Alone Together

cold steel for breakfast

Waking up on a freight train is not like waking up at home, at least not in my home. Depending upon the situation, waking can either induce pleasant euphoria or outright panic. There are few feelings in life more enjoyable [while wearing clothes, anyway...] than waking up in a gently rocking boxcar with a wood floor on a warm summer morning and not having a clue where you are. On the other hand, waking up in the middle of the night and realizing that you're not moving anymore, and you haven't moved for quite some time, and you don't hear the power rumbling or the air in the brakelines, etc. This is not so much fun.

With the overall theme, if you will, of hopping freights, other than maybe to actually get somewhere, being that of relaxing and saying goodbye to worrying about day to day issues, it seems rather counterproductive to spend so much time doting over the very minutest details, like the sequence of sounds that the airing up (or down) of the brakelines can induce into the metal shell of the freightcar, or keeping a mental log of how far you move back or forth in the freightyard while switching in order to be aware of being set out. If you're stuck in a car that bounces and rocks so much you actually fear for your life, the slightest degree of slowing down, possibly to go into a siding and stop so you have a chance of changing cars, can be absolutely mesmerizing to the point of almost forgetting to breathe.

I remember once when I came down the east side of the Rockies and saw the Plains for the first time and thinking that not only the great scenery as well as the cool, dry climate was officially over, and I began the monotonous trip across flat, featureless [to me, anyway] landscape that offered no more than corn fields or soybean fields to interest me, with the air getting hotter and more humid. "Yuck", I thought, "is this all there is?" What was there to look "forward" to?

Hours of this tedium on the back of a grainer forced me to drift off to sleep early, but when I woke up the next morning, there were still corn and soybean fields going by, as if I was sitting still and the scenery was going past in an endless loop. Looking at the time and calculating how many hours I'd been traveling and at what speed gave me the impression that I should be somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean by now, and as we soon plunged into a thickening layer of fog I really felt as though we were near a large body of water. With panic rising up inside me, and fearing that I overshot my destination by about 4 or 5 states, I tried to visualize just where in the heck I was, but in a short time we slowed for a bridge and I saw a sign saying "Mississippi River", and breathed a sigh of both relief and amazement because I figured out that I had completely slept through the crew change where I was supposed to get off and catch a different train. Oh well...

Another "interesting" incident occurred when I took my younger brother along for his first, and probably his last, train trip. Over the years he'd heard me pontificating about how great hopping freights was and at some point he said he wanted to try it out so after visiting my folks in LA for Christmas my brother and I headed over to the freightyard to ride back up to my neck of the woods in Northern California.

So far the backlog of freighthopping descriptions I fed to him consisted almost entirely of "good" trips, where you walked into the yard to see your train ready to go, the weather was perfect, you had lots to eat and drink, etc. Knowing all along that I was guilty of sugarcoating each trip for one reason or another, I planned to fill him in with a much more objective view once we got to the yard and had a chance to settle down and drink in the sights and sounds (and smells) that I was sure were quite new to him.

That plan went down the drain even before we got off the transit bus we took to the freightyard. Approaching the bus stop next to the mainline, I saw a train slowly pulling out of the yard going in the "right" direction, with numerous empty boxcars rolling along at a walking pace. With only a chainlink fence separating the bus bench from the tracks, and a gaping hole a few feet away, the temptation proved too much to resist, so without exchanging any words at all, we ducked into the yard and began jogging alongside the first boxcar we saw. I peered in looking for other riders, then motioned for my brother to hop in first while I jogged behind shouting encouragement. Surprisingly, this worked, and he was able to hoist himself in without much trouble. I followed suit and we were on our way, no more than 3 or 4 minutes after getting off the bus, some sort of record I'm sure.

Breathing a sigh of relief that this might end up being an example of how much fun train trips can actually be, rather than the other side of the coin, I quickly demonstrated how and where to lay out one's gear, and we shared a bottle of wine as we picked up speed and left the depressing downtown area of LA behind. Within minutes it was too loud to talk without shouting, so I made a mental note to give my brother the "Trainriding Basics" speech as soon as we stopped somewhere and could actually talk in a normal voice. Unfortunately, we never did...

The next morning I woke up as we finally slowed down and looked out the doorway to see flat farmland and not much else. Seeing a freeway sign that said "Salinas" made me realize that we'd completely slept through the crew change in San Luis Obispo, and were headed into a siding to let another train pass, or so I figured. Not wanting to wake my brother after what might have been a fitful sleep at best, I stood in the warm doorway and marvelled at the good time we made so far. My marvelling was cut short when we broke air suddenly and started slowly moving forward, followed by a hard stop and more movement, this time going backward. Seeing a brakeman off to the side of the track I yelled something like "Are we getting set out?" and he nodded enthusiastically, which propelled me into motion.

Running over to my brother's sleeping form, I shouted out that we were getting set out, and that he had to get up immediately. Sensing that he wasn't quite sure just what the phrase "set out" meant, I ran over to my gear and began to frantically stuff everything and anything into my pack, while almost pulling off tying my boots at the same time. Apparently this pantomime worked, because we met at the doorway at almost the same time. One last glance around to make sure that we didn't leave anything and I shouted at him to jump out. Here is where a few minutes of discussion the previous day would have been appropriate, because before I could squat and tell him to face forward when he jumped, he jumped... but facing outward.

Since the train was going about 5 or 6 miles an hour in one direction, and he flew out the doorway at about 5 or 6 miles an hour in another direction, the expected did indeed happen, and I watched my dear brother tumbling along the ballast with numerous objects flying from his pack. I quickly bailed out and when I got back to him he was laughing, so I knew it couldn't have been as bad as it looked.

I soon started to laugh myself when I looked over the fan-shaped "debris path" he made after his exit. While he did manage to gather up all of his belongings in the boxcar, he failed to zip up the pockets and main compartment of his pack, and this is what led to the spectacular landing first his upper torso, then his legs, then his upper torso again, all within a growing dust cloud that randomly ejected bits of clothing, cans of food, and whatever else he managed to bring along on his first trip. To offer some form of consolation I told him that his de-training earned the highest amount of style points of any that I had seen, and we still had to re-pack everything and run back to our train, laughing most of the way.

Our train stopped in Oakland, where, uneventfully, we caught another train, auto racks this time, to Roseville, where we needed to catch yet another train up to Oregon, a place my brother had never been before. Since it was only a few days after Christmas, I wasn't sure just how many trains were going to be running, and with the beginning of a light rain falling I thought we should stay on this train until we could figure out whether it was headed east or north. As we slowly got under way, I kept a nervous eye on the head end, after drilling it into my brother's head about the art of remaining on ones feet while jumping off a moving freight train. We now had ladders on the car, so if we had to jump off it would be far easier that doing so out of a boxcar, and I was tremendously relieved to see the head end of our train turn left and head up the Valley Line as the rain picked up considerably.

Our second night on a train was made easier by having the comfort of a pickup truck bed to rollout in, reasonably protected from the wind and rain, and a much smoother ride as well. The next morning I woke up to see a river running alongside with forested mountains beyond what a difference from the backs of industrial areas in Oakland and LA. Thinking that this morning will have to be much more enjoyable than yesterday's morning, I was soon proved wrong...

Sticking my head out of the end of the car at the crew change in Dunsmuir, I came almost face to face with a Railroad Cop, who "requested" that my brother and I step down from the train. My brother was still sitting in the back of the pickup truck, and because of the metal sides of the car carrier he couldn't see anything outside, so when I told him that we had to grab our gear and get off he [understandably] thought I was joking, and it took another minute or two before I could convince him that, unfortunately, I wasn't.

We were cuffed together and had to walk the few blocks to the jail while the cop followed along behind with our gear. The brief stint in the holding cell was uneventful, and we were issued a summons and released, when we naturally made a circuitous route back to the freightyard and caught the next northbound to Klamath Falls, looking over our shoulders quite often.

In Klamath my brother decided that he'd had a fairly complete train riding "experience" and wanted to go back to LA. I really couldn't blame him, as the clothes that he brought may be rather fashionable at a Southern California shopping mall, but up here in a cold rain they didn't quite cut it, so we walked down to the south end of the yard to wait for a train. And wait. And wait...

At some point in the night a group of engines came down and coupled onto a string of cars, so we again raced to pack up our gear (a skill my brother was now excelling in) and this time found a ride in an empty auto rack. Figuring that the railroad couldn't possibly care if someone was riding in a car carrier without cars, we climbed aboard and re-rolled out our gear. After sharing another bottle of Ernest & Julio's best, we went to sleep as the rain continued to fall, but this time it was noticeably colder...

During the night I woke up several times feeling cold and wondering how this could be possible, since by now we should be back in the Central Valley of California and, even at this time of year, it should be at least warmish, but I figured that it was just because we'd drank a bunch of wine before going to sleep, so I dozed off looking forward to an un-eventful morning, as the sound of the rain beating down had stopped, and I made a mental note to spread out my wet clothes as soon as I got a chance so that they could dry out. Unfortunately, I never got that chance...

Finally, after holding in a pee for what seemed like hours, I got up and tiptoed to the end of the car in my socks, which proved to be a big mistake. As I got to the open end I realized that I was standing on snow and we were in the mountains somewhere in a raging snowstorm. Squinting forward through the wind and snow I made out a freeway sign that said "Emigrant Gap", and in a moment or two realized that we had again slept through a crew change and must have turned at Roseville and headed east over the Sierra Nevada mountain range toward Reno and Salt Lake. I just assumed that with loaded auto racks going away from Oakland, then empty ones must be returning. I now knew otherwise, and prepared myself for the unpleasant task of waking my brother up for the third morning in a row with bad news.

By this point I was more or less in the mood of just sitting back and enjoying the ride, and after another Ernest & Julio "breakfast" my brother was too. We made the most out of what little scenery was available to us through the fog-shrouded blizzard outside, but when we dropped down to Reno the weather cleared and we had a big decision to make should we get off at the crew change and head back, or just stay on and see Nevada in all of it's late December glory? Our decision was made for us when our car stopped immediately adjacent to the Railroad Police office and in our hesitation to clamber down in plain sight and an unusually quick crew change we left town on the same car we rode in on. On one hand, we were reasonable protected from the wind and completely protected from rain or snow, with lots of places to hook wet clothing up to dry off, so we made ourselves as comfortable as we could and enjoyed the desert, another place my brother had never seen before.

To wind things up, we went as far as Salt Lake (yet another place he'd never seen), then turned around and headed back, assured, we hoped, that there would be no further "incidents" that we hadn't faced already, and there weren't...