San Luis Obispo to Oilfield

Most of us fail most of the time. This year has provided ample personal evidence - besides falling on my face professionally, I ended up riding through much Colorado scenery at night and was dumped in Davis en route to Oakland. To celebrate surviving yet another year of "small victories and large defeats," I considered catching a northbound back to San Jose. There are two north-south routes in central California, one along the Coast Range, one through the San Joaquin Valley. Naturally, I much prefer the former.

My hoboing experiences on the Southern Pacific's Coast Route had been mixed. In 1991 and 1995 I'd caught the Midnight Ghost in San Jose. In 1995 the fast train caught me instead of vice versa, yanking me aboard like a weightless puppet. On both trips I'd had to endure long freezing nights aboard open cars.

This time a Santa Barbara friend flew me to the San Luis Obispo crew change, where we spotted a northbound tanker train sitting beside the Amtrak station. Presumably the cars contained oil, but they could also carry substances that leave the rider more retarded or insane than he already was.

My pilot friend took his leave after I rebuffed his indecent advances. (Just kidding). Noticing that the crew was absent and the signal light red, I staked out various spots and retreated to the usual diversions: talking to myself and having narcissistic daydreams where I always come out on top.

The northbound Coast Starlight was running so late that my long-idle freight took off first, 4 hours after my arrival. As soon as the signal light turned green, the train headed out.

A thousand summers ago, I had been coached to maximize my speed by lengthening stride. Across the bygone years, the old lesson re-asserted itself and I bounded alongside the train before exuberantly swinging aboard (and retracting a foot that slipped through the rungs). Perhaps those gruelling, nearly vomit-inducing afternoons of hill work had not been wasted after all.

I was clinging to the narrow rear deck of my car, where one has to keep one or both hands on the railing at all times. Anxieties and jolts aside, it was another dazzling ride along the majestic, sweeping curves of Cuesta Grade, lit up by yet another ravishing, honey-tinted sunset over the amber hills. I glanced down at the euphemistically named "Men's Colony" north of SLO, my likely future home.

Whenever I tackle an old SP mainline, my thoughts invariably turn to the bad old days of SP's domination: when it owned 11% of California's land mass; when Frank Norris wrote "The Octopus"; when Jack London, A-No. 1 and Loren Eiseley defied the bulls to ride the tops - or, incredibly, the bottoms - of freight cars.

A chilly night replaced the warm and gentle twilight, and in my customary fashion, I exploited opportunities to climb into the last unit. That was when, to my consternation, we backed up into an oilfield and the crew cut off the cars.

Sitting in the third unit and listening to the radio, I recognized that something undesirable was up. Suddenly the engineer's flashlight speared me. After the usual astonishment at finding an unseen guest, he gloated, "You took the wrong train! We're dropping these cars to pick up oil and we're tying down these units for 3 days - then they're all going back to LA." I followed him out of the unit, where the other rails crowed a little too gleefully, "Boy, you took the WRONG train tonight!" They were right; we were conversing somewhere between Paso Robles and King City, only 70 miles out of SLO. I was stranded after dark in an oilfield, cut off by miles of brush and oil tanks from a desolate stretch of 101 where nobody would pick me up anyway. This was one of those experiences, like being stabbed in a non-vital area, that one can survive but would rather avoid.

It took some scrambling, but I eventually secured transportation to Salinas. There I caught the Coast Starlight, which was still running so late that even the oilfield misadventure could not cause me to miss it. For once, Amtrak's chronic lateness was a blessing.

That was it, the end for 1998. Next year I'll probably stick to the cushions - the Skeena Swift, Via Rail's last surviving passenger train across the Canadian Rockies, is calling. Then again...