The Tropic of Interest

the latitude of platitudes

Black Butte

Trudging into the deserted freightyard through 6" of wet snow, I tried to psych myself up by remembering those miserable 98° days in the Summer of searching for shade at every opportunity. It's a good thing I wasn't searching for shade today because there was none just a low overcast with a nasty wind and no empty cars in the yard for shelter.

Heading into the woods to look for a spot to wait, I was relieved to see that under the canopy of Ponderosa Pines there were patches of bare ground, and this is where I unrolled my cardboard and set up "camp" to wait for a northbound. The only drawback was that I couldn't see the signals on the mainline, which meant I would have to develop a keen interest in distant train whistles.

Bringing out all of my food to prepare a feast would surely bring a train (as it often seemed to), but I resisted the urge and uncapped a bottle of White Port instead. This did wonders to help me forget about the cold and wind, and the wait became more enjoyable as the day wore on. Between sips, I laid out my gloves, scanner, and flashlight, as what little daylight was here to begin with was quickly fading away. As soon as I heard a whistle I could pack up my stuff in a minute and be ready to go... all I needed was a whistle.

Walking the Train

Drifting off to sleep sitting up, I was released from a dream of freezing somewhere in the snow by the whistle (actually the horn) of an approaching northbound. As planned, the gear was stowed and I walked over to the edge of the trees to scan the incoming train. The first 20 cars or so were closed boxcars, but then an empty showed up, and then several more, so after the head end passed by I began to work my way over to the mainline as the train slowed to a stop.

A brakeman on the other side of the train was spinning a handbrake shut, and then the front end of the train pulled forward, leaving me to casually inspect the empty boxcars. The first one looked good doors open on both sides and reasonably clean. I checked the latching pawl to make sure that they wouldn't slide back and forth when the train was moving, then moved back a few cars to look at the next empty, which was nearly identical to the first. Seeing that the engines were lined up to an adjacent track to set out some cars, I knew I had plenty of time and continued my walk down the train looking for suitable rides.

A couple more boxcars came into view no better or worse than the ones I already passed, but then I came upon an old wooden-floored car with both doors open and a pleasant surprise inside. Apparently whatever was shipped in this car previously must have been sensitive to damage, as there were several huge pieces of cardboard stapled to the splintery wooden walls to provide a smoother surface, and a couple of big chunks of oak timbers that looked like they had been nailed to the floor to keep the load (whatever it was) from moving. I hopped inside to get a closer look and realized that the cardboard sheets could be torn down to make a smooth, clean floor and the oak chunks could be stacked up to create a chair!

Leaving my pack in the doorway, I hopped off to inspect the doors and check the wheels for flat spots. Everything looked good so I climbed back inside and began to do a little housekeeping. The cardboard was re-arranged, the wood stacked, and I settled into my "throne" to survey the domain spread in front of me. Shortly the engines re-connected to the train, the air was pumped up, and after a half hour wait for a southbound to pass by, we slowly pulled down the siding and then out onto the main, where to my great relief the car glided along the rails as if it was built yesterday.

Klamath Falls

The remainder of the White Port provided me with a great sleep that lasted until we slowed to enter the Klamath Falls SP yard, where I was to get off and walk over to the Burlington Northern yard to catch a train up to Bend and Wishram. Unfortunately, the almost death-like slumber didn't allow me enough time to roll up my gear in time to bail off at the BN yard tracks, so I ended up dropping down to the ground well into the SP yard, necessitating a long walk back along the mainline. Eventually I reached the BN yard by walking around the freight office and sneaking back into the far east end of the yard, where a convenient highway overpass was located to provide some degree of concealment during my wait. All I had to do was walk up the dirt embankment to see the entire yard and figure out which track had a caboose on it.

Looking around for a good spot to hang out, I was startled to hear someone call out "Yo Tramp", and looked up to see a black tramp leaning against the concrete wall under the bridge. He had on a pair of coveralls that were so dirty that he blended into the surroundings like a chameleon. I climbed up and said hello and he invited me to join him as he was waiting for the same northbound that I was. He apparently was travelling streamlined, as I didn't see anything resembling "gear" around him. This proved to be correct when he told me that he was planning to go up and ride in the last unit, since it was too cold to ride outside without a sleeping bag.

I immediately noticed that he was very articulate... well spoken... whatever, and had a speaking voice that would seem to be well suited for a teacher or some kind of lecturer. After going through the usual litany of passing current train riding information back and forth, he accepted my invitation to join me in another bottle of White Port, and our ensuing conversation covered just about every subject except riding trains.

At some point in our discussion the subject of how people really don't talk to one another so much as at one another was touched upon. The phrase "I couldn't agree with you more" was classified as a meaningless phrase, because there really isn't any degree of agreeing with someone you either do or you don't. Another phrase that wasn't able to escape our scrutiny was the sporting declaration that "He's as good as anyone out there", which would lead you to believe that everyone out there had the same skill level.

The process repeated itself until it got dark one of us would bring up a topic, we'd both add some personal observation, we'd both laugh like crazy, the wine was passed back and forth, and it began again. The darkness won out in the end, however, as the tramp got up and bid me farewell, as he wanted to wait at the other end of the yard near some engines that had just pulled out of a side track and began to back up to one of the yard tracks. It was too dark for me to see which track he was going to be on, so I said goodbye to my friend as he walked down the embankment and headed for the engines in the distance.

Soon another engine came out the east end of the yard towing a caboose, and now it was my time to pack up and look for a ride. The caboose was hooked up and I climbed over a few strings of cars and began walking the train, noticing that frost had formed on the ties and I fervently hoped that there was an open boxcar nearby. Another 10 or so cars and one appeared clean and with both doors open and this would be my home for the night as I left California and Oregon behind and awaited waking up somewhere in Washington. A few more sips of wine and I rolled out my bag, hoping that the black tramp found a nice engine with a working cab heater. There was nothing left to do but enjoy the ride, and I did.