The serpentine rail grabs a stairway of valleys down to the desert floor. The tunnels cease on one step, the snow-sheds on the next, and the Juniper pines fade lower on. The last stage is a long bend of the rail where the couplers finally stretch and brakes silence. The freight slithers like a coughing snake out the Sierra foothills, straightens and empties us into the Great Basin Desert.
The train breaks a thermal wall on the desert floor and cuts directly and flat to the eastern horizon. Air burns our elastic lungs and sweat drips from two-day grizzled chins to the sizzling platforms. The Great Basin Desert is the largest in the USA. It covers 200,000 square miles bounded by the Sierra Nevada on the west and the Rocky Mountains on the east. Over the miles and hours, we discover that the dry expanse is actually a honeycomb of smaller basins divided by north-south mountains - all falling between the grand ranges of the Sierra Nevada and Rockies.
The freight runs up a 1000" divider, swoops into a ten-mile wide shallow, followed by another range and basin. The repetition and midday glare are finally cut in the east by a civilization sprawling like a spider on a white trap. "Reno!" Pronto shouts standing next to me into the radio. The pair a car back hoorays. The freight slides at 5mph through that gamblers' paradise and on into the Sparks Yard at the east city edge, and parks on the main before the control tower. The other two execs trudge forward from their rear graincar like desiccated cowboys after a long drive, and we join them sheltered from the tower eye between our train and a string on the adjacent track. In the next few minutes, before the crew changes and the freight rolls, we must decide the next move.
"Our options are to press on, or to rest a couple hours here before the next through train. Let's put it to a vote," I suggest. "Stick with the sure ride." Wiz casts first. Apple likewise points to our freight. Pronto nods. "All right," I say, "Conserve your water because it's at least eight hours and 100-degrees to the next division town."
Abruptly, the crunch of ballast on the far side of our train halts our chat. A brakie, or brakeman, stops, stoops and shouts "Hallo!" under our graincar. I hunker down for a look back. Brakies and switchies, or switchmen, in western RR yards, are regularly cheery to earnest tramps. "Gents," exhorts the man in a hardhat, "This tail gets shuffled before she pulls out. The last six cars get cut and a new dozen added. Be quick to find a ride because I hear the "hog" (work engine) coming." He rises as we shoulder our packs, uncouples and cuts the brakeline, and the huffing hog latches the string including our car and transfers it to an inner rail for storage. Soon the yard engine chugs back with the new string of black oil tankers, plus a solitary cement car hooked on the tail like a stinger. This silver curved-hopper takes on cement or dry chemicals through roofs hatches, empties out the bottom, and has front and rear steel porches like the graincar for hobos. On quick examination, both end platforms are dusty and the interior rooms floorless and useless.
Pronto kicks the concave hopper to receive a hollow twang and grimaces, "Empty! But there's no other." So he and I scale the front porch ladder while Wiz and Apple mount the rear even as the grinning brakie adjoins the brakeline and couples. "Hellofa ride!" he groans, and crunches off shaking his hardhat. Soon the airbrakes hiss in filling, an electric click tests them from the lead a half-mile ahead to our last car, and the freight plunges forth into the desert.
Our carrier is Union Pacific, the largest American railroad. Its route map in our Rand McNally Railroad Atlas covers most of the western and central USA. The company runs about 100,000 cars on 30,000 of mainline track hauling consumer goods, coal, chemicals, lumber, aggregates, grain and other commodities. Reno-Sparks is the principal division point and building yard on the western margin of the Great Basin. The exec's eastern goal is across Nevada and Utah to the Great Salt Lake, and beyond to the Rockies.
The big hurdle is not the heat but the empty cement car we occupy. It rests high on the springs and bounces crazily along the rail. This car at the tail end also whips side-to-side. It's the most teeth rattling ride at 50mph in hobo history. The freight sides hourly, to our great relief, and we jump eagerly to the hot grit to chew beef jerky and the fat.
At one in the endless ligament of sidings, I distribute a short hobo library to the execs including The Freighthopper's Manual for North America (Daniel Leen), Bound for Glory (Woody Guthrie), Riding the Rails (Michael Mathers), A Guide to Division Points (Norton), and Hobo Life in America that was my college class training manual. In every direction, silent and white, extends the desert.
The engineer in the lead unit must know of passengers since he kind-heatedly toots for us to board after each priority train passes. Then the couplers tighten, the cars lunge and the freight pulls east, now into the desert twilight. This cool blessing rocks the executives fast to sleep for the night.
Sunrise hits Pronto and me hard in the faces on the twitching front porch. We rig a shade from tablecloths and resolve to ride the day out. This track runs 600 miles between Reno and Salt Lake City but our pokey freight with frequent sidings and car drops could take 30-hours, as opposed to a third that time on a hotshot.
Pronto stands on the top rung of the moving ladder to find his land legs after the night's sleep. Already sweat lusters his forehead. He sighs and jumps back onto the porch, a dusty cartoon in a black head bandana with bug yellow goggles against the desert glare. Now he slips them up to reveal raccoon eyes over cracked lips, smiles and crackles, "If it's Nevada, it must be red."
I squint into our Security Chief's blue eyes questioning his mind. He plucks a freshly-pressed red bandana from his pack and replaces the blue one, wearing a dry smile beneath. "I researched the FTRA (Freight Train Riders of America) before we left and matched the regional gang colors with our route. One of us might as well blend in with any hot-headed gangs we encounter." The Freight Train Riders of America is an exaggerated mob of men who use the rails to move about the country. The FTRA allegedly color-codes their regional factions with bandanas seen in yards, boxcars and jungles - hobohemia. The media and bulls inflate the FTRA, and I personally see more color-coded bandanas in an hour sub-teaching at the Blythe, Ca. high school.
The optimal party size to ride the rails is two people: one fetches info or supplies while the other guards the gear, plus there is companionship and mutual protection. Yet, seasoned hobos more often travel alone as "lone wolfs", knowing that a single traveler evades the bull and blends into division point towns better than a pair. Enlarging the party, a tramp triad creates continuing inefficiencies including boarding and dismounting a car, and cramming into a hopper's interior room. A group of four is normally out of the question unless the team splits, as we have, and rides with radios and well thought contingency plans.
At this fiery passage, we would almost welcome a tiny calamity to break the white monotony. Our freight goes "in the hole" - onto a desert sidetrack - every thirty minutes. These periodic mile-long sidings branch from the single main, run a parallel mile, and there our freight pauses with heated units to wait out a priority train to overtake or pass from the opposite way. On the priority scale, Amtrak is the highest, container cars and piggybacks (boxes and semi-truck vans) next, and miserable mixed-freights like ours fall last. The repeated few-minute breaks on the farm for passing trains allow the execs to vault to the grit, exercise the legs, and converse a bit until the priority train clears. Then our apathetic freight reenters the mainline to poke along.
On the second day, in such a dry hole of the Great Basin, Wiz radios us that his timetable predicts an Amtrak is about to barrel through. Astonishingly, it never appears. So we convene at the next siding where he turns his nose up from the page and asserts, "The timetable is always accurate for Amtrak. The only other reality is that we're lost." Can a train on a track get lost?" asks Apple. "No," I answer, "but tramps can." "Maybe the track branched as we slept in the night," wonders Pronto. Wiz consults the RR Atlas and confirms a fork in the rail behind us near the Nevada-Utah border. We had expected to climb out the Great Basin at Salt Lake City, but now our GPS receiver pinpoints us on a rail bent north and coursing to Ogden, fifty miles north of Salt Lake City.
There are four west-east major rails commensurate to the great auto Interstates of this country: two iron roads run the northern latitudes from the Pacific to Great Lakes, our historic first transcontinental rail carries us from Sacramento via Ogden to Omaha, and the former Southern Pacific track I used to ride to Texas for Christmas goes Los Angeles to Dallas. As with auto super-highways, the RR mainlines are bolstered by a gridiron of lesser rails. Hobos traffic mostly west of the Mississippi River on the four main trunks.
The old-fashioned way to determine location en travel is to scrutinize the rail mileage markers and crossing names, highway signs, towns or simply to walk forward during a siding to ask the engine crew. That's too far today with no feasibly ride along the string if the freight jump starts. Instead, Wiz reaches again into his packful of gadgets. He has pre-programmed the scanner using The Compendium of American RR Frequencies with every frequency along our projected odessy. But, he implores us to keep our eyes peeled, "The scanner and frequency guide are useless without a town name."
We ascend the ladders as the freight jerks east somewhere near the Nevada-Utah border to scan all horizons for geographic clues. The fantasy is soon to roll into a "division point" and decide the next move. A train runs for twelve hours maximum by law, and then a new crew must man the units. These crew changes occur along a string of dots - either small towns where you watch paint peel off the old stationhouses or inside metropolitan centers. Every veteran rider carries inside his skull a map of the division points along the American routes because at these junctures he shall disembark to rest, change trains or continue.
We have held down this hot hopper at the whiptail end of the train since Reno. That's like four horseflies riding a donkey's ears jogging across Death Valley. Wiz is gaunt and spent, Apple is paste, I have heatstroke, and only Pronto is in glory at sidings medically tending us with water, jerky and cool words. Years ago, he broke wild horses and seems to have an acquired immunity for the bucking car. But where, even he starts to wonder, is the next division town?
At the noon zenith, Pronto and I gratefully claim our day's first sliver of shade on the front porch. The rear porch duo must now begin to suffer the direct sun, or erect a tablecloth tarp. An hour later, our respite is cut short on a sidetrack when the rear pair topples down with packs and staggers forward the ballast to our porch step. "We think we're getting the raw end of the deal," Wiz objects. "The platform bucks like it's trying to jump off," Apple protests. They aver that the sunned rear porch is like riding in a tumble-drier across the desert, and flatly refuse to return. Pronto and I glance at each other and, though we could cram four men and packs in the spare space among the shifting mechanical arms on the 8'x10" front platform, we acquiesce to test the tail of the train ourselves.
In the first minute on the whip, Pronto and I agree it's the wildest ride short of a rodeo, but we stick it out of pride.
Hours later, the freight sides and the group rallies on the gravel in the thin north shade of the cement car. I take a deep breath of hot air on a whim, and start, "I want to speak to emergencies. Pronto, this is your specialty so interrupt me anytime. A crisis is when the expected doesn't occur and there's danger. The hobo probability from my experience is that one time on each cross-country voyage an emergency crops up. Our conduct then changes instantly. Sorry, but we go from democracy to my authority until you learn the ropes. If I'm out of commission then Pronto takes charge. If it gets real bad, it's every man for himself. Your successes off the rail will carry a cool head to the worst of times here on the road. That's all." They gape at me until Pronto intones, "Well said." Then our freight brakes release, we scale the ladders, the couplers tighten in a fore to aft drumbeat, and the wheels spin.
At dusk many hours later, a golden glow rising above the eastern desert takes every exec's eye. The freight rumbles into an unnamed desert town that is igniting with streetlights. Hot, tired and lost on the rails, the execs detrain and stare grimly at me on the ballast. Their drawn faces beg for a hint of change in this trying journey.
The executive trip wasn't to have been this blitzkrieg. Conventional tramps wind a leisurely path, jumping down to refresh in Goodies and Sallies at division points every day, sitting out full days in jungles next to brooks and over a cooking pot of beans like a water cooler. However, the execs have had to lay a fast, hot trail because Big Apple must catch a Denver flight to New York in four days on the same day Wiz is due to speak at the Aspen Eris Society.
"That's the skinny," I sum. "And, the freight may roll again as I speak." Wiz slips around the front platform to pace the line like a ghost. "There's no time to hike to the power or find a worker to inquire," I forbid them. "Our options are three: Stay on this mystery freight, get off here to rest and risk the deadlines, or split up in pairs and meet later."
"The team doesn't split," says Pronto off the bat. "That's right," agrees Apple. "You've all missed one option," comes a fading voice over the walkie-talkie.
"Wiz..." I wail, but he doesn't turn around. His voice breaks the airwave, "Mates, sorry to bail but I can hardly put one foot in front of the other. I've slept one hour in the last two days. I spotted the lights of a Holiday Inn rolling into town. I'll hook up with you again... somewhere down the line." He walks off dressed in black from boot to cap. "I feel like the hangman," he mutters and vanishes into the city.
The train jumps east with three execs.