Riding with other people is something I just don't do anymore — they never can wake up and get packed up fast enough, they're eventually going to end up sharing your food and drink, they whine about having to walk long strings of cars looking for a ride, and they make things real crowded while trying to sleep on the back of a grainer. This being said, there were times that, for some unknown reason, I did intentionally ride with other people. One of those times it was with five other people, and it was the first train trip for four of them.
We figured that for their first ride it should be something simple — just get on at Point A and get off at Point B... no changing trains, no walking through freightyards in the middle of the night, and no hotshots. We planned to take a junker out of Roseville under the cover of darkness and get off the next morning in Dunsmuir. We could go hiking or hang out along the river all day, then catch back to Roseville that night. I'd done it lots of times and didn't see any unsurmountable obstacles for beginners. The only problem that might occur was possibly having to catch out on the fly, so I tried my best to convey ahead of time the similarity of running along side a moving freight car as being not unlike trying to push start a motorcycle — you hold on, run alongside, then hop on. Unfortunately, no one had ever had to jump start a motorcycle, so a bicycle was substituted, and I felt confident that they would figure it out if the opportunity arose.
I knew from past experiences that there was usually a northbound out of Roseville in the early evening, followed by another shortly after midnight. Since some of us actually worked at a job during the day, and it was almost a hundred mile drive to Roseville, the thought of catching the early train didn't seem likely, although a train that ended up leaving later than it was supposed to leave was hardly unusual. Whatever slim hopes I had of somehow making it to Roseville in time to catch the early train were dashed after we all piled into my friend's Volkswagen bus and discovered that with six people and six backpacks we were looking at doing no more than about 55mph on the freeway. Well, this would give us more time to talk about freighthopping when we got to Roseville, I thought.
With three girls in our group, there was at least one more bathroom stop on the way, added to the inevitable delay as we all tried to divvy up the bill after stopping for gas almost immediately after we started. Finally turning off the freeway in Roseville, we drove over to the Municipal parking lot, where the good news was that it was well lighted and you could park your car there for several days, but the bad news was that it was next door to the Police and Fire departments. Six people piling out of a hippie van with grungy clothes and backpacks seemed to be stretching our luck, so a Master Plan was formulated.
We would pair up and let one pair leave the van every 5 minutes, while the rest remained inside, so that it wouldn't look out of the ordinary. The first group would walk the two blocks through the downtown section before reaching the yard, then walk along an access road a block or two along the tracks until they got to a secluded vacant lot, where we would all regroup and figure out what we were going to do. After 10 minutes or so of going over the plan again and getting "dressed for success", the doors were opened and the first pair began to walk over to the yard.
After being cooped up in the van for a couple of hours it appeared that the first pair was walking faster than I had imagined, and when they disappeared around a corner after only about 3 minutes I announced a change of plans and sent the next pair on their way. Again faced with the joy of freedom from the confines of the crowded van or maybe exuberance at trying to catch up with the first pair, the second group vanished around the corner in just a few minutes. I quickly realized that my initial estimate of spacing groups 5 minutes apart was flawed, and, not wanting to lose control of the situation so early after "deployment", my partner and I bolted from the van and made our way as innocently as possible toward the freightyard. This is where things started to fall apart.
As we approached the corner just one block from the freightyard we heard the unmistakable sound of a train approaching, and shortly watched as three units passed by going north at a walking pace. Fortunately, the first and second groups had stopped to wait for us, and I feared that before I could come up with another "plan" the train would be going too fast to get on. As the engines began to make their way around the curve exiting the yard, I saw several grainers in a row coming up, and not having time to explain the rationale of picking one with the "good" end in back, I just hollered to everyone to just run along and get on, and we (theoretically) could change cars somewhere down the line if we stopped on a siding.
Spacing ourselves along side the moving train, I exhorted that the first group should get on, and the second group would take the next car, and my "group" would grab the third car, keeping us more or less together in case we had to try and communicate with the others for some reason. In the few seconds that this approach had been swirling around in my mind it seemed quite plausible — a car comes by, the first two people climb up the ladder and get on, then the second group climbs aboard the second car, followed by the third group hopping on the third car. It was so brilliant of a strategy that I wished someone could have gotten it all on video, that is until we all actually started to climb aboard.
In my mind I visualized the first group running maybe 10 or 20 feet while first one person climbs up the ladder, followed immediately by the second person. In reality, this didn't happen. The first person was hesitant about jumping on a moving train for the first time (in the dark) and maybe ran for three or four car lengths before finally climbing onto the ladder, and then it was another car length or two before they got the courage to actually step up and around onto the grainer platform. Of course, during all of this running alongside the train, everyone else was reluctant to climb on until they were sure that the first group had gotten safely on board, which was difficult for everyone to see because we were on the outside of a curve and, yes, it was dark.
Envision that while the first group had to run a certain distance along the uneven ballast (in the dark), the second group had to run that distance, as well as however far they would have to run before they were able to get on, leaving the third group to run both distances before they could even think of getting on themselves. As this whole scenario was unfolding, we were now getting around the corner and past the bridge, and it was only a matter of time until the train would be going too fast for "my" group to get on. Seeing this, I yelled at the girl ahead of me to grab the closest ladder, whether or not it was at the front or back of a car. As she turned to hear what I was saying, a water bottle fell from her pack and she slowed to go back and pick it up. This happened while my gaze was far ahead, trying to see if the other four people had indeed gotten on, resulting in me running into her and both of us almost going head over heels. I yelled at her to forget about going back for the water bottle, as the last grainer in the string was right next to us and we had to get this car or else. To her credit she started up again and after running along holding onto the ladder for what seemed like forever she finally climbed on and made her way onto the forward facing platform, and I followed her up the ladder just as a large puddle of water appeared in my path.
Out of breath after running for what seemed like a mile or more, we hugged to celebrate her first "catchout", then settled down for the ride. She didn't seem to mind riding in the wind, and after catching my breath and popping open a bottle of White Port, neither did I.