Branch Line Blues

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Yearning for a "different" kind of train trip, I took a transit bus from Weed to McCloud, hoping to ride the McCloud Railroad to wherever they were going that day. I got off the bus at 8:30am, walked a few blocks to the yard, found a shady spot to wait under some trees, and before I had a chance to break out the White Port the train pulled out of the yard and stopped at the wye, ready to go east.

At this point things started to look sketchy there were only 5 cars on the train and the only ride was a boxcar with one door open about 6". As the conductor got out to throw the switch behind them I walked over and asked him where they were headed today and he said that they were going to Lookout, the interchange with Burlington Northern. This piqued my interest, and I asked him if they were going to pick up any more cars before they left and he said no, this was their train for today. He stepped back from the switch and looked up ahead at his train, obviously spotting the lone rideable car, and told me to come along with him and we'd see if we could get that door open a bit more. Sure enough, with both of us yanking on the door we managed to slide it open a few feet more and I thanked him, saying that was plenty wide for me. With the doorway now open about 3' I squirmed in and made myself comfortable. Again before I could even get the bottle of Port out of my pack we started to leave town it was 9:30am and I was on a 5 car train headed out through uncharted territory to be dropped off in the middle of the forest next to the BN mainline. A great way to start the day!

Finally retrieving the White Port from my pack, I sat in the narrow doorway and enjoyed an almost surreal ride through thick forest with no signs of roads or towns. The track speed was probably around 10 or 15 mph which fortunately seemed to be just below the speed needed to induce harmonic rocking, and since there was no 60mph wind buffeting me I could sit with my legs hanging down and enjoy the scenery. We snaked around through the woods for several hours and got into the balloon track at Lookout at 2:00pm. I hopped down and walked over to a stored boxcar to wait for the BN train, although I had no idea when they would arrive. A little after 3:00pm I decided that I'd spent far too much time sitting in a boxcar so I began a walking tour of Lookout, which, if planned out in advance, might have taken no more than 10 minutes.

Aside from a few incredibly weathered buildings and some very old rail, there was not much around to exactly put Lookout on the map, but I amused myself for awhile then noticed a section foreman's house across the tracks, so I walked over there to see if anyone was home. To my surprise he was there, but sadly I learned that the BN train had already been by that morning, and there was only one train a day. It was now 5:30pm and I had to re-evaluate my plans I could stay at Lookout the rest of the day, sleep in the stored boxcar, and catch the BN train the next morning, or I could walk to the town of Bieber, which was 6 miles down the track and a crew change. Since I had already "seen" everything in Lookout I decided to walk to Bieber, which shouldn't take more than a few hours and I could actually have breakfast in a real café, so off I went down the tracks.

This lasted about a quarter of a mile when I came to a section where the railroad had dropped off fresh ballast along the tracks. The "ballast" around here is ground up lava cinders, and this, coupled with a very steep dropoff on either side of the tracks made for an extremely tiresome walk. Imagine walking along the side of a sand dune for 6 miles. I looked around for some parallel service road but didn't see any, so I returned to the foreman's house, where there was a dirt road leading away to what I assumed would be what passed for "civilization" around these parts. One thing that kept my spirits up were all of the tire tracks on the dirt road, so I figured that somebody would be along before too long, and they were.

In a matter of minutes a pickup truck approached and stopped, motioning me to hop in the back as there were already two guys in the cab. I asked them if they were going out to the highway and they said yes, so I tossed my pack in the back and climbed in. This proved to be a big mistake, as their truck was used to service logging equipment and had a tank of diesel fuel in back, which had leaked into a large puddle that was now situated under my pack. I tried to make myself comfortable but every surface seemed to be covered in either diesel fuel or dust covered diesel fuel. Flying along on the dust covered washboard road I hung on as best I could and tried to reassure myself that this had to be better than walking on the ballast for 6 miles.

When we finally made it out to the highway, I was disappointed to see that they were turning left, but I need to go right, so I climbed down and started hitching again, this time looking like some Aboriginal Mud Man and unfortunately still about 6 miles away from Bieber. Not long afterward I got a ride in another pickup truck to the town of Nubieber (4 miles) and another ride into Bieber (another 2 miles), where I walked out into the "yard" and climbed up on the top of a loaded lumber car to sleep. The bundles of lumber were covered in white plastic and it seemed like a great place to spend the night, with a view of the surrounding countryside and so on and so forth, but soon things changed drastically.

It began with the mosquitoes. One minute it was dead quiet, and the next it was a symphony of buzzing and biting. I slid out of my sleeping bag and rolled on top, zipping the netting closed on my bivy cover. This alleviated most of the biting but not the buzzing, so I put my foam earplugs in and tried to get to sleep but it was either too cold to sleep on top of my bag or too warm to sleep inside. I thought to myself that the damn mosquitoes would go away in an hour or so when it cooled off and they did, only to be replaced with the geese.

Getting up to pee later on I noticed that the mosquitoes had indeed left, but there began a crescendo of honking from Canada Geese, who I could see descending from all directions because of an almost full moon. Their "destination" was a large pond a few hundred yards away that I didn't notice when I walked up but could now see from the top of the lumber car. Each minute would bring more and more geese to the pond, and they continued their honking even after landing on the water. This situation cried out for an immediate solution, so I was forced to sit up next to my bag and break out another bottle of White Port to drink in, so to speak, the spectacle unfolding in front of me. The moon illuminated a scene right out of the Wizard of Oz, with the Harpies being replaced with the Canada Geese as they gracefully glided down to a watery landing and joined in the cacophony.

With sleep seeming out of the question at the moment I did my best to enjoy the arrival of the geese, with strains of Swan Lake playing in my head, hoping to drown out the infernal honking. At some point during the night I must have turned in, because the next thing I remember was waking up to a sunrise... a quiet sunrise, with no honking or buzzing.

Remembering that the section foreman had said that the train had rolled into Lookout in the "morning", I figured that I should get an early start, so I rolled up, climbed down, and walked out to the highway where just a block away was a café I remembered from a previous train trip. The sign said that they opened at 6:00am, which was in about 5 minutes, but the woman let me in and cheerfully made me feel right at home. Almost to the minute, at 6:00am a pickup pulled up, followed by another and another, until by 6:15am it seemed like the entire town of Bieber had shown up for breakfast. I wondered if the lone woman felt swamped with all of the newcomers but first one then another smaller version of her came out of the kitchen to take orders, and I figured that it must be a mother/daughter operation and possibly the only one in town.

I had carefully chosen my table to afford me a view across the highway and into the yard so I could watch for the train, but I managed to finish my short stack before anything showed up. Leaving the café I paused crossing the tracks to look for a distant headlight, then noticed that there was only one car parked in front of the yard office. This told me that the outbound crew hadn't arrived yet, and I might have time for a quick trip to the market for more supplies, so I hoofed it back up the road to the block-long town of Bieber and rejoiced when I saw that the market was open. With logging being about the only thing going on around here it seemed appropriate that businesses begin their day as early as possible to accommodate the one minute of rush hour traffic.

Rejoicing even more when I found that they carried White Port, I grabbed up a few bottles and quickly walked back the ½ mile or so to the freightyard. I found a shady spot to hang out next to a tee pee burner in an old lumberyard nearby and toasted the fine morning in a traditional fashion. The next few hours were spent drinking and exploring the various outbuildings that made up what was left of the lumberyard, but around noon my shade had disappeared so I walked over to the bridge that carried the highway over the tracks and settled down underneath to continue my vigil. By this time I came to the realization that I could have crawled here along the mainline, eliminating the diesel mess and still made it in time to catch the train.

The afternoon passed by and around 3:00pm the train showed up, coming to a stop right below me under the overpass. I walked back to look for a ride and noticed that the crew were on their way to the café for beans and no sign of the new crew. I lucked out and found a nice clean boxcar and settled down for the ride, but when the new crew got on they spent an hour or so going back and forth in the yard switching cars. Not knowing if my boxcar would be left in the yard I kept my gear rolled up, but fortunately around 7:00 pm we got our air and pulled out, just as the mosquitoes returned to torment me again.

Still not wanting to unroll my gear until we made the infamous 6 miles down the track to Lookout, I was astonished when we flew right past the yard and I watched my previous day's train cars left behind. Shuddering to think how I would have felt if I had waited at Lookout all night and all of the next day and see my train pass by without stopping, I finally rolled out my gear and employed White Port to smooth out the rough track during the next few hours rocking along to Klamath Falls. To my delight, the impending arrival of the southbound Amtrak made it possible to catch a southbound SP freight without even having to enter the freightyard.

My BN train stopped in their yard next to the SP yard, where I bailed off and walked out to the SP tracks to head into the yard and wait for a train. On the siding was a southbound SP freight that apparently had stopped to let Amtrak go by, so I picked a nice grainer and climbed on. In a few minutes we were passed by Amtrak and a few minutes later we ourselves pulled down and out onto the main headed to Dunsmuir, where I again woke up to a sunrise as we descended along the Upper Sacramento River and a crew change in town. At this point I realized that the diesel fuel stain on the bottom of my pack, though foul smelling for sure, was a small price to pay to be in Dunsmuir instead of Lookout.