Washington Loop


On Friday, May 9, 1969, eighteen months after my first freight train ride, I and three friends (Ron, Phil, and Dan) began a ride to Spokane and back for no reason other than to say we had done it. We were students at Western Washington State College. I had two morning classes to deal with before our mid-day departure. The first class, sociology something-or-other, was in my major, so I skipped it; this was during my "poor motivation" phase. Later I had an art class photo evaluation that I couldn't skip, so I bicycled up Indian Street to the campus. At the Industrial Arts Building I was delighted to learn that the instructor had cancelled the session (no doubt in honor of our trip). Things were going well...

Coasting down the hill brought me back to the rented house I shared with four other students. Ron and I went shopping at Ennen's grocery store nearby. Thus supplied, we returned home to wait for Phil and Dan, our companions in adventure. They showed up around 1215. Dugan, another friend, had unexpectedly come by and offered us a ride to the freight yard. Our quartet piled into Dugan's car for the ride across town.


In 10 minutes we alighted at the grounds of Great Northern's Bellingham yard, merely a couple of sidings next to the main line. The weather was great: sunny and warm. We didn't know it then, but the trip to Spokane and back would turn into a big loop through Washington and take two full days. We wandered over to the main line, crossed it, and sat down at the base of the hill. Dan passed the time by making a flute out of the stem of a weed. Phil and Ron played their harmonicas intermittently. I took a few pictures and reassured the others that the train really would come. At 1445 it drifted down the grade to the yard and stopped to pick up southbound cars. We found an empty boxcar on the main line and climbed in. Our excitement was strong enough to register on the seismograph at the college: "Hey, Ted, look at the local tremor we're picking up." At 1500 the train pulled out: the trip had commenced!

Our plan was to ride to Everett, about 65 miles to the south, and catch an eastbound freight there for the ride to Spokane. During the pleasant ride to Everett all of us took pictures and Phil and Dan got turned on to freights. We were able to stretch our legs when the train stopped for switching at Burlington.


At 1630 we pulled into Everett's Bayside Yard; this was nearly record time for me on this stretch of track. One of the crew members told us there that the train would stop near Everett Junction, where we could catch an eastbound freight, and predicted that an eastbound train would be coming up pretty soon. Naturally we rode the train to the junction.

When our train stopped near the junction we got off and walked down to the minor yard in the distance. As we neared the yard, our eastbound train appeared down the line. We hustled to the string of eastbound cars waiting to be picked up. We boarded an empty boxcar and observed the switching movements. I advised the troops not to settle in until we were certain that our car was connected to the train. When the train hooked up to the cut we were on, somebody broke out the beer and we celebrated the moment. It was memorable for me as the first of only two times in my life that I enjoyed the taste of beer (the second would occur a few hours later). Our departure from Everett Junction took place at 1730. After a quick run through the downtown tunnel, we stopped to let a passenger train and a freight train go by.

The pastoral Snohomish River Valley was pretty, due in part to the effects of the shadows cast by the late afternoon sun. Dan, Phil, and Ron got out their harmonicas and made nice music. My contribution to this spontaneous effort was rhythmic tapping. We halted on the siding at Gold Bar.


While at Gold Bar, we talked with a hobo who was riding a car near ours. He was on his way back to Minneapolis to look for work. He surmised that we would wait here about half an hour for trains to pass. We saw this as an opportunity to rectify a shortcoming in the food department. Phil walked the 150 feet to the highway (in plain view of where we sat) and bought $6's worth of goodies at a store down the road a piece. Phil returned. The train didn't move. After some discussion about the amount of time that the train would wait, Ron agreed to temp fate by going for more beer. It was a little tense for a while but luck was with us: Ron returned with the sacred liquid. Again the beer tasted good. Again the train didn't move. Long afterwards, a westbound passenger train sped by, followed by a westbound freight a few minutes later. It was starting to get dark by the time we left Gold Bar.

Phil and Dan fell asleep; Ron and I watched the nighttime scenery. After a while I dozed off, awaking just after we entered the Cascade Tunnel. Ron said he was timing our passage. The diesel fumes got pretty thick: a flashlight beam was as solid as that of a light sword (although I could not have made that comparison at the time). Thirty one minutes after entering the tunnel we emerged from the eastern portal. The blast of clean, cold air was invigorating.

The ride downgrade toward Wenatchee was slow. Somewhere the crew did some switching under a star-filled sky. During this interlude Dan and Phil woke up (were they psychic twins?). All four of us urinated, perhaps in honor of their awakening. Then Dan and Phil went back to sleep.


Around 0430 on Saturday the train halted in Great Northern's yard at Appleyard, south of downtown Wenatchee. This was the end of the line for our train. A switchman told me about the next train east: he pointed out the track and said it would leave in about an hour. In the dawn's early light we looked for an empty boxcar. As we waited, the rising sun turned the foreboding yards into a colorful showplace. We all felt good. With the bright mountains to our right and the sparkling Columbia River to our left, the train departed Appleyard at 0630.

A few miles downstream we crossed the river on a heavy-looking bridge and were transported along the east bank for miles. Rather than using the word "downstream," maybe I should have said "downlake," as the Columbia River is a series of lakes created by dams. The route followed a rising grade as it headed south, then swung left to Trinidad, where, looking south, we got a brief but grand view of the river far below.

Soon we were running along the north side of a long, narrow valley (I would learn later that this was Lynch Coulee). At a narrowing of the valley the tracks made a sharp U-turn to the right, crossing to the other side. The route continued uphill on the opposite side and went through a tunnel. Shortly thereafter we passed a couple of small lakes and came out on top of the plateau. Here we gained speed and headed eastward through Quincy, Ephrata, and lesser burgs. Scenery here was nothing to write home about, but we were having too much fun to care. At Odessa the crew did some switching. A combination of hot sun and low humidity dried us up. I refilled my water jugs at a small cemetery nearby. Dan, Phil, and Ron wetted their faces in a nearby stream. Farther down the line some of us took off our shirts and soaked in the sunshine.


We approached Spokane on a long downhill grade, then crossed the Spokane River on a high bridge. The train rolled slowly through central Spokane and angled north to the huge yard at Hillyard, arriving there at 1430. Man, was it hot! We got some relief by washing up at a gas station and eating lunch, having bought food at a nearby Safeway store. I phoned Steve, a former college roommate who lived near Hillyard, to see if he was available for a quick visit. His father told me he was in the hospital for removal of his tonsils. So much for the opportunity to brag to Steve about riding freight trains.

We returned to the yard to complete our mission. A yard worker told us that the next Seattle-bound train would leave at 2300, but that a Vancouver (Washington) train was scheduled to go at 1700. Imagine our disappointment! After traveling so far in the interest of humanity, we were presented with such a deplorable schedule. None of us could stomach the thought of sitting around for seven hours for a ride. While we stood around debating the idea of going to Vancouver, a friendly tramp came over and told us a bit about the route. Whatever he said, we decided to go to Vancouver.

With our heads hung low in resignation we ambled off to the Vancouver train. Inspecting the train led to another let-down: the only thing to ride was a trailer on flat car (TOFC). Before committing to this drastic accommodation, though, we scouted nearby empty boxcars for cardboard. Armed with windbreak material, we climbed aboard the TOFC. The back of the trailer faced the front of the train, so we propped the cardboard up vertically against the front side of the trailer's front wheels, then the four of us, side by side, sat on the deck and leaned back against the cardboard, pinning it in place. Voila! - a windbreak. About an hour later, at 1700, our train pulled out.

The route to Vancouver went west over the same tracks we had come in on for as far as the Spokane River. It was spooky sitting along the edge of the car, looking down a zillion feet to the river. As soon as we crossed the high bridge, the engineer turned south and put the four engines in high gear. We sped non-stop to Pasco in 2½ hours: it seemed as though we got up to 60 mph and didn't slow down. The trailer's wheels and our cardboard windbreak kept us fairly well sheltered from the wind, but the cardboard obviously needed reinforcement in the middle to withstand the pressure of being leaned on. Long shadows were cast over the drab landscape. From atop a big trestle I watched the shadow of our train ripple over the ground. Suddenly (everything was sudden at this speed) we entered a tunnel; when we came out the other end we found ourselves perched high on a hill overlooking the Snake River. The quick transition from being at the bottom of a dry, unassuming valley to being high above a big river was a bit of a shock. From this point the line descended gently to river level and eventually reached Pasco. (Note in 1999: our route, the SP&S line, has been turned into a rail trail).


We entered Pasco at a crawl. At 1930 a red block signal stopped the train near a junction just north of a huge warehouse complex. The buildings had the appearance of a government installation. Phil went looking for reinforcement material for our windbreak and returned with a corrugated metal sheet. We had a good laugh at the bombproof nature of his find, then installed it next to the cardboard. About an hour after our arrival, a passenger train went by and the red block signal turned green: onward to Vancouver at 2030.

For the second time in twelve hours we crossed the mighty Columbia River. Then the engineer poured on the speed. Darkness set in, once again revealing, as Carl Sagan would say, "billions and billions" of stars. The ride west along the Columbia was fast, with some stops to allow trains to pass. And boy, did it get cold. I slept fitfully.


By the time we reached Washougal, where I woke up, it was early Sunday morning. From there it took about 90 minutes to get to Vancouver Junction, mostly due to our having to wait for a red block signal. When the train halted just east of the junction (0300), we got off and walked west toward the yard. I asked somebody about Seattle trains and was told that "the one down that-a-way with the caboose" was about to leave. He advised us to hurry, so we ran toward the caboose. When we were within 150 feet of it, the train began to pull out. By the grace of the freight hopping gods we just barely got on the tank car in front of the caboose. Two of us boarded on the front ladder; two on the rear ladder. Under most circumstances I would not even consider riding a tank car, but this situation called for drastic measures.

Ironically - and thankfully - the train stopped about a half mile down the track: another red block signal! During the 20-minute wait we found and climbed into an empty boxcar that contained plenty of paper and cardboard. Once settled into a paper cocoon, I fell into a deep sleep. When I woke up I was greeted by brisk air, the bright light of day, and fog. The other guys were awake. They explained that we were in the yard in Tacoma. Thirty minutes later (0840) the train left for Seattle. Aside from some minor switching behind the main Seattle postal terminal, the ride from Tacoma to Balmer Yard at Interbay was uneventful.


As we crawled down the track in Balmer Yard I looked in vain for empty CN boxcars, usually found on trains bound for Bellingham and beyond. When we dismounted our train near the roundhouse (time: 1030) I saw two modest road units at the end of a cut. This was the typical power for trains going to Bellingham. A switchman confirmed that it was a northbound train, so off we went in search of suitable accommodations. Luck was on our side: we found a tri-level auto rack loaded with Ford pick-up trucks. On a warm sunny day it was the perfect ride (except for the long, narrow, structural grooves stamped into the truck's bed). We climbed the ladder to the top level, which was completely open, and piled into the back of one of the trucks. The view was superb: better even than that from a domed observation car on a passenger train. The train left Interbay at 1100 and arrived in Bellingham at 1430, almost exactly 48 hours after our departure from Bellingham on Friday. We walked home, ate, and cleaned up.

Our loop through Washington had been characterized by several instances of good fortune: a quick ride to Everett, my enjoying the taste of beer twice, a quick change of trains in Everett, a fast ride from Spokane to Pasco, a quick change of trains in Vancouver, a quick change of trains in Seattle, a superb car to ride from Seattle to Bellingham, and wonderful weather the entire time. And it was fun to be able to say that we had travelled 95 miles in a truck that no one drove and that never touched the ground. Fantastic trip!