Belen to Barstow (1996)

Barstow, CA, midway between Vegas and LA, is the hottest yard of the hottest Western railroad, the Santa Fe. I dreaded this test.

I'd been softened up by 9 days of conventional rental-car tourism. Now my goal was to return home through the Santa Fe yards in Belen, NM - Winslow, AZ - Needles, CA - Barstow, CA - Richmond, CA. There's a BART station in the last town.

I slept in a vacant lot in Belen, a town whose infrastructure level seems more Mexican than New Mexican. A pleasant morning walk down a dirt road, with sunlight breaking through the cottonwoods, led me to a sufficiently distant pasture. I crossed it and caught a westbound that was (relatively) slowly entering the local yard.

Hiding abjectly from the cruising bulls, I noticed an eerie and scary trait of Santa Fe yards: there is no evidence of hoboes, no living tramps and no old clothing, bottles, or flaps of cardboard for sleeping. In part, it is the offseason. It's also proof that the company's war on hoboes has never ceased.

My train was dead. A parallel one began to move out. Seeing no bulls, I leaped into the chase. In an adrenalin-fueled fit, I hurled my framepack aboard, one-handed, like a baseball and scrambled on.

Now I had to get to the front end, where the truck tires provided cover from the last bull's checkpoint. With movie escape scenes playing in my head, I crawled frantically forward, dragging the hated pack. Maybe 10 seconds after I bent gasping over the truck axle, we passed sitting bull.

Winslow the next morning was a colossal pain. Trains will go either to Phoenix or to California, and there is no way to tell them apart. The wye is 88 miles away, so you cannot easily abort your trip when you do find out.

It was my luck to get a Phoenix train. Twenty-three miles after it split off for Phoenix, it halted at Ash Fork, where I caught an eastbound back to Winslow. I had spent the day travelling 200+ miles without an inch of progress to California. To execute this problem, I rode Amtrak to Needles, CA, the next yard. I slept in the desert sands.

The ride to Barstow, which was punctuated with endless views and austere mesas, filled me with proper misgivings. I wanted to jump off in town, but my train zipped into the yard at high speed. This tactic repels all boarders while trapping those already aboard.

After a few hours of thrashing around the impregnable yard, I had been evicted twice by the same bull. He was a rare good-natured one, who did not use the 2nd sighting as grounds for arrest. But he made clear that any 3rd sighting would be.

How can anybody catch out of Barstow? The yard had multiple bulls, who cruised ceaselessly. Instead of lying in the middle of town, with public property as sanctuary on both sides, it lies on 1 side of town. The sanctuary side looks to be 20-30 tracks away. The other side is all railroad property, tracks, paved road, windbreak, dirt road, and desert. All of it.

Rashly, I was hunkered in a westbound train, but had to find out if it was for LA or Richmond. I had become absolutely invisible because any properly indoctrinated Santa Fe rail would betray me. To my torment, I overheard that the parallel train was Richmond-bound. Tragically, the nearest boardable cars were only 4 cars behind the units, where the engineer's outline was visible. Now that I had no margin of tolerance in the yard, I could not take the chance of crossing over and being seen or heard. I had to wait until there was distance between me and the units.

The train jerked forward. I waited some more, wisely, because soon the bull's Bronco came ripping through between our trains. He wanted to inspect the cars on the fly and then take up a surveillance position at the head. After he was far enough gone, I ran after a grain car.

It was accelerating. I threw my framepack aboard, but heartbreakingly, it landed on edge rather than flat and fell onto the ground. By the time I retrieved it, the train had picked up 2-3 mph, enough to reduce me to selling pencils for a living if I grabbed a ladder. Oh, that was the ballgame. I returned to my hiding place on the other train, which 1 mile out proved itself to be LA-bound.

It is a victory if you catch *anything* out of Barstow. However, I had no interest in LA. It would be a peculiar deliverance to be dropped off in LA's gangbanger-land on a Saturday night. Given an opportunity, I bailed out and walked back to the Greyhound station a beaten man. Failure is all the more painful when you have come so close.

I spent the evening watching the zealous bulls lovingly paint the incoming trains with their searchlights and slept in the bus station. Since then, I have been haunted by the sight of my pack teetering and falling off the car. Bill Buckner must think about the ground ball through his legs in the 1986 World Series too. Coulda woulda shoulda. That and $10 will get you a cup of coffee in New York.

In a more optimistic light, I had done not so badly. The bulls in Belen, Winslow, and Needles were alert sorts, and I'd caught trains in those towns. In Barstow, despite a blistering day of being hazed by a bull, running low on food and water, and laboring under the fear of sure arrest if caught again, I had missed a Richmond train by a hair. If I had not voluntarily rejected the opportunity, I could have cruised with impunity into LA. For an infrequent rider and a Barstow first-timer, such a day is not irredeemable. I learned a few things about the yard's layout along the way.

"No more Santa Fe trains for you," the bull said the last time he saw me. That's what he thinks.