By Train to the Canyon

vacationing on the cheap

The first and only time I visited the Grand Canyon occurred during a "family vacation" when I was 5 or 6 years old. Obviously, the intricacies of geology, erosion, and early civilizations didn't come up it was just one of those places that you experience if you're on vacation.

One experience I remember was my parents keeping me on a tight leash that prevented me from getting closer than several feet from the rim in case I should slip and vanish forever. Although I couldn't see much of the bottom of the canyon, the parts that I did see left a lasting impression, and I like to think that at that time I vowed to come back as an "adult", and minus the figurative leash.

Having discovered freighthopping, it seemed like a great way to incorporate a long desert ride with a hike in the Canyon, so a friend of mine and I decided to ride from Roseville down to Bakersfield, then over to Flagstaff, AZ. We took a transit bus from Sonoma County to the Bay Area, then a Greyhound over to Roseville. At some point we caught a southbound Southern Pacific freight and rode it down the Central Valley where we bailed on the fly just as the train crossed the Kern River, then walked into Bakersfield for supplies.

Adding a goodly amount of food and drink to our packs, we made our way over to the Santa Fe yard, where in a surprisingly short time we jumped on an eastbound leaving the yard and were on our way to Flagstaff in an empty auto rack. A couple of hours spent bouncing around and we slowed to enter the Barstow yard. We dropped down to look for a more stable ride when we were stopped by a Bull, who almost apologetically announced that he would have to escort us out of the yard. This was fine with me, as I had already spent 5 days in the Barstow jail on a similar offense and didn't want to return. The Bull actually seemed like he was sorry to drag us out of the yard and even offered to take us to a nearby convenience store, but I declined, sensing that wherever he dropped us off would be farther from the yard than we were now, and the temp was in the high 90s already.

Shouldering our packs as he drove off, we paused for a moment, supposedly futzing with our packs, then turned and walked back to the outskirts of the yard, where we found a reasonably shady spot to wait for nightfall. Here is where the wine really came in handy, as we were faced with staring at piles of tumbleweeds pressed against a chainlink fence for several hours. I soon discovered that if you scrape away a few inches of sand on the surface, the sand underneath is actually moist and cool, so we made ourselves two sunken beds and waited out the sunset.

The high point of the afternoon was a wine-induced nap, and before long the sun had set and we were on the move again. We walked through a big cement causeway that passed under the west end of the yard and came out on the banks of the Mojave River, which at that time of year was about a mile wide and two inches deep. A row of Eucalyptus trees planted as a windbreak against drifting sand concealed our approach to the departure yard, and we sat atop a small berm looking for anything headed east.


There were several strings of cars in the yard and I secretly summoned up what little psychic powers that I might have possessed to make the string with the empty boxcars be the next train out. To my delight in less than an hour or so some engines backed down to that very string of cars and it was time to pack up and make a mad dash across six or eight vacant tracks to get to our boxcars. A short fence was surmounted and under the glare of dozens of lights we made our way over to the first open boxcar and climbed in. I turned on my scanner to hear if we had been spotted but nothing indicated that, so we set up camp in the head end and waited to leave.

With surprising efficiency we felt a bump from the rear end as the caboose was added, then the usual nonsense while the air came up, and as I stood to pee out the door it looked as if the ground was moving while I stood still. There was none of the rocking and crashing that usually happens when you start to move, just a very smooth sensation of watching the light poles march away in the distance. A toast was made as we crossed over The Colorado River bridge and soon we were speeding across the desert under a nearly full moon.

Getting up to pee during the night I noticed that Santa Fe uses a serious amount of super-elevation on their tracks. I was standing in the doorway on the inside of a curve and felt a pronounced sensation of sliding out the door into the desert blackness had I not been holding onto the side tightly. The rail itself seemed noticeably smoother than usual, and I thought to myself that it was a shame that this railroad was so adamant against riders. I climbed back into my sleeping bag and had a good sleep until we stopped on a siding at Williams Junction to meet a westbound. It was freezing! I always associated deserts with heat, but now we were surrounded by trees and there was frost on the floor of the boxcar.

Quickly returning to my bag to warm up, we soon took off and I noticed that the eastern sky was getting light, and I wished that I had perused my railroad maps further because I was really not certain exactly where Flagstaff was. A short time later we stopped again for a meet and I carefully walked out to the open door and saw the lights of a reasonably large town a few miles away. Since I just assumed that Flagstaff was a crew change and we'd be stopping there (which wasn't true), I thought for a moment "what if it wasn't a crew change, and we flew right by our destination?" Waking my sleeping partner, we quickly packed up and jumped out the door and began a long walk down to a highway and into what fortuitously turned out to be Flagstaff.

We eventually took a bus out to the Canyon, hiked around for a few days, then caught out of Flagstaff on another junker and reversed our route. Even with a serious lack of planning we pulled off a train riding/hiking trip that was enjoyable with only a minimal amount of luck. One very positive outcome was that the hike out of the Canyon up the Bright Angel Trail made any future walks down long strings of cars in a freightyard seem pale in comparison...