I was headed to Salt Lake City, and would begin in Oakland — that was the easy part. As long as I got on the bus to the Bay Area, then walked over to the Western Pacific yard, the complicated logistics of the train trip were over, and the rest just sort of happened automatically.
Somehow the whole process of initiating a train trip was the hardest part. I had to work backward from the time I wanted to get to the yard, then how long it would take to walk there from the BART station, then the ride over from San Francisco, then the bus ride down from Sonoma County, then the walk from my house to the bus stop, then figuring out when the bus would arrive. The long sigh of relief when I finally arrived at the freightyard was well deserved indeed.
But the bus rides were over, and I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the West Oakland BART station, contemplating my next move. The planning was over, too, and I merely had to walk a few blocks to the liquor store, with no other thoughts in my mind. What a relief! It was like I had been running forever down some long airport corridors and I finally made it to the "people mover", where I could just stand still and relax as I continued my way to wherever it was that I was going.
Unfortunately, as I began to head for wherever it was I was going it began to rain. Since I planned to catch a piggyback train tonight the rain would certainly not help matters, but I decided to stick to the plan and head for the Desert Yard, stopping along the way to purchase some refreshments to smooth out the bumps along the way to Salt Lake.
With my shopping completed, I slunk over to the yard and looked around to find a spot to wait out of the rain, which was increasing steadily. A long string of stored boxcars offered shelter, and I climbed inside one and set up camp. Breaking out an ice-cold Rainier Ale, I had a hard time getting into the swing of train riding as the rain fell loudly outside. By the time I got to the second Ranier it was flat out pouring and I resigned myself to spending the night where I was and trying my luck again in the morning. As I was rolling out my gear I watched "my" train ease out of the yard with a couple dozen piggyback trailers and imagined myself huddling up behind the tires, getting wetter and wetter...
After a reasonably pleasant sleep I got up early and rejoiced at the clear skies overhead, then packed up quickly and dropped down into a large puddle right below the door of the boxcar. From the look of the yard around me it must have been a pretty good rain during the night, and I circumnavigated around many puddles on my way over to the mainline. Re-evaluating my original plan, I decided to walk over to the Union Pacific Yard, where I remember seeing one or two eastbound junkers head out during the day. Again walking past the liquor store, it seemed like a good opportunity to restock the beverages I had consumed the night before, and a few minutes later I was again at the West Oakland BART station. This time I was headed in the opposite direction — through a trashed out industrial area and after a few zigs and zags I ended up at the south end of the main Oakland SP yard, where the UP tracks crossed on their way out of their own yard. The Adeline St. overpass had always been a haven during rainy waits for trains, but even though it wasn't raining I stopped there to re-arrange my gear and drink a beer while it was still cold.
Some thoughtful tramp had left a nice piece of clean cardboard, and it was soon folded up and perched beside my pack. Not more than a minute or so after turning on my scanner I heard an eastbound train in the UP yard completing its air test, and it was time to pack up and get in character. Soon three yellow units crept by with a long string of boxcars and grainers, and in no time I was up and on the back porch of a grainer. Looking back on the other side of the train I saw an open boxcar about 10 cars back, and on the inside of a long curve I dropped off at a dead run, then waited for the boxcar to catch up, and after a short sprint I was pulling myself inside, just as we began to speed up. This turned out to be a good move, as the tracks go right down the middle of the street for several blocks and if I were on a grainer I'd be easily seen.
The slow, winding section over Altamont Pass was OK, but when we dropped down onto the valley floor and sped up I could really tell that my train was made up of mostly empty cars. After a brief stop in Stockton to make a set out, we continued toward the Feather River Canyon, which I would be able to travel through during daylight thanks to my early departure. Unfortunately, my boxcar had an open door on only one side, and it wasn't the "good" side for sightseeing in the canyon, so when we stopped for a crew change in Oroville I switched to an empty gondola a few cars further back. This was the way a person should see the Feather River Canyon! Soon we curved around the wye at Keddie and after a bottle of Gallo's finest I rolled out and took a nap. At some point I was awakened by a light but steady snowfall, and since I was in an open gondola I rolled up my gear and got ready to head back to the boxcar when we stopped In Portola for a crew change. I was surprised at how cold it was already, and looking forward as we wound around one curve and then another, the sky to the east was black, and the snow continued.
As we slowed at the west end of the Portola yard we passed a stopped westbound with the engines pretty well covered in drift snow. This was all of the information that I needed to hop off my train when it stopped and look for a ride on the one headed back down the canyon. As luck would have it, the train was all autoracks, and I was only on the ground for less than a minute before I was climbing into the bed of a new pickup truck and slowly picking up speed headed west. Oh well, at least I was riding trains, and I wasn't quite ready for a full blown Winter adventure just yet. Having seen this part of the canyon already, it was time to kick back and enjoy more of Gallo's finest...
Reaching the valley floor again, the thought occurred to me that this autorack train was probably headed to Milpitas, not Oakland, so I made a mental note to detrain in Stockton and look for another train. Coming into Stockton after dark, I dropped off into the shallow gully that separates the UP yard from the adjacent SP yard, and rolled out between two mainlines, which seemed like a perfect spot to catch a train from either railroad. Before I could even get my sleeping bag out of my pack a northbound SP freight pulled up and stopped right along side. Here I was faced with another decision — do I wait here for a UP train to Oakland, or take this SP train up to Roseville, then catch another over to Oakland?
Feeling rested after my nap coming down the canyon, I decided to catch the SP train up to Roseville, with my decision heavily influenced by a nice clean double-door boxcar with all doors open just a few cars away. Up I went, and we were soon off to Roseville. We ended up pulling right through the receiving yard and stopping near the shop buildings, which told me that this train would continue north without doing any work in the yard. Rats! The one time I get a bypass train I'm not going north anyway. I dropped down and began to walk back to a point where I could angle over to the departure yard when the tracks were lit up with the light of an approaching train, so I ducked away and stood behind a dumpster as the train approached. By some stroke of luck it was another autorack train, and this time I knew it was going to Oakland, so I grabbed on and pulled myself up but it was filled with cars, not trucks. Feeling rested somewhat, I figured that I could just endure the 2 hour ride by hunkering down between two cars, leaning against the side of the autorack. In theory this seemed plausable, but in reality it was incredibly noisy. Saved by foam earplugs and a new bottle of White Port, I made the best of the situation as we bounced along.
At some point we began to slow down, which was unusual because there weren't any sidings nearby. I made my way up to the end of the car and looked out as we came to a stop where all of the new automobiles are stored at Bahia. Yuck! Fervently hoping that we were picking up some cars instead of setting them out, I gathered up my belongings in case I had to make a quick exit. With my hopes sinking we backed into the fenced facility, dropped the air, and I watched the units pull forward, leaving the entire train, and me, inside the storage place. Seeing a guard beginning to close the gate, I had no choice but to walk right out in the open a hurry to get to the exit, where he chuckled and told me that he gets a few riders in here every few weeks. Unable to do much except laugh at the futility of my situation, we chatted awhile before he had to get back to whatever it was he did around there, and I was left to formulate a completely new plan.
By now it was almost midnight and I was a little over 4 miles or so from the north side of the Martinez Bridge, surrounded by miles of marsh grass and little else. From the bridge it was over 2 more miles until I could get to Martinez, with a mile of that spent 150' above the Sacramento River on the railroad bridge. That was a little too much information to process at that time, so I found a dry hummock of land along the tracks, rolled out, and had a suprisingly decent sleep until the next morning.
Supremely glad that it hadn't rained during the night, I began the most unusual part of my train trip so far — I had no choice but to walk to Martinez over the railroad bridge. The closest thing to a "plan" I had was to (hopefully) make it across the mile-long bridge before a train came by, and then, if possible, catch a freight (or Amtrak) from Martinez into Oakland. But first I had to walk for a couple of hours just to get to the bridge, and over steep ballast that left little choice but to step either on every tie or every other tie, depending on their spacing and my cadence, all the while nervously looking over my shoulder for an approaching train. As I neared the bridge I had thoughts of not being able to ever take steps in a normal stride for the rest of my life. Stopping to rest at the beginning of the bridge, I hoped that there would be some sort of catwalk to get across on, as I was really getting tired of tie hopping. There was a catwalk, and it was a good thing, because there was no ballast between the ties — only air between them and the water below. However, the catwalk looked so flimsy that I doubted it would be able to support an adult cat in places. With the determination of a tightrope walker I began my crossing, quickly developing a routine that included avoiding glancing downward if at all possible, and coming to a complete stop every minute or so in order to safely turn around to look for trains. One thing that I noticed right away, besides my dislike of heights, was just how windy it was over the water. This was, after all, the lowest spot between Central California and Northern California, with the hot, dry air mass in the Valley connected to the cool, moist air mass of the Pacific Ocean right below me. At least if a train did come by there were spots every so often where a person could get back out of harm's way, but I'm sure that if the engineer saw me there would be a welcoming committee waiting for me when I reached the other side.
So I continued to plod across, eventually reaching terra firma on the Martinez side only minutes before I saw an Oakland-bound Amtrak making its way across the bridge behind me. Trying to hurry along the tracks was almost impossible after mincing along for the last 5 miles or so, but I managed to veer off into a parking lot just as the train passed me at a crawl approaching the station. With impeccable timing I joined the crowd waiting to board, climbed in and immediately stashed my pack in the luggage racks, then ducked into a vacant bathroom and waited for us to leave. Since the tickets were taken after the people boarded, all I had to do was hang out in the bathroom for the half hour or so ride into Oakland. Since there was no window to look out of I had to mentally remember the sequence of right and left curves that led into the Amtrak depot, but I found out that the loudspeaker in the stall worked just fine, and I was duly notified when we were about to stop. I opened the door, walked over to get my pack, and joined the throng that was detraining from points east, as I was...