Laurel to Seattle

By the time I realized the train was headed the wrong way, there was nothing to do except scream and curse. It headed relentlessly eastward for 2 hours, to the mammoth yard in Laurel, MT, that I so wanted to avoid.

I had sought to go WEST, on Montana Rail Link's non-Amtrak route to Spokane. From there I'd transfer to Burlington Northern's mainline over the Cascades to Seattle. This was an inauspicious start.

In Laurel, I strode up to "Tramp" Park, a public space where tramps can catch westbounds over the Bitterroot Range and southbounds to Cheyenne. Within 5 minutes, 2 Laurel cops had written down all our names. Some fool had urinated in public view. Not for the first time, I heard the patronizing tone of cops addressing hoboes.

John, a forty-ish pro, hustled me out of the park. "Those guys are FTRA," he said, pointing to a cluster of hoboes. Having no desire to mingle with the predators of FTRA, I retreated with John to another hideout. It was a grassy depression far from casual view. As the night gathered, we talked about trains and Western scenery. Then, because every conversation with a hobo has a downside, he wheedled $1.45 from me "to make a phone call," and headed for the gas stations.

You feel the rumble before you see the headlight. To my disgust, I was again compelled to catch a moving train in the dark. After a dust-raising, ankle-turning sprint over a lumpy field, I aimed at an empty lumber flatcar.

My first bag landed on the front end, the second bag in the middle. The swaying, creaking car was beginning to outpace me. Lunging at its rear, I had to think, "Does this end HAVE a ladder?" It did, fortunately.

My flatcar had 2 merits: a bulkhead to lean safely against, and a roofless view of a sky so starry that I could practically make out nebulae. Montana is the greatest place on earth.

By 11:30 pm I was back in Livingston, MT, where I'd boarded that first wrong-way train. This is the town where Redford filmed "A River Runs through It." Montana and fly-fishing were glorified by the Maclean novella. But I'd first been attracted, years ago, to Montana by the writings of A.B. Guthrie, Jr. - the Nieman Fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote the screenplay for "Shane," and the trilogy "The Big Sky," "The Way West," and "Fair Land, Fair Land."

The next morning, I reluctantly boarded a coal train for the mountain crossing to Missoula. This was the longest one I'd ever ridden. It had 12 (!) locomotives, spaced in 3 clusters of 4. Because the 12-hour ride was windy and unseasonably cool, hypothermia reared its head. I took the necessary steps, but in an awful slow motion because my hands and brain were turning to taffy.

The days in western Montana were spent madly hiking the Bitterroots; rafting the Yellowstone River; inadvertently finding a nudist hot spring. It's hard to give up a rented car and stalk back into a yard. My stomach knotted.

The Missoula - Spokane run was uneventful. Rain and wind made for a dreary, overcast ride along the Clark Fork River. The train died 6 miles east of downtown Spokane.

I'd earlier resolved to cheat by taking Amtrak 176 miles west to Wenatchee, the next division point (town with a crew change). The immense Spokane yard, fenced and floodlit like a stalag, was too much for a tired, single amateur. Nor did I relish an open-air ride across eastern Washington in the merciless pre-dawn hours.

Thus began the 6-mile urban hike to the downtown Amtrak station. When one street petered out, I switched to another, or even to an abandoned railroad track. The moonscape of warehouses, trucking depots, and vacant lots would have been more enjoyable in a rear-view mirror.

I limped into Spokane station 2 hours later. It was 12:40 a.m.

Catching out in little Wenatchee was easy enough. A high pedestrian bridge over the Columbia River offered a fine view of oncoming trains. In a few weeks, an army of migrants would hobo into town, to pick 15% of the nation's apple crop. I, though, was riding a hotshot west to the Cascades and the 7.9-mile-long Cascade Tunnel under Stevens Pass. It's the longest in North America (I was wrong about the Moffat in Colorado). Seattle lay at the end. We flew over transparent mountain streams, past stands of aspen and poplar that would soon be glorious.

The 2 days in Seattle, spent sleeping at a friend's house, passed painlessly. I felt a sense of completion after 3 summers of chasing scenery. It's time to give up solitary riding; the odds will catch up.

I couldn't help recalling long-ago days, when I watched Conrail freights dashing west through the corn. Or the nights, when I could hear the Illinois Central Gulf westbounds. Some dreams come true.