Yard Limits

look before you leap

The time spent in a freightyard waiting for a train is underrated and can often provide as much "inspiration" (or whatever) as the eventual train ride itself. While the time spent hanging out in a bus station or an airline terminal looking forward to a long journey isn't often the stuff of legends, those lazy days spent languishing in the bowels of departure yards drawing maps in the dirt with a stick, re-arranging your gear, fashioning a new insole out of cardboard... these moments are as valuable as any you feel riding along at track speed with your feet hanging out the door of a boxcar. Well, almost any.

Catching a late night northbound out of Dunsmuir, I was headed for Klamath Falls. Unfortunately, my train was going north alright, but up the Siskiyou Branch to Eugene, and not the mainline to Klamath. This I learned from the Brakeman as we pulled into the hole at Black Butte and I began to hear the dreaded sound of handbrakes being set. Since it was after midnight and he said that the train wouldn't be leaving until the morning, I retreated to my sleeping bag and went back to sleep, figuring I'd get up at first light and roll up to wait for another northbound.

A few trains went by during the night but didn't stop, and I woke up early after an abbreviated but restful sleep. I stashed my gear behind a menacing-looking manzanita bush and began to wander around the yard to stretch my legs and "get in character". I found a couple of huge pieces of honeycomb cardboard in a nearby boxcar and noted their location for future retrieval when the next northbound came in. Another "find" was a small folding metal chair that had been tossed into the bushes, and was now fetched and strategically staged so I could grab it on my way to walk the train, whenever that might be.

Returning to my pack to get a bottle of White Port, I decided to make the most of my time spent in Limbo at Black Butte. Any bona fide tramp monikers were pretty much swallowed up by the spray paint crap, but I did find some choice tags here and there. As always, the tiniest squiggle that you couldn't make out until you were inches away conveyed much more meaning than any 20' long spray paint drivel.

Here and there were track spikes in various stages of wear and decomposition, small innocuous pieces of scrap metal that must have fallen from gondolas filled with scrap destined for a smelter somewhere, lots and lots of wood chips, blown off the top of loaded chip cars, and lengths of metal banding broken off from who knows what. Veering over to an old hobo camp, the ground was littered with even more testaments to Man's presence several empty wine bottles but no beer cans (obviously taken away for redemption somewhere), several short lengths of wire, a screw-on wine bottle cap used as an ashtray (odd...), a dozen or more cardboard six-pack cases flattened and tied together with string, and a thick Harlequin-type paperback with pages torn out in random fashion (a toilet paper substitute?).

Nearing the point of boredom with my archaeological foray, I was thrilled to hear the sound of an approaching northbound, and after making my way back out to the mainline I saw that the signals indicated that the train would be diverted onto the siding, either to meet another train or to stop and so some work. Either way I hurried back to retrieve my pack and look for a strategic spot to wait. I grabbed the folding chair but the cardboard would have to wait until I figured out where my ride would stop. As the train crawled into the yard I saw the Brakeman walk along the outside of the engine and climb down the steps, which told me that they would stop either to set out or pick up some cars.

The train stopped, the Brakeman stepped down, then the train pulled ahead about 20 cars or so, the Brakeman cut the air, the train pulled ahead. Then the predictable sequence of events continued the Brakeman threw a switch, the engines backed down onto an adjacent track and coupled onto a string of cars. But not just any string of cars it was the string of cars that included the boxcar with the cardboard inside! As it was pulled out in front of me I tossed the folding chair inside and watched as the string rolled out of the yard, stopped, then slowly backed down onto the waiting train. This was too good to be true. Why is it that when the weather is nice you don't have to wait long for a train, and your ride almost stops in front of you, as if you were some giant magnet, but if it's raining or snowing you're stuck waiting for hours and end up walking back and forth looking for a suitable ride that's often never there.

I waited until I heard them air up, then walked over to the cardboard-filled boxcar and climbed in. It was just as I had imagined it clean inside, no wobbly doors, the slightest smell of cedar, and those big chunks of cardboard. I placed the folding metal chair on top of one sheet, then carefully stood on top of it and jumped up and down, imbedding the legs of the chair into the cardboard to provide some stability once we began to move. The other piece served as a 4" thick "air" mattress for my sleeping bag. I brought out another bottle of White Port and used it as a template to draw a circle on the cardboard, then took my knife and carved out a circular hole that would keep my wine steady and upright along the roughest stretch of track I was apt to encounter.

I wasn't in any hurry to leave, which was good, because we sat there for almost an hour until I heard the sound of a southbound in the distance and knew the reason for the wait. In a minute or two the train sped by, then we began to make our way to the north end of the siding and onto the mainline, where I began an extremely comfortable ride up to Klamath Falls, thanks to a smooth-riding car, a pair of new foam earplugs, plenty of wine, and a few "found objects" without which the ride wouldn't have been nearly as much fun.

part 2 of 2