Depending on where you get your information from, the Inuit people are said to have anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of words in their language for "snow". My cat, on the other hand, has only one word in his language, "meow", but it has anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of meanings.
This particular time it seemed to mean "What the...?" as I heaped a mountain of dry food onto his bowl. I was leaving for a train trip and didn't want him to run out while I was gone, which would cause him to revert to "mouse hunting" and the subsequent deposits of all manner of viscera spread around the house upon my return.
Even though I was only going to be gone for two or three days, the "ritual" of preparation was no less complicated than those within many organized religions. I retrieved my boots from the closet and placed them next to my favorite pair of socks. My "train riding" pants were then carefully lifted out of their drawer, and I noticed how comfortable they seemed after wearing them around the house for a few hours after getting them out of the wash, so they didn't have that stiff, newly-washed feel to them.
The rest of the ensemble was laid out and I stood back for a minute, marvelling at how the clothes really did "make" the man, although not fully understanding what that meant. My train riding bandana was lifted from its plastic storage bag, where I keep it since it is never washed, and if my cat gets a whiff of it (which he did several years ago) he'll become consumed with a fervor to destroy it with extreme prejudice, which I wanted to avoid at all costs.
Next all of the "little things" were assembled: my gloves, flashlight, scanner, spare batteries, sunglasses, toilet paper, foam ear plugs... these went into the pack along with my sleeping bag (another item I didn't want my cat to "discover"), the bivvy sack, water jug, and whatever else was left in my pack after the last trip. Last came perhaps the most important items: a couple of bottles of Gallo White Port that I had pre-cooled and decanted during the previous day or two. These were as carefully lowered into my pack as if they were control rods in a nuclear reactor, and padded on all sides by my sleeping bag and long underwear.
A glance at my watch told me to quit fucking around with my gear and start walking out to the bus stop, where I would board a transit bus for a two-hour journey to the Bay Area. It was a 45-minute walk out to get the bus, and I knew I could cut 10 minutes or so off it by cutting across a large vacant field, but it had rained recently and it would have ended up adding 10 minutes from slogging through the mud, so I walked as fast as I could and got to the bus stop with a few minutes to spare.
Since I was heading toward the City after business hours, the bus wasn't crowded and I stood my pack up on the seat next to me. The thought of sitting up for hours waiting for a train prompted me to take a nap on the way down, which I did as best I could with all of the stops and people walking by in the aisle and bumping me. Soon I swapped seats with my pack and enjoyed a relatively uninterrupted ride for the last hour or so. Reaching downtown San Francisco, I got off near a BART station and was soon waiting again for transportation to the freight yard. It always surprised me just how quiet the underground stations were, knowing that a large city sits just feet above it. Feeling the rushing air even before I was aware of the sound of the approaching BART train, I stood up and walked a few feet to begin another chapter in the process of hopping freight trains.
Travelling 60 or 70 miles per hour under San Francisco Bay is pretty cool, but I nodded off to sleep just before we emerged in West Oakland, where I got off and began the next chapter, the "walk to the freight yard". This part of Oakland is often thought of as being "rough", and that sometimes seems to be too polite, while at others not nearly polite enough. After being "inside" either busses, BART stations, or BART trains for the last 3 hours, I was finally "outside", and my senses were flooded by the sights and sounds (and smells) emerging from the seamy underbelly of the Bay Area.
Here were sidewalks paved with chewing gum and much worse, with muffled voices emanating from shadows, and the parade of shiny new imported cars replaced by large, industrial-type trucks and older-model cars with headlights out and side windows taped over. Instead of pink flamingos dotting the front lawns there were old appliances, broken bicycles, and blocked-up primer-covered cars. There was, however, a distinct feeling of a neighborhood, albeit one dotted with houses that reeked of history and much more. I wondered what things looked like during daylight, since I usually pass through well after dark. This was a sort of place that really needed to be experienced after dark anyway, as much as "white" suburbia puts its best face forward during daylight hours.
With only a few blocks to walk between the BART station and the yard, it always seemed like it lasted much longer with all of the drama that was going on. A white guy walking along with a backpack always drew stares, but they were more often than not accompanied by smiles and even waves. Conveniently spaced along the street I would pass a liquor store and an all-night café, both of which earned a stop. The liquor store carried the small, pint bottles of White Port, as well as 16oz. cans of Ranier Ale, and the café had absolutely killer chili fries. No train trip would be complete without these necessities — the beer and wine would keep me occupied without having to dip into my "travelling" stash, and after eating a plate of the chili fries I didn't even want to think about eating anything else for a day or so.
Off I went into the night, confident that whether I caught a train or not I would have plenty to eat and drink. My first objective was to stash my pack in some bushes and walk into the yard, where next to the freight office and fueling racks was a large blackboard with the impending train departures listed, showing the symbol, the engine numbers, the track that their train was on, and the call time. Unfortunately, my usual ride was crossed off the list, either due to the fact that it had already left or was annulled. This was actually good news, because it meant that I didn't have to sit up for hours waiting for a train that would never come. Walking back to retreive my pack, I decided to head over to the old Western Pacific yard, now run by the Union Pacific, and see if I could catch the evening's pig train to Salt Lake City. Instead of walking back out to 7th Street and getting to the yard that way, I decided to just walk down the main line to the south end of the SP yard, where the tracks crossed the UP main.
Along the way I passed a number of storage tracks that held retired passenger cars from the commuter trains, with just about every one of the cars converted to railroad-themed homeless shelters, judging by the profusion of broken bottles, pieces of clothing, and newspapers scattered everywhere. More stored pieces of railroad equipment completed the side tracks, and soon I was at the end of the main yard, where all of the tracks narrowed down to just two as they passed under the Adeline Ave. overpass, which was my preferred spot to wait if it was raining. Tonight, however, it was not, and I walked down the UP main until I was less than a block away from the yard office, then found a spot in a row of shrubbery to hide as I waited for a train.