Inside Looking In

is this all there is?

It's a good thing that riding trains isn't just going from Point A to Point B it would be unbearably boring if there weren't little nuances here and there to break up the monotony of clickety-clack, clickety-clack, etc. Tunnels were one of these. Some were warm and dry, some were cold and wet, and a few were downright spooky. As long as you weren't riding in the top level of an auto rack right behind the engines, your only fears were mostly self-generated after listening to horror stories around a jungle fire.

My worst tunnel episode, however, was far eclipsed by the experience I had while riding down from Spokane to Pasco just after Mt. St. Helens erupted. The longest railroad tunnel I've been through is about 8 miles long, and it took maybe a half hour to get through, but when the mountain blew, the train I was on went over 100 miles and I spent the entire time curled up in my sleeping bag holding the end shut and a shirt over my face because of all the dust churned up by the movement of the train and all this on an 80 degree day.

Crossing the Great Salt Lake on the Southern Pacific route was another interesting part of train riding. The first time I did it was at night, and when I got up to pee and stood at the boxcar door it looked like a very large lake, that's all. A few days later, I was lucky enough to cross it on a hot, windy day, and it was definitely a weird feeling to be splashed by waves of salt water breaking over the rock fill. It didn't take long for the water to dry, leaving a salt-caked carpet all over the middle of the open boxcar. I think that it is best to see it going east, because after hours and hours of crossing the deserts and sagebrush flats of Nevada, suddenly there is nothing but water on both sides of the train. This level of excitement is important in dealing with the impending journey through Mormon Land...

Getting back to tunnels, the car you're riding in (or on), and where in the train it's located, can be the deciding factor in just how much "enjoyment" you feel when you emerge out the other end. Once, with the comfortable grainer I was holding down left on a siding because of a stuck brake, I had to beat feet up to the only other car that even resembled a ride a loaded flatcar, not a bulkhead, with stacks of lumber stretching the entire length of the car. It was either catch this or hoof it out to the highway and try my luck at hitchhiking. Since I was several days into a long trip I probably resembled a coal miner, so my chances of getting picked up were nil, and I climbed up and sat down along the side of the lumber and looped my belt around some strapping holding the stacks of wood together to keep from sliding off. I also threaded the waistbelt of my pack behind the banding and although I may have appeared to have a death wish from the passing cars, I was really quite safe, as long as the wood didn't go anywhere, which it didn't. We soon entered a tunnel and I was tempted to reach out with my arm and brush the walls as I went by, but thought better of it.

Sometimes it just ends up that if you're going a long way you get stuck with a crappy ride, and if you're just doing a 40-miler you get the absolute best ride on the railroad. My "best ride" came on the short hop from Klamath Falls to Dunsmuir. It was wintertime and just on the verge of snowing. I had missed an earlier train by minutes and I wasn't looking forward to spending a cold night in the snow, with my home only a few hours away. When a train did come in I was ready to sprint alongside looking for anything to ride on, but about a dozen cars back from the power stopped a semi-covered gondola right in front of me. It was one of those gondolas that carry large coils of steel, and there was a fiberglass "hood" that fit on top to keep the coils from getting wet and rusting. There were normally two hoods, with one covering the front half and the other covering the rear half, but this car was empty and had only the front hood on. I quickly climbed in and discovered that this was almost the perfect ride. If you stood in the rear half you had 360 degree views like in a regular gondola, but the front half gave you protection from the rain and snow, which was getting thicker and thicker as we waited to leave. There was even a large metal I-beam that was placed crossways in the front section (to secure the coils from moving?) that made a perfect seat.

I placed an almost-dry piece of cardboard down on the I-beam, then my air mattress, then me. With Ernest & Julio to keep me company, I had a great ride down to Dunsmuir, where I reluctantly had to climb down and hope that some other tramp would find this car at the beginning of a much longer trip.