Riding in the Winter

there are reasons for the seasons

Headed north out of Klamath Falls on the BN, wind-driven snow kept me hunkered under the bridge for several hours waiting for the train to come in and make his pickup. Nothing that could remotely be considered a "good ride" under the current weather conditions caught my eye, so I reluctantly climbed up into an empty gondola, hoping to change cars sometime later in the trip. A huge piece of cardboard I found under the bridge proved difficult to throw up into the gon, but on the third or fourth try I made it, and it proved to be a valuable asset indeed. I folded it into a sort of triangle and was able to scrunch up inside, lean back on my pack, and enjoy a bottle of White Port as we cleared the SP yard and sped northward.

I didn't have any pressing reason to go up to Washington, especially at this time of year, but sometime back in the summer on a 100° day somewhere in Nevada I swore that I would make an effort to "go somewhere" in the winter when it wasn't so damn hot, and this was apparently it.

As long as we were moving the snow blew right past me, and I even managed to doze off for awhile until we slowed for the crew change in Bend sometime after midnight. Even with all of the lights present as we pulled into "civilization" I still couldn't see very far down the train in either direction due to the snow, so I resigned myself to stick it out in the gondola. The longer we waited in town the more snow managed to creep into my cardboard tunnel, but by now I was buried in my sleeping bag and I didn't care. Naturally, when you're stopped you never have to pee, but soon after getting underway I had to pee with a vengeance, and getting out of my bag and getting dressed is probably why I'm still not at some siding in eastern Oregon.

As I made my way over to the corner of the gon we started to slow down and looking over the side I noticed that there was a side track below me. Shortly afterward we stopped completely and I saw a light coming up alongside the train from the caboose. My first thought was that they were going to kick me off the train out here in the middle of nowhere... in the middle of the night... in the middle of a snowstorm, but the conductor stopped at the back of my car, fiddled with some levers, and we dropped air and started to pull forward. This was not good, as it meant that I might be getting set out, so I first ran up to the head end to gather up my gear, but then turned around and went back to the other end and leaned over the side. I wanted to ask the conductor, who was riding on the ladder, if my car was being set out, but I didn't want to startle him, lest he fall off, so I gingerly said "Excuse me", and then repeated it several times, each time louder than the last. Finally he turned to look forward and spotted me, and fortunately didn't lose his grip, he just waved with his free hand, then held one finger up to indicate that I should wait until we stopped moving, which we did almost immediately.

Before I could say a word he said that they were setting out just my gondola (what were the odds?) and that I should get out and look for a ride farther up, as there should be some automobile carriers, as he called them. He told me that they'd be sure and pull out slow, which was music to my ears, as the steep, slippery lava rock ballast was now covered with a foot or more of snow. I ran to my gear, packed it up holding a freezing cold flashlight in my mouth, but decided, regrettably, to leave my cardboard for the next traveller, as there was no way I'd be able to carry it with me in the dark and snow, much less into an autorack.

As the front of the train pulled out of the siding I grabbed a ladder and rode along to save me from floundering in the snow. Stopping at the north end of the siding, I dropped down to watch the head end of the train back past me, thinking that if there weren't any rides I might be able to get up to the last unit before we left. Soon a string of auto racks came by and stopped as we coupled with the rear of the train. This was decision time, as I still couldn't see how far ahead the engines were, and there weren't any rides except for the autos, so I made my way over to the first autorack and climbed up on the lower level to look for unlocked cars. Slithering along sideways with my pack getting caught on just about anything that was sticking out in any way, I didn't find any car unlocked, so I exited and climbed up to the second level, where they were all locked, too. Cursing that there weren't any pickup trucks, I continued up to the third level, when we started to air up, but I couldn't really "hurry" as these were the old car carriers without sides, and there was only a loose chain hanging alongside the cars that were covered in snow.

Just as we jerked forward to leave I came to a brand new Buick Riviera that had the small side window on the drivers side covered with plastic and duct tape, probably the result of getting rocked along the way. For once the duct tape was doing its job well, and I had to carefully pry back a corner with my knife to pull it off, as I wanted to be able to re-tape it later to keep snow out. Off came the plastic, in went my arm to unlock the door, the plastic was put back, and I climbed into the car as gingerly as I could so as to keep my snow-covering outside as much as I could.

This was more like it! I shoved my pack in the back seat and looked around for the keys, which I found under the floor mat (who would have thought?), and slid them into the ignition, where a slight turn lit up the dash, so I sat up and started the car, hoping it wasn't in "drive". I didn't want to turn on the interior lights, so I used my flashlight to figure out how to turn on the heater and the radio. I climbed into the back seat and took off a few outer layers, as well as my boots and very damp socks. Draping my clothes over various surfaces to dry, I retrieved my "emergency" bottle of White Port and found a faint jazz station on the radio. This was a far cry from huddling in the gondola, and looking around me inside the car gave me insight as to where those "dealer prep" fees go when you buy a new car. Glancing at the gas gauge showed that it only held about 1/8 of a tank, so I blasted the heater on "high" for a few more minutes then turned the car off.

Dozing off, I remembered crossing the Columbia River and turning left, so I drifted back to sleep. At some time I began to notice lights outside, but the snow on the car made it impossible to tell where I was, so I came up with the brilliant idea to merely turn the wipers on so I could get packed up before we came into Vancouver. Leaning forward, I turned the key one notch and turned the wiper switch on, which, after a few passes gave me a reasonably clear windshield, and just in the nick of time, as we were coming into the outskirts of Vancouver during the morning rush hour. About this same time I suddenly realized that the car I was riding in was the only one on the train that didn't have a snow-covered windshield, and would therefore make it obvious to anyone that somebody had been inside.

By this time the snow had turned into slushy rain, which made it especially exciting climbing down the outside of the autorack at speed, and I ducked into the lower level to wait for the train to slow down. Shortly we began to enter the Vancouver yard, and at a nice paved street crossing I bailed off to the delight of several motorists waiting at the gates. A block or two away was a coffee shop, and over a short stack and a series of coffees I pondered just what it was about riding in the winter that sounded so inviting on that hot day in the Nevada desert...