Spring Break '95

5:48 pm, Friday, March 10, 1995 - Missoula, Montana

boxcarI was hoping for a grainer, so I was waiting east of town about a mile. For the past couple of weeks a long Burlington Northern grain train has come in late Friday afternoon and stopped for over a half hour east of town, before the first grade crossing. There I would have been able to get on a hopper and avoid the watchful eye of the Missoula bull. I was wrong this week, but a mixed freight did come in about 5 pm, with only center-beam bulkhead flats and one gondola to ride in. By the time I caught up with it at the yard, it was gone westbound. Now I'm sitting at the hobo jungle, near the west end of the yard, waiting for another westbound. If one doesn't come before midnight, I might give it up for now and go to the bars.

9:55 am, Saturday, March 11 - BN mile post 366 (Near Spokane, Washington)

The train is stopped here and I don't know why. Perhaps we're waiting for an eastbound. After my last entry, I got discouraged and walked east to the Scott Street overpass, then back to the jungle. An eastbound came through, train 122. Then a train called LM, another eastbound, with engine troubles. The train codes were nice to know, but I should've saved my radio scanner batteries for something more useful later. Then a Montana Rail Link road freight came in from Helena, but pulled off the north main track and was yarded.

Walking back to the jungle, I came upon a man who had just arrived on the aforementioned train. He spoke little English, but I gathered that he was from Orlando, and that he was headed to Wenatchee for the apple-picking season. I don't think I had ever met a migrant worker before. He seemed to be a pretty cool guy, and asked me, "Where is life?," but I have no idea what he meant.

view from grainerAt half past 10, #123 came in and I ran to catch up to a rideable car. I threw my bag up and climbed in after it. It was a MRL hopper, in front of a heated tank car. I didn't need to run because it sat for a half hour. The Spanish-speaking guy hopped on the same car as me, but then he moved farther up. That was probably a bright move, because the draft gears were incredibly noisy on this one when it started moving. Besides that, the ride was nice, even if it was too dark for scenery, and I slept a few hours.

I just now saw the other passenger walking back towards Spokane; I am almost certain that this train is headed for Pasco. I should be in Portland by this time tomorrow. There's a container stack train is coming through west now. I thought that most of the container trains went to Seattle, but, oh well, we should be moving soon.

2:50 pm Saturday, March 11 - BN Milepost 86 (Near Pasco, Wash.)

I figure we're 30 miles east of Pasco. Remind me to catch a piggy-back train next time. We've been here for over an hour (yawn). It is a beautiful day, though - the sun is out, there's some scattered clouds, and it's probably 48 degrees, with a gentle breeze. The country here reminds me of eastern Montana, though nearer to Spokane it was very much like the Midwest.

So far, this train has been in the hole waiting for eight or more others - definitely a "drag" freight. BN is boring; I've seen hundreds of black and green SD40 series locomotives in my time. I'd like to ride the Union Pacific, but it doesn't seem practical to do right now. I suppose I could just hop off the train and go visit that ranchhouse over yonder. Oh yeah, I saw some buffalo before, raised for the meat I guess. And the mainline has concrete ties.

2:40 pm, Sunday, March 12 - Portland, Oregon

I'm sitting here at Starbucks Coffee waiting for Judy, an old family friend. #123, my train, finally rolled into Pasco at about 5:30 p.m. yesterday. They took the power off and I'm sure the train was headed for the hump yard. From there, I dismounted and then walked in a southwest direction, checking out the yard. There was a coal train setting up to head east, and before I even had a chance to find a spot of ground to sit upon, a grain train, that we had passed previously, came in. I ran to get on it, thinking it was passing through, but it stopped and stayed stopped for a long time - it finally left at 1 am.

During that time I sat in four different hoppers, talked to two other train-riders, and two BN employees, ate one can of chili, and finally tried to sleep. I also managed to miss two west bound express trains. If I had just gone back to where I'd gotten off #123 in the first place, I could have had a quick ride to Portland. When the train I was on finally did go, though, it moved pretty well.

It was dark and as such the Columbia Gorge scenery was difficult to discern. I did catch some winks in the meantime, though, even if my toes were pretty cold. The blanket helps a lot. I dreamt, but I forget what about. I awoke at first light; we were stopped in what appeared to be an outlying area of a large city, probably Portland. I watched it get light for awhile, then gathered up my stuff and re-arranged my pack. In the middle of pouring wine from one bottle to another, ba-Ba-BA-Boom!, slack action shook my car and the train began to move again. Two miles later, it became obvious that this train wasn't going to Portland - it's stretching around to the right, through Vancouver, Wash., and to the north. So I hopped off, and started walking across the Columbia River on the double-track bridge.

rail bridge between Portland, OR and Vancouver, WAOnce across, I saw BN trains, at least two southbounds, going about 50 mph! If I'd stayed in Vancouver, I could've caught a ride, but instead I walked the 10 miles to Union Station along the right of way. Took me 3½ hours. Good exercise, but rough on the feet. (Parts of my right big toe are still numb). Now I'm not even sure if I can hop a train out of here without going back to Vancouver. I could cross the Willamette to the Union Pacific yard, but then I might end up in Hinkle, Oregon. Once in Portland, I went to see about a job that I'd heard about but it was Sunday, so no one was home. Well, here comes Judy. See you tomorrow.

About 11 am, Monday, March 13 - Tacoma, Wash.

I like Portland, it's a swell city. Judy showed me the house where my folks were living when I was born, and where she teaches. Then she bought me lunch and some bread rolls to go. I thanked her. I also got to fill my water bottles, and a nice toilet to use to empty my bowels. Not only that, but she even gave me a ride back to Vancouver. Sort of a cop-out on my part, but I was worried about not being able to find a train out of Portland that night. When we got to the yard at Vancouver, a grainer was just heading out west, or north bound - it was 5:45 pm.

5:12 pm, Monday, March 13 - Seattle, Washington

That last entry kind of ended abruptly, so I'll continue now that I'm sitting at BN's Interbay yard. I should have hurried and gotten on one of the last few hoppers. Instead, I waited at the east end of the wye until dark, then walked west. There was some switching going on, but no road freights seemed to be present. I spotted a string of hoppers, mostly Missouri Pacific and UP painted, on what I thought was the mainline. Wrong! Turns out there were no engines hooked up. Nonetheless, I sat in one or the other of those hoppers for quite a few hours.

When it started raining, I crawled into the "cubby hole", a kind of cozy sheltered spot in each car. At 10:30 pm I saw a headlight appear to the east, facing me. (There had been some eastbounds, and a Pasco-Portland already by.) I think to myself, "This is it!, this is my train!", so I started walking east, on the far side of the string of hoppers from the oncoming train. By the time I got to the light and across the stationary hoppers, the train was moving fast, 10 mph or more. I tried three times before successfully tossing my bag onto an "Ace CenterFlow" hopper, one of those times seeing it bounce off and tumble into an ankle deep puddle of water. With my bag in finally, I knew I had to get on, but I couldn't get my footing because of the rain and speed. My right foot kept slipping into the bearing and onto the wheel. In hindsight, I was lucky that my foot wasn't cut off! I banged my knee and finger slightly when I eventually clambered on and we were off. I arranged my black plastic garbage bag to sit upon and put my wind-pants on, preparing for a wet night ahead.

UP engineThe train and I moved pretty well, but like yesterday morning, I watched the dawn break without the train moving an inch. Five or 6 east- and west-bounds passed in an hour. I looked at the family-style restaurant or sports bar across the highway from the tracks, and saw I sign which said "Sonics". I figured that we were just south of Tacoma. I thought we were still on the mainline, but it turns out that the farthest this train was going was the Continental Grain elevator.

I walked north and west into the yard then, passing two UP freights going my way, one too difficult to get a running start on, the other all empty flatcars. So I sat at the yard and tried to figure out my bearings. The Puget Sound area has some pretty strange geography. I passed the time until 1 pm by eating, reading, playing with my boots, and staying out of the rain.

That was when a short Union Pacific train came by, only 15 cars, which took me to UP's Seattle Terminal. Riding under a semi-trailer is pretty neat. Getting off is tough - almost impossible while the train is moving. When it stopped I was deep in the yards. Prime situation for an encounter with a railroad police officer.

Well whaddya know... "HEY YOU! COME OVER HERE," yelled the bull. I played nice and got away with a "warning". It pisses me off because I feel that it is my right (and duty) as an American to ride the rails or at least I should've tried harder to not get caught. Anyway, it was time to get as far away from UP as possible.

I paid $1.25 to ride the #19 bus through downtown Seattle (it struck me as a hilly Chicago) to the end of the line and back to somewhere near Burlington Northern's Interbay yards. I chatted with the bus driver - a black guy - about how he used to ride the Great Northern Empire Builder across Montana. We also talked about real estate prices in Vancouver, British Columbia. I like Seattle, but I like Portland better.

I tramped through the BN yards for a mile or so, meeting two crew-guys. They were very nice and gave me more info than I needed for catching out. I had just missed a stack train headed for Chicago, one said, but there should be another one north/eastbound within a few hours. One also warned me about the "gumshoes" driving grey Chrysler sedans with special antennas.

It wasn't too long until I met one. He wasn't as much of an asshole as the UP guy, but he still kicked me out from under the overpass where I was waiting. So now I'm sitting at CJ's Mini Mart, on the corner of Gilman Ave. W and W. Thurman St., near 23rd St., with a poor view of Interbay. I'm drinking coffee with a lot of cream and sugar. It is a gorgeous evening here in Seattle. So I guess I'll sit here until a train comes by, or if it gets dark, I'll think about my other options for getting home...

7:18 pm, Tuesday, March 14 - Somewhere between Idaho-Montana border and Whitefish, Montana

I'm still on the same train that I caught out of Seattle. I waited until late, about 1:30 am. Least action there of any place I've caught out. Probably because it was late Sunday. I caught a grain train before midnight, only to find it switch back into the yard. I took several cat naps on the incline to the north of the overpass, too afraid of the bull to go any farther into the yard, and too wary of the nightlife to go up to street level. A really fast stack train did head out about midnight, but was moving too fast and didn't look very rideable. But I did catch an empty grainer, on train with a motley crew of covered hoppers, and two older locomotives on the front.

I caught that train right when it was heading out of the yard. I plopped my bag right into a pile of foul-smelling, manure textured, rotten grain. It was too late to switch cars. My boots are covered in it, even though I moved back a few cars at Wenatchee. There weren't many "Ace CenterFlow" hoppers to choose from. I slept some between Everett and the Cascade Mountains. The Cascades, by the way, were beautiful, even though it was dark. The snow was abundant. There was very little train traffic and we were moving at a pretty good clip.

train along riverThe seven-mile-long Cascade Tunnel took over 40 minutes (I timed it on my watch). My neighbor in the dorms at college, whose brother is an engineer on that section, said it takes 45 minutes sometimes - I guess he was right. The fumes were not that bad and I survived with only a little light-headedness.

Rain at Wenatchee. While the crew changed, I switched cars and scraped the shit off my boots. That part of central Washington was pretty neat. The Columbia, which the tracks follow for quite a ways, is majestic. I wasn't sure if this train was going to go on the BN Hi-Line to Whitefish or on Montana Rail Link to Missoula. At Spokane I thought I'd get off and try to find out but we only stopped there for about two minutes. I thought hopefully, "Maybe the crew changes at Sandpoint, Idaho."

In Sandpoint, with all the inherent loveliness of Lake Cour d'Alene, the train zipped right on through at 35 mph, and it hasn't stopped since. So my plan to get a train back to Missoula is ruined. But, I am sure the train must stop in Whitefish, Montana and there I'll get off and find U.S. Route 93 and hitchhike to Missoula. I'll use the sign that I just made from the cardboard and marker that I brought with me. If I fall asleep, I guess I could end up in Chicago and go and visit my mother. Time will tell.

1:02 pm, Wednesday, March 15 - Missoula, Montana

You can see from my location that I've done something right. It turns out that the grainer was a priority train. Why empty grainers are so important is beyond me, but they stopped in Whitefish barely three minutes - just enough time to get off. It felt good to be off, I'd been on that train for about 22 hours. I re-arranged my clothes, walked to the nearest gas station, and drank coffee while deciding what to do next. I then walked south on U.S. 93, to an Exxon, more coffee, more south. Between 12 am and 12:30 I offered my sign and thumb to passing cars. There was little traffic - and no takers. I figured I'd walked about 4-5 miles when I came to a KOA campground. I found a relatively secluded and flat spot and slept for two hours.

When I began walking on the highway again, it was 4:30 am. A guy soon picked me up and brought me to the south end of Kalispell. Cold and drenched from the rain after an hour of waving my thumb at people, I got some more coffee. As soon as I stepped back to the corner, a guy in a pickup truck took me 25 miles to a house-under-construction on the road between Big Fork and Polson. It was nice to get a ride, but now I was at a tough spot. I walked a couple of miles but no one passing was interested. Discouraged again, I stepped into some dry concrete under the overhang of a deserted cabin by the road. There I rearranged my bag and snacked. As soon as I walked back to the road, I got a ride.

A guy in an old Dodge van picked me up. He was cool and we had a great conversation. He gave me a book about the Bible and Satan. Where he dropped me off on Route 93 again, I had no trouble getting a ride from an elderly couple to Ronan. Then an Indian got me to the edge of town, and another pickup truck took me all the way to Missoula. This guy had to go to court for bankruptcy. It was so warm in his truck, I nodded off a few times. I really haven't gotten much sleep these past few days.

In Missoula on Wednesday afternoon, I waited at the hobo jungle for an eastbound to Helena, but gave up after a few hours. I went back to my room and took a shower, then drove to my Dad's place in Helena for the rest of my spring break. I guess I rode over 1,000 miles on the rails in five days, and enjoyed every minute of it.