Leonardo DiCaprio, as Richard in The Beach, summed up my feelings as I pulled out of the West Oakland Desert yard just before midnight on a short piggyback train headed for Denver:
...never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It's probably worth it.
Huddling behind the wheels as we sped up like a rocket, I pulled out a bottle of White Port and toasted the last remnants of the East Bay as we gradually turned East along the waters edge. Earlier I was a train passing before thousands of prying eyes, but now it was me who was doing the prying as darkened corridors of hills sped by on one side and the lonely river on the other. We slowed a bit going through the Ozol yard and even more as we approached the mile-long bridge over the Sacramento River at Martinez.
Crossing the bridge put me in the full force of the winds that blow back and forth through this area keeping up with the variations in air pressure between the Central Valley and the Pacific Ocean. Back on terra firma we sped up along the 10 mile raceway that leads to Fairfield and then slowed again for some reason through Davis, sped up through Dixon, and slowed again as we approached West Sacramento and another crossing of the Sacramento River.
I tried to blend in with my sparse surroundings as we curved around the Amtrak depot in Sacramento but at 1:00 am there wasn't much cause for alarm. We picked up speed briefly then began a gradual recognition of the eventual work we had to do in Roseville, because there couldn't have been more than 20 cars on our train. Stopping at the west switch at Antelope, we began sawing over a few tracks to bypass the receiving yard and slowly made our way up to the departure yard, with my ride stopping a block or so before the Post Office.
Just to be on the safe side, I packed up and jumped off, then found a nice piece of cardboard in the weeds next to the tracks and sat down, hoping to fade into the darkness while my train did its switching. The power cut off, pulled up a bit, then backed down to a string of noisy reefer cars on the next track. A few minutes later I was plunged into a delicious silence as the string of reefers were pulled forward and added to the head end of my train. We aired up and within 10 or 15 minutes I climbed back aboard toting my new-found cardboard and left Roseville just as a westbound piggyback train was pulling in.
This time I knew there were no more big towns to go through for another 4 or 5 hours, so I rolled out my sleeping bag and re-toasted this and that as we passed through the short tunnel west of Newcastle. The grade on the west side of the mountains was gradual and made for a good sleep as we settled down for the climb.
Waking up to complete darkness, the smell of diesel exhaust, and a loud roaring in my ears told me we had reached the long tunnel at the summit and soon would be dropping down the east side of the mountains into Truckee, Reno, and Sparks. Leaving the tunnel we began to pick up speed and the stars were fading away to signal the beginning of a beautiful, clear day to enjoy the Nevada desert. Swept up in the excitement, I rolled up my gear and sat up behind the wheels as we wound around the aptly-named Coldstream Valley and made our way through Truckee and the foothills before Reno. Scooting under the wheels, I hoisted my pack up above the axle and tried to make myself as invisible as possible as we slowed to a stop for the crew change in Sparks.
Fortunately we were on our way in 5 minutes or so and I crawled out and set up my gear for a day of watching Nevada go by backwards. A few bites of Mild Cheddar stood in for breakfast, and it was time to unscrew a premium offering from Ernest and Julio. The rocking of the trailer took care of any decanting necessary, and I found this vintage to have a distinctive nose, a bold finish, and just a hint of vinegar.
As the passing scenery dissolved into a blur of sagebrush and sand, my mind drifted off into whatever thoughts flashed by on the ticker tape of memory. The first to pop up was "...when you understand its limitations, you can exploit its advantages...". Where did I hear that one? Your knowledge of your adversary's limitations can be used to your advantage? Something out of the "Art of War" maybe?
Another few miles down the track... another few sips of White Port... and I'm hearing the character of Donald Breedan in the movie "Heat" (played by Dennis Haysbert) saying "Ain't a hard time been invented that I cannot handle..." That simple line, and the way he spoke it, was very powerful, and I'll remember it after the rest of the movie is forgotten.
More miles... more sips. Now I'm thinking of "the Terminator", and the scene where Kyle Reese (played by Michael Biehn) blurts out "You still don't get it, do you? He'll find her! That's what he does! That's ALL he does! You can't stop him!"
This last remembrance got me thinking about dodging the Bull, and what it would be like if he had similar powers as the Terminator? Bottom line, it would take all of the fun out of riding trains. Someone who doesn't sleep... who never stops looking for you. My memory flashed back several years when I was coming into Roseville from Sparks on a loaded autorack train. It was in the middle of the night and raining, and I heard on my scanner that they were going to stop the train before it entered the yard to "remove a rider" that someone had seen as the train came through Reno.
Thinking back, I had climbed up to the top level and got into a car, but as soon as the door was opened the interior light came on, so I had to leave my pack outside between the cars, get in quickly, close the door, pull out the bulb in the interior light, then go back out and bring my pack in. It must have been during the 5 seconds or so that it took me to slide inside and close the door that someone saw a light on in a passing autorack. What are the odds?
Anyway, getting back to coming into Roseville, after I heard on the scanner about the train being stopped, I exited the warm and dry car I was riding in and climbed down the ladder at 50 miles per hour in a steady rain (which thoroughly woke me up) and as soon as we got down to a reasonably safe "de-training speed" I hopped off and hid in some weeds along the tracks. A few cars ahead I could see searchlights from the opposite side of the train and, looking under the cars, watched as a portly Bull got out and stood in the pouring rain shining his flashlight up at the autorack I had just left. Thinking that he was going to climb up and check every car on every level, I tried to figure out how I was going to remain dry out there in the open while he searched the car. To my delight, he quickly got back in his car and radioed in that he "searched the entire car and found no riders". Glad to hear that he took the easy way out, I scrambled back to a ladder and rode a ways past the Bull as he continued to spotlight the rest of the train, then climbed back up and into the third level, where I rode the last few miles into Roseville. His whole show of "spotlighting" the train seemed incredibly inefficient to me, but it was probably the only recourse he had at that point.
Back to the endless sand and sagebrush that is Nevada. Leaning ever to pee, I managed to get my pants, my boots, and a good part of the car with nary a drop reaching the ground. I secretly wished for a boxcar door as I remembered a long ride with a couple of my friends from Roseville to Spokane. We all climbed in an open boxcar in Pasco that was to be our home on a 4 or 5 hour trip through the hot, dry, boring land that is Eastern Washington. A prodigious amount of beer made frequent trips to the doorway mandatory. Upon detraining in Spokane, we got our first glimpse of the Jackson Pollock-esque spray pattern made by numerous urinations out the door at 50 mph.
Across the Black Rock Desert and a few squiggles later we stopped for a crew change in Winnemucca. I remembered getting off a train here several years ago and walking the few blocks into "town" to try my luck at the slots, where I won $75 after playing for maybe 30 seconds. Leaving before I succumbed to the urge to continue gambling, I got back on my same train after purchasing a few "supplies" at a conveniently located liquor store.
Beyond Winnemucca the sage and sand became more sage and sand, and a nap was planned after a quick lunch of French bread and Mild Cheddar cheese. I took my boots off and sandwiched them between my pack and the trailer tires, with the laces tied around a shoulder strap so they wouldn't blow away if I rolled over in my sleep. A few more sips of wine and I began another nap that lasted until we slowed at Carlin for another crew change. In a few minutes we were moving again and I went back to sleep. I vaguely remember the long uphill climb east of Elko and then not much else until we began crossing the Great Salt Lake, where I grew a saline exoskeleton from the waves as we passed. Soon it was time to roll up as we approached Ogden, where I was sure that some cars might be added and at this time I was looking forward to a boxcar if possible.
As we slowed to enter the yard there was a train a few tracks over with four units and lots of empty boxcars. It looked like it might be waiting for my train to clear before it headed West, and I looked longingly at the warm, wind-less boxcars. I leaned out and looked as far back as I could on my train to see if there were any "indoor" rides but all I saw were piggyback trailers. By now I was getting to the far end of the Westbound train when I decided to bail and say goodbye to watching everything in reverse, not to mention the constant wind. I hoofed it over to a new-ish looking boxcar with both doors open and a cardboard carpeted interior. I had no idea where I was going but at least I'd get there in comfort.
I rolled out my gear and turned on the scanner, but there was nothing to give me a clue as to which train I was on. I realized that I should have made a mental note of the unit numbers as we came into the yard, and vowed to remember that next time. Without a peep from the scanner, we released the brakes and started to move. So far the ride was smooth, with no hint of flat spots on the wheels. I mentally said goodbye to my Denver trip and prepared myself to revisit Nevada in the proper orientation. Making a quick sandwich of French bread (now quite stiff in the dry desert air) and cheese (not quite as firm as I would have liked) and unscrewed another bottle of White Port. The sun was just setting behind the mountains on the west side of the Great Salt Lake as I toasted the horizon and everything in between.
Getting up to pee during the night I was reminded of how many more stars are visible when you're far away from city lights. I returned to a great sleep defined by a gentle side to side rocking and very little slack action. I officially woke up just before daybreak but couldn't tell if I was East or West of Carlin. I was deep in the endless sagebrush and sand landscape, with no nearby freeway to offer tips on my location. I automatically began to assemble another sandwich and leaned back against my pack to fully awaken. The French bread was now more like eating French plywood, and the Mild Cheddar was now much closer to Sharp or Fully Aged. Fortunately the White Port tasted as ageless as always, complimenting any meal.
Soon we slowed a bit and I got up to look out the boxcar door. Up ahead I could see the switch where Paired Track begins, meaning Winnemucca is just a few miles away. I slid my gear back to the corner of the boxcar and waited as we stopped for a crew change. Ten minutes later we pulled out, and I returned to my observation post near the doors. I shifted sides so that I could see the Black Rock Desert again, and then we slowed a bit going uphill, so I seized upon the moment to begin another nap. Timing my naps to the beginning of an uphill stretch has worked wonders, and this was no exception. At some point, though, it seemed like we were going too slow, and I got up to find that we were turning off the mainline and heading up the Modoc Line. We stopped to let the brakeman throw the switch, then we crept along until the caboose cleared, when we stopped again. Finally we were on our way to Wendel, 20 miles down the track.
This unplanned detour was good news, as I could get in some rarely seen daylight mileage on the Modoc Branch. I sat back down and awaited my fate in Wendel, as no matter which direction I was headed, the stop there always seemed like a long one. We crawled into the "yard" and stopped. I looked up ahead and saw our crew walk away from the engines toward the café, but no new crew anywhere to be seen, so it was back to sleep for the time being.
I decided to walk the train to look for any additional rides in case my cardboard-filled boxcar got set out at any point. Near the end of the train was an ancient gondola that was getting home shopped for repairs that seemed too numerous to list. Even though it was empty the springs were already compressed, and it had a bit of a "lean" to it that added character and a certain charm. Unable to resist the temptation to climb inside, I made my way up the wobbly ladder and swung over into the car, which produced an uneasy feeling as I stood amidst the metallic scatter of a million loads of scrap metal and who knows what else.
The uneasy feeling persisted as I crouched down and imaging myself riding in this car. There was nothing to indicate what year it was... or even which century was unfolding outside. Standing up to add some reality to my new-found "time machine", I debated whether or not to ride the remaining 90 miles or so into Klamath Falls in my boxcar or this gondola. After scrutinizing the debris-covered floor I lost interest in the gondola and reluctantly walked back up to my boxcar. A half hour of eating and re-arranging my gear and I heard the welcome sound of the air lines coming alive. Leaning back against my pack I drank a toast to Wendel and the railroad line that I would only ride a few times before it was abandoned.