The Winter of My Discontent

the shortest distance between three points

Spending Christmas with my family... the thought of Spending Christmas with my family, was something I looked forward to every year. Unfortunately, the logistics involved were complicated they lived in Southern California and I lived in Northern California. My options, in order of least likely to happen, were to drive down there (and back), to take a bus, to fly, to take a train, or to hitchhike (yeah, sure...) I can't think of any time in my life when I've owned a vehicle that could dependably make the round trip of over 1,200 miles, so driving was out, especially since I can't stand to drive anywhere for more than an hour or so at one time.

The last bus trip I took was an all-night stand-up-the-whole-way nightmare from Monterey to Los Angeles when I got out of the Army, and I swore I'd never do that again. Besides, even a short trip on a bus is nauseating. So much for driving or taking the bus, and since I couldn't afford an Amtrak ticket, and I lost all interest in hitchhiking years ago, it looked pretty clear that I would be hopping a freight down to LA. I would start from Oakland and go down the Coast Route, clearly the shortest way from where I lived to where I wanted to end up.

Getting from my house to the freightyard in Oakland was probably the most difficult aspect of the entire trip. I had to walk from my house over to the nearest Transit Bus stop, which took 45 minutes and gave all of my neighbors the opportunity to try and figure out what a person was doing walking down residential streets in suburbia with a backpack. Then, depending on when I arrived at the bus stop, it could be up to an hour before the bus came, and then a 2 hour ride down to the Bay Area. Next, up to an hour to get to a Bart station and get a train over to Oakland, then a half hour walk over to the freightyard to wait for a train. I was glad that Christmas came only once a year.

Sometime after dark the train pulled out and I climbed up into an auto rack and rolled out my gear in the bed of a brand new Chevy pickup. The celebratory cheese and French bread was prepared, and a bottle of Ernest & Julio's finest was unscrewed and allowed to breathe. The next morning I was in LA, and a series of Transit bus transfers got me home for the Holidays.


Coming back was a different story. Now that I didn't have a deadline to meet, I could avoid the eternal Tule Fog of the Coast and Valley lines, and hop a freight up to Barstow, Vegas, and Salt Lake, trading pea-soup, drippy fog for wide open desert vistas. I stocked up on Christmas leftovers, including a supply of 151-proof Rum my brothers and I concocted, and settled down to wait in Union Pacific's East LA freightyard, which was situated in a neighborhood with it's own unique Christmas decorations displayed on front lawns primered Camaros up on blocks, washing machines, children's toys, and other unidentified objects obviously chosen by the homeowners to accent their display.

Eventually catching out after an uncomfortable night of too much Rum and not enough food that wasn't 90% sugar, I woke up in the High Desert, coming into Barstow. Anyone who thinks of the desert as someplace that is always hot has much to learn. We sped through Barstow and eventually stopped for a crew change in Yermo, where I decided to remain in my sleeping bag as the landscape around me was covered with frost and a high overcast meant that there would be no solar heat available. This being said, I found that a warm sleeping bag and a large quantity of wine can make even a dreary day seem warm and toasty.

It was difficult to keep still after dining on little more than sugary treats for the last few days, but the wind under the piggyback trailer made it uncomfortable to be anywhere else than directly behind the wheels. As the hours wore on I became increasingly familiar with the construction details of the underside of the trailer above me, possibly details that would escape someone in normal life. The air hoses that travelled along the underside from front to rear were supported every so often by wires, and the hoses bounced here and there wildly along their lengths between these supports. On the down side, there were numerous blotches of grease both on the underside of the trailer and, to my disappointment, on the freight car itself underneath... in other words, I quickly became dotted with grease stains as I would turn from side to side to arrange my gear or look at some scenic point along the tracks.

An hour or so out of Yermo we began to slow, and the reduced speed of the train, the deepening snow, and an inner coldness that even wine couldn't warm told me that the "scenic" part of the trip was coming to a close, and it was time to hunker down in my bag. This was dramatically brought to my attention when we were passed by another train at speed and I received a continuous spraying of snow as the train went by. Further details were blurred by sleep and sometime during the night we slowed for Salt Lake and I gathered up my frozen gear to detrain. I felt ecstatic to once again be upright and moving under my own power, and I treated myself to a breakfast at a nearby café.

Soon the sun came up, but unfortunately the temperature didn't, and I had to decide on which route I would take to get me home Union Pacific from here back to Oakland, or I could take a bus up to Ogden and ride Southern Pacific over to Roseville. Somehow the word "Southern" appealed to me as I tried to wiggle my frozen toes, so Ogden it was, and a slow, boring bus ride got me there in a few hours. Stepping out of the overheated bus, still wearing my numerous layers of train riding clothes, I quickly forgot how cold it was and practically skipped over to the freightyard after re-supplying at a nearby state-owned liquor store, conveniently located within a few blocks of the yard. With the ground covered by a rock-hard layer of snow I chose to look for a junker rather than a hot shot, and there were several strings to choose from. The wind-packed snow was as slippery as a skating rink, so I decided that instead of walking up and down three or four strings of cars I'd just wait until some power backed down, showing me which string was leaving for sure. I fervently hoped that a train would be called soon, as it was a reasonably clear day and I wanted to see the Salt Lake as we crossed it on the causeway. My prayers were answered in less than an hour as 4 units backed down to a string that I remembered from my approach to the yard as having several open boxcars, and I crept along the perimeter of the yard until I found a clean one with both doors open and climbed inside.

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