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You Can't Always Get What You Want
but i'm happy to settle for what i need

If I'm riding trains in the summer I might take an extra water bottle, and if I'm riding in the winter I might bring along an extra pair of socks, but if I'm going through Nevada I always carry an extra "gambling" shirt. While people traveling in cars tend to do their gambling in Reno or Vegas, I was traveling by train, so I spent my casino time in Sparks.

The Nugget Casino, among others, is conveniently located adjacent to the UP yard in Sparks. One needs to merely de-train quickly and walk across the parking lot to instantly merge with normal humans and shed the stigma of the lowly hobo. I would head for the nearest restroom, change into my aforementioned "gambling" shirt, then have my pack stored in a closet by the first friendly-looking member of the hotel staff I could find. My shirt was nothing special, just one that I hadn't worn for a week straight riding trains.

The next step was to find a slot machine along the "drink" lady's route. If you've ever been to a casino you know that there are people who walk around asking customers if they want a [free] beverage. The coolness of this feature is incalculable the entire time that you're playing the slots (or at least acting like you're playing) she'll bring you a cocktail every time she comes by.

The hard part is not to look like you're trying to look like you're playing (i.e. losing money to the house). My particular ruse was to start out with all of my money in the cup they give you, then go through the motions of pulling the handle down every so often. Make sure that the first time the drink lady comes by she sees that your "cup runneth over", so to speak. After she leaves you take a handful of coins out of your cup and put them in your pocket, so that the next time she comes by she can look at the cup and think that you're really feeding the coins into the slot machine. Then you reduce the amount in the cup by another handful and add those to your pocket. After she brings you the next drink you merely transfer the coins in your pocket back into the cup, so when she stops by again (and notices that the cup is full) you can thank her for her good luck because you won!


what I hoped for...

As juvenile as this seems, it has worked for me on numerous occasions, allowing me to spend some time off the rattling boxcar and in a warm environment getting a buzz on for free. The last time I used this ploy was during a heavy winter storm where the Reno area got so much snow that the airport and the highways were closed, and the casinos were filled with people waiting to get out of town. As luck would have it, the railroad was the first mode of transportation to open up, and I took immediate advantage of the situation. I retrieved my pack and made for a restroom, where I replaced my lucky gambling shirt with several layers of winter clothes, then walked across the parking lot to find a spot to wait just east of the tower, where I could see down the tracks a ways to watch for a headlight.

Obviously my first choice would be an empty boxcar or at least a grainer, as it was getting dark and starting to snow again. The first train to come by was an eastbound freight, followed by another one a bit later, so I knew that the tracks over the Sierra were clear, but I wanted to go west, so I waited... and waited. My partner had headed away from the casino into town on an alcohol run, but we had left it at "if a train comes before you get back, I'm gone...", although I really didn't think that I would actually leave without waiting for him.

After sitting for an hour between two huge snowdrifts I started to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of getting the first train out with no wine, or getting the next one with wine. Fortunately for both of us he came plodding up after following my footsteps in the snow, and we were able to keep our cocktail buzz alive with the addition of some very cold White Port. After comparing our winnings and losings at the casino, we were able to consume several alcoholic beverages each for the sum of somewhere under $10 not bad considering that the indoors environment was certainly more pleasing than the blizzard outside.

Just about the time that my toes started complaining about the cold we saw a welcome headlight coming into the yard and we fervently hoped that it wasn't a piggyback train... which it was. We stood there for a minute or so trying to determine if we really wanted to ride outside all night, but the confidence-inducing affect of the wine as well as the sound of the train airing up left us no choice, so we ran over to the tracks just as the train started to move. Quickly wishing that there was more time to scout for a good ride, we were forced to grab a piggyback car that had no side rails, and we were lucky to get that, as the train accelerated like a rocket. We duck-walked up to the trailer wheels and scooted under just as we passed the freight office, but there was no one out in the blowing snow watching the train, or so we thought.


...what I got

We slowed just a bit going through Reno, but then took off again until it was too windy to risk getting into our sleeping bags, so we sat up and drank wine, thinking that the train might slow down at some point going up the hill and we could bring our bags out. The fact that there was no "lip" on the edge of the car to keep us from sliding off, coupled with the coating of ice everywhere, not to mention the high speed and curvy track, meant that we had to huddle up in the "wind tunnel" between the trailer wheels and tough it out.

I must have eventually been able to fall asleep because I remember "waking up" with a freeway along side of us. Looking at my watch told me that we had made the trip over the Sierra in about three hours instead of five, and we were coming into Roseville! My partner was already awake, and when we rounded a curve I could see that there was probably no more than 20 or so cars on the train, which would explain our phenomenal speed. While we were still 4 or 5 miles east of the yard limits we abruptly slowed down, and ahead I saw a vehicle parked on the freeway side of the train with its headlights pointed at the trailers, and someone next to the vehicle waving a flashlight around.

By this time the train was moving at a brisk walking speed so we bailed off and ran over to some bushes next to the tracks, took off our packs, and laid down as flat as we possibly could. The train had stopped and we could see the spotlight moving along the ground coming our way. Just before it got to us I noticed that in the cold air our breath was creating little clouds every time we exhaled, so I nudged my partner and motioned that he should cover his mouth with something. I pulled my bandana up and crammed my face into my jacket, but in doing so I was unable to see if that fixed the "here we are!" clouds from our breathing. The spotlight beam passed over us and in another minute I heard a car door close, giving me the impression that the cops were leaving, but something told me to keep still a little while longer.

Sure enough, in a few seconds the spotlight came back on the cops probably thought that by slamming the car door we would think that they were leaving and we'd stand up and be seen by them, but their trick didn't work, and we heard the car back up and slowly drive toward the rear of the train. This worked in our favor, because the train immediately started to move, and faced with a long walk to the yard, with the cops now behind us we could get back on the train and ride it into the yard obviously not what the cops would be expecting.

Getting on, I moved over to the freeway side of the train to look for a second vehicle up ahead but there wasn't one, so we resumed our between-the-wheels vigil as we continued on into Roseville. I was astounded to see that the large rubber mudflaps that hung down behind the trailer wheels were all bent upward and frozen stiff from the wind and cold coming over Donner Summit. Realizing the danger involved in riding over the mountains outside at night, it still felt good to hop off at the beginning of the Roseville yard and walk over to the 24-hour donut shop for a hearty breakfast. The sky was just getting light, it wasn't snowing, and we had to find a train to Oakland.