Suburban Cowboy

smoke 'em if ya got 'em

I was content riding in the West, and had no real urge to go anywhere else. The weather was great, the people were nice, the yards were easy to figure out, there were no bugs, no chain gangs... yeah, it was pretty comfy.

At some point, though, I thought about going beyond my usual haunts and see what things looked like east of Salt Lake. The map showed lots of mountains, but then they just stopped at Denver or so. OK, so I would ride out to Denver and back this time, see if all the fuss about the Rockies was true, and get into Colorado for the first time. I did some pre-trip research and then waited for what might be at least a week of decent weather.

The only real decision I had to make was if I was going to take Southern Pacific to Ogden or Union Pacific to Salt Lake for starters. Since I didn't want to leave my car anywhere for that length of time, I would have to begin my trip by bus, something I felt was on par with a trip to the dentist. It was a two hour bus ride to Oakland, and another two hour bus ride to Roseville. Oakland won.

My pre-trip planning revealed that a considerable amount of travel would be done in Utah, a state that is not particularly alcohol-friendly, so before leaving I devised a plan I bought 6 bottles of White Port and emptied the contents into several plastic bottles I "borrowed" from a recycling center. The savings in weight between glass and plastic was startling, not to mention the peace of mind coming from the fact that they wouldn't break if I tossed my pack onto a moving train, something that I experienced first hand and fervently wished to avoid repeating. A large ziplock bag was filled with gorditas, and an even larger bag held a block of cheese. I had a heavy duty gallon plastic water jug emblazoned with a Chicago & Northwestern logo, compliments of the departure yard shack in Union Pacific's Hinkle yard on an earlier trip.

The weather looked good and I wanted to get going before my White Port began some weird interaction with the plastic bottles and began to spoil on me, so I walked out to the bus stop with a unexpectedly heavy pack and waited for my trip to officially begin. Leaning up against the pole holding the "bus" sign, I mused as to the exact moment that a train trip actually "begins". Is it at the planning stage? When I leave my house? When I get to the yard? On the train? Pondering this, my thoughts switched to when life actually begins at conception, or sometime during pregnancy, or at birth? Wow, this was too much thinking, and I really wished that the bus would get here. The bus company took the trouble to enclose a comprehensive schedule with maps and times in a metal box with a clear plastic front, but 1) the printing was so small you'd need a magnifying glass on a good day, 2) the sunlight long ago turned the "clear" plastic into a brownish-colored opaque plastic, and 3) the box wasn't sealed completely so beads of condensation completely covered the inside of the "opaque" plastic cover. My bus arrived anyway and my trip un-officially began.


The bus ride was bearable and fortunately wasn't crowded so that I could park my pack on the seat next to me the whole way. On an earlier trip I wasn't so lucky, as it was around rush hour and the bus was packed, which meant I had to keep it in the aisle next to me and quickly hoist it onto my lap every time we stopped to allow passengers to get on or off. It became some sort of evil isometric exercise, and after a few hours of this my arms were ready to fall off. I de-bussed in San Francisco and walked a block or so to the BART station, then took it under the Bay to West Oakland, the Jewel of the Bay Area.

Here is where a decision was called for do I catch out of the SP yard or the UP yard? I decided that I didn't want to have to deal with possibly changing trains in Roseville so I chose UP. It was still late afternoon and there was plenty of sunlight left so I took my time walking over to the freightyard. Walking along the mainline that ran alongside both yards, I detoured into a small set of tracks that held stored passenger cars from the commute trains and settled down in a vestibule to rest and check the status of my White Port experiment. This was a nice spot to kick back the Bull couldn't drive anywhere nearby, there were no track workers to rat on me, and there was a huge supply of old newspapers blowing around, courtesy of the local homeless population. Nervously I twisted the cap loose and gingerly took a sip... a bit on the warm side but eminently drinkable, as an oenophile might say. I amused myself with comic sections from days gone by, then packed up and finished my walk over to the UP yard.

Unfortunately, all of my nightly hangouts were glaringly obvious in daylight, so I backtracked over to the diamond where the UP and SP mains crossed and plopped down on a loading dock to await the sunset. Eventually I deemed the darkness to be at an acceptable level and walked back down the tracks toward the UP yard, where I was greeted with the headlight of a train emerging from the yard. Ducking behind some conveniently placed bushes I watched the units crawl past and began to look for a ride. Twenty or so cars went by and then I saw what had to be the World's oldest gondola. My first thought was "No way, that thing will rock like crazy" but as it approached I noticed that the cars in front of and behind it were rocking but the gondola was riding steady. Grabbing my pack I saw that the springs were compressed to the point of almost having all of the coils touching each other, and I ran over really just to climb up the ladder to see what it was carrying. I looked down and saw lengths of large rebar running the length of the car stacked about a foot high. Climbing in I noticed that it did seem to ride OK, even though we were going very slow at this point. On each bundle of rebar was a cardboard tag showing the place it was made (here in Oakland) and its destination Denver!

Well, as long as it didn't rain (and it wasn't supposed to) this could be my ticket all the way, without having to change trains. Just in case the car turned into a rattle trap when we got up to speed, I looked back to try and spot some other possible rides, but we were on the straight track now that runs down through Jack London Square and I didn't want a million people seeing my head sticking up, so I sat back down, knowing I could always change cars in Stockton, a few hours away. As we picked up speed the car remained quite steady, although the almost fully compressed springs gave out quite a thump when we crossed over bad sections of track. I made a mental note to carry a 6" thick chunk of foam rubber on my next trip for just such an occasion.

On some of the curves going over Altamont Pass I was able to look back and see a number of gondolas not too far behind me, which was a big relief. The train was quite long, too, which suggested that we might not have any pickups in Stockton or South Sacramento, which was fine with me. Stockton came and went, so did South Sac, and naturally we were going through the scenic Feather River Canyon at night, but it was a good time to get some sleep, knowing that my spine should be safe from any high speed thumps for awhile. I slept through the crew change in Portola and woke up going through the Chilcoot Tunnel. California was behind me and it looked to be a beautiful day in Nevada.

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