The Way of the Land

over, around, and through

Although I had visited Canada a few times I had never ridden a train there. I wasn't too keen on riding across near Vancouver that was where I snuck in on foot and there seemed to be way too many people around. The nearest option was at Eastport, Idaho, where the Canadian Pacific line connects with the Spokane International, which in turn connects with Union Pacific. I did some pre-trip research, this time even stopping at a big bank in San Francisco and getting $100 in those colorful Canadian bills. I stuffed them into a ziplock bag and put it in the bottom of my pack.

Studying the rail lines going into Canada, I could see that one line went from Hinkle, Oregon up to Spokane, and then continued up to the border, where it became a CP branch line that went north up to the CP mainline across Canada. The initial plan, if there was one, would be to go up to the mainline, then turn west and ride into Vancouver, then take my chances getting back down into the states. I had about a week of free time to travel, and figured that it should be plenty of time to complete the trip, which proved to be a bit optimistic.

There wasn't much that I needed to "learn" about Canada I already spoke fluent Canadian and knew enough to salt my conversations with "eh?" every so often. Since there was pretty much just one railroad line in any given area, my chances of getting off-piste were slim. I tried to come up with some sob story in the event I was captured by Mounties (or whatever happens to you up there) but decided to stick with the old reliable con of merely wanting to "see the country".

I followed my usual routine of taking a transit bus to the Bay Area, then BART over to Oakland [the Jewel of the Bay Area], and lucked out and caught a piggyback in less than an hour that took me to Roseville. Skillfully dodging the Bull as we stopped by ducking into the shop buildings and making my escape over to the Post Office side of the yard, I stocked up on "trip food" at the 24-hour donut shop, then returned to the yard to begin my wait under the bridge by the Library.


What is it about dogs and barking, anyway? As soon as I sat down to wait for a northbound a dog started barking nearby, followed by another and another. Remaining as still as I could, the barking subsided in a few minutes and all was quiet, at least until I had to get up to pee, when the barking began again and like before, it started with the same dog and progressed in the same order. To test a theory, I grabbed a stick from the ground next to me and threw it against a stop sign a few feet away voila!, the barking again. Between sips of White Port I became focussed on the barking phenomenon, and devoted an undo amount of interest in something that usually annoyed the shit out of me.

With memories of my eighth grade science class flooding my brain, I endeavored to find out at what acoustic level the dogs reacted. I tried flicking small twigs in the direction of the sign but missed every one, then I switched to small pebbles and when one would pass by the sign and land in the street I got a "reaction", but if they fell onto dirt or grass either the dogs didn't hear them or it didn't rate as anything worth barking about. Having long been a believer that a dog's threshold for barking was slight to non-existent, this was what constituted, at the time, an interesting experiment.

At one point, during what was probably the 20th period of "barking", I actually managed to coax a person out of one of the nearby houses to holler "Shut the fuck up!", which I thought was a bit much, and decided to suspend my experiments. Here is where I fervently wished that I had a pair of binoculars with me, so that I could wait until the angry homeowner went back inside, then a few seconds later toss a rock at the sign, and watch him storm outside again to curse the dogs, and ultimately wait until he went back inside, only to repeat my rock throwing until he burst a gasket or something. The thought of this scenario, coupled with the fact that I had almost finished off the bottle of Port, made me laugh out loud so hard that I had to cover my mouth, fearing the now berserk man would charge my position wielding a shovel or something.

Tormenting the annoying dogs served to be a pleasant way to pass the time, but soon I heard the sound of engines approaching so I stumbled up and got my gear together. From this end of the yard trains could either continue straight ahead and head for Reno and Sparks, or curve around and head north, up to Dunsmuir and eventually Portland, where I would switch over to Union Pacific and ride out to Hinkle. To my delight the units curved around the wye and headed right toward me, so I squatted behind a concrete abutment until they passed. With my night vision shot by the bright headlight, I waited for a few seconds until I could make out cars approaching me then dropped down the embankment and caught up to a passing boxcar with both doors open. A quick perusal for riders showed the car to be vacant, so up and in I went and officially began my journey to Canada.

Rolling out my sleeping bag I noted that except for a clanging piece of metal constantly hitting the door, the ride was very smooth. Vowing to silence the clanging noise I searched the interior of the boxcar for some sort of MacGyver fix. Lo and behold I found a pair of raunchy tennis shoes, of all things, and quickly removed the laces from one and secured the offending piece of metal to the door itself, plunging me into as deep a silence as one could expect under the circumstances. Inflating my ThermaRest I looked forward to a comfortable sleep and was not disappointed.

Waking up to the wailing of squealing flanges I knew that we had left the straight-as-an-arrow track in the Valley and entered the curves of the Sacramento River Canyon. By now it was getting light outside and already pleasantly warm, so I sat up and opened a bottle of White Port to toast the dawn. Something I missed last night during my discovery of the shoes was a six-pack carton of beer, which proved to be a disappointment because they were all empty whoever rode in this car before me put his empties back into the cardboard box so it looked as if it had never been touched. Weird, I thought. Looking around for other strange artifacts I found a large pool of what smelled like spilled whiskey, which I fortunately failed to come in contact with when I climbed in the car back in Roseville. My mind was now racing, trying to put some sense into the found objects, but I came up with nothing.

I did, however, have a use for the empty beer cans. On earlier train trips, my friends and I would pass the time in boxcars by playing a game we dubbed "skittles", for no apparent reason. We'd stand up a beer can on one end of the car, then slide railroad spikes at it from the other end in the hopes of knocking it over, as if we were bowling. Some pebbles were added to the can to give it a little ballast on rough sections of track, and it proved to be quite challenging when the train went around a curve, because you'd have to throw a "curve" with the spike to compensate for the tilt of the car. Errant spikes that struck protrusions in the boxcar floor would become airborne missiles that sometimes caused game-ending injuries, but it remained a good way to pass the time, nonetheless.

I reminded myself to hop off the next time we went into a siding and look for spikes but as luck would have it we traveled non-stop to Dunsmuir for the first crew change, and I eventually forgot to look for any. It was now time to gawk at the scenery as we climbed out of Dunsmuir and began to travel around the base of Mt. Shasta. The day was spent moving from one side of the car to the other looking at this and that, and then coming into Klamath Falls for another crew change. Shortly we were on our way again and for once I'd be able to ride up the eastern side of the Cascades during the day. Although there were periods of intense harmonic rocking at times, for the most part it was a smooth ride, and we finally took the siding at Cascade Summit for the first train I had seen since leaving Roseville.

After it passed and we remained stopped I knew that we were waiting for another one, and I could hear it straining up the western side of the mountains several miles away. This began to really mess with my timetable of being able to see the Cascades during the day, as it was now almost sunset and the uphill train didn't sound like it was making much progress toward me. About an hour must have passed before the train went by, and I was deeply depressed when I didn't hear the accompanying sound of our brakes being released. Instead I flinched when I began to hear the now-familiar groan coming from another train coming up the other side of the mountain. At this point I resigned myself to just wait it out, as there are few things as frustrating as trying to be somewhere in a hurry while riding trains. The White Port was brought out and, as I earlier had toasted the sunrise, I now drank a toast to the sunset... and another... and another.

I don't think that I've ever been able to sleep through the period of coming into Eugene from the east, and this was no exception. There must be a half dozen or more road crossings, each with a loud clanging bell. I began a Pavlovian reaction by getting out of my sleeping bag and leaning against the wall as the flash of headlights from waiting cars receded behind then re-formed ahead of me. It was now after midnight and I hoped that we'd just stop for a crew change and not go into the yard, but into the yard we went, and we began the excruciatingly slow crawl through the receiving yard and eventually into the departure yard. Here we dropped air and as I was trying to remember if the Portland cars were on the head end or the rear end a car knocker drove up on his scooter and I leaned out the door to ask him what was going on. He said the Portland cars were on the head end [my end] and after they cut the set outs from the rear end and put the caboose back on we'd be on our way, although he didn't know what time we were called for. Thanking him, I returned to my sleeping bag and went back to sleep.

Again awakening at dawn, this time by a jolt as we pulled ahead toward the north end of the yard, I thought about this being the last stretch that I'd be riding in this boxcar, so I got up and with a Magic Marker wrote a greeting on the wall to whoever the poor schmucks were that would get stuck loading this car with lumber or whatever in a few days. Joining the main we picked up speed in a hurry, and looking back I saw that we were now only about half as long as we were coming into Eugene. My allergies soon reminded me of how much of the Willamette Valley was devoted to growing grass and flowers. Retreating to the front of the car to avoid the wind, I took it upon myself to finish off the White Port under the guise of having one less bottle to schlepp around when I got off the train.

part 2 of 3