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Tacoma to Seattle

It was 0410 on a Saturday in March, 1996 and I was in Burlington Northern's Bay Yard in Tacoma, Washington. I had just dismounted a grainer on a Seattle-Portland train and was already thinking about getting a ride back to the Emerald City. Just as I sought concealment behind a boxcar parked on a warehouse spur, a northbound freight went by. Two things prevented me from hopping it on the fly: it was going too fast and I had to piss. Too bad: catching that train would have established the quickest turn-around in the history of freight-hopping. Shortly thereafter a southbound train pulled in from Seattle; I recognized some of its cars from my explorations in Balmer Yard in Seattle six hours earlier. It parked on the track next to the train I had come in on. The rear end devices of the two trains flashed monotonously, out of synch.

Back to the task at hand: getting a ride to Seattle. I ventured out into the east end of the yard to see what, if anything, was going on. As I surveyed the scene, a brakeman appeared from the east, throwing switches for some cars that were being pushed into the yard by engines I couldn't see. It turned out to be the northbound train that has passed me earlier. The brakeman told me that this train was terminating and that anything leaving from this end of the yard would go to Seattle. The train backed all the way into the yard, the units drove off, and all was relatively quiet. Dawn's light was beginning to appear in the eastern sky, but stars were still visible overhead.

I decided to hang out under a viaduct nearby, a place that would give me a good view of any switching activity at this end of the yard. After ambling over to the collection of construction materials, I hung my hammock between some heavy timbers and scaffolding, and laid down in it to rest. But restlessness borne of fatigue forced me up. I wandered about, hoping to discover some train action. Alas, there was no action. In spite of the lack of activity, I just stood there under the Portland Avenue Viaduct for what seemed like hours (but couldn't have been longer than 30 minutes), watching, waiting, hoping.

After a while a car drove toward me on the service road that ran along the north edge of the yard. It was coming from the area around the yard buildings. I wondered if a BN special agent was on his way to deal with me. The car stopped, a guy got out, did something (at that distance it was hard to see what happened), got back in the car, and drove toward me again. This took place about five times. As he got closer I could see that he was throwing switches, which meant that there would be some train action in the near future. What was weird about it was that rather than walk along the road next to the switches, he drove. The driving could not have saved him much time. When he stopped near me, I asked him about departures for Seattle, he said a container train would come "over the hill" from the Port (of Tacoma) in about an hour and leave soon thereafter.

By now it was starting to get light out. I returned to my hammock and relaxed. Sleep would have felt great then, but my goal was to get back to Seattle as soon as possible, and I knew that if I dozed off I'd miss that stack train coming from the Port.

Time dragged. Then it dragged some more. The general calm of the morning was occasionally interrupted by the noises of truck traffic on the viaduct above me. Trucks that ascended the ramp to the viaduct shifted gears on their ascent. Other trucks, hauling containers, created a loud, sharp sound when they drove over a pothole in the road, causing the container to jump off the chassis and come slamming back down. Hopping freights exposes the traveler to such pleasures all the time.

When the Port's container train, pulled by a yard switcher, came down the hill from the river bridge, I was glad I had not succumbed to Demon Sleep. As the train crept into the yard I looked for a car to ride and was pleased to see a few 48-foot TTX well cars with 40-foot containers on the bottom level. Two of them had 48-foot containers on top. I noted their position in relation to other cars. The train came to a stop before the whole thing had been pulled into the yard; the tail end was still out of view on the other side of the bridge.

About this time I noticed five road units near the yard buildings. I figured that they belonged to the stack train, so I packed away my hammock and down parka and developed a plan. My intention was to walk around the tail end of the incoming train, get on the other side of it (to be out of sight of the yard buildings), then walk along the stacks to one of the TTX cars that I had seen. The stacks moved again, stopped again, then moved again. Finally the last car of the train came into view.

This was my call to action. I donned my pack. Then - in plain view of at least two yard workers, who said and did nothing - I boldly walked over several tracks, went around the slowly-moving tail end of the train, and walked west in search of the well car I had seen earlier. The stack train was also moving west, and was going only a little faster than I was. Then, in spite of my fatigue, I had an idea: why not save myself some energy by riding the train as it rolled deeper into the yard? Proud of my mental powers, I climbed onto a well car ladder and rode it for maybe a hundred yards. When it stopped, I resumed my walking.

Soon I reached the TTX car, climbed aboard, and set up my hammock. This was the first time I had been in a well car and I realized right away that standing up exposed me to anyone who cared to look my way. Sitting in the hammock was much better: only my head extended above the walls of the car. I laid down in the hammock to get some rest. Despite my having stayed up all night on my Seattle-to-Tacoma freight train ride, I only managed to achieve a state of light unconsciousness. When the engineer charged the braking system, the resulting mechanical noises woke me up.

Without fanfare the long stack train started moving toward Seattle. It was 0710, three hours after I had arrived in the yard. The excitement of my first ride in a well car forced me into alertness and I soaked up the scenery. Reservation was not much to look at, but the area just east of it piqued my curiosity: that's where I sat for about an hour on my Seattle-Tacoma train before pulling into the yard. In the light of day the area looked different (of course!). The lights of the radio towers were no longer flashing. Near the towers were some abandoned buildings and swamps that I hadn't seen before. The stream next to the tracks was more attractive now than it had been in the dark, and I was able to tell which way it flowed.

The scenery quickly turned into farm land, which bored me to tears, so I laid down again. Train movements induced some swaying and bouncing, but I didn't mind. I was surprised and disappointed by the amount of wind coming from under the container: that 4-inch space let a lot of cold air into the well. Even with my down parka on, my backside was cold (my body weight compressed the parka, lessening its insulating ability). I made a mental note to bring a foam pad on the next ride. Passage through Puyallup, Sumner, and Pacific was characterized by the clanging of bells at grade crossings.

Near Auburn Yard my fatigue took over and I drifted into a sound sleep. I was in another world as I was whisked through Auburn, Kent, Renton, and the south end of Seattle. Just before passing the UP yard at Argo I woke up. When I realized where I was, I cursed the fact that I has slept through Black River Junction, one of my favorite haunts. From Georgetown almost to Balmer Yard I stayed low to avoid the prying eyes of do-gooder citizens. Just before reaching the grade crossing at Pier 70, I thought of phoning my wife on the cell phone, the idea being that she'd be able to hear the crossing bells in the call. However, I realized that there was too much train noise to make it work, so I skipped it.

The train slowly rolled north from Pier 70 on the east siding, which made me think that it wouldn't go into Balmer Yard. I was right: it stopped on the siding, opposite the grain terminal. Time: 0830. To the east was a string of nondescript warehouses, one of which used to house Seattle's first indoor climbing wall: The Vertical Club. A red block signal up ahead held the train in place. I pulled the cell phone out of my pack and phoned home to report my status: I got a busy signal. I waited for a while to see if the red block signal turned to green, allowing the train to move forward into the yard (and closer to my car parked at the northwest end of the yard). It didn't. I phoned home again and left a message saying that "I was back in Seattle and OK." When I saw someone climb down from the units and a white van drive away from the head end of the train, I knew my fate was sealed: this train was going nowhere. It was 0850.

Accepting the situation for what it was, I climbed out of the car and walked north toward the Magnolia Bridge at the south end of the yard. The units, unoccupied, idled away as I passed. Canada geese and other birds were hanging around the tracks, eating spilled grain. One goose was standing on a rail. After passing the grade crossing I went under the bridge, turned right, and followed the sidewalk to 15th Avenue West, passing the messiest collection of transient debris I'd ever seen. Even for one who had seen a lot of ugly industrial scenery in his time, this scene was disgusting. (In summer, 1999, there was little trace of the mess, and signs had been posted to warn off loiterers.)

The remainder of the trek to my car was without incident, but this travel by foot reminded me of how much of the landscape we don't see by going everywhere in automobiles. I stopped for a moment at the Balmer Yard car shop to ogle the railroad cranes parked next to the sidewalk. Ever since I was a kid I have been fascinated by machinery like that. I'd love to watch cranes, etc. in action cleaning up a derailment.

When I got to my car, I cleaned my dirty face with a Kleenex. Then I drove to the Interbay 7-11 store and phoned home again. When my wife answered I told her I was back in Seattle and unscathed by my adventure. I told her the whole story when I got home 40 minutes later. Except for the cold wind blowing into the well from beneath the container, my first ride in a well car had been a success.