Eugene to Portland

Walking down a road at 0300 isn't out of the question when you're hopping freights. That's what I was doing on a July Thursday: walking northward in the dark on Northwest Expressway, a four-lane road that runs parallel to the freight yard in Eugene. About 20 minutes earlier I had gotten off a train that I had ridden from Dunsmuir. The ride had taken fourteen hours.

As one might expect, there wasn't much traffic. I turned east onto the exit for Maxwell Road, passed the marsh and church, and turned left onto Maxwell. Just east of the intersection was the Community Market, which at this ungodly hour was closed. In a few moments I was on the Maxwell overpass, checking out the strings of freight cars below. It was too dark to determine if any strings of cars were northbound, so I headed for the yard to investigate further. After backtracking east, then coming back west on the lower (dead-end) road on the north side of Maxwell, I was at the expressway. I crossed it and walked calmly into the unfenced yard, which was as lively as a cemetery.

Crossed a few empty tracks, then climbed over a string of cars and headed north. I saw a carman coming from the north on one of those cute yard tractors. As he approached, I turned on my head lamp to announce my presence. I asked him about waiting for northbound trains: he suggested waiting under the freeway bridge (Belt Line Road) to the north. Resuming my trek northward, I followed the yard service road, looking for signs of the direction of the strings of cars. There weren't many of them and they all seemed to be headed south (flashing rear-end devices were on their north ends). Bummer.

The area under the freeway overpass was not an appealing place to wait: it was in the open and the overpass's embankment was steep and covered with paving bricks. A guy was sleeping on the "bench" under the bridge girders. Traffic on the overpass produced an annoying droning noise. I hated it. However, immediately south of the overpass there was a row of grass and weeds that ran parallel to the yard service road, and that vegetation was sufficient to provide the cover I wanted. The noise of the traffic was still present, but I felt lucky for having found a place to lie low. I spread out my tarp in the grass, directly under a billboard. Three feet to my west was a grassy storage lot, filled with long, high piles of mulch. I laid down and dozed off.

I awoke to the soothing sounds of a front-end loader working on a pile of mulch. Dawn had broken. The loader slowly advanced northward toward my position, methodically turning over the contents of a long pile of mulch. Whenever the loader backed up, it's warning beeper sounded off, acting like an alarm clock. Every time the loader exposed a batch of mulch to the air, a fresh plume of steam rose from the mulch. When the driver was working on the north end of the pile, he was within ten feet of me, but he gave no indication that he had seen me. With the mulch-turning job complete, the operator guided the loader to another part of the yard and began anew.

Eventually a switcher dropped off new strings of cars. Two road units arrived but didn't connect to anything. All I heard on the scanner was communications about yard humping and meets at Cruzatte. I got lax and didn't pay attention for a while. The next time I looked north I noticed that the two units were connected to the westernmost strings of cars. This was my call to action: I got my gear together, crossed to the east side of the train, walked south, and got into the first empty boxcar I found, thinking the train would leave soon.

Wow: hanging up my hammock in this car would be a breeze: perforated metal rails ran horizontally along the inner walls. But the boxcar was a dump: lots of cotton wads that looked like pussy willow pods; some broken glass; a Christmas tree; and two old piles of human excrement. This car would be a dusty nightmare once the train was under way. After getting over my fear-of-the-train's-leaving-at-any-moment, I hopped to the ground to look for another car to ride.

While walking south to find another car, a crew van drove by to the north (my crew!). Now I was motivated to find a car fast. Found an open boxcar that was open only on the east side. The idea of riding in a car with a view to one side only is anathema to me, but I didn't have time to be picky. I hopped in. I consoled myself with the thought that the open east door would allow me to get out in Portland on the side of the tracks facing the golf course - out of view of the yard office in Brooklyn Yard. While an Amtrak train and an intermodal train passed through, I hung my hammock. At 1250 my train got under way, headed for Portland.

The scenery was pretty boring, so I tried to get some sleep. This proved impossible, because the car began to sway vigorously. It was so bad that I couldn't even lie in the hammock! My backpack and shoulder bag shimmied all over the floor. My fate was to stay on my feet and endure the rough ride.

In Albany the train stopped for about 15 minutes. At last: a peaceful respite from the wild ride. I was positioned next to a metal-stamping plant. Every few minutes somebody dropped a load of scrap metal in a steel box, making an awful din. This break in the trip was anything but peaceful!

Farther up the line the tracks passed over several bucolic rivers. I stayed out of the doorway most of the time because for long stretches the rail line was next to roads and highways. Passing through Oregon City, I saw the End of the Oregon Trail Museum. In Clackamas, the train stopped for a few minutes in a small yard. Here I relieved myself while standing in the doorway.

Nearing Brooklyn Yard, the train slowed down, crawling past the golf course's clubhouse and driving range. When it stopped, I was opposite the north end of the driving range. I dismounted. It was 1735; the ride from Eugene had taken four and a half hours. There were a few golf balls on the ballast. A ball-gathering machine was being driven around the range, scooping up balls. The driver was protected by a metal cage. I had to get to Champ Siding to catch a train going to Seattle. I started walking north along the tracks.