The Biggest Little Branch Line... the World

Aside from the tinnitus in my right ear, the World was silent. A light rain last night seemed to intensify the aroma of sagebrush to an almost uncomfortable level. Sitting under a piggyback trailer that had just been dropped off at Reno Junction from a local out of Sparks, I wasn't quite ready to ponder my next move yet.

I was in the middle of a loop trip that began at Southern Pacific's Desert yard in Oakland. The two-hour bus ride from my home down to San Francisco allowed me to pad my sleep time in anticipation of losing some later waiting for a train. A short walk to a BART station and an uneventful journey under the Bay brought me to West Oakland, where my first stop was at a local eatery for a large order of chili fries to go. Wrapping the dripping mess as best I could with aluminum foil, I carefully lowered it into the top of my pack and walked next door to the liquor store to get some liquid to counterbalance the 5 pounds of food I would take along with me.

In hindsight, I probably should have brought along a few Rolaids, too, but I had a great feast sitting in an empty boxcar a few tracks over from the mainline while it began to rain. Tonight I would let the usual piggyback train go by and get the junker that follows it to Roseville and Sparks, where the plan was to walk over to a small yard in North Reno and catch a local out to Reno Junction, then a UP train back to Portola, Stockton, and Oakland.

With the chilli fries consumed, I mopped up and walked over to a string of cars parked in front of the Oakland Passenger Station to look for another open boxcar. The rain had tapered off a bit, but the station lights lit up the opposite side of my string like daylight, leaving the side I was walking along as dark as the far side of the Moon. The building that served as the passenger depot also housed the office of the Railroad Police, so I tried to walk along as quietly as I could even though tripping every now and then over some unseen obstacle.

A boxcar was found and shortly I heard some power coming out of the main Oakland yard, which would hopefully have the head end of my train. They pulled by with 20 or so cars, and 10 minutes later I felt a slight bump and heard the familiar sound of the air building up. I rolled out my gear and soon I was rocking slowly eastward, toasting the Bay Area every few blocks with a chilled bottle of Gallo's finest.


I woke up as we stopped in Roseville for a crew change, and gathered up my gear in case the train turned north instead of continuing east, but I was relieved to see them add a fourth unit to the train, something they wouldn't do if it were going north, so I retired to my sleeping bag and returned to Dreamland. Sometime in the middle of the night I got up to pee and saw that we were accelerating and dropping down the east side of the Sierra, so it was time to roll up again. For once we were going slow enough through Reno so I could bail off and avoid a several mile walk back from Sparks. A phone booth at the Amtrak office in Reno allowed me to look up a street map in the phone book and plan my walk over to North Reno, where I would get my next train.

The walk ended up being a bit longer than I envisioned, as they didn't call the yard North Reno for no reason it was about as far north as you could go and still be in Reno. Laid out on a slight hill, there was a chainlink fence surrounding the yard for no reason that I could see, and a wide open gate saved me the trouble of walking around looking for a way in. There was one string of about 20 or 30 piggybacks and that was it. With nobody in sight to ask about the train out to the junction, I just assumed the cars there were the ones to go next, so I climbed up and rolled out again under a trailer, figuring I would either wake up right where I was or somewhere else, and the only "else's" were the junction or back to Reno.


The sound of engines woke me up at daybreak, and since I was on the only string in the yard, I just had to wait and see which end they would couple up to. To my great delight the backed down onto the north end, and since it was now light enough to see around me I got up and made myself comfortable against the trailer wheels, ready to take in the sights of a brand new, untraveled Branch Line. Soon we were out of the yard, winding up and around sagebrush-covered hills as the desert to the east glowed bright orange. It began to rain again and there was rainbow after rainbow appearing and disappearing along side the train as we crept along at no more than a fast walk. Cresting a hill I could see the UP mainline in the distance and was disappointed to realize how quickly my ride would come to and end. We pulled into the junction siding, dropped the air, and as the engines went by on their way back to Reno I was alone in the desert.


Well, not really alone, as the highway to Portola, only 20 miles down the road, went by on the side of a hill a quarter mile away. Ideally, I would wait here for a westbound UP train to stop and either set out or pick up cars, and I would ride it down the Feather River Canyon and across the Central Valley to Oakland. I had been on westbounds that stopped here, but I had also been on ones that didn't, so it was time for a decision to be made. If I waited here for hours, only to watch as the first train to come by didn't stop, I would be distraught, to say the least, especially with Portola and a crew change so close, so I decided to walk up the hill to the highway to hitch, but remain in sight of the tracks to watch for a train. As luck would have it, the first car to come by the first and only car in at least a half hour, pulled over and stopped. In minutes I was on my way to Portola!

Thanking the driver profusely when he dropped me off a block away from the mainline, I walked down to the tracks and sat down under the highway bridge that passes over the yard. The next few hours were spent reading graffiti, drinking wine, and wondering what possesses tramps to crap all over the only place they have to wait for trains that's protected from the weather. In a few hours I heard the welcome sound of a train to the east, and got ready to walk down the tracks a little ways so that when the train stopped to change crews I would end up about in the middle, making it easier to sprint either forward or backward to get a ride, as the crew changes here only lasted for a minute or two.

The front two-thirds of the train was all auto racks, followed by piggybacks. Since it was still raining lightly, I began to look for an auto rack that I could squeeze into, rather than ride outside under a trailer. After passing several cars without any way in that I could see, I found one that had a small gap in the doors, right above the coupler. Realizing how unsafe it might appear, I nonetheless took off my pack and shoved it in, then I stood up on the coupler and wiggled myself inside not something I wanted to do on a regular basis.

The auto rack was empty, which meant that I didn't have to listen to the banging and clanging of chained-down vehicles for the next several hours. Sorry that I would miss the scenery of the Canyon on the way down, I made the most of my situation with another bottle of White Port and a few limp chili fries from the night before. Soon it was too dark to peek outside to see where I was so I rolled out yet another time and enjoyed the faster speed and less slack action of the intermodal train. Sleeping right through Stockton, I woke up realizing that I was on a train headed to Milpitas, instead of Oakland, and since I had no easy way of bailing off at speed, I had to wait until we came to a complete stop in the yard to detrain. A very long walk to the nearest BART station and I was on a train to Oakland, where I switched to a San Francisco train, and then the Transit bus back home.