As far as "train riding" goes, riding is the easy part. It's the finding and waiting that can ruin an otherwise enjoyable train ride.
I'm sitting under the Pepper Ave. bridge over the end of Southern Pacific's departure yard in West Colton, California. It's the day after Christmas and, after spending several days visiting my family in Southern California, I feel the need to get on a train and get as far away from this end of the state as I can. My pack is loaded down with Christmas dinner leftovers and wine bottles, and I'm hoping that I don't have to walk very far to catch out.
It's now dark enough to see the stars, which isn't easy in this area because of the millions of artificial light sources there are to drown them out. Earlier in the day the sky was almost as white as a sheet of paper — nothing like the intense blue that I'm used to. The trains are here but apparently the crews aren't. My scanner hasn't produced any helpful banter between the dispatcher and anyone, for that matter. Thousands of cars zipping by on the nearby freeway but the yard is silent and still.
If any time was "right" to unscrew the cap of Gallo's finest it was now, on the cusp of my sixth hour of waiting for a train. Since my brother gave me a ride to the freightyard and I didn't have to resort to taking a bus, I over-indulged and brought along a huge piece of cardboard that I found in the dumpster of the apartment building my Mom lives in. Apparently some lucky person got a new refrigerator for Christmas and I felt obligated to properly "recycle" the box that it came in. Carefully trimming it here and there provided me with a comfortable barrier between me and the grime of the jungles I was sure to spend time in.
Since it was still daylight when I arrived under the bridge I was able to smooth out a platform for my cardboard and gear, removing large rocks, pieces of broken glass, and the occasional turd. Now that it was dark, I was reluctant to use my flashlight because it might alert yard workers to my location. Realizing that there weren't any yard workers, or anyone else in the immediate vicinity, I fashioned a long tube out of cardboard to fit over the end of my flashlight to reduce its beam to a small circle of light — large enough for me to find items in my pack but small enough so that anyone at a distance wouldn't be able to see it.
A noise alerted me to some people approaching from the departure yard. It was two figures who initially looked like very dirty ghosts and as they got closer I saw that they had dark-colored blankets wrapped around them but no other gear except for a jug of water that one of them was swinging back and forth on a short section of rope. I wasn't sure if I should call out to them or not, but they just kept on walking under the bridge and on up the grade that the departure tracks used to leave the yard going north.
I couldn't imagine what type of agricultural work was going on at this time, but I figured that if they were Mexicans looking for work they might have better luck heading east to Yuma, instead of north to the Central Valley. Either way they were looking at a cold ride being streamlined as they were.
I got up to pee and then quickly sat back down as some headlights became visible on the access road along the tracks. At the same time my scanner came to life but I missed the beginning of the conversation. Assuming that the arrival of a vehicle and the radio activity were related, I was much relieved to see that the vehicle was a crew van and not the Bull. As if guided by my thoughts, the van stopped at the shanty and dropped off somebody, then crossed over several tracks and drove down a short ways and stopped at the end of a string of cars.
The van hadn't stopped for more than a few minutes when the glare of a locomotive headlight bore down on it from the track leading to the fueling area. I wasn't in a big hurry to gather up my gear until I had a chance to figure out which way the train was going. Unfortunately for tramps, trains leaving from this end of the yard could either go straight and head east to Yuma, take a left and head north to Bakersfield, or make a 180° curve around a balloon track and head back to LA.
Noting which track the engines backed down onto, I packed up and had to decide if I should walk over and ask the crew member in the shanty which way the train was going, or walk along the string of cars behind the power to see if any of them would tip me off to where they were going. Since I had just spent several days with my family for Christmas, me and my clothes were about as clean as they were going to get, I turned toward the shanty to test my luck with the crewman, figuring that if he didn't like tramps, at least he couldn't blame me for looking dirty and downtrodden.
A large Black man was printing out some paperwork as I opened the door and he turned and smiled — so far so good. The first words out of his mouth were "Merry Christmas!" and I repeated the greeting with great enthusiasm. The next words were "We're headed to Bakersfield, if that's what you're wonderin'". Wow, I thought, I wish all train crews were this friendly! I thanked him and asked if they were going to double over, or if their train was already put together, and he said that they were ready to go with 80 or so cars, so I should be able to find something to ride in, although I "didn't hear it" from him.
Feeling euphoric I walked back toward the train, but on the opposite side of an adjacent string in case the engineer didn't share the conductor's feelings toward riders. Safely past the last unit, I climbed over to "my" train and began the unavoidable walk to look for rides. The first 20 or so cars were all closed boxcars, but they had a familiar smell of cedar and pine. Knocking on one rang out with a hollow sound, so I climbed over to the other side and saw that there were about 5 or 6 cars in a row with open doors on this side.
Bringing out my flashlight I peered into the first open car and found that it was as clean as a whistle. Marks along the far wall were indications that this car had originally carried newsprint, so I pushed my pack inside and climbed in. Dragging my gear to the head end, I walked back to the doorway and jumped down to climb over and see if I could break the seal on the closed doors. Sliding my knife inside and twisting, the seal popped in two, and with a few taps from a spike I was able to roll the doors open, effectively doubling the amount of scenery I could enjoy going across the Mojave desert.
Unfolding the cardboard and pulling out my sleeping bag, I was ready to leave town. Withdrawing a bottle of wine, I stood at the doorway and toasted my pending departure from the land of stucco-sided houses, strip malls, nail salons, noise, lights, and smog. I sat down and began thinking about the desert. I supposed that if there was no freeway noise or planes flying overhead, I might imagine myself sitting in a boxcar on some isolated siding in the middle of nowhere. Trying hard to eliminate all hints of being surrounded by Southern California, I still couldn't achieve the feeling of solitude. There was something left that I couldn't see, smell, or feel that kept me from being really alone.
Interrupted by the sound of air in the brakelines, I picked up my scanner to listen to the conversation that might follow, but I realized that the reason it had been so quiet was because the batteries had died. Oh well, I'll just have to ride the old fashioned way. A slight jerk and we began to move. Winding up to cross over the freeway I looked for the two figures who passed me during the night but saw nothing. I wished them well, wherever they were heading. I knew that I would spend the rest of the night a lot warmer than they would, and even though this was technically Southern California it actually does get cold in late December during the last few hours before daylight.