Life in the Slow Lane

counting the ties on the modoc

It was sunrise, and I was stuck in the Twilight Zone of being too tired to get out of my sleeping bag and not tired enough to go back to sleep. My bladder made the decision for me, so I began the routine of beginning the day on a train trip.

My partner and I had slept in the Klamath Falls SP yard the night before in anticipation of riding out the Modoc Line to Ogden, Utah. There was a string of cars on the track where the Modoc trains were usually made up, but no power had connected to them. We had walked along both sides of them last night and found only one ride an empty boxcar that had a loose door that was sure to bang around once the train got going, so we picked a spot near the head end to roll out and see if anything else was brought out by the power when the train was made up.

If we got tired of the [possibly] noisy boxcar, there was a grainer a few cars back, but it was facing the wrong way and the "good" end was covered in rotten-smelling sprouted grain. With the morning pee out of the way I greeted the day by unscrewing a rather recent vintage of Ernest & Julio's White Port and toasting whatever seemed needy of a toast.

Before long I heard the welcome sound of approaching engines and turned to wake my partner but he had heard them, too, and was already sitting up. We both watched as 4 units passed by, stopped, and backed down to "our" string of cars. Unfortunately they didn't bring any new rides with them, so we walked back to the boxcar, tossed our gear inside, and now that there was daylight to work by, we scrounged up some wire to hold the door still.

Taking stock of the "inventory" scattered around the inside of the car, it appeared that as new as the exterior looked, the interior had apparently provided temporary transportation for legions of tramps. Aside from numerous witty monikers written on the walls, we almost immediately discovered which end of the car had served as the toilet. By carefully scraping up the deposits with a stick and a scrap of cardboard, we transferred them to the great outdoors and retreated to the other end to roll out our gear.

From the inside it looked like the problem with the door was caused by a forklift crashing into it, and I remembered a placard on the outside stating that the car was being returned to it's "home shop", wherever that was, for repairs. I fervently hoped that the home shop wasn't located anywhere between here and Ogden. We busied ourselves with setting up a comfortable "camp" and a little while later the air came up in the brakelines and soon we were pulling out of the yard. A brief stop to throw the switch at the junction and we were curving around the wye and finally heading east.


The beginning of the ride was pretty straight and our car, for the most part, rode about as smoothly as could be expected, but there were sections of track that gave the impression of a distinct lack of maintenance. Every so often we'd come across a stretch of access road paralleling the tracks with no discernible signs of any access at all.

The scenery was cool because of the flatness of this whole part of Northern California as long as we weren't going through a dense area of trees you could see a long ways on both sides of the car. I saw a Bald Eagle very briefly as it dove down from a perch in a dead tree to zero in on some hapless rodent in the grass below, and a small group of Antelope from a distance, but after an hour or two of moving from one doorway to the other to see this or that I retired to my cardboard and embarked on an afternoon of drinking wine.

Just about the time that I took my boots off and began to discover the subtle nuances of Ernest & Julio's recent vintage, we slowed to enter a small town which I soon learned was Alturas. The tracks made a gentle curve to the south and shortly after passing the last of the few buildings around we stopped in the "yard". Another long string of cars sat a few tracks over from our train, and when we dropped the air I hoped that some of them were joining us, instead of the other way around, because as we made our way around the numerous curves between Klamath Falls and here I looked back quite a few times to check for other rides but, aside from the smelly grainer behind us there weren't any that I could see.

I figured at last resort, if our boxcar got set out, we could try to get into one of the many chip cars on our train. I seem to remember that the brown Southern Pacific cars had a ladder going down the inside... or maybe it was the blue Great Northerns... I couldn't remember which ones did or didn't.

Fortunately it never mattered because after an hour or so of sitting in the yard we aired up and left town, this time with the engines much closer than they were on the ride up. The scenery after Alturas got even better because the flat plains we were passing through changed into hills and canyons, and I got up and assumed the familiar position in the doorway again. Now and then I could see large Mule Deer along the tracks but no more eagles. As before, I reached my limit of gazing out first one door and then the other and returned to my cardboard tasting room to re-unite myself with more room temperature White Port.

I was awakened from a pleasant nap by the sound of squealing wheels and the smell of brake smoke, and got up to see that we were winding down a steep downhill section which I knew meant that we were getting close to Wendel, a crew change, so I packed up my gear and finished off the morning bottle of Port, zinging it out the doorway in a high arc that ended with the bottle landing intact in the cradling grasp of a large sage bush, preserving it forever for whomever might pass by on foot.

We pulled slowly through what passed for the "town" of Wendel and stopped in the yard. Waiting at the head end was a crew van, and as I squinted around the door to see what was going on I saw that the old crew was being picked up but there was no sight of the outbound crew, so we dropped down to the ground and began to hoof our way back to the freight office to figure out how long our train would be here. After walking almost the entire train back, and seeing no other ridable cars, we stopped at the yard shack but nobody was inside. Spotting the crew van down aways at the diner, we walked over there and set our gear down in a day room adjacent to the café. Inside was a TV, a comfortable sofa, some equally comfortable looking chairs, and a small library of books and magazines.

We walked into the dining room and saw what we assumed to be our crew sitting at a large table, so I said "Howdy" as authentically as I could and inquired as to when the eastbound train in the yard might be leaving. We were immediately recognized as "those guys in the boxcar" and were told that the outbound crew wasn't due in for another half hour, and they would be picking up a few cars in the yard before they left. I asked if they knew about any cars being set out but they didn't know for sure, so I thanked them profusely and returned to the day room.

As much as we would have liked to kick back and watch TV, we decided that we should at least get back to the head end of the train and check out whatever cars were in the yard for rides. I picked up a stack of magazines I hoped the railroad wouldn't miss and stuffed them in my pack, then we filled our water bottles and reluctantly shuffled all the way down to the far end of the yard. The full gallon of water and the extra 10 pounds of magazines slowed our pace a bit, and by the time we made it back to our car it was almost time for the outbound crew to show up.

A quick check of the half dozen or so cars in the yard revealed only loaded lumber cars, so it was back to our boxcar and time to roll out the gear again. I was glad that we didn't hang around at the diner any longer because in a few minutes the crew van drove by and shortly we would be pulling out of Wendel for the 20 miles or so until we came to the junction of the mainline at Flannigan, a place I remembered from an earlier trip when I found a date nail in a railroad tie that had "00" on it, indicating that the tie had been installed in 1900.

The lumber cars were added to our train at a pace that only the railroad could understand, and eventually we left town. By now it was the "Golden Hour" and the setting sun had turned even the blandest looking sagebrush into a yellow masterpiece trailing backlit spiderwebs. I could smell the sage and the newly creosoted ties of the beefy mainline tracks as we sped off into the desert going twice as fast as we did in the earlier portion of the trip.

The "afternoon" bottle of Port was opened and another session of drinking and riding began. The branch line was fun to ride because the slower pace allowed one to study the passing landscape to a greater depth than you could at the 60mph speed of the mainline, and I suppose the train crews one encountered would be friendlier than those found at mainline crew changes, but the trip so far had been a mix of the two, and now I was looking forward to sleeping all the way across Nevada while the dark landscape sped by outside. Another toast, and then a few more, and it was time to crawl into the sleeping bag and look forward to breakfast in the morning somewhere in Utah.