Portland to Tacoma

It was 1735 on a July Thursday when I dismounted the Eugene-Portland train opposite the driving range of Eastmoreland Golf Course in Portland. A few golf balls from the driving range were lying on the ballast, having flown over the tall netting at the edge of the range. My plan was to ride city buses across town to Champ Siding and hop a freight there for the ride to Seattle.

The first item of business was to head north to city streets so I could catch a #10 bus eastward. Almost as soon as I started walking along the tracks some commotion in the distance caught my attention. I imagined that some trespassers were being arrested, so I stepped behind tall weeds to observe. It looked as if people were being led to a vehicle and frisked. But somehow all the activity seemed too boisterous to involve an arrest. Eventually the activity settled down and I resumed walking. It turned out that there were no cops, just animated freight hoppers. I greeted them as I passed.


About 50 feet from the side street that runs along the northern border of the golf course, I sat down in a sunny area of tall grass between the golf course fence and the ballast. Here I cleaned myself with baby wipes (great tool!) as golfers teed off about 100 feet away. I wondered how the golfers felt, being so close to "the other side of life." Perhaps they were annoyed that their pleasant game was sullied by the sight of low-lifes close at hand. I concentrated on wiping sweat and dirt from my skin so as to avoid being a social blight on city buses. My train, which had been sitting on the main line all this time, slowly pulled into the yard. A yard switcher moved cars around on another track.

Once clean, I walked around the fence corner and headed east on the street. At the end of the short block I entered a sidewalk that took me to 28th Avenue, passing a stream and a small plowed field behind a house. At 28th Avenue I turned left. Just ahead was a small produce market, where I bought vegetable juice and a cookie. A short walk took me to the first cross-street: Steele. Here I caught a #10 bus that took me east. At 39th Avenue I got off to catch a northbound #75 bus for a ride to the vicinity of Champ Siding. While waiting for my bus connection, I sampled the vegetable juice and discovered that it had an awful peppery taste. Ten minutes later the bus arrived. As I boarded it, the driver kidded me about running away from home. We laughed.

In the Hollywood neighborhood, about half way between Brooklyn and Champ, I threw away the juice and bought a can of V-8 at a Rite-Aid store. Another #75 bus came along in short order; it took me to Columbia Boulevard, just north of the UP's Kenton Line. After getting off the bus I walked east along Columbia, a dirty business arterial with zooming traffic. Every once in a while a jet flew toward the airport about a mile away.


From Columbia Boulevard I turned south onto 52nd Avenue Northeast. This short street runs uphill from Columbia and dead-ends at the crew gate of Champ Siding. A couple of houses sit on the west side of 52nd. A warehouse with a concrete loading dock is the prime attraction on the east side of the street. At the end of the street is a chain-link fence with an unlocked gate. A garbage can sits next to the gate. Grass and weeds grow along the fence. Beyond the gate is UP's Kenton Line main track and beyond that, the siding track. Beyond and slightly above the tracks are non-descript commercial establishments.

Anyway, I sat down on the loading dock, opened the can of V-8 with my Swiss army knife, and poured the contents into a Nalgene bottle. Then I discarded the empty container in the garbage can and walked onto the tracks. As I went through the gate I noticed several pairs of railroad ear plugs hanging on the chain-link fence, their blue and orange colors brightening the dull atmosphere. A crew-less eastbound UP freight sat on the siding (south track), the units idling away.

In my ignorance I thought that locomotives of Seattle-bound trains would stop at the gate for crew changes, so I headed east to find a place where I could inspect trains as they arrived. I went as far as the railroad bridge east of Champ's east switch. Lots of weed-cutting had taken place on the south side of the tracks. The only worthwhile place to wait was in the weeds at the east switch. Here I unfolded my tarp and relaxed. The scanner produced mostly worthless chatter, but at one point a dispatcher told a crew to proceed through Champ's east switch and leave the switch aligned for the siding. By now it was dusk

The formerly idling eastbound train showed up shortly thereafter with headlight blazing, illuminating the nearby vegetation. The brakeman got off, threw the switch and got back on. The train proceeded east. With the switch aligned for the siding, the next train coming from the east would take the siding, probably signifying that it was bound for Seattle. But then I realized that units of Seattle trains would not stop at the 52nd Avenue gate because that would leave the train occupying the east switch and part of the single track main. (I later learned that the units would stop near the 33rd Avenue bridge, where crews can easily be changed from Lombard Street.) I cursed my stupidity, gathered my gear, and headed west on the ballast.


Just after reaching the 42nd Avenue Bridge (over which I had passed on the bus), I heard a westbound train approaching as it slowly rounded the curve behind me. I ducked behind a bush. As the train rumbled by I checked it for ridable cars: I saw two gondolas and a grainer. The train stopped with the units far down the track near a red block signal. I thought that the crew would be changed right away, so I hustled toward the ridable cars. Suddenly I was consumed with the idea that this could be an Albina-bound train merely waiting for the block signal. The only way to figure out what was happening was to ask the crew where the train was headed.

At last I reached the units and looked up at the cab window to talk to the engineer. No one was sitting by the window and there was no sign of moving shadows in the cab. I climbed onto the platform at the front of the lead unit and still could not detect a sign of life. It dawned on me that the crew had left while I was walking down the tracks toward the units. The train was just sitting here, waiting for a fresh crew. This convinced me that it was a Seattle-bound train. I climbed down from the unit, donned my pack, and walked back to inspect the potential rides I had seen.

In short order I was back at the two gondolas I had seen earlier. A quick look inside showed both to be loaded with bundled rebar. The rebar in the first was not stacked so high, providing more vertical room for hanging a hammock. I climbed in and prepared for the ride. There was about an inch between the bottom of the hammock (with me in it) and the top of the rebar. Lying in the hammock was blissful. The only sound was the almost steady drone of light traffic on Lombard about 200 feet to the south. Midnight came and went. I gazed at the cloud cover creeping across the sky: it reflected the orange glow of city lights. The only disturbance was some sprinkles of rain: the tiny rain drops felt good on my face. I began to drift off, then was startled awake by the familiar sounds of air brakes being charged. Shortly thereafter (0130 Friday) I was under way, headed for Seattle.

The route to Peninsula Junction was all industrial on the north side, and more or less residential on the south side. I stood at the front of the gondola watching the scenery pass by, ducking down at crossings. Flange squeal pierced the peaceful night as the train passed through the tight curve at Peninsula Junction, reminding me of the Flange Squeal moniker on the water tower at Black Butte Siding. Just past the junction was a chemical plant of some kind, followed by the Columbia Slough, and a golf course. Just past the golf course the train joined the BNSF main line at North Portland Junction.

In no time at all I was travelling over the Columbia River on a long bridge with lights in the girders. The visual effect was nice. After passing the Amtrak station and long freight yard in Vancouver, I settled down for rest; gentle swaying of the hammock lulled me to sleep. When I woke up about two hours later the train was highballing, zipping past the lights of houses, cars, signs, street lights, and other trains. And this wasn't just quick burst of speed: my train was on a roll, stopping for nothing. I thought of the person responsible for this transportation "miracle": a graveyard shift dispatcher, sitting in a dimly-lit office somewhere - perhaps half-way across the country - ensuring that my train kept moving. I thanked him (or her) telepathically for a job well done. Speed decreased for passage through Chehalis and Centralia, then picked up again.

I dozed off again, waking to unfamiliar topography. I hate not knowing where I am, so I was greatly relieved to finally recognized the bridge over the Nisqually River. Soon I was looking down on sparse traffic on Interstate 5 from the railroad overpass. Other features and places passed in review: Nisqually Delta, Tatsolo Point, the orange lights of McNeil Island, Ketron Island, Steilacoom, Pioneer, and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. I was whisked into the Nelson Bennett Tunnel for passage under the northern part of Tacoma and exited the tunnel crawling. From there to Reservation the train's speed was about five miles per hour. It was starting to get light out.


After passing the railroad sign at Reservation, the train angled left, slowly crossed the Puyallup River, and crept down the main line to UP's Fife Yard. A switching crew was shuffling cars near the yard office at the west end of the yard; there was no other sign of life. My train stopped on the main. A red block signal ahead stared at me. I figured we had to wait for something to get out of the way before we could proceed. Now it was light enough to clearly see things and I watched a man driving his tractor in a field just to the south. I thought to myself that he was an early riser: it was only 0520. I had left Portland just under four hours earlier.

My scanner didn't enlighten me one bit about the waiting. Suddenly the air broke and I started up again: time for switching! As I backed down a yard track I got my gear in order in case I had to dismount and change cars. After movement ceased, a brakeman walked past me toward the units. This shed no light on the situation because I didn't know if he was from my train, and I was reluctant to divulge my presence. There was nothing else going on in this part of the yard, so I should have guessed he was with my train. Live and learn.

A few minutes later the air broke again - ahead of me. Now there was no doubt in my mind about the situation, and I quickly dismounted to find another ride. I walked to the back end of my cut, crossed the track next to the main, and inspected the tail end cars sitting on the main line: nothing but auto racks. From this vantage point I couldn't see what was on the front end. After I went around the tail end of the train I was able to see all the cars on the main line: all of them were auto racks, meaning I didn't have a ride unless the crew picked up something from another track. I headed for the front end, hoping that other cars would be added to the head end. Then, with disbelief, I saw the units reconnect to the cut about 15 cars ahead of me - without additional cars. Being left behind was not an option, so I hustled toward the power.

The train started rolling so I sped up as much as I could, which wasn't much because of the heavy pack on my back. Almost miraculously I reached the trailing unit, grabbed the ladder, and hauled myself up the stairway. Getting through the cab door with my pack on was impossible, so I had to remove it. How I got it and my shoulder bag off on the narrow walkway I still don't know. What a relief it was to get myself and gear into the cab: I was going to make it all the way to Seattle after all! As I closed the cab door behind me, the brakeman appeared in the other side of the cab and said sternly: "We don't allow riding in the units." He was serious. I mumbled something about not wanting to get left behind, grabbed my bags, and climbed down the stairway onto the ballast. The train accelerated quickly; a zillion auto racks rolled by as I pondered my fate.

Feeling sorry for myself, I turned west and started walking down the ballast toward Tacoma, thinking I would get a ride in BNSF's Bay Yard, or "wimp out" and take Amtrak to Seattle. About five minutes later a white truck zoomed eastward in the yard two tracks over, so I laid low on the ballast to avoid being seen by anyone. I thought that the crew that had ejected me had reported me to the bull, and he was on his way to perform an early-Sunday-morning apprehension. I laid low for a while to avoid being seen from either end of the yard. No one appeared, so I continued westward on the south side of the main.


Knowing that I would soon pass the open area near the yard office, I decided to clean myself. I figured that being somewhat clean would work in my favor should I be detained by officials, and it would make me feel more comfortable about riding Amtrak. The grassy embankment next to the main line provided a convenient, secluded place to freshen up. Baby wipes proved their worth again: cleaned my forearms, wrists, hands, face, neck, and armpits. Combed my dirty hair. And my battery-operated razor got rid of facial stubble.

Continued walking west. The white truck zoomed by in the other direction, but the driver couldn't see me. As I passed the open area near the yard office I just kept walking as if I knew what I were doing. The switcher was still doing some work, but no one called me or made any effort to detain me.

At the west end of yard I followed the tracks over the Puyallup River back to Reservation. In twenty minutes I was at the Amtrak station next to Bay Yard. I phoned my wife, who came and got me.