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Scenic to Seattle

 

It was about 1340 on a sunny July Saturday in 1997. I was at Scenic, the siding just outside the west portal of BN's Cascade Tunnel in Washington State. Next to me was the eastbound stack train that I had just dismounted after an eight-hour ride from Seattle. I had boarded the train with the intention of riding it to Wenatchee, but the rate of travel from Seattle was so bad that I had given up on going beyond Scenic. My new plan was to wait here for a westbound freight to take me back to Seattle.

I stepped out of the cool shadow of the stacks into the hot sun and crossed the main line. Inside my pack were the sweaty clothes from my late-night exploration of Balmer Yard in Seattle. This seemed the perfect time to dry them out. After swapping my stocking cap for a sun hat, I draped my damp shirts on a bush. Then I combed my hair, ate a Power Bar, drank some water, and surveyed the scene. This was the first time I had seen this stretch of track in daylight, and the steepness of the grade surprised me. The only noises were the rustling of leaves by the breeze and the sounds of the stack train leaving for points east.

 

RELAXING
The bright sun and hot wind did their work: in 25 minutes my shirts were dry. Next on my agenda was to find a shady place in which to relax while waiting for a westbound train, so I started hiking east (upgrade). About 400 feet west of the grade crossing at Scenic I found shade under small firs on the south side of the tracks. About 100 feet away through the trees was a dirt road where cars and hikers occasionally went by. It was a peaceful place. I laid down and almost fell asleep.

At 1500 an eastbound intermodal train stopped on the siding, not more than 15 feet from me. Ho-hum. The it dawned on me: its stopping meant that a westbound train was in the tunnel! This realization motivated me to get my gear ready so I'd be prepared to hop aboard the westbound as it rolled through Scenic. A few minutes later the westbound popped out of the tunnel. As it passed through the curve ahead of me I could see that it was moving aggressively. It turned out to be nothing but coal cars: Disappointment City!

In this state of sadness my thoughts turned again to riding to Wenatchee. For some weird reason I was possessed with the notion that any movement was better than none, even if it meant going to Wenatchee, resulting in my arrival in Seattle mid-day tomorrow (Sunday). The eastbound train was still sitting on the siding, waiting for the westbound coal train to clear the east switch. A voice in my head whispered "Go to Wenatchee." In response I grabbed my bags and walked westward on the ballast, looking for a rideable car. Near the point where I had dismounted my original train, I found a good well car and climbed in the rear end.

The weather was great. No bulls were about. I was guaranteed a comfortable ride to Wenatchee. But something didn't feel right. The voice in my head said "Going to Wenatchee isn't such a good idea after all." It was as if a demon were controlling me. Just as the train started moving toward the tunnel I dismounted. I stood next to the track as if in a trance, watching the stacks roll by. The sun beat down on me, eventually cooking the trance out of me. I sought shade again. When I found some nearby I sat down, cleaned my face with baby wipes, and ate a bagel. Ants were running all over this spot - even on me - so I returned to my original shade spot under the firs and laid down. Then, believe it or not, I felt stupid for not taking either eastbound train to Wenatchee. Man, was I on a mental roller coaster!

At 1620 another westbound train came out of the tunnel and went by at a pretty good clip. It was a long train of auto racks up front and well cars in back. I kept watching it, hoping it would slow down enough to allow me to catch it on the fly. It just kept coming and coming and not slowing down. Then, out of the blue, it began to decelerate. Pay dirt! I got to my feet in a flash and started hiking west toward a TTX well car I had seen go by. The train continued to lose speed. I trotted now and then. The end of the train passed me and it was still slowing down. I kept moving, full of hope. Miraculously, the train came to a full stop with the rear end about 100 feet away. Not wanting to take any chances, I kept up my aggressive pace. I reached the rear end (a well car with no floor) and kept going toward the rideable well car up ahead. About 30 seconds after the train stopped I caught up with the well car. At the very moment that I put my bags on the car's grated walkway the train started moving. Talk about good timing! The train had been motionless less than a minute. I climbed aboard and thanked my lucky stars for having the sense to hustle after this ride.

 

DEPARTED SCENIC
Oh sweet delight - on the move once more. The hammock went up quickly but I was too busy watching scenery (mostly woods) to use it. It felt good to be homeward bound. East of the trestle over the Foss River I again saw "lawn chair man." This was a man, siting in a lawn chair next to the tracks, whom I had seen earlier in the day on my ride from Seattle to Scenic. I said "Good afternoon" to him. He looked up, smiled, but said nothing. It was a nice encounter.

Then I got my camera out, regretting that I had not taken any pictures. The action at Scenic had been worth some shots. I took several pictures near Index, with rugged mountains in the background. The train just kept moving, making up for the awful pace of my ride from Seattle. Near Snohomish, I recognized the field from which I had heard the sounds of cattle on that eastbound trip. Without the morning fog obscuring everything, the cattle were plainly visible north of the tracks.

 

LOWELL
In the little town of Lowell, on the southeast side of Everett, the train stopped for the first time since departing Scenic. It was 1845, a little over 2 hours after I had hopped aboard. The dispatcher was on my side this time! An eastbound Amtrak train pulled up on the main and stopped. When I saw it coming I crouched down in the well so the crew and passengers wouldn't see me. I was wearing my ear plugs, so I didn't hear the Amtrak train leave. After what seemed like a long time, I slowly peered out to check on the train, and it was gone! I wondered how long I had stayed down for naught.

I set up my camera and took a self-portrait. Just then a young couple with a dog approached on foot from the north and got on the front end of my car. The couple looked a bit scruffy but their little dog was cute. An eastbound freight rolled in and stopped on the neighboring track with the engines way down the line. Remembering the awful dust storm I had experienced on my eastbound ride, I though I should warn the couple for the sake of their dog. So I wandered up to the front of my car and told them about it, but they seemed a bit confused. It turned out that they thought this train was headed for Minneapolis. Convincing them of the truth was a challenge, but they eventually accepted my explanation. What a sight they were: both of them had a zillion piercings: nose, lips, eyebrows, and tongues. It was gross. Their cute little dog was wearing a black leather body harness decorated with studs. I imagined the harness came in handy when they lifted him onto a freight car or lowered him to the ground.

They and their dog hit the ballast to look for a ride on the eastbound. But by then it was too late: the eastbound train started up a few seconds later and rolled away without them. I suggested that they ride my train to Seattle and catch another eastbound there. That's what they did. We left Lowell at 1915.

From Lowell the line went north a couple of miles to Everett, where it curved west and went through a tunnel. Going through tunnels is fun: the darkness is eerie and the transition from darkness to light can be dramatic. Going west through this tunnel was nice, but also a bit frustrating because upon exiting it I had to stay low while passing the Amtrak station.

 

ALONG PUGET SOUND
Past the Amtrak station the track gently descended to Everett Junction, about half a mile away, then ran level along Puget Sound (an inland body of salt water) all the way to Seattle. The ride along Puget Sound was fast and pleasurable. I observed people at the tidewater beaches here and there. And surprise: no dust storm materialized near Mukilteo. I didn't understand how that could be, but I wasn't complaining. At Ballard, about a mile away from Balmer Yard, the train stopped and the "pierced pair" and harnessed dog dismounted so they "wouldn't have to bother with 'South Seattle'." I bid them adieu.

In a minute I was in motion again. I scanned the top of the minor bluff here, looking for the end-of-street "track-viewing area" described earlier by my friend Kelly, who lives a block away from these tracks. Alas, my efforts were in vain - I didn't see it. Then my thoughts turned to security, causing me to get down for passage over the ship canal bridge. When my car was in the curve just south of the bridge the train stopped again. Two young men with small rucksacks walked by on the ballast. We chatted a bit about riding. They seemed woefully ignorant of the proper techniques. Again the train moved forward, then stopped. It started up once again, then slowly moved into the yard.

 

BALMER YARD
As I was gently transported down one of the yard tracks I dismounted on the fly opposite the engine servicing area. It was 2030. My train continued quietly deeper into the yard. I climbed over a string of cars and walked to the dirt embankment under the Dravus Street bridge. A railroad company truck with red and blue lights flashing (a welcoming committee?) approached from the south, but was so far away that I was in no danger of being apprehended. Up the dirt embankment I went, coming out on the sidewalk of Dravus Street.

I crossed the bridge, went to my car, and changed into my sneakers for the drive home. Then I phoned home from a gas station, but the line was busy. Maybe my wife was surfing the net. It was 2130 when I got home. Even though I had not gone all the way to Wenatchee, I was a happy puppy.