Are We There Yet?

getting there is all the fun

The Roseville, CA freightyard is a hot place to be in the summer. It's as close as California gets to the Midwest in terms of not cooling off at night. Even the desert cools off at night. One of the few things that could be considered "worse" than being in Roseville in the summer is having to walk all the way from the receiving yard over to the departure yard on a hot day, which I had just done.

A slow freight from Oakland got even slower after we wound our way through the Sacramento yard and I was able to look up ahead and see smoke pouring off a stuck brake on a gondola. Since it was summertime and the fire danger was high, I could understand why the railroad would take a keen interest in any source of sparks being generated as we passed miles of brown grass on either side. After going at a snail's pace for several miles, we finally stopped on the mainline and a few minutes later I watched as a brakeman approached the gon, stared at the wheel, then turned and walked back up to the head end. I took this to mean that there wasn't much of a chance to un-stick the brake shoe at that point, but I turned my scanner on to hear whatever the train crew might tell the dispatcher about our situation.

This business of taking a train from Oakland to Roseville versus taking a bus has always been problematic. The bus took just about as long as the train did to get there, and you knew when it was leaving the only problem was whether or not it was leaving when you wanted to leave. Sure it's more fun to hop a freight anything is more fun than riding a bus but sometimes you end up waiting half a day for a two hour ride. So on this occasion I had chosen to take the train, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

Within minutes of entering the Desert Yard in Oakland I had seen a caboose on a string of cars near the Amtrak depot, and made my way over as fast as possible without straying too close to the service road that the Bull drives along. Climbing aboard a clean grainer, it was only a half hour or so until we pulled out and I sat back and enjoyed a bottle of wine, knowing that in a few hours I'd be in Roseville and I could then switch trains for one heading north into the cool canyon of the Upper Sacramento River. But first I had to get to Roseville, and that was taking much longer that I had expected.

We would creep forward for a mile or so, then stop, then another mile of creeping, then another stop. I could see cars on the freeway zipping along, and I knew if I was in one of them I could be in Roseville in 10 minutes or so. At one point there was a slight dip in the tracks and I could see way up ahead of us the caboose of another train, and figured that maybe our slow progress was because of a traffic jam coming into Roseville, and not the stuck brake on my train, which now was barely issuing a wisp of smoke. As long as we were headed east I had a small amount of shade on the back of the car, but it must have been in the high 90s in the sun, and it was only a few minutes before noon.

Now that my wine was gone, interesting scenery was nonexistant, and I could almost see the western edge of the freightyard, I decided to roll up my gear and walk the rest of the way. I could walk along on the side of the train that had a small amount of shade, and always hop back on if my train ever sped up. Giving up on walking right next to the train due to an abundance of Star Thistle, I veered over to a road and continued on foot, where I eventually passed the head end of my stopped train waiting at the signal bridge at the beginning of the yard itself. As hot as it was, the small amount of air moving by me felt cooler than baking on the windless back of my grainer, and it felt good to stretch my legs. This euphoric feeling lasted about 5 minutes until the perspiration on my body evaporated and any cooling effect went with it. It was hot, and there was no shade on the road, so I angled over among the sea of tracks in the Antelope Yard and found a long string to walk along on the shady side.

I had originally planned to get to Roseville a few hours earlier and catch a northbound that I knew would leave town around mid day. Well, it was now mid day and I was a long way from the departure yard, so I initially gave up on that plan and instead just planned to catch the first northbound I could, no matter what time it was. This still left me with the long walk through the receiving yard, then through the hump yard, then into the departure yard, all done in nasty heat. When one string of cars would end I moved over to another string that provided a shady path through the endless yard, and to pass the time I would read all of the tramp monikers, as well as the lettering on the cars showing which railroads they belonged to.

At some point I noticed that a lot of the cars on the string next to me were lettered for Burlington Northern, or Seattle and North Coast, or Canadian railroads and there were lots of empty boxcars very similar to the train that I originally wanted to catch. I stopped for a moment to pee and drink some water and to my great surprise and joy I heard yard air being pumped into "my" string of cars! I could see the head end by now and although there was no power hooked up yet there was a guy on a scooter coming toward me checking the brakes. When he got to where I was standing I asked him if this string was going north and he said that it was, and in a few minutes it would be pulled up into the departure yard, so I thanked him profusely and climbed into a nice, clean boxcar with both sides open.

Sitting in the doorway to enjoy whatever slight breeze might come through, I surmised that whatever traffic jam blocked up the Antelope Yard might have affected my train from leaving when I thought it would, and even with all of the slow track speed and my long walk, I might actually leave town on the train that I planned to catch in the first place. The sheer profoundness of this revelation prompted me to unscrew another bottle of Ernest and Julio's finest and relax as best as I could in a brown metal boxcar that had been sitting in the 90° heat for who knows how long.

A while later with no warning we lurched forward and crawled up toward the yard offices and into the departure yard, where we stopped again and dropped the air. There were fewer strings of cars on either side now, which allowed even more of a breeze to blow through, although it was far from being "cool". I dropped down to the ground so I could see how long "my" train was, and noticed that it wasn't more than 30 cars or so, which meant that it would probably be doubled over and added to another string before we left town. Since my string was at the south end of the yard, I figured that another string would be added to the head end of mine, and I would end up in the rear portion of the train. This was borne out when a noisy switch engine interrupted my nap as it pulled along side with more cars and disappeared toward the front of my train.

Drifting back to sleep, I was jolted awake with a bang as the two strings of cars were coupled together and the air was brought up. At this point I really had no anxiety about when the train would leave I was on it and would leave when it did. I began to realize that all of the uncertainties of train travel were now behind me, and all that was left was to "ride the train". So in one way, the act of train riding was only a small, almost insignificant part of "train riding" itself. By the time one actually began to ride a train the entire logistical nightmare of getting to the yard, finding out when your train was supposed to leave, finding your train, finding a ridable car, etc. was over. I'm sure that many would prefer to leave out the logistics and merely ride a train I certainly have felt strongly that way on numerous occassions, but it would be sort of like just eating the frosting and not the cake itself.

The glow of my recent epiphany faded as I rolled around on my cardboard, trying to find a cooler spot than the one I was just on. Soon it was back to the doorway again, wine in hand, wondering when I would actually begin to ride a train. Idle moments were spent writing passable poetry on the walls, all seemingly with a theme of how hot it was and how I wished that the train would leave. Around 3 o'clock or so my prayers were answered when a long southbound pulled into the yard and shortly after we started to move. This time I could see the head end of my train curve around the corner and go under the Rainbow Bridge, and shortly I passed under it myself, glancing over at the spot that I would have been waiting for this very same train if everything went according to plan. We were going slow enough that I could have caught it easily if I'd been waiting there instead. So much for "plans" I thought it all boils down to being on the train when it leaves. Somehow it doesn't sound nearly as fun as having a plan...