbath, I dried off with paper towels, guzzled some more wine, and then set off to stash the wine back in my pack and check out the Lounge Car again, for it seemed to be where all of the action was as the interior lights were now dimmed in the coach cars.
The first thing that I noticed about the Lounge Car was that the Conductor didn't check anyone for tickets, as, I assume, the people in the Lounge Car would have had their ticket stubs over their seats in the coach car, and didn't take them with them as they wandered throughout the train. So here was the solution to riding Amtrak for free — if a person remained in the Lounge Car for the entire trip, they might never be approached for a ticket. I could wait until the train had arrived at the station, then board with all the other passengers, stash my pack, then hang out in a bathroom until the train had been underway for awhile, then merely saunter over to the Lounge Car and nurse expensive beers while taking in the sights. What I didn't know was just how long one could remain in the Lounge Car without coming under suspicion, so a plan was hatched to secure one of those colored ticket stubs and then save it for the time I got tired of breathing all of the cigarette smoke in the Lounge Car and just park myself in an empty seat. Walking along the center aisle on a moving train meant that you were often required to grab hold of the overhead luggage rack to keep your balance as the train swayed back and forth, and this was the perfect time to grab a stub and make off with it. I practiced it a few times without taking any, then went back to my seat to check out just how much force was necessary to pull the stub free. I had learned a lot on my first trip, and next time it would be a "free" trip for sure.
Well, my first attempt at riding Amtrak for free didn't turn out as expected, but it was another learning experience for sure. I started in Oakland, a busy spot because lots of people would be getting on the train that went all the way to Chicago and beyond. I was more prepared this time because I carried along an empty green plastic Schweppes Ginger Ale bottle, which would be the perfect "home" to transfer my White Port into, so as not to arouse suspicion, as the dark green bottle made anything inside it look like Ginger Ale, and I could suckle the wine and not have to spend a fortune buying the over-priced beers on the train. The boarding went smoothly, and I hid in the bathroom until we had been moving for 10 minutes or so, then headed up to the Lounge Car, with my Schweppes in tow. This was almost too easy, as I made eye contact with the Conductor several times as he passed by and received no evil stares in return. Passing Sacramento we started up the western slope of the Sierra, and here is where I made a big mistake. Feeling a bit over confident, I poked around the sleepers until I found one that was empty, and walked inside, locked the door, and laid down for a nap. Approaching Truckee I was awakened by a knock on the door, and I opened it to see a very surprised looking steward, or whatever they call the Amtrak people who take care of the sleeping cars. He asked me what I was doing in there and I told him that I just needed to get away from all of the smoke in the Lounge Car, but, not buying this for a second, he called the Conductor, who made sure that I detrained in Truckee, but that was all there was — no ticket, no trip to jail, no cops waiting for me, just kicked off the train. It was like getting kicked off a freight train, but more politely, I guess. Well, I learned a lot more, and I was even more determined to try it again.
This time I waited until after school started in the Fall, so that there might be fewer people to deal with on the train, and a better chance of finding an empty seat. I showed up at the Oakland Amtrak station as before, and there were fewer people milling around this time. When I started to board, an "Amtrak person" asked me where I was going, which caught me completely off guard, but with a stroke of luck, there was a guy in a Broncos jacket standing nearby, so I quickly blurted out "Denver", and was told to walk over and board in the next car. Feeling relieved that at least I had a destination this time, I repeated the ritual of carefully stashing my pack, which this time had a total of three pre-filled Ginger Ale bottles of White Port near the top. Writing the car number down to eliminate panic-stricken sprints before detraining, I retrieved one of the bottles and began my period of dormancy in one of the restrooms. Allowing 10 or 15 minutes to be well clear of the station, I emerged with a light buz and looked forward to a relaxing day in the Lounge Car. Trying to find what passed for the non-smoking area, I sat down next to an old guy who wore a railroad cap bedecked with several buttons representing various railroads. Ahah! Maybe I could pick this guy's brain about Amtrak operations to help me with my deception, and pick I did, as he was more than happy to discuss even the most mundane details of a trip on a passenger train, as he was making a tour of the United States that summer and he was on his way back home to Chicago. I couldn't believe my luck, and hounded him for details that were important to me, but he probably thought that I was totally clueless about what to expect to see and do if one was travelling by train.
I thought that I should refrain from picking a seat until we passed Reno, as the old guy said that there would be a change of personnel then, and I thought I'd try my luck with a conductor that hadn't seen me before. As Reno came and went, it was time to make my move, because I figured that we wouldn't be picking up many passengers in Nevada during the middle of the night. After hanging out in the Lounge Car for a few hours sucking down White Port, I completely forgot where the "Denver" car was, so I began the now-familiar task of walking through one car and then the next one, etc. trying to read the tiny writing on the ticket stubs as the train rocked from side to side. Next time, I thought to myself, I'd complete this step before I started drinking, as merely walking along without bumping into other people was a challenge. I did find several seats with what looked like a "DEN" written on the stub, but I couldn't be absolutely sure, and all of those seats were occupied. I couldn't get up the nerve to grab a stub with someone sitting right underneath, so I took a break from my search and went back to the Lounge Car. As soon as I sat down they announced over the loudspeaker that this was the first call for dinner, and would people having reservations please make their way to the Dining Car. Ahah, again! This was my opportunity to find an empty seat while the occupants were eating dinner, so back to what I thought was the "Denver" car I went, and this time I spotted the correct ticket stub above an empty seat — it was time for action. Naturally, at the precise time that I wanted to use my well-practiced stagger-from-side-to-side walk as one would be inclined to do on a rough section of track, we were passing over the smoothest section of track I'd ever been on. There goes the need to hold onto the luggage rack for balance, but, as luck would have it, from the opposite end of the car came an entire family, possibly headed to the Dining Car, and I seized upon the circumstances to complete my ruse. Measuring off the distance between me, the ticket stub, and the approaching family, I deftly placed myself at just the right spot where, as the family approached, I took hold of the luggage rack, and in gentlemanly fashion, bowed out of the aisle to let the family pass. Putting forth my best smile, I gave a slight tug as they passed and I went on my way with my prize.
After walking through the car so many times I remembered a few seats near one end that didn't seem to have any people sitting nearby, so I picked out a likely candidate, looked both ways for anyone staring at me, then quickly placed the ticket stub in it's place and plopped down with a sigh of relief. OK, I thought, now that I'm "here", I should get everything I need to spend the night sitting upright, not something I was looking forward to. I got up and after committing the seat location to memory, made my way down to my pack, where I retrieved a fresh bottle of "Ginger Ale" and my wool hat and coat. Getting back to me new seat, I completed my transformation into the seasoned traveller by removing my boots and stretching out, which might not have been such a good idea if I'd been previously travelling by freight for several days. By now it was too dark to see anything outside, so I asked the Amtrak person for a pillow, a perk I learned from the old guy in the Lounge Car, and sipped on my wine until I fell asleep.
By the next morning I'd developed a serious hunger, so I made my way to the Dining Car at the first call for breakfast. Most of the other diners were far more peppy and energetic than I was, but I smothered my short stack with a gallon of syrup, which meant having to ask and re-ask for more of the tiny syrup containers they provided you with, and by inhaling several cups of very mediocre coffee I was ready to face the day. I'd been over this section of track before on a freight and I was amazed at how much quicker we got from place to place on the passenger train. The fast pace of the train, along with my sugar-and-coffee binge made me restless just sitting still and looking out the window, so I began to think about the details involved in detraining, and this is where things got a little fuzzy.
At some point there was an announcement on the loudspeaker mentioning "passengers", "Denver", and "Cheyenne", but I couldn't understand what was being said. Shortly after this, the Conductor and a couple other Amtrak people walked past engaged in an intense discussion. This was all I needed — had they discovered the missing ticket stub? Would they search every passenger for some form of proof that they bought a ticket? Aarrgh! I quickly went down to my pack and made sure that everything was in order, as the train was now slowing down but we were in the middle of nowhere. There wasn't even a hint that there might be a town nearby, but I figured that I would get off at the very next stop, no matter where it was. As we glided to a stop, I went from one side of the car to the other, but there was nothing except grasslands everywhere I looked. Then an Amtrak person came over to the door, looked outside, then opened the door and placed a small stepstool on the ground. I imagined a couple of cop cars outside waiting for me, but I had no choice, so I stepped down and saw a bus shelter a little ways away that said "Borie". "Borie"?, I thought... where the hell is that? At this point I didn't even know what state I was in. I walked over to a bench and sat down where I was joined by more people who had gotten off here. Before I could ask anyone about where we were and where we were going, a small transit bus pulled up and the driver began to load passengers. Counting heads as we climbed inside, he said "Eleven?" as he finished counting us. Walking to the rear of the bus, he began counting heads again, and by this time I was getting a bit nervous, to say the least. Again he came up with "eleven", he walked down the steps muttering something about "ten" and stopped to use a phone on the side of the bus shelter. I watched him out the window and it seemed to me that he was expecting to pick up ten passengers, but he now had eleven, and he wanted to know what to do. To my extreme relief, he slammed the phone down and climbed back into the bus, apologizing to everyone about the delay, but it was the "damn railroad's fault", and we would be on our way shortly. I slumped down in my seat and broke out another bottle of "Ginger Ale", figuring that if I was going to be dropped off out here in the middle of nowhere, or worse, taken to jail, I'd at least face the music with a buz on. As it was, it was a basic, boring bus ride, from a boring place called "Borie", but it was probably the most enjoyable and uneventful bus ride I'd ever taken...