Seattle to Scenic

Another work week was over and my wife and I had no plans for the weekend. In a situation like this I sometimes get the itch to go scrambling in the mountains or hop a freight. It had been over a year since my previous ride (Seattle to Tacoma) and I was overdue for a railroad fix. On this Friday evening in July of 1997 I decided to do the deed. My destination was to be Wenatchee, Washington, the center of the apple universe. It would be an easy trip because I already knew where in Balmer Yard (Seattle) to wait for eastbound traffic, and Wenatchee wasn't a difficult area to figure out: I figured that I'd get off at the crew change at the Wenatchee Amtrak depot and wait there for a westbound train back to Seattle.

Because it was evening already, I had to hustle to get to BN's Balmer Yard in Seattle before all the late-evening trains departed. I packed my gear in record time. To speed the process I decided to make do with food that was on hand: bagels and trail snacks. This relieved me of the need to visit a grocery store on the way to the yard. But I still had to eat dinner. My wife didn't feel like making anything (and I certainly didn't), so I threw my stuff in the car and drove to downtown Renton to eat at one of my regular lunch spots. The chicken linguini was so-so, definitely not worth the $11. But the Caesar salad was good. At dinner I realized I had forgotten a map, so I drove back home and grabbed my DeLorme Washington Atlas.


At 2210 I parked the car near the west end of the Dravus Street Bridge. Nature threw a wrench into my plans in the form of a sudden, strong need to defecate, so I went to the nearby tavern to relieve myself. Whew. The toilet stall, lacking a door, was a bit intimidating, but I had no choice. Returning to the car, I got my pack and shoulder bag and entered the yard by descending the short embankment south of the car shop. There wasn't much freight on the tracks.

I checked out all the cuts, walking back and forth in the yard a few times. On one track there was a string of cars that included two empty boxcars: one near the engine servicing area and another near the Dravus Street Bridge. The former was clean but the positioning of internal strapping hooks dictated that a hammock would have been too close to the open doors. In addition, a nearby reefer motor was blasting away, creating an unendurable din. The latter had many hanging points for a hammock - and no reefer noise - but was dirty. I couldn't make up my mind which of two to settle into, so I continued my search.

On another track there was a cut that had a rear-end device on its south end, meaning that it was either an inbound train that had just terminated or an eastbound or northbound train that was waiting for power. That wasn't exactly a meaningful narrowing of possibilities. When I asked a worker if anything was headed east tonight, he said he didn't think so. That depressed me, so to feel better I told myself that he must have been ill-informed. There just HAD to be traffic waiting to go east because I was there to ride it.

I was diverted from self-deception by the arrival from the south of an intermodal train pulled by several big units. This stuff was clearly headed east. A complete inspection revealed the train's contents to be loaded well cars without floors (no riding), well cars carrying trailers (no access), spine cars loaded with trailers and containers (no riding), containers on flat cars (desperate riding), and trailers on flat cars (almost desperate riding). On the entire train, the only rides were the trailers on flatcars (TOFC), impressive only for their high "freeze your butt off" factor during night travel.


Thinking that a TOFC was my only hope for a ride east, I got on one and tried to convince myself that this was acceptable. All the walking I had done in the yard had made me sweaty, so the first order of business was to change into dry clothes. I should have been wearing wicking underwear when I entered the yard, but I was in too much of a hurry then to put it on - big mistake. Off came the sweaty cotton undershirt and damp green cotton shirt and on went my polyester turtleneck shirt and polyester long johns (under my blue jeans). Picture me changing clothes while sitting under a truck trailer on a flatcar, head bent over to avoid bumping into the underside of the trailer. It was awkward. To make matters worse, the tracks on both sides of this train were empty and the moon was almost full, so anyone walking or driving past would have seen me. I imagined what it would feel like if a bull drove up and witnessed the activity: not pleasant. But no one ever appeared, allowing my clothes-changing to be completed without interruption or embarrassment. Then I practiced getting under the trailer wheels for hiding while leaving the yard. This reminded me of my dislike for freight car dirt.

Suddenly an eastbound stack train came in from the south, probably having been assembled from containers that had been trans-loaded on the Seattle waterfront. It was on the next track and had rideable well cars. Relief! In a flash I dismounted the TOFC and walked north between the two trains to the first rideable well car. Being the fussy type, I thought I might as well look for a well car with an overhanging upper container, but a quick check of nearby cars revealed no such accommodation. Resigned to this minor twist of fate, I settled into the rear end of the original well car and hung my hammock, one of the "ten essentials" of freight-hopping. (Ear plugs, sturdy boots, leather gloves, and warm clothes are other essentials; beyond that, it's anyone's guess.) As the first light of dawn appeared in the eastern sky I laid down and relaxed, secure in the knowledge that the train would be heading east soon, fulfilling my destiny.


At 0500 the TOFC train - on which I had changed clothes - pulled out of the yard. Twenty minutes later my train started moving. From my reclining position I watched the surroundings move past as I was transported down the track toward the north end of the yard. Only the highest structures were visible from my low position: floodlight towers, the Dravus Street Bridge, the engine servicing facility, and the fuel transloading structures. Then followed another street bridge at the point where the yard narrows into two or three tracks and enters a long cut that runs toward the Lake Washington Ship Canal, about a mile away. Once in the cut, I got up to look at my surroundings and revel in the fact that I was headed to Wenatchee.

Two more street bridges passed over me as I went down the cut, then a pedestrian bridge did the same (this bridge I had walked over many times as a teenager, so it was of special significance). Then around the curve to the right and over the ship canal bridge, from which I had a nice view of the canal, the boats, and the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. My favorite memory of this bridge is from a trip in 1970, when I rode over it on the top level of an auto rack (the final leg of my "Washington Loop" trip).

A half a mile north, past the Ballard neighborhood, was Golden Gardens Park, a Seattle city park on Puget Sound that on nice days is packed with people. On this cold morning at the ungodly hour of 0530 it was deserted, as were the streets and businesses nearby. This marked the end of inhabited areas, so the engineer poured on the speed for the run along Puget Sound to Everett. I saw great blue herons perched on the rocks. Between Ballard and Everett, the double track line lies between Puget Sound on the west and clay bluffs on the east. These clay bluffs are prone to landslides after long periods of rain, and the previous winter had been one of the wettest on record. The route was littered with signs of land slides.

About a mile south of Mukilteo, the site of a huge winter slide that blocked the main line for days, there was still a lot of clay residue on the tracks. The train's passing stirred this up into a huge cloud. I was in a "dust" storm only for about two minutes, but the long, tall cloud lingered over the tracks after I left it behind. At 0620, an hour after leaving Balmer Yard, I arrived in Everett. Since passing Golden Gardens Park I had seen eight great blue herons. As I suspected would happen, the train didn't stop in Everett at all, but merely slowed down to negotiate the curve leading to the downtown tunnel.


The line from Everett goes up the Snohomish River valley on its way to the Cascade Tunnel under Stevens Pass. This agricultural valley was punctuated with large banks of fog. A few miles up-valley the train stopped in fog on the single track, next to some trees and a levee. The fog limited visibility to about 150 feet. Sounds of cattle came from "somewhere." There was no way to determine where I was (but on the return trip I realized that this was just west of Snohomish). The fog chilled me to the bone. To warm myself, I did some knee flexing and put on my remaining cold weather clothing. Then back into the hammock for a nap. Dreamland...

Gentle train movement roused me from my slumber. Being on the move again gave me peace of mind. My solace was short-lived though: the train stopped again (0650), this time on a siding at the west edge of Monroe, only a few miles down the line. A westbound Amtrak train passed. Then my train crawled down the track for ten minutes, coming to a stop 3.5 miles east of Monroe (studying the map allowed me to pinpoint my location). Here I was condemned to remain until 1030! A westbound freight went by. Later an eastbound freight led by three pumpkin units overtook me: that pissed me off.

Then, miraculously, my train started moving! The suspense of wondering if I'd ever make it to Wenatchee was killing me, so I dealt with it by going to sleep again. I woke up in Index, a hamlet on the North Fork Skykomish River and through which the BN line passes in a horseshoe-type curve. The grade crossing bell clanged away as I stood up to take in the scenery (town, river, and mountains). Just past the river bridge the curve tightened a bit, causing the wheels to go into flange squeal mode: yikes! Soon I passed over Highway 2, over another branch of the river, under Highway 2, and into Baring, where the train stopped on the siding. From 1100 to 1130 I sat there, watching cars go by on the highway and gazing at the rugged Mt. Index and Mt. Persis. During this time a westbound manifest, led by three pumpkin units, went by. I felt some sympathy for the dispatcher who had to coordinate train movements on this line, but I cursed the low priority assigned to my train.


A few miles further east, at West Skykomish, the train stopped again (naturally), right next to the swiftly-flowing Skykomish River. I felt warm again. From my vantage point in the well car I saw about six people go downstream in their whitewater kayaks. Two or three of them - one at a time - rested in the eddy of a large boulder. But this pleasant interlude was not to last long: eastward I went again. In the town of Skykomish, where the grade steepens on its way to the Cascade Tunnel, the train barreled through without a hint of slowing down. Onward and upward I went, moving slowly but steadily into the thick evergreen forests. Passing over the Foss River on the tall, curving trestle was a bit spooky: it was a long way down to the river. A mile or two past the trestle I saw a guy sitting in a chair on the north side of the tracks. A camera tripod - less camera - stood next to him. It appeared that he was reading something. I thought about shouting a greeting to him but decided the scene was too cool to disturb.


I had the feeling that all this recent progress was too good to be true, and I was right: at 1330 the train slowed to a stop at Scenic, the final siding before the Cascade Tunnel. At this pace, getting to Wenatchee would probably take another four hours, putting me there at 1730, much later than I wanted. As my train slowed down I decided to forget about going to Wenatchee and catch the first westbound that came through. And wouldn't you know it, a westbound intermodal train appeared just then and went by at a crawl. Perfect timing!

However, my train was still going too fast to dismount. A rider on the westbound was standing in the rear end of an empty well car. He was facing in my direction, but was looking down as he fiddled with his T-shirt, and didn't see me. As we passed each other I watched him, self-absorbed, and wondered how he felt about riding in an empty well car with a small floor at the rear end. To see him eight feet away without his seeing me was surreal.

By the time my train had slowed enough to dismount, the end of the westbound train was about 400 feet down the track and still moving. There was no hope of catching it. Bummer! I hoisted my pack onto my back, draped the strap of my shoulder bag over my shoulder, and climbed down onto the ballast. It was time to turn on the patience and settle in for a wait for the next westbound train to come through, whenever that would be.