The Salt of the Earth

is the spice of life

The actual time spent "riding on a train" is often just a small part of a train trip often much smaller than we would like it to be. If you take away the time spent walking around aimlessly looking for rides, what's left is pretty much the time spent sitting around jungles, waiting for some event to happen.

Oroville, CA

I have fond memories of the jungle next to the Western Pacific yard in Oroville, CA. Back when it was a crew change point, I came in on a junker one night and got off to wait for a piggyback train, so I walked over to an area adjacent to the yard where there were lots of dirt mounds dotting the landscape, and the low spots between them provided just enough privacy to camp without being seen by anyone. Except from the faint glow of campfires here and there at night, you wouldn't know that there were any people around. I found a decent spot, rolled out my gear, and went to sleep not in any particular hurry to go anywhere right away.

A few times during the night I was awakened by the sound of trains in the yard, but for some reason I just went back to sleep. Early the next morning I climbed up to the top of a dirt mound to see how a day begins in a freightyard jungle.

Since it was summertime, the "early morning" meant it was about 5am, and slowly I could see the Earth waking up right before my eyes as I sipped from a bottle of White Port to put everything in the proper perspective. The slowly increasing sound of traffic nearby, an engine (or engines) idling back in the yard, a few dogs barking here and there these are what I first noticed. Now and then a tramp would emerge from behind a dirt mound somewhere and begin a quest for firewood or cardboard to get a breakfast fire going, or make a run to the nearby store for cigarettes, food, or alcohol.

At one point I saw smoke begin to exit one end of a large section of culvert that was maybe 6 feet in diameter and 20 feet long, indicating that this was another camping spot inhabited by tramps, although I never saw anyone around it. As the morning progressed I would see tramps walking about, heading toward the store empty handed and coming back with large grocery bags and filled water jugs. Every now and then someone would walk over and check out a string of cars in the yard, or emerge from within a boxcar and pee from the doorway.

Trying to conduct some sort of overall tramp census would be difficult, as I really couldn't tell from my vantage point if I was seeing the same people walking up one dirt mound, momentarily disappearing down the other side, then re-appearing again somewhere else nearby. It was interesting to observe, however, considering the alternative sitting around waiting to hear a distant train horn. Eventually I did hear one, as did several of the jungle denizens, and it was very similar to what would happen if you were watching an anthill from a distance the ants were moving about at a deliberate pace, but if you tossed a pebble down their hole, the pace would suddenly increase. The pace here in the jungle increased alright, and I as well gathered my gear and made my way over to the mainline, hoping to find a ride before they were all taken.

Vancouver, WA

Another jungle that impressed me was in the Burlington Northern "B" yard in Vancouver, WA. Farther north and across a roadway from the main yard, I was never sure just how it was used by the railroad, but it was a quiet, deserted yard that was perfectly situated for the tramp.

On the west side was the mainline for not only BN trains but also shared by Union Pacific trains coming down from Seattle. More often than not the southbound trains would have to wait here before entering the maze of tracks that diverge east and continue south over the Columbia River into Oregon. This feature was sometimes eclipsed by the location of a large company that distributes cookies and similar items to markets it was right next to the mainline and always seemed to have easily accessible dumpsters containing all sorts of goodies that had outlived their pull dates.

A one block walk past the mainline at the road crossing got you to a convenience store that had food, beer, and wine. On the east side of the yard, at the foot of a long bluff, was the jungle. I must have walked right past it several times before I saw a tramp emerge from a tunnel into a huge blackberry thicket. Apparently someone had trimmed a long entrance through the blackberries that ended in a clearing, where the main camp was. If you didn't notice the obscure tunnel you'd never know anything was back there it was that well camouflaged.

Upon entering after shouting "Coming into camp", as was the practice then, I was greeted by three or four tramps who were homeguarding that spot, but were not bothered by a stranger walking in on them. I soon saw why at the foot of an older fellow was a small but very attentive (and very toothfull) dog, who watched my every move, and seemed to represent a sufficient threat to ill-meaning guests. The old guy assured me that I shouldn't worry about his dog, and that he "doesn't bite unless he has to". Concentrating on not giving the dog a "reason", I set down my gear and pulled out a bottle of wine, which represented the universal currency in these locations.

It was borne out that the old guy lived there more or less permanently, and the others used it as a base while working the Food Stamp circuit on the trains, which seemed to be extremely lucrative judging by the amount of food that was stored everywhere. Turning down numerous requests to help myself to whatever kinds of sandwiches I wanted to throw together, I explained that I had enough food in my pack, and was merely waiting on the evening Oregon Man over to Wishram and down to Klamath Falls. They told me just where in the yard it left from, and that it would be the only one of two strings of cars with a caboose on the north end the other being the Albany Man that went down to Portland. I would have to figure out which string was going where, but I'd seen both trains before and knew what to look for.

Of the other three tramps, one of them walked with a limp, and I learned that he once worked as an opera singer in some small company back east, where his career ended after a fall from the stage, which damaged his leg enough that his future would revolve around only playing characters with a limp, so he took off and learned to ride freights. He still had a commanding voice, and once, for no apparent reason, launched into a vocal tirade that not only startled the shit out of me but drove the dog into fits, howling along with his version of the "melody". It was actually quite impressive, and I wondered what someone would think as they walked by in the freightyard and suddenly heard a voice coming from nowhere singing in Italian.

Aside from its privacy, the jungle was equipped with several large storage containers, obviously put together from debris scavenged from the freightyard. They were necessary to protect the voluminous amount of food from rodents. A nice touch at the time of year I was there were some cherry trees that were laden with sweet, red cherries, and judging from the number of pits scattered everywhere, they weren't going to waste. As much as I would have enjoyed several more days as their guest, I gathered up my gear and said goodbye, as it was getting dark and I wanted to walk down and check out the main yard. We all shared in the bottom end of my White Port, and the dog gave me a nod as I ducked down to scramble down the blackberry tunnel and into the Washington night.

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