The Train-Time Continuum (part 2)

if it's Tuesday this must be Montana

Walking through the underpass where 7th St. passes under the tracks between the main Oakland yard and the Desert Yard always reminded me of driving through the Wawona Tunnel and emerging into Yosemite Park. Although perhaps not quite as imbued with natural wonders, it did possess a certain charm all its own. Situated in the middle of Darkest Oakland, I was often asked by people if I didn't fear for my life when I hung out there. The truth was that I never thought of it as a highly likely place to get robbed if you were looking for money, why focus on tramps, who usually had little or none. This made it seem like a safe oasis in the middle of the crime-ridden East Bay, and provided that you didn't go parading around in broad daylight, I never felt uncomfortable there.

The Desert Yard had a surprising number of places to hide out while waiting for a train, and I settled down in my favorite spot, spread out the cardboard and foam pad, turned on the scanner, and unscrewed a bottle of Ernest & Julio's finest. A few minutes later, during a pee break, I saw some power pull out of the main yard and go around the big curve under the BART tracks toward the Amtrak depot. Standing on a pile of ties to get a better view, I saw a caboose on the end of a string of cars facing east in front of the depot, and knew it was a Roseville train, so I collected my gear and walked over to the cars, finding a clean empty boxcar a few cars up from the caboose. My "camp" was re-established in no time, and a half hour later we were pulling out.


After a pleasant, un-eventful ride to Roseville, we pulled right through the Antelope receiving yard and stopped on the main near the wye for a crew change. Here I was faced with a decision if the train turned left around the wye it would go to Portland, and I could switch trains there and ride BN over to the Twin Cities. If the train went straight, it would go to Ogden, where I could catch Rio Grande to Denver and points east, or switch to UP and go to Cheyenne and still further "points east". Normally I'd be nervous at this point, but since this was a no-stress train ride and I had plenty of time to get to Iowa, I just sat back and awaited my fate. It ended up we turned left, and I felt a sense of relief knowing that it would be the same route that I followed last year, but this time with nothing even remotely resembling a schedule.

At this point I was a little over 100 miles into my trip and I'd only walked the equivalent of a few blocks, so I thought that a nap would be in order, considering the blandness of the scenery going by in the Central Valley. Ernest & Julio were my tour guides through a weird dream of being in a wave-tossed boat and unable to escape. The incessant rocking caused by the straight track in the valley was eventually replaced by the smooth undulations of the many curves we encountered entering the Sacramento River Canyon. At some point we stopped to change crews in Dunsmuir, then Klamath Falls, but I was determined to enter "train time" as soon as I could, so I continued my wine-enabled sleep as long as I could. I couldn't resist getting up to see the Cacades, however, and I stood at the doorway until it was too dark to see anything, then it was back to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night we reached Eugene, where we dropped the air and I knew it was time to switch cars, since it often happened that the rear end of the train was left here while the head end continued on to Portland. Feeling wide awake after sleeping most of the day, I gathered up my gear, jumped down, and walked up to the north end of the yard.

If there's anything positive to be said for wandering around in the middle of the night in a freightyard, it might be that railroad workers on this shift are generally friendlier than those working in daylight, and this was certainly the case this time. A fellow on a scooter was coming toward me between the strings of cars, and in the glare of his headlight I gave a big wave, so as not to startle him, as he was driving along looking down at the brake shoes rather than straight ahead at me. Apparently my wave wasn't "big" enough, as I had to duck away between cars as he almost ran into me before he stopped. We exchanged pleasantries and he looked up just where they were going to cut the train, which, to my surprise was a few cars after another string of clean, empty boxcars. I thanked him profusely and climbed back in as he hollered that it shouldn't be more than an hour before the train would leave. As is often the case, the railroad's "hour" is not the same as the hour that we're all used to, but as it was getting light outside we slowly pulled out and made our way up to Portland.


Slowing at the golf course told me that my train was going into the yard, so I bailed off and walked over to a nearby bus bench becuse for once I was here during the day when the busses were actually running. Knowing nothing of the local bus routes and even less about street names, I walked up into the first bus that came along and told the driver that I wanted to go to the north end of town, where Burlington Northern's Lake Yard was, although I figured that the "north end of town" would be sufficient, which it was not. He asked me where in the "north end" I wanted to go, then recited a list of locations that meant nothing to me. Finally he said to just get off downtown, where I could repeat my query to another driver on an outbound route. Sitting down right behind him, I told him about my plans to go all the way to Iowa, and before I could get more than a sentence or two out he turned and said "Iowa? Der ain' nuthin' der 'cept dat Hobo Festival dat where you goin'?" It ended up that he'd ridden out there himself when he got out of the Army many years ago, but thought that I was hitchhiking to Iowa instead. Immediately he figured out that I wanted to go to the Lake Yard, and not some freeway onramp, and gave me a transfer, telling me what bus to take and where to get off. I wanted to continue our conversation but we were now in the downtown area, so I thanked him heartily and made my way over to the yard. Sometimes it sees like there's some kind of zoning law that places freightyards adjacent to liquor stores, or vice versa, and I restocked before I disappeared into the small yard to wait it out until nightfall, when I planned to catch a piggyback east to Minnesota.

part 3 of 6