Midnight in the Garden of Snow

i am the walrus

...hunkered in the well of a eastbound double-stack somewhere in Nevada... past Elko I think... can't see any landmarks because of blowing snow...

I caught a junker out of Stockton in overcast but otherwise decent weather. Not that there was anything in the way of "scenery" in the Central Valley anyway. Riding in a loaded gondola with rebar. There's a small section in the front of the car where I can get out of the wind and roll out, but the thought of a hard stop and all of that metal sliding forward is still very much in my mind, although I can't remember riding in a loaded gon where the load showed obvious movement. Bringing out the wine alleviated any lingering fears, and I had a nice but slow ride up the Feather River canyon, where the scenery improved but the weather didn't.

Getting close to the crew change in Portola, I debated whether to continue into Nevada riding where I was or getting off and wait for a hotshot. If the weather turned to crap [which it did] I wanted to get to Salt Lake sooner rather than later. Coming up the canyon I looked back along my train on every curve, hoping to spot any open boxcars, but there weren't any, so I looked upward instead, hoping to get a clue as to what the weather was going to do.

We began to slow down several miles west of Portola and eventually took the siding at Spring Garden, where I figured that we'd see a westbound go by at some point, so I used the down time to gather up my gear in case I wanted to bail out in the Portola yard. This decision was facilitated by the appearance of snowflakes settling down all around me, the lowering of the cloud cover, and a chilly down-canyon wind. While I was thinking about how long I'd have to wait under the bridge in Portola for another train, I heard the sound of a train getting close, but it was coming from the west we were being run around by another eastbound. Realizing that I was surely on a very low priority freight, I leaned out the side of the car and looked back to see what was coming.

Just my luck it was a double-stack train the one I hoped to catch in Portola, a few miles up the track. This really killed any hopes I had for a short stay in Portola, but as the stack train passed me it started to slow down and just as the head end got even with the head end of my train it stopped. This was too good to be true, so I grabbed my gear and climbed down the ladder between the two trains as the stack train began to pull out. Letting a few cars go by with no room on the ends I saw a 48' car coming with shorter containers so I grabbed the abbreviated ladder on the back and climbed up and in.

Almost immediately we were moving much faster than my earlier train so I rolled out and settled in for the long ride across Nevada. I would have preferred to find a car with the upper containers overhanging the lower ones so I'd have a roof over me, but I didn't have time to pick and choose back at the siding. If things got worse [which they did] I might be able to switch cars when we took a siding somewhere [which we didn't].

Hunkering down for the crew change in Portola, I noticed that the snowfall had picked up a bit but it was a cold, fluffy snow, and the air currents in the well somehow directed most of it over my head. After a brief stop we accelerated eastward and I was left with a fast and scenic tour of the high sagebrush plains of eastern California and western Nevada. Watching the long string of double-stacks snaking along behind me I thought of all the early settlers who followed a similar route but at a much slower pace.

The day was spent watching the snow-covered desert fly by, and by late afternoon I was on my second bottle of wine and it was nap time. I squirmed into my sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep. Whatever dreams I may have had escape me now, but I remember waking up as we slowed to enter a siding. By now it was dark with a full-blown blizzard going on and my bag and I and everything else in the well were covered in snow. Figuring that this would be a good time to take a leak, I unzipped my bag and sat up, trying to remember where I left my boots. Seconds later we came to an abrupt stop which shook off several inches of snow that had stuck to the back of the container I was sleeping next to, and it all came crashing down on me and the inside of my sleeping bag.

I was wearing only long underwear and I was now pretty much covered with snow... the inside of my bag was covered with snow... and somewhere nearby I knew that the rest of my gear was also covered in snow. And it was pitch black outside. Fortunately I brought my flashlight "to bed" with me, so with it sticking out of my mouth I managed to shake off most of the snow and stand up to get dressed. My boots were dug out, pants and sweater put on, then I managed to brush off the sleeping bag, but then I was practically knocked off my feet as we lurched forward again.

Looking back, I saw that the rear portion of my train was on the siding, but the engines were pulling me and a few other cars forward. As far as I could tell, we were somewhere in the desert of maybe eastern Nevada, and there was no sign of anything around, so they wouldn't be setting me off, would they? But sure enough, we came to another jarring stop, then backed into a short spur track. At this point I went into Warp Drive I was being set out in the middle of a snow-covered desert, during a blizzard, in the middle of the night! Details remain indistinct, but I stuffed my pack closed, threw the sleeping bag over my shoulder, clenched the flashlight in my teeth, and climbed down the ladder. The last unit was only about a half dozen cars ahead, and I ran as best I could along the slippery ballast until I got to the stairwell, then pulled myself up and into the cab.

Breathing a huge sigh of relief, I immediately had to duck down as Amtrak blew by on the main. I dropped my gear and turned on the cab heater and began warming my hands up as the brakeman opened the door with a blast of blowing snow. Apparently he had seen my footprints leading from the well car up to the last unit. Not knowing what to expect, I listened as he explained that they weren't setting any cars out after all the train was just too long to fit on the siding so they put a few cars on the spur track to make room for Amtrak to get by. I explained my situation and we both had a good laugh, then he told me to just stay out of sight and we should be in Salt Lake in an hour or so. I thanked him profusely and distributed my wet gear all over the cab to dry it out. After a few switching moves I was again underway, watching the storm coat the containers behind me with snow and wondering what I was going to do when I bailed off in Salt Lake before sunrise, but for the time being, anyway, I enjoyed that last of a very young Burgundy...