Portland to Nampa

In his great hobo essay "The Road," Jack London said that you always get turned away from the mansion on the hill, but never from the rudest hut. Which is how I came to be standing over a homeless man's fire in Portland, Oregon. I'd been advised by a certain tramp how to catch out on Union Pacific in Portland: Stay out of the heavily policed Albina switching yard. Instead, sit under the 42nd Street overpass, miles away from the bulls' Chevy Blazers with side-mounted searchlights. That's where UP changes engine crews on trains originating from Seattle.

If you catch out on a hotshot hauling Maersk, APL, and UPS containers, you can coast all the way to Chicago - those cars often have an unused space at one end, large enough to accommodate a hobo. I only wanted to reach Boise, the end of meaningful scenery on this run. On the 450 miles between Portland and Boise, the train runs along the Columbia River Gorge and over the Blue Mountains, through some of the most spectacular terrain in the West.

At 9:45 a.m. on 5 January, after riding Tri-Met bus no. 75 to 42nd Street and Holman, I ventured down to the tracks to wait for a train. It grew dispiriting to sit in the cold, so I poked through the brush on the embankment and found a homeless man's hut. He seemed keen on conversation, so we talked awhile. I was a little puzzled by his homelessness. His superb carpentry skills were evident in his snug, tightly constructed shack, particularly given his lack of quality tools and materials. Out of embarrassment, I periodically turned down his offers of tea, chocolate, and cocoa.

At 11 a.m., an eastbound train dragged to a halt outside the bushes. It was a string of tank cars bound for North Platte, Nebraska. Fair enough. I scrambled to the fourth and last unit and watched the crew change.

Away from police, crews are generally ambivalent about tramps. The new crew and I stared awkwardly at each other. Finally they turned and climbed into the head unit. Interpreting that as approval, I bounded into my engine.

I'd gone hiking and driving in the gorge the previous summer, as well as hoboing on the northern, Washington-side bank of the Columbia (a harrowing 96-mile ride clinging to a ladder). Now, as the UP freight labored along the Oregon side of the Columbia, I stared up at sheer basalt cliffs and frozen waterfalls. A few hours later, the distant snowy ridges took on the twilight glow of the high country.

When roaming the West, one feels torn by admiration for what scenery remains and sorrow for what has been lost. The ferociously unnavigable Columbia that Lewis and Clark saw has been strangled by 14 major dams. Now it supports more windsurfers than salmon. The last untamed stretch of it runs past Hanford nuclear reservation, where nobody intends to go rafting.

The raft-splintering Colorado where Major Powell shot the rapids in 1869 is a memory, along with Glen Canyon, now entombed beneath the obscenely named Lake Powell. Southern California needed water for farming and drinking, and the Northwest craved cheap electricity. So the dams went up.

A crewman crossed the connected gangways back to my unit and struck up a conversation with the words "I never saw you." We conversed about my camping plans for that evening. Appalled by my plans to emulate Sir Robert Scott, he unexpectedly offered to smuggle me into the company's employee hotel.

I couldn't believe my good fortune - the Union Pathetic was putting me up! When we pulled into Hinkle Yard, we all piled into the crew van. The yard was picturesque - snow was falling in a gentle torrent past the floodlights. Hinkle is four miles from any settlement, so most tramps simply ride through it. But I wanted to maximize daylight enjoyment of the Blue Mountains.

With a little help, I'd entered the enemy's lair. In the hotel restaurant, which was exclusively occupied by flannel-shirted railroaders and one flannel-shirted tramp, I talked to a brakeman. He reminisced about his youth, and about how easy it had once been for 18-year-olds to find work. Although he was satisfied by his pay ("great for a high-school graduate"), he heartily disliked the railroad's ownership of his time. "I'm on call 24 hours a day. They give me 90 minutes' notice so I always keep a bag packed. Once I was home for only 28 hours!"

He also explained his retirement quandary. He accumulates 30 years' service at age 57, when he's entitled to a full pension. But the superseding federal regulation prohibits him from drawing any pension till age 62. To retain his claim on his railroad pension, he somehow has to last five years without taking a job or drawing on Social Security (doing the latter automatically strips him of the superior railroad benefits).

"You could work under an assumed name," I suggest. "I already thought of that. With my luck, I'd get caught."

The next day, a helpful yard employee introduced me to the crew of a hotshot, an immense train of fully loaded autoracks and UPS containers. I climbed up into the fourth unit. Manufactured by General Electric, it weighed 391,000 pounds and generated 4,000 horsepower. Not a toy. At times, we were roaring along at 72 mph. On the cab radio, I could hear the engineer and dispatcher discussing the hardships of winter railroading. There'd been a derailment and a broken rail up ahead. It was dumping snow.

We crawled up into the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, a land of steep fir-dotted ridges. A carnival of wildlife paraded past our train: herds of elk, mallards floating down half-frozen streams, pheasants, and bald eagles. I stuck my head out the window and was greeted with a blast of 72-mph snow. It was glorious and too brief, and never to be forgotten.

In LaGrande, another crew change took place. I inwardly said goodbye to this second engineer, a genial sort who had actually come back to my unit to talk about the wildlife. And I silently thanked the yard employee who had deceived the crew-van driver by calling me a "student brakeman" way back in Hinkle. Now, applying a lesson learned on another ride in Colorado, I hid in the locomotive bathroom. The inspector stomped around the cab and, seeing no traces of hobo, left, slamming the door shut behind him.

After LaGrande, the Blue Mountains give way to sagebrush desert. As the weak, winter light faded, the land and sky merged into the same ominous hard-pewter color. The line of horizon disappeared entirely.

What could it have been like for the homesteaders during the Montana winter of 1886? Cattle had literally frozen solid standing in pasture. In January's dusk, the endless space outside radiated menace. So did the many sinuous streams I'd seen that day, all of them black and forbidding in their bottomless cold. It was late when we approached Nampa, 17 miles west of Boise, but the nearest place to town that the train will stop. I prepared to jump.

To my astonishment, the train slowed down not a whit. We roared through Nampa at 30 mph. First I ducked a bull's searchlight, then I struggled with my framepack on the locomotive's slippery gangway, hiding from the yard's all-seeing control tower. The hotshot finally came to a halt several miles out of Nampa.

I trudged two-and-a-half hours back to town along some godforsaken Idaho country road, the framepack as burdensome as a locomotive. I'd gone from the penthouse to the outhouse in a single night. Along the way, I castigated myself for blowing a chance to get a lift: mistaking the crew van for the bull's, I had hidden from it.

There would be other rides from Las Vegas to LA, from Roseville, California, to Eugene, and from Laurel, Montana, to Seattle, Washington, along a non-Amtrak 623-mile route that passes through the filming locations for A River Runs through It, and soars over the great Beartooth Pass, near the northeast entrance for Yellowstone. Along the way, I would traverse the Bitterroot Range, the Cascades, and the Mojave Desert.

And it gets harder to come back every time.