Scents and Sensibilities

i love the smell of brakeshoe smoke in the morning

My body knew it was morning... my watch said it was morning... but it sure didn't look like a morning. I had spent the night in a bad order boxcar in Burlington Northern's "B" yard in Vancouver, WA, a place that seems a bit detached from the rest of the World.

The low overcast and the pungent odors of the pulp mills that pervade this area remained unchanged through the night and into the next day. Whatever passes for circadian rhythms around here must remain a mystery, as I really felt no urge to jump out of my sleeping bag and greet the new day any more than I would have several hours ago, but it was a "catch out" day and that meant I would pretend that it was really morning and pack up my stuff.

I had no real destination in mind, as long as it wasn't north. I would either catch a southbound BN train out of here to go east to Wishram, and down to Klamath Falls, or try to get a UP train on the main to get to the Albina yard in Portland and then walk down to SP's Brooklyn Yard to go to Eugene. Just the effort of trying to determine which route I would take was a bit much for my sleep-deprived brain, so my concentration focussed on just getting on a train the rest of the details would fall into place on their own.

In my favor was a stop at the market the night before which provided me with several bottles of wine and no need to make the long walk back into town again. The first of those bottles was used to toast the "day", for what it was worth. I sat up in the doorway and scanned what I could see of the mainline, then leaned out as far as I could to check out my end of the main yard for a caboose being added to either one of the two strings of cars that looked like they might be going south. Another string looked possible but it also could be the cars for the local down to Albany, which is something I wanted to avoid, having ridden it by mistake several years ago and regretted it profoundly.

A short time later I heard a distant horn to the north and saw a headlight coming my way on the mainline. In hopes of getting on if it stopped, I gathered up my gear and walked over to the tracks where I saw that it was a Union Pacific train made up almost entirely of grainers, but going too fast to get on. Forlornly I turned and walked back to my boxcar as the rear end of the train passed by. At the very instant I hopped up into the boxcar I heard the faint sound of the train dynamiting and I immediately jumped back down and walked over to the main. In the distance I could see the red glow of the FRED and stared at it for a minute or two to see if it was still moving or not.

Unable to tell for sure, I started walking down the tracks toward the distant train, mindful of the fact that even if I didn't get there in time, at least the brisk walk would provide some degree of wakefulness and warmth. As I got closer and closer I still couldn't determine if I was making any progress, but soon I began to get a whiff of brakeshoe smoke and this somehow served to speed up my pace. Cursing the railroad for having recently added fresh ballast along the tracks, I half walked and half stumbled until I got close enough to see that the train was indeed stopped and I still had a chance of getting on.

I was now maybe a dozen or so cars behind the train when I heard the sound of the brakes releasing, so I quickened my pace as best I could on the loose, slippery rocks on either side of the rails. I was now close enough to see the source of the brakeshoe smoke the front truck of the last car had smoke pouring out of one side. At this point the train began to pull forward and I quickened my unsteady pace even more, because I had walked a long way to not get a train.

The cars began to accelerate quickly, which told me that they were probably all empties going back east to be filled again, but, more importantly, it told me that I barely had a chance of making it to the last car, if any car at all. Veering off to the side a bit to avoid the ballast, I burst into Warp Drive and decided to bag the last car, even though the "good end" was on the forward end and I only had time to get the trailing ladder. With a surprising degree of skill I angled up to the tracks and caught hold of the ladder, then rode on the steps for a bit to catch my breath. Swinging around and climbing in, I hoped that the wheels in front of me would release and cool off, but that was not about to happen.

I ducked into the cubbyhole when we passed the freight office, then got out to take in the sights as we crossed the Columbia River and entered Oregon in a large trench whose sides were covered with the thickest covering of blackberry bushes I had ever seen. By now the brake smoke was getting even worse, so I pulled up my bandana to cover my mouth and nose. This seemed to remove most of the smell, but by no means was I breathing in "clean" air. It was now time to make a decision things could get really bad if this train somehow went through the Albina yard too fast to get off, and turned east, giving me another 4 or 5 hours of the smoke until I could get off at the crew change in Hinkle. We were now coming through BN's Lake Yard, and I secretly hoped that some railroad worker would spot the smoky car and have the train stopped, giving me a chance to bail off, but we continued along at around 20 miles per hour until we got close to the Amtrak Depot and the Steel Bridge. At the last few street crossings the smoke was so bad that I saw motorists pointing to my car as it passed by, but they might have been pointing at me, who was crouching down with my hands covering my face.

As we slowed to cross the Willamette River I decided that I would take my chances bailing off as we crossed a street, with the smooth pavement more conducive to running on then the slippery ballast. I shouldered my pack and swung around to the outside of the car, taking a few tentative steps to see if I really wanted to do this or not. My mind was made up when we slowed imperceptibly around a slight curve and at the instant there was pavement under my feet I pushed myself backward as I dropped down and ran like crazy. In a dozen steps or so I was walking and trying to blend in with the masses of people and cars that were temporarily halted at rush hour by my train. I pulled my bandana down and gulped in some relatively clean downtown Portland air, punctuated by a mixture of idling motorcycles, autos, trucks, busses, and exhaling pedestrians but it sure tasted good!