Northwestern Pacific University

an institute of tired learning

During the 1970's my friends and I used the Northwestern Pacific Railroad as a convenient outlet for our enthusiasm whenever possible. Short night rides on the top of loaded gravel grainers or longer daytime trips in wobbly boxcars as we stopped every few miles to set out or pick up. The crews were friendly and if we got left behind anywhere we could either hitch or take a bus back home. At some point, however, I got the itch to stay on the daytime train and ride it up to Willits, which was a crew change and several more hours of riding than our usual hops.

It was the last week in June and with the sunlight at its longest of the year it seemed like the "right time" to take the trip. I took a bus down to Petaluma and got off a few blocks from the freightyard. Across the street from the depot was a convenience store that fortuitously sold Hearty Burgundy, as well as French Bread and cheese. I stuffed my pack and angled across to the upper end of the freightyard to wait for my train.

The small yard had lots of cars but that was it no signs of power or even a caboose. Now that I had distanced myself from the depot area I could see a lone caboose parked on a track behind the depot, hidden from me earlier as I approached the yard. Climbing in an empty boxcar to wait, I could look out the doorway as I spread out my gear and keep an eye on the caboose. The wine was unscrewed, a cheese sandwich was built, and I began a familiar ritual as I relaxed and waited. And waited...

My decision to bring along a copy of Reader's Digest proved to be the highlight of the afternoon. Another "highlight" was the extra bottle of wine that I schlepped, because as the hours rolled by the first bottle was gone before I had reached the actual articles in the Digest, since I usually start with the jokes and so on. The rest of the afternoon was spent drinking, eating, and reading. And waiting...

In the middle of a pleasant nap I was awakened by the sound of a train horn in the distance, and then the sound of crossing gates going down. Propping myself up on one elbow I watched as a short work train entered the yard and crawled past me with a few flats carrying rail and a few more carrying various types of maintenance of way equipment. My thought that this work window was the cause of the delay of putting my train together was borne out by the additional sound of road power moving past my location from somewhere behind me. I watched as four units appeared from behind the end of the string I was hanging out in and made their way over to the caboose. After an undue amount of time they pulled away and chugged past me on the main toward the south end of the yard. A few minutes later I heard the welcome sound of air in the brakelines and withdrew the second bottle of wine to christen my departure.

The engines soon returned to the head end and backed down onto my train. The Reader's Digest was dog-eared and returned to the pack, and I stood in the back end of the car as we pulled out of the yard and began the trip north. A brief period of harmonic rocking tested my "sea legs", but we picked up speed and traveled through what passes for "farm land" in Sonoma County. We rattled through Santa Rosa, Windsor, and Healdsburg before we stopped on a siding in Geyserville for a crew change. By this time it was dark so I rolled out my bag and went to sleep. Waking up enough to tell that we were moving again, we passed Ukiah sometime during the night and the next thing I remember was jolting to a stop in the north end of the Willits yard at daybreak.

Not knowing the operations of this small yard, I packed up my gear and hopped down to get my bearings. The power had cut off from my train and pulled down to a depot-like building just south of a road crossing. The only other cars in the "yard" were on a track behind the cars I rode in on, so I walked over there to look for a ride going back. Out of maybe 8 or 10 cars, they were all closed boxcars except for one ancient gravel car. The doors being open on the bottom meant I would have to ride on the windy end sitting on top of the air brake reservoir, because there was no "floor" on either end.

While the gravel car was a possibility, I fervently hoped that the southbound train would have some better rides. I walked back to the other side of the yard and discovered to my delight that among several old pieces of rolling stock stored on a wye was a wooden passenger car used for excursions on a tourist railroad that went out to the coast from here. The doors were locked but the windows didn't have any glass in them, so with the aid of a large pallet nearby I created a makeshift ladder and gained entrance. I couldn't imagine a better place to wait for a train! I re-arranged my gear and kicked back in comfort on the padded seats with my wine nearby and a good view of anything that might pull into the yard from the north.

This day was to be a carbon copy of yesterday drinking wine, eating cheese sandwiches, and reading Reader's Digest. If I didn't get out of there soon I would end up sleeping through whatever scenery was available and spending quality time in the yards, which was the opposite of what I had hoped for. Finally, at probably the same time as my train began to leave the day before, I heard a train whistle and bolted upright so fast that I became dizzy. Clearing my head I packed things up and slithered out the window, tossing the pallet into some weeds nearby so as not to tip off anyone to my secret hangout.

The southbound was very similar to the train I rode in on, except all of the boxcars were closed... except for... yes, one boxcar at the very end of the train was open on my side! The train squeaked to a stop leaving me with a short walk over to the rear end where I met the conductor having a smoke next to his caboose. We exchanged pleasantries and I humbly asked if he'd mind if I rode in the boxcar in front of him. He said he didn't mind, as the car was being returned to some "home shop" for repairs. I thanked him and walked up to the boxcar, noting that the door had significant damage and was probably the reason for the need for repairs. Unfortunately the other door was closed, but this one wasn't moving anywhere so I climbed in just as we lurched forward to leave.

Crossing my fingers against the possibility of a flat wheel, we slowly and smoothly pulled up to the depot and again stopped, this time to swap conductors. A minute later and we were truly "leaving town", again as the day was ending but I did manage to stand in the doorway for awhile and watch the redwood forest pass by. I rolled out again even though I wasn't very tired. Finishing off the wine I thought about my "train trip". If I told someone that I had ridden the NWP for two days they might imagine an entirely different tableau than the one that unfolded before my eyes. They might visualize majestic mountains, tall redwoods, and rushing rivers, while in reality it was more like convenience stores and freightyards. I was satisfied, and that's all that mattered.