To Halve and to Have Not

the unbearable lightness of starvation

One's diet on train trips is often quite dissimilar from that which is enjoyed while residing at home. The more food you take, the heavier your pack is. Opportunities for meals at predetermined times during the day just never happen, and when you do succumb to the urge to break out that chunk of Aged Cheddar and Wheat Thins, it's often within an admiring circle of equally hungry tramps or in the darkness of a rocking and rolling boxcar in the middle of the night.

For quite a while my preferred method of "eating light" was to drink alot of wine beforehand. For some reason this worked surprisingly well in most conditions, but not all. In the Spring of 1980 I was in Spokane, headed south to Wishram, Bend, and Klamath Falls. Under the overpass at the north (east?) end of the BN yard were several tramps waiting for a train, and I joined them, more out of an effort to seek out the shade therein than any urge for companionship. The word was that a southbound hotshot was due in very soon and they were all going to nail it as it slowed to enter the yard.

As much as I enjoyed this bit of luck, my "food" supply was down to a single bottle of White Port, and I was debating whether to leave the yard and seek out a grocery store, or stay and get the hotshot. My decision was prompted by the sight of a headlight in the distance, and I as well as everyone else quickly stood up and gathered our gear together. Following the unwritten Code of the Road, instead of an every man for himself approach, we spread ourselves out so that we didn't all run for the same ladder at the same time. With the head end of the train being all piggybacks there was room for everybody, but in the distance I recognized the curved sides of grain cars on the rear of the train, so I let the others board the pigs and I waited for the grainers.

As a reward for my discretion, I was faced with several grainers with their porches covered with mounds of semi-sprouted wheat. While normally providing a comfortable "cushion" during long rides, these resembled miniature rain forests, with a strong, unpleasant odor. As the last rideable car approached, before a short string of boxcars followed by the caboose, I lowered my standards and grabbed a trailing ladder on the next to last grainer and was greeted with a nice, clean, dry porch for my efforts.

After a short wait in the yard to change crews we ambled out the south end and picked up speed as we veered left on the Latah Creek bridge and began a long, hot, boring ride down to Pasco. There's something about Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon (and just about Eastern anything for that matter) that seems to suggest that the Earth was suddenly tilted toward the West, and everything and anybody interesting slid westward, leaving the east completely void of... I don't know... interesting stuff.

Watching the green landscape passing by, I thought of all the wheat that would be harvested later in the year and eventually wind up in loaves of bread, or hamburger buns, or cookies... My hunger was getting the best of me, and I now weighed my decision to catch this train instead of hitting a grocery store, deciding it was probably the worst decision I had made in quite some time. I toyed with the idea of getting off at the first siding we stopped at and gathering up some green grass to make a "hobo salad". Taking a sip of water to at least fill some small void in my stomach, I noticed that there were numerous "objects" swirling around in my plastic jug and made a mental note to rinse it out completely at my earliest convenience.

Figuring that a nice nap would take my mind off the hunger pains, I turned around to retrieve my last bottle of White Port to properly induce torpidity and noticed something in the cubbyhole in the back of the grainer. There was a large onion sack with, of all things, an intact deli sandwich inside! Astonished at my good fortune, I examined the package carefully for signs of spoilage. There were no visible tears in the cellophane wrapper, but the expiration date was over a week before. Counting back in my mind, the sandwich was probably purchased somewhere in the Midwest, and spent the last several days percolating in the bowels of a hot grainer.

Although the label was peeled off, under scrutiny it appeared to be a baloney on white bread, with mustard and... mayonnaise. Yuck! I knew that mayonnaise doesn't do well in heat, and I struggled to remember any tidbits of information I might have gleaned from my high school health or science classes. The bread looked OK, but I wasn't too sure about the baloney. Not quite hungry enough yet to take a test bite, I returned the sandwich to the shade of the cubbyhole after wrapping it in toilet paper and pouring water over it to create some sort of after-the-fact evaporative cooling. Continuing to drain the White Port, I forgot about the sandwich, the scenery, and the need to stay awake, and fell into a pleasant slumber as the monotonous landscape passed by unnoticed.

Awakened from a wheat-inspired dream, I saw that we were getting close to Pasco, and I should gather up my gear to de-train and get some much-needed food (and water). Coming into the yard, I happened to look up and see a police car stopped next to the tracks up ahead, so I stuffed my pack into the cubbyhole (after removing my treasured sandwich) and hopped over to the front of the car behind me to look up and see what the cop was doing. Just as I feared, he was pulling several riders off the piggybacks on the front of the train, so I backed into the corresponding cubbyhole on my car and tried to blend in with the shadows as best I could.

OK, what was my plan going to be? I thought about getting off on the opposite side from the cop but when I looked forward there was some kind of white truck parked across from the cop car, so I scrapped that option. There were no adjoining strings of cars in the yard to hide behind, so it appeared that my best bet was to stay where I was until the cop left, but I realized that he'd most likely remain where he was until the entire train rolled by him. My remaining option was to stay where I was until we pulled down to the lower end of the yard and bail off, but that would leave me with a long walk back to the grocery store, and possibly a longer wait for the next train. As we began to move again I took one last peek up front to try and figure out some landmark to tell me when I was far enough past the cop to make my getaway, then settled back into the hole, looking over to make sure that my pack was sufficiently hidden from sight.

Unfortunately, the train took off like a bat out of Hell and by the time we reached my "landmark" we were going too fast to get off. On the plus side, I did get out of town without getting busted, and at the speed we were going it would be only another hour or two before we stopped in Wishram for the next crew change. With my end of the car no longer in shade, I was again tormented by the sight of the cool waters of the Columbia River lapping against the shore only a few feet from the tracks, while I baked in the sun with only some particulate-filled, luke warm water to drink. As I returned to my original car to retrieve my pack I was overjoyed to find out that I still had half of a bottle of wine left, and quickly put it to good use. At least there was something to look at on this leg of the trip some interesting rocky cliffs on one side, and the river on the other.

Feeling the train finally slowing, I gathered up my gear and ceremoniously poured the last of my "water" over the side, as I was determined to get off the train in Wishram at any cost. A few more swallows and my empty wine bottle was flipped into a cluster of shrubbery along the tracks, then I swung around the side and dropped off my train, eager to walk the remaining few blocks to a small grocery store behind the depot.

After sitting for 6 or 8 hours and squatting in the cramped cubbyhole, I felt like I could walk forever, and in no time I was re-filling my water jug at a faucet behind the depot when a tramp walked up and asked me where I was headed. I told him that I was going down the Oregon Trunk to Bend and Klamath Falls, and he said that he was too, and some guy in the depot said that they were going to take a crew out to meet the Bend train as soon as the train I came in on left. This completely messed up my current "plan", as it was at least a 10 or 15 minute walk out to the bridge where the crew change would take place. I thanked him and walked briskly up to the grocery store, where the first items on my list were a few more bottles of White Port. These being procured, I noticed that there wasn't a single loaf of bread on the shelves. The guy behind the counter said that today was his delivery day, and whoever was making the "delivery" hadn't got there yet.

Not wanting to waste any more time, I paid for the wine and left in a hurry to get back down to the tracks. Seeing that the crew van was still parked next to the depot, I made a quick side trip to the BN lunchroom next door to make an impassioned plea to the waitress for any "leftovers" she might have. Sizing me up as someone in dire need of sustenance, she motioned me to walk around to the back door, where she re-appeared with a loaf of stale but quite edible bread. Thanking her while I turned and sped away, I made for the bridge as fast as I could with the loaf of bread in one hand and the full water jug in the other.

Joining the tramp I had met earlier sitting against a switch box, I told him about my questionable sandwich, and whether or not I should still keep it, since I had a full loaf of bread anyway. He took it in his hands and scrutinized it carefully, explaining that he too was without food, and even though I offered to split my bread with him, he retained a fondness for a baloney sandwich, no matter the history behind it. He opened the wrapper and gave the sandwich a tentative sniff, then handed it to me for my opinion. I responded with a somewhat longer sniff, then pried apart the bread to check on the single slice of baloney.

Apart from having no discernible odor due to it's state of mummification, it was still relatively flexible, so in true hobo fashion, I sliced it in half with my knife and we each downed our share in one prolonged swallow. Quietly staring at each other for impending signs of botulism, we washed it down with my new supply of White Port, and traded stories of riding trains and running from Bulls. Soon the crew van drove up and parked almost on top of us as we were hidden by weeds, so we took the hint and walked away down the tracks, ready to begin a new adventure in Eastern Oregon that would be tempered by a steady diet of tough white bread, cold clear water, and White Port...