Seattle to Mukilteo and Back

This is the tale of a trip that I was not meant to take. Depression has a way of playing tricks with one's motivation.


It was July of 1999 and I was antsy to do something on the weekend. The only activities that interested me were hiking and freight-hopping. For some reason that eludes me, I settled for hopping a freight. But my heart wasn't in it - I was forcing myself to do something merely because I had wanted to get out of the house.

The destination was to be Wenatchee or Spokane, both on the same (BN) line. Which one I would go to was entirely dependent on my rate of travel. I knew I could get to Wenatchee and back on the weekend: it was about 150 miles away. If train movements were favorable, I might be able to go to Spokane (300 miles away) and back. By the time I got to Wenatchee I'd know if I still had time to continue to Spokane.

But why those destinations? The reason was convenience. I wanted to make this trip as easy as possible and I knew that trains departing Balmer Yard for those cities always left from the same area. And I knew that there was often a stack train leaving in the late evening. This meant that I could probably hop a freight without having to interact with any yard employees. (Ironically, what I actually did was to ride a Canada-bound train north to Mukilteo (about 20 miles away), then return. So much for grand plans.)

I took my time getting ready. Into a small backpack and a shoulder bag went my gear: clothes, food and water, basic toiletries, camera and film for daylight shots, writing materials, and cell phone (for emergency calls to my wife).

During the drive to Balmer Yard, in the Interbay section of Seattle, I experienced a pleasant anticipation: freight hopping had been in my blood since my first ride in 1967. The first thing I did at Interbay was to drive over the Dravus Street Bridge to "scope out" the yard. Wonder of wonders: an eastbound stack train with locomotives was sitting there. Units were on the north end of the train, meaning that it had to go north to Everett, and from there either east or farther north. I had never seen stack trains like that go north past Everett, so it had to going east. My timing was excellent! It was 2215.

I hustled back over the bridge to get some food and cash at the nearby QFC (Quality Food Center) grocery store. Then once again I drove over the Dravus Street Bridge, and parked the car on the west side of the yard. After donning my boots I walked back across the bridge (fourth crossing in 20 minutes) and descended to the yard on the dirt slope under the bridge's east end.


It was fairly dark under the bridge in spite of the illumination provided by the yard lighting and by floodlights from the neighboring baseball field. But stepping out from under the bridge put me in an area that was fairly well illuminated. There I would be easily exposed me to the eyes of anyone walking across the bridge.

I quickly walked the short distance to shadows cast by the tall trees at the edge of the baseball field. There were two people standing on the bridge above, talking. What to do? I stood in the shadows and waited for a while, hoping they'd move on soon. When they left a few minutes later, they gave no indication of having seen me.

Now to find a place to ride. I crossed a few empty tracks, climbed over a garbage train on the easternmost yard track, and climbed over the stack train (my train) next to it. Wanting to ride as far as possible from the units, I walked south in search of a ridable well car.

After going almost to the end of the train I had found nothing ridable and had no inkling that I would. Because I didn't know when the train would leave, I had to assume that it could leave at any minute. There were fewer cars to inspect at the back of the train than at the front, so I figured that I'd have a better chance of finding a car to ride up front. Knowing it would take me a good ten minutes to reach the head end, I started feeling nervous. Nonetheless, I turned around and headed for the front of the train.

About half way back to the Dravus Street Bridge the worst possible thing happened: the train began moving.

Even though it was crawling, there was no way I could run fast enough to reach the part of the train that I wanted to inspect. It just wouldn't work. Thus was eliminated any possibility of inspecting the head end. My only hope now was to find something to ride near the tail end - the part of the train I had dismissed earlier. I asked the gods to keep the train moving slowly so I could hop it on the fly.

I then turned around and hustled toward the tail end of the train. My headlamp lit the way. Soon I realized that it was hopeless: the train had sped up and was now going too fast for me to hop it on the fly. I stood still and watched in horror as two ridable well cars near the tail end rolled by. Damn! The time was 2240.

Since there was nothing else to ride in this part of the yard, I decided to head to the open area of the yard at its north end to see if any switchmen could help me out. I passed two uninhabited units connected to wood chip cars; I doubted that this was going east. Farther north I asked two car knockers about eastbound trains: one of them looked at me and told me I was trespassing. I though to myself, "No kidding, Sherlock!" Thankfully he did not get out his radio and call a bull. The other guy quietly remarked as he passed me that he thought this string was going east.

It had no units, so there was no hurry to find something. The car knockers headed south, inspecting the cut. I let them get ahead of me so I could inspect the cut out of sight of the guy who had just told me off. The only cars worth riding were mineral hoppers with end platforms. At the southern end were three units - so much for the idea that this string was going east. The guys on the units said knew nothing about eastbound trains and cautioned me not to walk around in the open.

Fresh out of ideas, I resigned myself to waiting for another stack train to pull in. So I walked north (again), looking for a boxcar to relax in temporarily. When I found one in a cut I shined my light into it to see what materials were inside: two people were lying there, sleeping. I apologized for disturbing them and started to walk away. They got up and asked me where I was going. I said "northbound," not wanting to reveal my intention to those strangers.

At the north end of yard I asked some switchmen about eastbounds. They were making up a Vancouver, B.C. train that was due to leave in about 20 minutes. I immediately thought of riding this train to Bellingham, about 100 miles north of Seattle. Almost as an afterthought I asked if the train would stop in Bellingham; one of the switchmen said "No, it's too long to stop there." I thought that was a weird response, but maybe the railroad had pledged to the city that it would not block a critical street during switching.

In spite of this announcement, I considered riding it anyway. After all, riding now to Bellingham (or to Blaine, at the Canadian border) would be better than risking an all-night wait in the yard for a ride east. Patience be damned: I wanted to be in motion! Examining the train didn't turn up much, just some grainers, a boxcar with one open door, and empty center-beam lumber cars (no thanks!). I noticed a FRED (Flashing Rear End Device) connected to a car in the middle of the string; the cars in back of it had no air connections. What did this mean? I decided to tell somebody about the FRED, thinking that it had been left there by mistake.

Walked north yet again. The two units of the wood chip train had disconnected from their cars. An engineer was visible in the lead cab. I asked him about the FRED I had seen; he said the train was probably still being assembled. He didn't seem worried about it.

With my mind full of swirling, conflicting thoughts, I returned to the Canada-bound train and hopped onto the rear porch of a grainer I had seen earlier. At this point I was "sort of committed" to riding north. Just then (0200) it started to pull out, changing my status to "committed": another case of good timing! What had become of the air-less cars didn't bother me any more.

To ensure that I wasn't seen while riding through the yard I got inside the cubbyhole. The effectiveness of this was questionable because I left my pack in the grainer's porch, where it could be seen. Any yard worked who took the trouble to inspect the cars as they rolled through the open area at the north end of the yard would have spotted it. The train moved at a walking pace out of the yard and into the ravine at its north end. It didn't stop, so I figured that no one had seen fit to report personal belongings on a grain car.


As the train crawled through the ravine I started to get train clothes out. Frustration alert: I couldn't find my rain pants, which I wanted to wear to keep my jeans clean. I was still fumbling with clothing as I crossed the Ship Canal Bridge, and my rain pants had not surfaced. After passing Golden Gardens Park, the train's speed increased and leveled off at about 30 mph.

I put on my fleece jacket and rain parka and covered my gear with plastic garbage bags to minimize the accumulation of dirt and grime. Suddenly I discovered that my left glove was missing: horrors! I found my rain pants and put them on. Then I found the missing glove under my pack. Why was I having so much trouble with my clothing? I seemed to be retarded on this trip.

Now that I was properly clothed for the dirt and cold air I could relax and enjoy the ride along the shore of Puget Sound. Lights of houses and occasional street lamps passed by as the train sped north. Two or three wharves stood silent in the night. On a small beach people were partying next to a bonfire.


At 0305 the train stopped on one of the large shoreline curves somewhere south of Everett. (After I got home, map study revealed that I was two miles south of Mukilteo.) But why stop here?: there was double track all the way from just north of Balmer Yard to Everett. On the inside of curve was a steep forested hill. Some trees had fallen over, probably during the wet winter of a few years back. I removed my earplugs and dismounted the train.

In the darkness the only lights on land were two faint red lights ahead, probably block signals. Out on Puget Sound I saw what appeared to be a ferry. Below me, water lapped at the rocks of the seawall, making the only sound I heard. It was peaceful. After being there for 20 minutes, I heard the deep rumble of locomotives. A bright light appeared slowly around the bend about a mile ahead: it was a southbound train. Down the line it crept, eerily illuminating my train as it progressed. I was mesmerized.

This reverie was disturbed by worrisome thoughts: Was it the right thing to do to hop this freight? Should I continue? The idea of having to deal with changing trains at the U.S.-Canada border turned me off. What if the southbound train goes by slowly enough to be caught on the fly? What should I do? Why couldn't I be satisfied with anything? Oh, fickle thing, my mind! I got my gear packed just in case I had a chance to get on the southbound train.

A few minutes later, the units went by, still moving at a pace that would allow me to hop aboard. Right behind the units were Boeing airplane fuselages (from Wichita, Kansas); behind them were lots of container stacks. I watched the cars as they calmly rolled past me. The temptation to forego further travel north increased dramatically.

A ridable well car went by and the train stopped. The well car was two cars away. I took this amazing development as a sign that I was meant to ride that train to Seattle. I put my gear next to the edge of the grainer porch, climbed down to the ground, grabbed my gear, and walked to the well car. I placed my pack on the walkway grating and climbed aboard. In an instant I was inside the four-feet-by-eight-feet empty space between the container and the end of the well. Not too long after that the train got under way, headed for Seattle. I was amazed by my good fortune.


The ride back to Balmer Yard was glass-smooth. Down the line I saw a pond between the tracks and the hill: cute houses lined its shore. I remembered this scene from riding past here numerous times in my college days. My yellow Pelikan flashlight went out: the bulb had died. At 0410 the train stopped by Golden Gardens Park and sat there for ten minutes. The park was dead, which given the fact that it was Sunday morning, was no surprise. As I rode over the Ship Canal Bridge, I watched shimmering images of lights reflected on the surface of the canal. It was another scene devoid of human activity. The train passed slowly through the ravine and into the yard.

I dismounted at 0430 while the train was still creeping down one of the yard tracks. Shortly thereafter it stopped. I noticed that the garbage train I saw a few hours earlier was gone, no doubt to fulfill its trash-hauling destiny. An eastbound stack train went by in a flash. A while later another did: I stood between cuts, watching it, hoping that it would slow down so I could climb aboard. It didn't slow down.

Strange as it sounds, I again wanted to ride east, at least as far as Wenatchee. My decision-making ability had as many ups and downs as a roller coaster. What was going on with me? I wandered over to the trees next to the athletic field and laid down to wait for another stack train to appear. Soft voices wafted across the field: some people were sitting on the bleachers, talking. All I could see in the darkness were two glowing cigarettes. Had those people been up all night? Were they lovers expounding on meaningless philosophies? Were they grocery store employees on break? As I continued to wonder about them a mixed freight zoomed through the yard, heading north. It, too, didn't stop. This was a shock: I knew some stack trains did that (because they had been assembled elsewhere in Seattle and had no need to stop here), but I had never seen a manifest do it. I wondered where it was headed and why it didn't stop.

Dawn broke. Seagulls and crows stared appearing in the sky. Gulls landed on the baseball field. A white car drove by me on the yard service road, about 20 feet away. I had no time to hide, so I pretended to be asleep. I'm sure the driver saw me, but the car didn't even slow down as it passed. Canada geese appeared in neat formations. One group made a pass over the field, circled over the freight yard, and then came in for a landing on the field, honking all the while. Cool!

By 0600 the yard was like a cemetery. I couldn't take any more of this insanity, so I drove home, arriving there at 0650.