My wife is kind enough to see the need for me to view the countryside from the door of a boxcar and has allowed me to partake in the sport of freight hopping. Monday, July 13, she agreed to drop me off at the Union Pacific freight yards in Butler, Wisconsin. The yard has a nice bridge on the north end, which allows one to view the goings on in the yard with a minimal of hassle. It also makes for a decent spot to hunker down under in nasty weather. The bridge is also used by railfans to view trains so it requires some stealth on occasion to bag a ride.
This particular Monday a unit coal train is made up and waiting on the mainline. Not what I had hoped for, but not much I can do about it either. In about 45 minutes the road crew arrives, and it heads out. At this point there are very few cars in the yard and things are looking pretty dead. As the afternoon wears on, a number of cars arrive from various parts of Milwaukee and the surrounding area. I ask a switchman if any trains are headed out later in the day. He tells me that later in the afternoon or early evening there should be one.
After a few more hours, the yard starts to fill back up and a train begins to take shape. One nice thing about the Butler yard is that trains are usually made up and parked on the mainline until the road crew and engines arrive. By waiting under the bridge I can scope the cars as they shuffle them because of the yard length, which requires them to pull onto the mainline and then back into the yard to fetch more cars. Generally this happens 3 or 4 times before a train is complete. Today proved to be no different. Three cars from the end there was a quality ride - a boxcar with both doors open. The yard crew backs the whole shooting match down the mainline, south of the bridge, and cuts off the yard power. I grab my outfit out of the bushes and head down to bag my ride.
As I come out from under the bridge, I look up to see a businessman in a suit with a brief case looking down at me. I thought it best to get the kinks out in case he was the kind that looked dimly on folks that didn't buy tickets for their rides. So I legged it down the signal line right-of-way through the brush to my ride. A 5-minute hoof got me to my ride, and I climbed aboard. Fifteen minutes later I can hear the hiss of air and the clanking of brakes being released. Pretty soon the long rolling thunder of slack being taken up announces that the festivities have commenced. The only thing I'm worried about is that Mr. Corporate America alerted the railroad that they have a non-paying load aboard. The train lumbers through the switches, under the bridge I spent most of the afternoon at, and continues to pick up speed. After the train heads into the turn about a half-mile from the yard and across the first road crossing without stopping, I feel pretty confident that I have been successful.
This part of Wisconsin has a fair number of road crossings, so it pays to be discrete. Near Sussex some kids heaved rocks through the open door and they bounced around the back of the boxcar. This was a good reminder that riding in the front of the car is much healthier. The train continues through the southern Wisconsin farmland and small towns. On this leg of the adventure, I'm not going to have the pleasure of seeing much scenery, as there is only one and a half hours of daylight left.
Around 8:30 we go into the hole at Clyman. In 15 seconds flat the car is filled with mosquitoes. I do the usual gyrations of mosquito smacking, because I'm too stubborn to apply repellent. I figure if the stuff melts nylon, takes the finish off gun stocks, and makes fishing rods sticky, I don't want it on my hide. After the initial onslaught, I get used to the pests and lay down to wait.
I'm jolted out of my daydreams by a head sticking in the door. I'm thinking, "Oh boy, here we go, a nice long walk among the mosquitoes and other night critters." It's one of the train crew. We have a very pleasant 5-minute talk. He asks where I got on, where I'm headed, and wishes he could come along. He then tells me we are headed to Adams, and a Wisconsin Central crew will take over and bring it into Superior. I thank him for the information, and he heads up to the front. I'm thinking, "This is a great deal. I can stick with my car all the way to Superior." Superior is in far northern Wisconsin. The eastbound passes, and we pull back onto the mainline.
It's dark now, so I pull out my foam pad and lay down for a snooze. Around midnight the train reaches Adams and comes to a halt. It's dark out and pretty quiet, so I go back to sleep. When I wake up, the train is moving, and the sky is starting to get light. To get an idea where I'm at, I pull out a road map and compare the highway signs on the road paralleling the tracks with the map. I'm south of Wisconsin Rapids traveling alongside Highway 80. The Neceedah National Wildlife Refuge is west of the rails. It's a large flat region that at the present is socked in with ground fog.
The sun comes up as the train makes its way through Port Edwards and Wisconsin Rapids. It continues on and creeps into Marshfield. In the last half-hour there have been many road crossings, so I hunker down in the front corner trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. In Marshfield a track crew is on the line which I assume is the reason we have been moving so slow. At one road crossing a number of guys on the track crew see me and are somewhat surprised. I didn't know what to do so I waved and said, "Hey." On the north side of Marshfield the train stops. I'm paranoid the track crew has notified the authorities of their find. I think it prudent to hastily disembark, so I bail out and conceal myself in the brush along the right-of-way a bit from my boxcar.
After awhile with no action on the home front, I get brave and scout around to check the lay of the land. The park is across the street as well as some type of city maintenance garage. To my back are a number of homes and the strip of brush I'm hiding in. I decide to stay put and relax on the side of the tracks until they fire up my ride again. After a number of hours of waiting, I get a little impatient and hike up the tracks to see what the deal is. Well, the engines are there (idling), FRED is on, and the crew is gone. This is somewhat unexpected. A number of trains come through, but they are rolling too fast to catch.
After a few more hours, I walk over to the park for fresh water and a stretch. Still later I go hunting for a phone to call my wife and tell her I'm alive and well. I enter the nice air-conditioned hospital and use the phone in the waiting room. By now it's early evening, and I've been here since around 8:00 in the morning. I'm starting to wonder if I will ever make it out of town. By 9:00 p.m. I decide to role out my pad and spend the night in my boxcar. This way if they take off at night, I won't miss my ride. A few trains come by, but once again they are all traveling too fast. Around 1:00 a.m., I'm aroused out of sleep by the headlights of a Wisconsin Central train. The train is moving fairly slow, so I decide to bag it even if it is headed east. I guess I won't be making it to Superior on this run.
By the time I get my pad rolled up and stuffed into my pack, the train had stopped. Right across from me is a beautiful grainer with a clean porch and pointed in the right direction. I climb on and in no time it's rolling. I'm hoping this train is headed to Chicago so I will have a decent chance of bailing out close to home. The train travels through Junction City and continues on to Stevens Point. Every once in awhile we would come to a complete stop, back up or just plain sit, then get moving again. I never did figure out what was going on. Pretty soon we are on the outskirts of Stevens Point, and I recognize a number of places from my college days there. Coming into Point the train crosses the Wisconsin River where I spent a huge number of hours fishing for walleyes and past the Vetter window and door manufacturer my wife worked at when we were first married.
I crawl into the cubbyhole so as not to stick out and wait to see if I'm a Point freight or Chicago. For a while I thought the train was headed through the yard, but I was wrong. The next thing I know, we are backing up into the yard. I jump out with my pack and head for the trees along the Plover River, which abuts up to the WC yard. After watching for awhile and not seeing much hope for a new ride, I cut through the woods to Iverson Park, which also lies next to the freight yard. I spend the rest of the night sleeping on the top platform of the toboggan slide. I reason that being up high will prevent some of the mosquitoes from drilling me.
Six o'clock in the morning I decide to walk into town and head over to the university to shower up. I reach the field house and have to wade through a crowd of spandex clad bodies who were attending a wellness conference. They are all decked out in their fancy workout clothes, and I'm all decked out in my best hopping clothes. Needless to say, our apparel clashed and a few eyebrows were raised. Some of it must have been caused by the smell. Well, I walked this far and figure being alumni I might as well head on in. I thread my way through the crowd and go in for a good old long, hot shower.