My Domain Needs Surveying

idle fingers point the way

"There's the way it oughta be... and there's the way it is."

Tom Berenger as Sgt. Barnes in Platoon

Anyone who has pre-conceived notions about how a train trip will turn out is apt to be surprised. To predict how an event will unfold is done with logic. Unfortunately, the railroads don't use logic. Knowing this allowed me to abandon logic and live in the "now", which is a good way to deal with the complexities involved in simply moving a group of freight cars from here to there. The "here" is Eugene, and "there" being anywhere south of here where it isn't raining.

There is something comforting about how freightyards interrupt the normal grid of surface streets, prompting overpasses to be built, giving the weary tramp a shelter from the elements and an observation post to, well... observe things. The movements of cars, engines, the Bull, other tramps, etc. are magically displayed merely by elevating one's self above the clutter of the surroundings. The shadows that are created hide us, cool us off, and keep us dry. Unfortunately, this overpass has also functioned as a tramp restroom, and a little "jungle housekeeping" was necessary before I could really settle down and get comfortable.

By a stroke of luck I was able to find a hunk of cardboard before it started to rain, and I unfolded it and carefully placed it between the drips of water that somehow found their way through cracks in the concrete above me. Looking around to see if the coast was clear, I leaned my pack upright to simulate where my body would be, then stumbled down the dirt embankment and walked around down below to see how hidden my spot really was. Satisfied that I was indeed invisible to at least the most casual of observers, I gathered up a few Reader's Digests that were scattered around and climbed back up to my spot. Scanning the almost empty yard and listening to the silence on my scanner told me that it was time to kick back and wait, so I spread out some things to dry and enveloped myself with the reading material I found.

There's always a sinking feeling that comes from putting on all of the warm clothes that you have and discovering that you're still cold. Parts of me could be labeled as "warm", but not enough to constitute a majority. This is when the time came to bring out the White Port and forget about petty annoyances. I was soon amazed at the amount of "warmth" that was available from one 750ml bottle of wine. The cheese, as so often happens on train trips, had begun to morph into a sort of "not cheese", but still retained enough of a recognizable fragrance that I wasn't afraid to contaminate my beloved French Bread with a few gooey slices slices so gooey, in fact, that it was difficult to clean off my knife blade sufficiently to reclose it.

Few combinations in Life go together better than the combination of French Bread, cheese, and wine. Maybe not quite in the same league as peanut butter and jelly, or macaroni and cheese, but very close. At one point when my cheese "ball" was reduced to the point of not being very spreadable anymore, I seized upon a brainstorm. Leaning against one of the support pillars of the overpass was a single, rather funky looking onion. A little too far gone for my usual tastes, it offered up an intriguing alternative to my bread and cheese diet. Gingerly peeling back the outer layers I was able to salvage just enough of some reasonable-looking onion to complement my sandwich, and a new tramp dish was born! I mushed the remaining cheese onto a large chunk of bread, added the onion heart, and sealed the mess with another hunk of bread, creating a sandwich the size of a soccer ball, but after some manual compression it was eaten with much enjoyment, and washed down with more of the nouvous Port.

After an hour or so with no let up in the dismal rain, some switching activity began, and it was enough of an "event" to make me put aside my magazines and sit up to watch how efficiently the railroad operated. A long string of cars would be backed into a yard track, then the engine would break away and go retrieve another string, which would either be added to the previous string, or shunted onto another track to be left alone for the time being. At a snail's pace this operation continued through much of the afternoon, with the engine sometimes adding cars to existing strings, or pushing them onto empty tracks. Whenever there were strings of cars added to a track already containing cars, they would all be shoved down the track a bit to make room for others to be added later, I assumed. At a glacial pace the previously empty sets of tracks below me began to take on the appearance of what most people would identify as a freightyard a bunch of tracks with freight cars on them. What I couldn't understand, however, was why the first group of cars sent down a track were only shoved a short distance, and each succeeding addition of cars required the entire group to be shoved down a short distance more, then more cars would be added to the lengthening string already on the track, and they all would be shoved back a ways, etc. I couldn't help but wonder why the first string wasn't shoved all the way down to the end of the track, then each succeeding string would only need to be shoved along until they met the first string, and so on and so forth, so that subsequent additions would need to be shoved a shorter and shorter distance, saving, presumably, time and money.

At this point I was literally consumed with the desire to figure out which way would be the most efficient way of distributing cars into yard tracks. Sitting bolt upright, I began to construct a miniature model of the yard tracks in the dirt in front of my cardboard domicile. With a stick I drew the pattern of tracks, and a nearby pile of spilled table grapes served as my freightcar inventory. Keeping an eye on my trusty Railroad Grade wristwatch, I noted how long it took to "shove" a group of three grapes along the grooves that represented the yard tracks. I settled on the number three as being the optimum number of grapes that I could shove without them "derailing", an important consideration for my model railroad if not for real railroads as well. By now I was into my second bottle of White Port, and I had to concentrate more and more on proper "train" handling to keep the grapes "coupled" together as well as on the proper yard track. After a few more derailments (and runaway "cars") my yard layout began to resemble a spider's web, rather than the geometric evenness of a true freightyard. Rapidly losing interest because of my inability to remember how long each "move" took, especially if I forgot to enter it on the notes I was taking on the corner of my cardboard, I noticed that the switching activity, such as it was, had ceased, and I was left with only the sound of the rain coming down, incredibly dirty fingers from the combination of squished grape juice and yucky soil, and a sore back from leaning forward for so long.

As darkness fell, I decided to abandon my plan of sitting up watching the yard for promising strings of cars, mainly because it was getting too dark to see anything, so I packed up my gear and slid down the embankment to enter the yard and search for a suitable ride. I knew which tracks held cars going South, and after a mercifully brief walk in the steady rain I found a wooden-floored boxcar with only one door open. Leaping inside I gave up hope of seeing anything in the way of scenery going over the Cascades and instead prepared myself for at least a dry sleep, not caring if I woke up in the same exact spot or not. A few more snorts of wine and I was out like a light. Getting up to pee during the night I realized that we were moving and there was a scent of pines and creosoted ties, as well as a bright moon in a cloudless sky...