Groundhog Day in Elko

It had been nearly a year since my ecstatic daylight ride through the Wind River Canyon of Wyoming. I flew into Salt Lake City, arriving for the first time since 1999. The corruptly won 2002 Winter Games had left behind a light-rail system that I checked out, and the wave of in-fill development prosperity had enriched the previously deserted neighborhood around the two grand old train depots, turning the latter into renovated public spaces surrounded by shopping centers and food courts. Better than the wrecking ball, I guess. I eyed the Wasatch range running beside the city and thought again of my lengthening time on the Least Coast, how it was turning into my personal version of the designated-hitter rule: something that has gone on for too long but need never be embraced.

Finding the shabby present-day depot, I caught the nightly Amtrak out to Elko, Nevada, where I intended to pursue a freight back east to Ogden, Utah, along a fabled freight-only route. Elko is a small town on I-80 that has two tracks heading west and two tracks heading east. Since Union Pacific bought out the perishing Southern Pacific 10 years ago, the UP now has the ability to ship its transcontinental freight on those two tracks, good surge capacity but arguably a waste of resources for many years. My plan was to ride across the Great Salt Lake on a 12-mile-long rock causeway, the longest railroad viaduct in the world. In 1959 the causeway replaced a wooden trestle that had stood in place since 1904. It has not had passenger service since 1983; once again, the car-loving, train-shorting society forces one to become an outlaw to see something.

I arrived in Elko on schedule by Amtrak's standards. There was one 24-hour casino and restaurant, the Red Lion, that I remembered from days gone by. After having a steak at about 5 a.m., I hoofed along the old highway and downhill toward the railroad yard. Hiding in Elko presents a problem, since it is a desert town with no woods. On one side of the tracks, behind barbed wire, somebody farms sand, far as I can tell. On the town side, there is a string of light industrial properties with no more cover for the miscreant. I did what I could by sitting on top of a short hill. There were parked truck trailers blocking view of me from above, and drivers on the road below would have to roll down the window and stare uphill to see me.

At about 8 am, as the sun moved upward and the pounding heat grew, the headlight of the first eastbound popped into view. I watched the entire train cruise by until it stopped for a crew change. There was absolutely nothing ridable - it alternated sealed boxcars and reefer cars that had only open-view decks on the rear, under noisy compressors. Out of desperation, I jumped a reefer car, figuring my earplugs would at least protect me from hearing damage. Of course, it was a vain attempt to ride in the open in this day and age, and it was promptly foiled when a yard worker in a truck saw me. Off I leaped, scaling the barbed-wire fence into the brush (the "sand farm"), while the rail cruised back and forth beside the train to ensure I was no longer on it. Eventually he was satisfied and let the train go, while I watched it in frustration. It was already becoming quite hot and dusty; central Nevada is never a good place to sit without shade.

A second train, a chance for a redo, showed up a few hours later. It was a stack train, which promised speed all down the line to Ogden. Finding a car with a well, I climbed in and lay flat in a crucifixion position that kept anyone on the ground from seeing any part of me through the holes in the walls. Fortunately, the Elko yard has no bridge that a cop can use to stare down into the cars. Things were going swimmingly well, the train was easing out of Elko scrub central, and then my camera fell through a hole onto the tracks.