The Elements of Style

cardboard as a creative medium

Arriving in a freightyard and hearing your train coming in is almost too good to be true providing that you were able to purchase the necessary groceries beforehand. While sometimes it could honestly be said that spending several hours hanging around in a jungle, or under a bridge, while waiting for a train can be chalked up as "part of the experience", it can just as easily be explained away as being incredibly boring.

I do remember times where I really didn't care when (or if) I would ever see a train again, but they were very few and very far between. On this particular occasion I was in the Dunsmuir yard waiting for a train up to Klamath Falls. That was it just up to Klamath and back. I was looking forward to a train trip where the time spent actually riding was far greater than the time spent waiting. So far, things were working out as planned.

A northbound pulled into the yard with the usual number of empty boxcars, so I wasn't in much of a hurry as I walked along the train looking for that "perfect" car, which happened to be the first car I looked into. It was almost too clean, with both doors open on one side, so I climbed in and dropped my gear in the head end.

Aside from a few rocks tossed in by trackside delinquents, the car was empty except for a large piece of cardboard that seemed to be placed there just for my use. It immediately became the foundation of a comfortable "camp", and I took a pen out of my pack and drew a crude map of my intended journey, as condensed as it was. I put down the approximate time that I arrived in the yard to wait, as well as the time that we began to move forward, with only 45 minutes separating them. I arose and took my place at the doorway as we wound our way out of Dunsmuir and up along the Sacramento River.

As the train consisted mostly of empty cars, we made good speed up the canyon, where I was obliged to wave to a few groups of fishermen who seemed to find it unusual that someone was riding on a freight train. I found it equally unusual that someone would choose to spend hours standing in ice cold water to catch a fish that they were probably going to release anyway.

I sat back down and added a squiggly line to my map indicating the river, and a cone-shaped mountain to represent Black Butte, which we were passing at a good rate of speed, telling me that we probably weren't going to stop at the next siding and pick up any cars. Passing the siding at Black Butte, we slowed and eventually came to a stop at the north end, still on the main, to apparently wait for a southbound to take the siding. After only a few minutes the train appeared and snaked its way over to pass us while I looked it over for other riders. I made a mental note that there were very few rides on the train, which meant that when I got off in Klamath Falls I might have to catch the last unit of whatever southbound train I took. Since it was getting late in the day I figured that my return trip would be in darkness, so the last unit ride would be OK.

Coming into the Klamath yard I was faced with a familiar dilemma do I get off in the south end of the yard so I can catch a southbound that has work to do, or do I get off in the north end to catch a southbound that doesn't? To my surprise there was a southbound sitting on the main, waiting for my train to clear. I gathered up my gear and bailed off the side, miraculously avoiding a fall on the slippery lava cinders and wood chips that pass for ballast in that part of the yard.

As my train came to a stop, I climbed over to the other side where there was just enough room to walk between each train without getting my cardboard roll stuck. The southbound began to pull out and I turned sideways so I wouldn't have any part of my pack get caught, and after a few cars went by I needed to make a quick decision either ride one of the numerous loaded lumber flats or possibly miss this train completely. My mind was made up when the next car had a large space between the stacks of lumber, so I grabbed the waist-high ladder and clumsily plopped aboard. Glad that no style points were awarded for my catch out, I crawled forward and sat back in a large void between the lumber that extended from one side of the car to the other, and was high enough to sit upright. The cardboard was arranged properly and I toasted my brief stay in Klamath Falls as we picked up speed and headed back to Dunsmuir.

It was getting dark and ominous clouds filled the southern sky, but my little nook within the lumber would keep any rain off me. Now riding on a loaded car, I noticed that it was a much smoother ride than the empty boxcar, and after finishing off a bottle of Ernest & Julio's finest, I stretched out and dozed off for awhile. Rudely awakened by a very strong gust of wind as we passed over the high trestle at Dry Creek, I decided to sit up and continue making additions to the map on my cardboard. Noting the 2 or 3 minutes that I spent on the ground in Klamath, I tried to draw a reasonably straight line representing the rails south of Klamath, but it developed a number of undulations in it due to the rocking of the car going around curves. Drawing curves, on the other hand, was easy just move the pen slowly in a straight line and they would almost draw themselves. It reminded me of watching a seismograph at a University in my youth during an earthquake.

The clouds seemed to evade me as I got closer and closer to Dunsmuir, and a fresh bottle of White Port kept me company while I dangled my legs over the lunber's edge and enjoyed the ride back. We flew through Black Butte without stopping and continued at a good speed down the canyon into Dunsmuir, where I reluctantly left my illustrated cardboard for the next rider, and dropped down to the ground as we stopped under the freeway bridge, almost 8 hours exactly from the time I left.