Deserted in the Desert

in sand we trust

For several years after moving to Northern California I would hop a freight down to Southern California to spend Christmas with my family. Coming back home after Christmas began with getting dropped off at LAX and taking the ridiculously cheap PSA flight back up to the Bay Area. I lost interest in this after realizing that with the time spent just getting to the airport in LA, threading my way through the terminal, waiting for my flight to leave, then reversing everything when I got to San Francisco, the only traveling I did was the hour in the air staring at the fold-down tray on the seat in front of me.

At some point I decided to try Amtrak instead. I could leave LA in the evening and get into Oakland the next morning. While this involved sleeping more or less upright in a coach seat, I relied on White Port to relax me enough and the longer transition between the Southern and Northern "lifestyles" was helpful. The only drawback was there was only one train a day going north, so I made it a point to get to the station well before my departure time.

LA Union Station

The area around Union Station was well lighted after dark and if I arrived too early I could walk around and drink in the sights and sounds of downtown LA, for whatever that was worth. Finding a liquor store that sold White Port was easy, and there were plenty of places to hang out without being obvious. One thing I noticed was that there was almost as much air traffic around here, in the form of Police helicopters, than regular traffic around the airport.

As time went on figured that if I hopped a freight to get down to LA, then I could also hop one back. A few years went by where I caught out of either Taylor Yard (in LA) or West Colton, but either route the Coast Route or the Central Valley could be wrapped in pea-soup Tule fog for most of the way. My next plan was to leave out of Union Pacific's East LA yard and go through the desert to Vegas and Salt Lake, then head back west from there.

One problem I ran into immediately was my clothing to hang out in LA for a few days required no more than shorts and a t-shirt, but on the way back there would be much colder weather to deal with, and I began to arrive home for Christmas with enough clothes to vacation in Antarctica. People who have only visited the desert in the summer are in for a big surprise if they go back during the winter. Once I got to the freightyard I could change into my "traveling clothes" and have an almost empty pack to fill with bottles of White Port to ward off the cold and anything else that needed to be warded off.

on back of double-stack

After a late-night departure from the scenic East LA area, I would spend the first hour or so gazing at suburbia flying by, and then roll out my gear and settle in for that great sleep that only a double-stack train can produce. Waking up around Barstow or Yermo (for a crew change) I would be greeted by clear blue skies and a landscape devoid of all things suburbia.

One part of desert riding I always enjoy is picking a distant landmark and trying to guess how long it would take to get there. Usually my estimates would be off by hours, or the tracks would curve away and I'd never seem to get any closer, but it was a good way to pass the time. The farther north I got the lower the snow level was on the surrounding mountains, and soon I was wearing all of my clothes and starting in on a second serving of Port. This was the point where I yearned for a small folding chair, as I could see nothing but sky if I sat down in the well, and if I stood up to enjoy the landscape the cold wind would remind me that it was time to sit down again.

on back of double-stack

Riding in the stack well was about as comfortable as it gets, but I remember one trip when I was on a piggyback and when we made the crew change at Milford, UT at 3:00 am it was -15°! It wasn't that cold on this trip, but I could get my fingers to "stick" to metal surfaces if I took my gloves off.

Aside from the few freights we passed on sidings, I don't think I saw a single person until I got off in Salt Lake City. That was fine with me after being surrounded by humanity in LA, and I still had several hundred more miles to travel before I got to Oakland. This was certainly the way to rid myself of any thoughts of Southern California, at least after I finished off the last batch of Christmas cookies my Mom gave me for "traveling food"...

on back of double-stack