Time Spent Well...

...is time well spent

I never have much luck remembering my dreams the next day. No matter how vivid they were at the time, by morning there's not much left. Maybe this is because they weren't really events in themselves, but a patchwork of notes taken mentally during events, then scrambled and re-assembled in no particular order. I'll never figure out how people can "interpret" their dreams I can't even make sense out of half the shit I do when I'm awake. Some of my dreams made about as much sense as if I'd run through a library tearing out a page from each book I passed, then stacking them up and reading them from one to the next, or maybe like throwing up and trying to remember exactly when you ate each item. This time when I woke up I was on a train really on a train and we had just came to an emergency stop somewhere in Nevada or Utah in the middle of the night.

It took me awhile to realize that I was actually awake, because I was burrowed down inside my sleeping bag under a piggyback trailer trying to keep warm at 60mph across the frozen late December desert. I had gone down to LA to spend Christmas with my family and decided to go back home via Las Vegas and Salt Lake, instead of the fog-bound Coast Line. Sure, it'd be colder, I thought, but it would be a dry cold, supposedly better than the damp cold of the alternative. Actually, anywhere would seem cold after spending several days in Southern California. I had even gone swimming in the ocean on Christmas Day, something that I wasn't going to mention when I got back home because nobody would believe me.

How could they? It was snowing like crazy when I left my house to begin this trip, and there was about 6" on the ground in Dunsmuir with lots more coming down. Setting up "camp" next to the tracks under the freeway bridge north of the depot, I squeezed myself into a narrow strip of reasonably dry ground that the swirling winds were unable to cover with blowing snow. I had a nice piece of almost-dry cardboard, plenty of warm clothes, and an abundance of wine to keep my spirits up. All I needed was a train. As the wind-deposited snow got closer and closer, I turned on my scanner to alleviate the boredom at the exact second that a dispatcher was telling a southbound to tie their train down in the yard because the outbound crew was late in arriving. This was both good and bad news it meant that a southbound train was approaching, which was good, but instead of stopping for a crew change right in front of me, it would sail by and stop in the yard instead, which was bad, because it meant that I had to roll up my gear and hoof it a mile or so down to the freightyard in what was now a pretty good blizzard by California standards.

Inhaling a last gulp of wine, I trudged down the tracks to the depot, then followed side streets down to the yard, with my rolled-up cardboard sucking up moisture like a sponge along the way. Finding the old wooden building on the river side of the yard, I was overjoyed to find that there was an expansive dry area under the leeward overhang of the roof, and, thanks to an abandoned box spring set nearby, arranged a comfortable waiting area. The wine was unscrewed and the party began again.

The whole idea of "going home for Christmas" was getting more and more complicated every year. After initially moving 500 miles away after college, I'd since then moved another 250 miles farther. The distance, coupled with the quantum climate change from the mountains of Northern California to the beaches of the south, made the journey rather unpredictable, with the additional factor of the diminished rail activities during the Holidays. It was a cheap excuse for a train trip, though, and that alone overshadowed the uncertainties of my arriving on time.

I did get a train, and I did have a nice ride down to Bakersfield, mainly because I managed to sleep through much of the boring Central Valley, but now I was getting close, and I could feel my apprehension building as there was now only one mountain range separating me from the alien wasteland that is LA. As my train dropped the air and began doing whatever work they needed to do in the yard, I walked over to my favorite hole-in-the-wall Mexican café to get one of their legendary burritos. I'd found this place several years ago on a similar train trip and made it a point to stop by every chance I got, even if it meant missing a train, because their burritos are the size of a small dog [and may very well contain parts of a small dog] and require at least two hands and a very large plate to eat. If that wasn't enough, they have a killer salsa to go with it, and they'll let you take a container of the salsa with you. This I have done numerous times to "improve" the flavor of just about anything I've brought along to eat on train trips.

I enjoyed part of the burrito at a table, then carefully wrapped the sizable remainder in layers of aluminum foil and placed it in my pack with the dexterity of a surgeon. A quick stop at a liquor store and I was back in the yard, waiting for my train to leave. Eventually we pulled out and I knew that the next time I set foot on the ground might be at West Colton, in the smoggy east end of the LA Basin. There would be lots more Mexican restaurants, stucco-covered strip malls with no roof overhangs, palm trees, movie stars, low riders, and thousands of other things that fortunately I never saw where I lived. I was glad that my immersion into La La Land was delayed a bit by the high desert between Bakersfield and Colton, as the weather was actually hot and with most of my clothes now residing in my pack, along with the 5 pound burrito carcass, I would be lucky to hobble along at a crawl once I got off the train.

As we descended Cajon Pass, the sky went from blue to cream and then brown, as if the Apocalypse had just occurred, but I was prepared for it. The last few days on the train, with the weather going from snow to hot sun, and the population going from dozens to millions, seemed dream-like in a way, and I wasn't sure if I really wanted to "wake up" at all, but I was beginning to feel the effects of the first ½ of the burrito building up and I fervently wished that my train would make good time to Colton, where I could bail off and call my brother to come pick me up.

Often times the last few miles of a train trip are like the last few minutes of a basketball game they seem to last forever, and this time was no exception. Naturally, we went in the hole just a mile or so before we got to the yard to let another train pass, then crawled along at a walking pace the rest of the way. Realizing that I could equal the train's speed on foot, I climbed down just moments before it picked up speed and took off before I could get back on, leaving me with an extended approach to "civilization" that was actually quite beneficial. I was able to drop down the embankment and "off-load" the burrito by-products, and just sit for awhile and polish off my last bottle of wine while preparing myself mentally for the scene ahead. At some point I felt "ready", and a 10-minute walk brought me to the edge of suburban sprawl and the ubiquitous convenience store, where I used the pay phone to arrange to be picked up. I had arrived in Southern California, it was the day before Christmas, and the newspaper rolled up in the trash can next to me said today's high would be 87 degrees!

part 2 of 3