home northbankfred.com/writings
The Gripes of Wrath
what's so great about the central valley?

There are two train routes from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles the Coast Route, which is reasonably direct, but foggy in the winter, and the Central Valley Route, which is reasonably direct, but foggy in the winter. I got the foggier of the two.

I was waiting in the Oakland SP yard for a southbound to LA. It was getting dark and if I caught one soon I could sleep through the crappy fog and wake up in sunny Southern California. Late December meant it was Christmas time, and Christmas time meant that I'd have to make the 500 mile trip to visit my family. If I got lucky the "500 miles" would happen while I was in Dreamland, and I would merely have to integrate myself into the weirdness of LA at my own pace. The problem was, I didn't get lucky.

Walking through the departure yard in a light rain I was determined to find that perfect empty boxcar with a clean, wooden floor and lots of cardboard, although the vast majority of empties were sent north, instead. After getting to the end of the second string without finding anything suitable, I heard the sound of a scooter, and quickly climbed over to the other side to intercept a yard worker driving along inspecting brake shoes. I told him where I was going and he said that I was walking the right string of cars, but they would double over and pick up some cars on an adjacent track before they left. I thanked him and walked around the end of the cars to find the pick-ups, and there, right in the middle, were two boxcars with both doors open.

By this time I desperately wanted to just climb in and go to sleep, but I realized that I should have asked the yardworker if he knew where these cars were headed, because I didn't want to wake up in the morning in Salinas or somewhere like that. Straining my ears to hear the faint sound of the scooter, I came up with silence instead, and resolved myself to climb in and roll out my gear to keep from getting completely soaked from the rain.

Anticipating irregular schedules because of the Holidays, I decided to err on the side of bringing along too much wine, which made for a heavy pack, but it provided the satisfaction that the more I drank, the lighter my pack would be. I began "lightening my pack" immediately as I watched the steady rain falling outside my car, and thinking about what it would be like sitting on the porch of a grainer all night. My walking was done for the night, and soon it was time to stop worrying and go to sleep.

A nice dream was interrupted by a shudder as my car was being added to the train, and I got up to pee and check the weather. It was still raining and a little after midnight. Again I imagined what it would have been like if I didn't find this boxcar and had to settle for a grainer. Oh well, I didn't have to settle for a grainer, so I crawled back into my sleeping bag and went to sleep.

My first inclination that something was "different" was when I started hearing flange squeals, which, coupled with the rocking of the car told me that we were going through a curvy section of track, but the line south of Oakland was pretty much straight track. I got up and walked to the door and saw that we were indeed going around some curves, but there were no lights or signs of a city nearby, which was very odd. After standing in the doorway and freezing I realized that instead of going down the Coast Line we were headed east to Stockton. Yuck! My fears were borne out when we dropped down the east side of Altamont Pass and into a sea of pea soup fog.

Not knowing what might happen to the train when it got to Stockton, I got dressed and continued "lightening my pack", anticipating maybe some scrambling in the yard coming up. Groggy after a whopping two hours of sleep, I watched as we trundled along with the visibility limited to a few cars on either side of mine. There would be no glorious sunrise to rouse my spirits today. I was now officially in the not-so-Great Central Valley.

We pulled down to the far end of the yard, then stopped and cut the air. Several minutes later I saw and heard the string of cars next to us jump backward a few feet, then move away toward the head end of my train. To my delight there were a few more empty boxcars, but they would end up on the head end of the train instead of on the back where I was. I don't know why it took so long but I noticed that it had stopped raining, and the tops of the cars in the yard were just as wet from the damp fog.

Eventually we aired up and pulled out headed south. If there ever was a day to drink wine, this was it. The tracks paralleled the freeway for most of the way down to Bakersfield, so the view out of one door consisted of hours of looking at vehicles on the freeway, and through the other door it was hours of plowed fields going by. I tried to read the occasional road sign above the freeway to figure out where I was but the fog was too thick. I did, however, enjoy the fact that at least I wasn't driving to LA, as the cars appeared to be going no more than 30 miles an hour.

Finally I arranged for a wine-induced nap to alleviate the boredom, and awoke once in Fresno for a crew change, then again several hours later in Bakersfield. Here we didn't pick up any more cars, we just sat... and sat. Still deep in the stupid fog, I couldn't wait to leave town and climb up over the mountains into the high desert, where the skies would certainly be clear.

It was now almost four in the afternoon, and the amount of light outside hadn't changed since I left Oakland. I couldn't imagine how someone could exist around here in the winter without a watch. I'd travelled over half the length of California without actually seeing anything. There were probably at least two Mexican Food places on every block around here, and the smell of warm tortillas was very tempting, but there was no way I was going to risk missing this train by jumping off to get something to eat. I still had a large chunk of French Bread and a much smaller chunk of cheese, and that would have to do.

We eventually left town just before 6:00 pm, which meant that by the time we climbed above the fog layer it was too dark to see anything. At least it wasn't raining, and I made the most of our slow journey up the Tehachapis with the help of Ernest & Julio, my travelling companions. First dipping into a canyon, then curving around a ridge, we repeated this for hours until we reached the edge of the desert at Mojave, where we stopped in the tiny yard and dropped the air. Soon a string of several dusty-looking grainers a few tracks over were added to our train, and another long wait began as first another southbound went by, then a northbound, then a southbound Santa Fe hotshot, then us.

As we began to pull out of the yard the coolest thing happened from the eastern horizon came an almost full moon! If I couldn't experience the high desert during the day at least I could see what it looked like under a bright moon. This was almost better than going through during the day, and since my sleep pattern was now seriously messed up, I moved my pack over next to the doorway and leaned back to enjoy the view, even though it was now almost midnight again. I wasn't sure what smells were blowing in the open doorway, but they weren't damp and musky like the valley, but dry and warm.

Since the skies were clear I was treated to a real sunrise as we descended Cajon Pass and slowly entered the West Colton yard. It was too early to call my brother to come and pick me up, so I dropped off the train near where a small group of Mexicans were waiting for a train to take them back up to Bakersfield. Since I had more wine than I needed, I brought out a bottle for me and another for them, and together we watched a day begin...