Klamath Falls to Dunsmuir

It was almost too good to be true: I was in Klamath Falls, about to ride "old dirty face" to Dunsmuir. The weather on this June day was beautiful. I was clean, dry, and rested. My travelling companion was none other than North Bank Fred, the man who has ridden this UP line so often that he practically owns it. Except for winning the lottery or being in a threesome with two desirable women who lusted after me, it just couldn't get any better than this.

Earlier in the day Fred and I met at the Maverick Motel after having ridden freights into town: I had come down from Eugene, Fred rode up from Dunsmuir. Now we were about to prove our manhood to the world by riding the UP together to Dunsmuir.


The walk east from the Maverick took us under the tracks. Then we turned right and in about 300 feet reached a non-descript grocery store. At last, I was standing in front of Gino's, the Klamath Falls grocery store that Fred has elevated to the status of shrine. It was much closer to downtown than I had imagined.

Next to the grocery store, in the same building, was Gino's Restaurant. This was a surprise, as I hadn't seen it in the photo that Fred put on the web. Some time I'll have to have some spaghetti there, but on this nice sunny day, I settled for chocolate milk, cookies, and a muffin from the grocery store.

After stocking up we wandered into the bright sunlight outside. Across the street was an open area with some trees, through which one could make out the AMTRAK station and other railroad structures. A subtle breeze blew. Following a brief discussion of strategy we headed north to seek our destiny and test our resolve.


We ended up at the back wall of a building just north of the southern underpass. Leaning against the wall, we faced the embankment of the tracks where a signal bridge stood. This was, Fred told me, one of his regular "waiting rooms." It was well-used. Graffiti covered the painted brick wall. We counted three separate markings for "Gunny USMC 3-95." Either once wasn't enough for Gunny, or there was a moniker for each of his three personalities.

We sat there in the shade, consuming our supplies and discussing freight hopping in general, the chance of catching a train to Dunsmuir, and other, less compelling, subjects. Flowery words and playful exaggeration characterized the conversation. Fred prepared for the trip by consuming a good portion of a bottle of Fairbanks White Port. This bottle had been up and down the coast: filled in California, shipped to Washington, purchased by me in Renton (near Seattle), and carried by me to Klamath Falls on an AMTRAK train, AMTRAK bus, a UP freight, and my legs. Fred's scanner periodically blurted out tidbits of conversation, but I'd don't recall that we heard anything important. His biological clock predicted an imminent train arrival. Sure enough, a southbound train pulled in and stopped with the units almost next to us. We had waited less than an hour.

Fred got up and made a quick visual check to confirm that this train was suitable for our purpose. It was a junker, meaning it probably had ridable cars, likely a loaded gondola or a grainer. In this beautiful weather, either would do nicely, but a gondola would provide better concealment. We donned our packs and walked up the embankment to get close to the beast. As we walked north in search of a ride, the train started moving toward the yard, so we got serious about the task at hand: we panicked and started hoping like hell that we'd find something to ride.


We took a gondola that was only four cars back from the units. It was that or nothing due to the train's acceleration. Fred grabbed the front ladder and I the rear. My ladder didn't go all the way to the top, so getting over the lip was a hassle. I joined Fred at the front of the car. It was full of huge sheets of rusty steel that were almost as long as the gondola itself.

We settled down for passage through the yard, during which we stayed out of sight to avoid encounters with the authorities. The logical way to accomplish this was to sit down on the sheets of steel, which at the forward end made a comfortable seat. Sit down we did. Doing so in the manner we did (immediately and without preparation) was a mistake: we contracted rusty butt disease! Out came the sit pads to prevent further soiling of our manly bottoms. The train stopped just inside the yard and a white pick-up-type truck pulled up next to us on our east side. A guy got out of the truck and walked around, producing that "crunching gravel" sound typical of freight yards. It wasn't Roger the yard bull, but we stayed low and quiet anyway.

We got under way again, going at a snail's pace through the yard. For an interminable length of time we moved back and forth on the tracks. This we assumed to be yard switching, but we weren't going to stand up to confirm it. Eventually we left the yard at the colossal speed of four miles per hour. Once clear of the yard, we both stood up periodically for the view, but I think Fred did so more out of a desire to be a good riding companion than out of a need to see the scenery. After all, he has ridden this line so often that at any point he could probably describe the surroundings in detail just by looking at the tree tops or roofs that are visible from inside a gondola. As our speed increased, so did the wind in the car. I put on a jacket, parka, and cap to stay warm.

Whenever I stood up the wind tried to blow my sit pad around. Fred caught it three times, then said he was done compensating for my stupidity. This shamed me into action: I put pieces of scrap steel on the corners of my sit pad. There must have been about 20 pounds of steel holding the four-ounce foam pad in place. I'm not sure that my reputation was saved, but at least my sit pad stayed put.

Most of the scenery so far had been pretty boring. There's only so much satisfaction to be had from gazing at marshy fields, a nearby state highway, and distant hills. But things perked up a bit at Lake Miller. As we passed over the causeway, I imagined being on the nearby highway in 1996, taking a picture of where we were now. Wonder of wonders, the Sage of the Siskiyou didn't know that this body of water was named Lake Miller. But then, the only reason I knew was from hours of map analysis before the trip. Just after Lake Miller we went through two tunnels that were made warm and smoky by the exhaust of the locomotives. Our bandanna masks helped.


We broke out of the second tunnel into the town of Dorris. As we exited the tunnel, the train pulled with it the cloud of exhaust it had generated: it was a fascinating sight. The cloud quickly dissipated in the clear air. Going through town we laid low to avoid the "wrath of do-gooders." From our steel tub all I saw was a few roofs and the "World's Tallest Flagpole," with its huge flag being rippled by the wind. Seeing this civic monument lulled me into a philosophical reverie. I asked myself penetrating questions such as: How did having the world's tallest flagpole influence daily life in Dorris? How many people have visited the town just to see that phallic wonder? What is the farthest distance anyone has travelled to observe the spire? Has the flag pole "stolen" interest away from the town's other cultural attractions? If a strong wind toppled the thing, would the town be eligible for disaster relief funds? This pattern of thought consumed me for as long as the pole and flag were in view - about five seconds.

A few miles south of Dorris I recognized the stretch of highway where, in 1996, I had my first encounter with "wake-up grooves" on a road. On that trip I had pulled onto the highway's shoulder to watch some birds, and the grooves vibrated the car with an intensity that nearly shook the fillings out of my teeth. Sweet memories...

Macdoel came and went in a flash. People were picking crops in a field: it looked like lonely, boring work. At Mt. Hebron, we admired the simple but pleasing architecture of the railroad house with yellowish clapboard siding. I pointed out to Fred the barely discernible signs of the old wye at the south end of the siding (east side; shown in the DeLorme Northern California atlas, page 27). Due to our speed, there wasn't time to look closely. Here, two years earlier, I had stood in the road near the grade crossing and watched some hawks soar on thermals.


At Kegg Siding we slowed down as the units strained to climb the steeper gradient. During the ascent, Fred pointed out the wooden "tower" at an abandoned ranch from which he once gazed upon the surroundings. He had been riding a northbound train that had stopped at Kegg for a meet. The crew members, bless them, told Fred they'd be delayed there for a spell, giving him plenty of time to explore.

The dark red rock of Kegg quarry on the west side of the tracks (southeast slope of Mt. Hebron) caught my eye. At the top of the siding we stopped for a meet. This was the first of only two stops between Klamath Falls and Dunsmuir (the other was at Azalea). A northbound train went by, descending the grade. As our train renewed its slog up the hill, I watched the rear end of the other train coast through the curve below. It was a lyrical moment. Our speed picked up as we crested the grade at Bray. Here I noticed that the two abandoned farm structures on the north side of the tracks were gone. They were there in the spring of 1996. Their absence saddened me.


When Fred and I met in Klamath Falls it was clear from the start that we were birds of the same conversational feather. This is a polite way of saying that we liked to bullshit each other with feigned sophisticated talk. Every chance we got, we'd use humor and exaggeration to make a point or just to have fun. At Penoyar it got way out of hand, even though it was brief. I initiated it by bringing up the subject of the "occupation of space."

What brought this on was my recollection of having driven along Tennant Road (the road that crosses the tracks here) in 1996, thereby occupying a continuum of space above the pavement. Fred also claimed to have occupied the same space once, but his consumption of Fairbanks White Port earlier in the day cast doubts on any such claim. As we discussed this weighty topic we were actually occupying another continuum of space: above the railroad tracks. To illustrate what I'm talking about, imagine that you're standing by a street and a car goes by. The driver of that car occupies a certain amount of space as the car goes by. The same thing holds true for any moving object, including trains. It's akin to the effect of a photographic time exposure: a moving body leaves an image of its passage. So in 1996, when I drove down Tennant Road, my body created a path about two feet above the road.

Anyway, I was rambling on about the continuum of space I had created in 1996 and explaining how he and I were now creating two more of the same, although ours were above the track. At the Penoyar grade crossing, the three continuums (continua?) intersected: our freight train paths crossed over my driving path of 1996. I could clearly see that if a person were to stand in the middle of the grade crossing (of course with no road and rail traffic present), looking down the track, there would be two space continuums running above the tracks. Beautiful! As I recall, Fred either had trouble with the concept or thought it wasn't worth the effort to imagine. I'll be generous to myself and ascribe his attitude to being under the influence of White Port.

Past Grass Lake Summit, Fred pointed out the old railroad grade to the west. The glorious scenery surrounding Mt. Shasta opened up before us, although the top of Mt. Shasta was obscured by clouds. The long downhill route skirted the lower flanks of the volcano, cutting through minor ridges here and there. The ridges bisected by the railroad are mostly lava flows that came out of Mt. Shasta ages ago. Trying to picture the movement of such a mass of material is mind-boggling: the snout of one of these towers over Highway 97. This area is depicted on the topographic maps USGS Juniper Flat and USGS Hotlum and in aerial photos in John Shelton's book "Geology Illustrated."


I was excited at Black Butte Siding because it was one of places I had come a zillion miles to see. Watching the scenery go by brought alive some of the photographs Fred had posted on the web. It was exciting too because I had seen it two years earlier from atop Black Butte, its namesake. But I had little time to enjoy it now: we zoomed through. At the south end of the siding the two tracks are separated by a small hill that doesn't appear on the USGS topographic map: terrain surprise!

We laid low while passing over Interstate 5: who knows when a driver will see people on a freight train and call the cops? (I learned about do-gooders the hard way when I was pulled off a train in Everett, Washington by a cop who said a woman had reported seeing two "twelve-year-olds" on a freight train. I was 21 at the time. The cop made me and my companion finish the trip on a Greyhound bus: what an indignity.) We laid low through the town of Mt. Shasta too.


The train came to a stop at the north end of Azalea Siding. We figured that this was our last chance to change cars. Ever since we got aboard in Klamath Falls, we had hoped to be able to move to a car farther back in the train to lessen the chance of being seen when we got off in Dunsmuir. As in Klamath Falls, I used nylon cord to lower my humongous pack to the ballast. The process was "poetry in physics." After dismounting our rust bucket we walked upgrade on the slanting ballast, which threatened our balance. A grainer twelve cars back was just what the doctor ordered, so we climbed aboard and settled in on the rear porch.

From here to Dunsmuir we basked in the joy of not having to hide from view. As we travelled through Cantara Loop I compared what I saw with images from the maps I had studied beforehand. The rate at which we lost elevation was impressive. This gave me a better appreciation for railroad engineering.


I had hoped to see the remnants of "The Rock" at Small. "The Rock" was a huge boulder that came loose from a cliff and slid down the steep hill, wiping out a bunch of trees in the process, ending up on the siding at Small. Fred showed me what was left of it as we rumbled by: the once-mighty mass was now just a pile of large rocks next to the tracks. Railroad crews had blasted it into small pieces.

Another site I was eager to see was where a derailment occurred several years ago, causing a toxic chemical spill that killed all the fish in the Sacramento River. It was big news at the time. My trusted companion was kind enough to point to the very spot where the tank car fell into the river. There was no sign of the tragedy. Now whenever I look at that area on the topo I can "see" the landscape in my head. That's part of my fascination with geography and spatial awareness. (Note in 2004: Fred's web site has pictures of the reinforcement that has been installed at that location.)

The train rolled downgrade in the canyon of the Sacramento River. We passed two guys hiking on the ballast. A moment after we passed them Fred realized that they were friends of his, so he waved and yelled at them. Then we got a glimpse of Mossbrae Falls, one of Dunsmuir's scenic attractions; it was visible through the trees for only a moment.


Dunsmuir at last! We came to a stop just uphill from the arched concrete bridge of Interstate 5. Here we dismounted. Upon removal of our earplugs we could once again experience sounds other than the dark, constant rumbling of a train.

To celebrate our momentous arrival we took pictures of each other standing next to the train. Then we walked to the front of the train, crossed the tracks, waved at the engineer, and walked up the steep, tree-shrouded street to the city proper. What a sight we must have been. The time was 2030.

We then continued on the back streets to Fred's truck, which was parked near the AMTRAK station. After throwing our gear in the truck we drove away, headed for Casa del Fred, a place where I would come to understand the deep philosophical meaning of sleeping on a ThermaRest mattress on a concrete slab next to lawn mowers and an upside-down spa. What a trip!