All summer we long for winter — all winter we long for summer. You'd think that spring and fall would be great times to go on a train trip and not feel compelled to complain about the weather, but somehow the weather always seems to remain a large part of train riding.
Endless strings of sunny, warm days with puffy clouds parading by and I can't help but wish for crappy weather to inspire a winter train ride. The World suddenly shrinks, and it's just me, the car I'm riding on... and my constant companions — Ernest & Julio.
By late fall I watched the snow line on Mt. Shasta get lower and lower, prompting me to get my winter clothes down from the closet shelf and see if anything was nearing the end of its "useful" life. Trying on long underwear and pile sweaters when it's 80° outside isn't much of a test, but they felt warm, so I stuffed them into my pack to await winter's first storm.
I think the overall raison d'être for riding in miserable weather would be to make riding in any other type of weather a joy, and that approach is not without its merits. Whining about the myriad negative aspects of train riding can almost be thought of as part of the fun... the mystique, of hopping freights. The kids in the 'burbs can brag about having the fastest car, etc. but train riders can boast emphatically about having ridden in below-zero weather, or whatever.
After all, you're putting a lot on the line, so why shouldn't you get a lot in return? Schlepping around a 30-below down sleeping bag is no fun if you don't need to use it. I once bought a huge old wool coat at a thrift store in Spokane during a period of unexpectedly cold weather, which proved to be an excellent choice while sitting around for hours in 20° weather waiting for a train, but upon returning to Roseville I discovered that it was far too large to fit into my pack so I had to drape it over myself and the pack when I wasn't wearing it, giving me the appearance of a sort of Quasimodo gone hobo...
One factor of riding in the snow that I was completely un-prepared for was the lack of stealth brought upon by leaving "footprints", so that anyone, including the Bull, can figure out where you've been and where you are — which just isn't possible if you've been walking on ballast all day. Once in Klamath Falls I needed to find an empty boxcar to hang out in to get away from a nasty blizzard. Spotting a some likely candidates in the first row of occupied tracks away from the mainline, I walked over and climbed in, satisfied that I was out of the storm and had a great view of the tracks to see an approaching northbound. Some time later, when I got up to pee, I realized that when the Bull drove by he would see a line of footprints in the snow leading up to the boxcar, but none leading away. With my mental capacities honed to perfection thanks to a bottle of White Port, I seized on a plan. Leaving my pack in the car, I climbed down carefully so as to place my feet in the footprints beneath the open door, I walked over to the next empty, plodded around like I was checking out the interior, then walked over to the next open car, where I repeated everything, then I walked over to the end of the car and climbed up the ladder like I was going to cross over to the other side, but I merely stepped back down and retraced my steps walking backward as carefully as I could in each of my previous footsteps along the string of empties until I reached the car where my pack was, then climbed in, hoping that if the Bull did drive by, he'd possibly figure that whoever left those tracks was long gone, and not worth tracking in a snowstorm.
Another "incident" brought about by riding in very cold weather happened in Utah shortly after Christmas. I had gone down to LA to spend the holidays with my family, but when it was time to head back home I chose to take UP out of their East LA yard and ride through Barstow, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake, before turning toward Northern California. The alternatives were to just head up the coast on the Coast Line or up the Central Valley on the "valley" line, but in the winter most of the way on both of these routes would be covered in thick, damp fog, making for a boring and uncomfortable ride. Taking UP would allow me to travel across miles and miles of desert scenery without the slightest chance of becoming fog-bound. After basking in the summer-like warmth that passes for "winter" in Southern California, I eagerly awaited my departure.
Stuffing my pack with leftovers from the holiday repasts my Mom inundated my brothers and I with, I boarded the first in a series of transit busses that would zig-zag me over to the freightyard. Soon I was reminded of what I'm reminded of every year that I come down to LA at Christmas time — that even train crews get time off for the holidays, and that means that nothing was moving for many hours after my arrival, which allowed me the opportunity to lighten the load of food that I was staggering under. At some point in the middle of the night a string of piggybacks was brought up to the head end of the yard, and an hour or so later I heard the sound of road power approaching. I found a suitable conveyance, and just before daylight I was swiftly leaving the endless cityscape behind and looking forward to clear skies and fast traveling.
The farther from Southern California I got the colder I got, and by the time we crossed into Utah I was just sitting up in my sleeping bag with most of my clothes on, but thanks to over-buying my wine allotment I had a companion to share the journey with, compliments of Ernest & Julio. The dry cold of Utah is quite a bit different from the damp cold I'm used to living closer to the coast. I didn't have a thermometer with me but I could see that whenever we passed any body of water it was frozen, even during a sunny afternoon in the desert. By sundown I had seen all of the desert scenery that I needed to see, so I pulled out my bivvy cover when we went in the hole for a meet and stuffed me and my sleeping back inside, zipping it up as we pulled back onto the main after finishing off the wine and looked forward to a nice, snug sleep until we got to Salt Lake.
After getting up to track speed I had a little trouble keeping warm, and had to constantly change my position until I unzipped the cover and, with the aid of my flashlight, found out that my air mattress had almost slipped completely out from under me in the 70mph wind the train was creating. With great difficulty I managed to re-align it under me, but now my fingers were numb from the cold and I couldn't grasp the zipper tight enough to zip it closed. Rolling over to put the open zipper underneath me, I managed to re-warm my fingers eventually but I waited until we stopped somewhere to see if I could get the zipper closed because of the wind.
To my relief we stopped for a crew change in Milford at around 3:00 am, and I needed to pee like crazy, so I propped myself up on my knees and leaned way out so that I wouldn't pee all over my clothes and sleeping bag. Reaching up with my free hand to hold onto the metal rim of the trailer above me proved to be a big mistake — my bare hand immediately froze to the metal and there was no way I could pull it free. Now I was in trouble, because I couldn't zip up my pants with just one hand, so I tried to rub my frozen hand with my free hand, but it didn't do any good. With a jerk we started moving again and now things started to get a little grim. I figured that with my body's threshold for pain raised a bit by my White Port diet, I would just rip my fingers off the metal and so what if it hurt, right? Unfortunately, they did hurt but were still stuck, and now the train was picking up speed. Now I realized that my nose also hurt, and there were ice crystals in my nose and at the corners of my eyes. Wishing that I had a cup of my 98.6° pee to soak my fingers with, instead I conjured up as much saliva in my mouth as I could and spit on my fingers while rubbing them like crazy with my free hand. One last Herculean tug and with a sound that was almost audible my hand came free, and I dove into my bag and tried to get warm. Turning my flashlight on I was relieved to see that I didn't leave any body parts stuck to the trailer, but my fingers looked like they were covered in white paint. Since they didn't really hurt that much, I just concentrated on staying warm, but in a few minutes my fingers started to hurt big time, and the remainder of the ride into Salt Lake was not what you would call comfortable, by any stretch of the imagination.
With difficulty I managed to get up and get my gear stuffed away as we slowed to enter the city limits, but rolling up my bag and bivvy cover was almost impossible as they were as stiff as plywood. When we got to within a block or two from the yard and had slowed to a walking pace I tossed my bag off the side and climbed down as best I could using 1½ hands, then walked back to my frozen bag and dragged it over to a sunny loading dock to thaw it out. Even though it was in direct sunlight at 9:00 in the morning I had a heck of a time getting everything back in my pack, so I headed over to a coffee shop to warm up, where a time and temperature sign nearby showed it to be –4°! While perusing the local paper I found out that the low the night before in Milford (where the crew change occurred) was –15°. By now my fingers weren't hurting anymore, but they were incredibly sensitive to touch — sort of like having a bad sunburn without the redness. Went back to the yard to catch out to Roseville without any problems except that I couldn't really hold onto anything with my "frozen" hand, and got home OK, with the weirdness in my fingers lasting for several more weeks. At this point I was, indeed, looking forward to riding on a warm, summer day...