In the Stall of the Mountain King

the world is my urinal

It has been said that once you piss out of a boxcar door (assuming the car is moving) you're "hooked". My initial observations were somewhat different.

I was waiting in the Klamath Falls BN yard to go north. Snug in my sleeping bag, I realized that I should probably pee before we got going, since I was riding in an empty auto rack which would soon turn into a wind tunnel after we left the yard. The sides of the car were solid metal with lots of circular holes, making it difficult for people outside to see in. Not wanting to walk all the way to the end of the car to pee, I simply utilized one of the holes at a convenient height to pee through. Once the mechanics were figured out, I managed to relax enough to let fly and was satisfied at my efficiency. Suddenly there was a loud shout and a spotlight was shining on the outside of my car. I "reeled it in" and immediately discovered that I had almost pissed all over a brakeman who was walking the train I didn't hear him approach because I was wearing foam earplugs.

Sheepishly apologizing as best I could, focussing on the fact that it was merely an unfortunate timing error on my part and was not directed (at least figuratively) at him personally, we began an interesting conversation, with him on the outside and me on the inside. Although we never met face to face, I knew he was the brakeman and he knew that I was the tramp. Other than that, we conversed for maybe 10 minutes, starting with specifics about when "my" train would leave and where it was going, then to general griping about how the railroad was run, and finally to how similar our "jobs" were being "ready to go" at all hours, uncertainty about when we would arrive back home, etc. I was thinking about how easy it is to accept someone when you're not blinded by physical appearances, or pre-conceived ideas about what they represent.

Finally, when there was a lapse in our dialog, the brakeman said goodbye and continued his rounds, leaving me to the darkness once again. I put my earplugs back in, zipped up my sleeping bag, and fell asleep. A dream was interrupted by the sound of squealing wheels and a slight rocking sensation, and we were pulling down to the west end of the yard. Soon there was a sudden stop, then we backed up to a joint, which told me that they were doubling the train and there might be better rides available once the sun came up and we stopped somewhere. I fell back asleep and this time another dream was cut short by the welcome sound of the air coming up. Realizing that this would be a good time to toast my departure, I withdrew my arm and retrieved a bottle of White Port from its temporary home in one of my boots. My toast was extended while we waited for an SP train to go by on the main, then we slowly began our journey up to Bend and Wishram, where my train would turn East and continue to Pasco and Spokane. Making our way through the SP yard at a walking pace, I was relieved to feel us pick up speed, and even more relieved to learn that I wasn't riding a "flat wheeler".

Sometime just before the sun came up we slowed to enter a siding. I briefly entertained the thought of getting up and looking down the train for a better ride, but succumbed to laziness and the warmth of my sleeping bag and decided to wait until "next time". I leaned over to the side of the car and peered through one of the holes to try an figure out where we were. This part of Oregon is about as boring as Oregon gets endless miles of closely spaced pine trees and not much more a good place to go through while you're sleeping, I reminded myself.

Along the dirt frontage road was a man walking his dog (or vice versa). That scene brought back memories of a dog I had developed a kinship for years ago. In the early 70's I worked and lived on a commune in Northern California. There was a dog there (one of several) who I befriended, and he would follow me around during my various projects here and there. He would be curled up on the ground, and when he saw me heading out to repair this or that he would jump up and invite himself along sometimes lagging behind me and sometimes running ahead as if he knew just where I was going. If my project lasted so long that his interest began to wane, he would slowly back away, then trot off in a beeline back to the compound, no matter where we were on the property.

I learned that his name was Lion, which I thought was a bit odd because the dog looked about as gentle as a dog could look, but in those days just about everything that transpired on communes was a bit odd. A year or two went by and one day I left to do a repair alone, as I couldn't find Lion anywhere. When I returned I asked one of the kids there if he had seen Lion that day, and I was told that the dog had died the night before, and I could visit his grave if I wanted. I slowly walked out in the woods following the kids directions and found a small mound of dirt with a cross. On the cross was painted the name "Lyin". Returning to the compound I inquired about the spelling of the dogs name and learned he had been named that because he was always just "lyin' around" here and there.

Since I was already awake I thought that a toast to the new day was in order so the White Port was retrieved and a new day was officially under way. A southbound train rattled my car as it went by and once again we were moving north. Sensing that we were getting close to the crew change in Bend, I reluctantly got up, got dressed, and rolled up my gear so I could switch to a better ride if possible. The upcoming Deschutes River Canyon was very scenic and I didn't want to see it through zillions of small holes in the wall of my car.

Sure enough, soon we passed the tiny yard south of town and slowed to enter the outskirts of Bend. To my luck there was a gradual curve and I was able to look back along the train and saw a couple of gondolas about 20 cars back, which would give me a much better chance of gazing at all of the cool scenery coming up. As we dropped down to a fast walking pace I dropped down to the ballast and veered away from the train, then turned and walked back to intercept the gondolas. As if on command the train stopped with the first gondola next to me, so I climbed up the ladder and cringed as I saw that it was filled with bundles of brand new, freshly creosoted ties. Much to my disappointment the second gondola carried the same load. Unsure if I had time to walk back up to my original ride, I looked down the train and saw nothing that would constitute a "good ride", so I turned and walked as fast as I could toward the head end, but the train started up and I was forced to turn back and get on the first gondola.

I briefly struggled with the thought of getting off and waiting for the next train, but the smell of the ties wasn't as bad as I thought it would be so I sat down on the floor on the head end and began to hunker down and deal with the load behind me. Even though the smell wasn't too strong, I refrained from touching any of the ties as best as I could. The faster we went, the faster the wind carried the smell away, so I cleared away some of the crap on the floor, rolled out my cardboard, leaned up against my pack and finished off the White Port. The sun was finally up, the sky was clear, and soon we slowed to about 15mph and descended into the southern end of the Canyon.

Tearing off a chunk of my beloved cardboard, I placed it on the top of the ties and stood on it to give me a great view of the landscape transformation going on around me, from flat and pine-studded to rolling hills and grain to a deep river gorge. My thoughts went back to the first time I had seen the Grand Canyon. The naked female body and the Grand Canyon are two [of many] sights that just can't be properly represented in a photograph you need to see the real thing.

In the 70s a girl I was "dating" and I hopped freights to the Grand Canyon from the San Francisco Bay Area. We took SP down to Bakersfield, then walked over to the Santa Fe yard and caught a train to Flagstaff. This was probably my first exposure to desert riding and I assumed that the land was made up of nothing but "desert" all the way across Arizona. This meant that things would be pretty warm the entire trip. Unfortunately, I was unaware that we would pass through Williams Jct. at over 6,900 feet and end up in Flagstaff even higher. After an uncomfortably cold night on the train, we bailed just west of Flagstaff and walked into town. We spent the day looking around town and found a cheap motel at the far east end of town to spend the night.

Searching for a cheap motel is not unlike searching for a cheap gas station you travel along, watching the prices get lower and lower until you think that it can't get any lower than this, and after the fact you discover that sure enough, there was a cheaper place a block farther than the place you stopped at. In our case, we passed up motels starting at $29 per night, then $24, then $19, and finally more because of exhaustion than a desire to save money, we settled upon a $16 a night dive and stopped there. It seems like all of the towns in the southwest that straddle a major east-west highway stretch about a block or two north and south and about a hundred blocks east and west. We were almost at the far east end of town and we had to retrace our steps the next morning to catch the transit bus that takes people out to the Canyon itself, which is about an hour or so north.

What does this have to do with riding along the Deschutes River Canyon? I'm getting to that. After a long bus ride through a sort of monotonous landscape, we arrived at the south rim of the Grand Canyon and retrieved our packs. There were a surprising number of tourists everywhere, and we all sort of began moving as a "herd" toward where we believed the edge of the canyon to be, even though there was no canyon visible yet. Suddenly there was a glimpse of a faint break in the land... a sort of gap, and things beyond this gap were a different color. The pace of the group slowed markedly as the people in front began to see the canyon develop bit by bit. It was as if you kept walking but the "other side" kept getting farther and farther away instead of appearing closer. There was a profound feeling of disbelief as everyone reached the overlook and became aware of the true depth in front of them. It really was on a completely different scale than the land behind us. I turned around to look back at the flat forest we had just passed through, then around again at the canyon and there was no connection. No similarity at all.

To a lesser extent... quite a bit lesser, in fact, I was reminded of my Grand Canyon experience as we dropped lower and lower into the river gorge and passed through tunnels and over trestles and finally in and out of side canyons as we followed the river. Instead of feeling like the tracks were getting lower and lower it was more like the hills on either side were getting higher and higher. This was White Port time for sure, so I brought out another bottle from my pack and toasted the day a second time. The only down side, if there was one, was that the rising temperature along with the lack of wind at the snails pace we were moving made the creosote smell become very noticeable. I noted that if I was ever stopped by a Bull in the next day or so it would be difficult to convince him that I had not ridden in a gondola full of fresh ties.

Now immersed in the depths of the canyon at river level, I climbed up on top of the ties and took in the scenery. Every so often there would be a group of rafters or a fisherman in a drift boat go by, but that was about all of the "people" I saw. Other than a few hawks and either an osprey or bald eagle [too far away to tell exactly] there wasn't much wildlife, either. Aside from the tilting of the car as we curved in and out of side canyons, and the ever-present odor of creosote, I was alone in my musings. Alone, except for the White Port, which provided a means to enjoy my time spent lying down on the gondola floor when I wasn't standing and watching the river canyon.

Given enough White Port, even the floor of the gondola became an interesting wonderland full of discoveries and objects that begged for identification. After tiring of standing on the ties and having each curve in the tracks transform into an almost identical "next" curve in the tracks, the majestic river canyon slowly became a somewhat monotonous river canyon, and I focussed on making sense out of the detritus spread out below me.

I began by making piles of similar objects recognizable auto parts in one, rusty nails and screws in another, etc. Every so often I would come across something that could possibly be identified as an auto part and they had their own pile. Not only giving me something to do during the day, it provided me with an exercise that would end up clearing away enough crap on the floor to actually roll out my cardboard on a completely smooth surface. I began to notice that while the contents of my piles represented an extremely diverse appearance, the common factor they all shared was the presence of rust in various stages of encroachment.

In many of the "miscellaneous" piles, the contents were more or less evenly mixed, but in the "auto parts" piles (of which now there were several) the common objects were either valve springs or valves themselves, leading me to believe that at least one business to make use of this gondola in the past must have been a machine shop that specialized in rebuilding automobile cylinder heads.

One item that rated a (large) pile of its own was metal turnings, those sharp spirals of metal that result from drilling holes into metal. They were everywhere, and removing them from my "sleeping area" became my first priority. Thankful that I had a good pair of gloves on, I could sometimes just place my hand on the floor and come up with several of these sharp coils stuck to the palm.

Downing the last of the wine, I got up to pee and noticed that the canyon was considerably wider now, and it was well into the late afternoon. The slow speed [if you could call it that] of the train allowed me to sit on the top of the gondola side wall without fearing that I might get tossed "overboard", so I perched there for a bit while I tried to decide which way I wanted to go when we got to Wishram, the crew change on the other side of the Columbia River in Washington. I didn't know for sure if this train would turn left and go to Vancouver or turn right and go to Pasco. Honestly, neither destination appealed to me, as the sky was clouding up and I really just wanted to ride trains and not necessarily get somewhere in particular.

As I rolled up my gear just in case I had to hop off, we swung around a big curve and in the distance I could make out a much larger canyon running east and west the canyon the Columbia River followed. This hastened my packing, and in minutes I was standing at attention, scanning the horizon for the bridge that we would cross the river on. The bridge, normally in the "raised" position to allow ships and barges to pass, was "down", meaning that they were ready for our train to cross, eliminating a lengthy waiting period as the bridge seems to make "glacial" progress as it lowers itself to track level.

As we approached the bridge itself I could see another train, headed south, waiting on the opposite shore to cross the bridge once my train went by. I seized upon this opportunity to possibly switch trains on the fly and go back the way I came, eliminating a possible rain-soaked journey into Washington. It was difficult to check the other train out for possible rides because the metal structure of the bridge blocked my view, but since it was on the tracks that led from Vancouver I knew from previous train trips that it would have, at the very least, lots of empty wood chip cars which would qualify as a "ride", though not a very good one.

This was one time that I was glad we were going so slow, as we crossed over the bridge at a walking pace and as the head end got to the other side we stopped so that the switch could be lined toward the small yard next to the even smaller town of Wishram. This was my cue to climb down the ladder and begin walking up to the other train. As I approached the lead units of the waiting train, the conductor slid his window open and hollered down that the outbound crew wasn't here yet, so I didn't need to hurry. We exchanged knowing smiles and I thanked him as I made my way back along his train. A dozen cars back or so I came up on a pristine wooden-floored boxcar with one door open. Silently thanking the Train Gods that I didn't walk the train on the other side [where I wouldn't have known about the open door], I climbed inside and began to set up "camp" as the first raindrops began to fall outside.

Adding an existing piece of corrugated cardboard to my own, I rolled out my sleeping bag, took off my boots, and withdrew my last bottle of White Port from my pack. Since I had already seen everything on the way up, I could use the trip back to catch up on sleep and try to ignore the creosote miasma that had been following me around. Soon I was awakened by the movement of the train and got up to stand in the doorway as we crossed the Columbia River in a light but steady rain. A final toast, and then another and another until it was too dark to see anything of merit. I was "riding" trains, and that was what I set out to do. Mission accomplished...