Spring Break '97 - part 1

a trip to spokane

"Here lies broken glass, still yer a pain in my ass".

A while back, someone scrawled that in big white letters on the old Northern Pacific passenger platform, at the east end of the Missoula yard. I was thinking of that as I waited for a train on Friday night.

I had packed all my gear, warm clothes, food, books, wine, camera, and everything else into my big grey pack. My army blanket was strapped on the outside, wrapped in a black plastic garbage bag. It all sat by the door to my apartment. I sat at my desk, watching the yard through my bedroom window, while I worked on a jigsaw puzzle of an old steam engine. The main tracks are about 100 yards from the window, and if I walk out to them, I'm about a 1/4 mile west of the yard tower.

I couldn't wait to get out of town. As usual, hanging around one place for too long can be a 'pain in the ass'. The day had been sunny, but the temperature had dropped to the high 30's by dark. I knew that my destination was Chicago, but I had decided to ride west first, to hit Spokane and then double back over the Hi-Line, rather than take chances with coal on the low-line. I figured an eastbounder would take me to Kansas City, though, so I hadn't ruled that out.

It was about 6 or 7 pm on this cool night. Between 4 and 5 pm, before I was ready to go, I had seen two westbounders, one mixed freight and one stack, roll in and then out of town. I figured that made my odds of another westbounder before midnight to be pretty slim.

I had waited two hours or so, eating a dinner of malted milk balls, when a mixed freight rolled by, heading west. The power was a new GE Dash 9, painted in the new/old GN scheme, and two older green and black SD40's. I grabbed my pack and headed out the door. The train rolled to the west end of the yard and stopped. I was so excited I ran to catch it, even though I didn't need to. Climbing about an ACF hopper as it stopped, I remembered my first trip west two years ago.

This was one of the few rides on the train, and I was next to the road that runs parallel to the tracks, so I climbed in the cubby hole, to avoid headlight coming around the corner, and waited. I breathed the night air rapidly, recovering from my little jog. About an hour later, we were off.

It is a wonderful feeling! Nothing compares to being free, watching the Friday night lights of the Missoula valley recede away, under a bright moon and clear skies. Even though I had travelled this route several times before, I sat on the porch of the car and took in the scenery. Pretty soon the heat of the day was gone. I layered up and sucked down half a bottle of Thunderbird that I had left over from my last trip. We didn't go over Evaro Hill, so I didn't get to fall asleep to the clickety-clack of the old jointed rail there. The ride was smooth except for the wailing of the wheels on the turns.

I slept fitfully that night, and was awake to see the Hauser yard, 20 miles east of Spokane, still in darkness. Last time I'd rode this way, it was on a grainer, and my train got yarded at Hauser and the power cut. That was scary, I thought I would be stranded in the middle of nowhere! This time, I saw that yard whizz by from the mainline. It was full of grainers, one with power and a FRED.

Dawn came slowly, as my train rolled through the expanse of the Spokane valley. There were low-lying clouds, but I figured that they were the kind that would burn off by noon. The air was cool, but, again, I felt the promise of a warm day.

I dismounted the train on its first stop, which was at the Yardley Tower, Milepost 68. I walked across the south main, and headed straight for the first overpass to the west of the yard tower. There was no activity, on the 7:30 saturday morning, and when I got to the overpass, I set my bag down by a pylon, pulled out my marker and signed the concrete. Then I unpacked my scanner, and started waiting for an eastbound stack train to Chicago.

Right away, I watched the train that I'd come in on leave. The third to last car was a double-door boxcar, and in the doorway two fellow hobos stood, waving at me. I heard on the radio that it was a Memphis-Pasco train, but I'd been to Pasco before. I pulled out my breakfast of prunes, bread, and an orange and ate slowly, savoring my first morning of the trip. Before I had finished eating, it had begun to snow.

Chapter 2 - A day in Spokane

I had thought that the day would turn out to be a warm, sunny, and dry. Not that I wasn't prepared for lousy weather, but the morning had been cool and calm, and the ride over, chilly.

It started to snow in Spokane at about 8 or 9 in the morning. First it was just little flecks of ice, actually, but soon it was flakes, and before long I couldn't see the grass anymore.

I was in the eastern part of town, at Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway's Yardley Yard. I was sitting under an overpass, about a half mile west of the yard tower. It gave me little shelter from the snow; the wind covered most of the dirt under there with little bits of white.

I was waiting for a freight train to Chicago. Specifically, I wanted a fast container train, with a ribbed well-car loaded with a container shorter than the length of the car. This would give me a ride with a good wind-break and plenty of security and room to move about. I had my scanner out and I listened to it for clues as to when my train would be coming. Some trains go to Missoula, and not to Chicago, so I wanted to avoid these trains.

I saw lots of trains that morning. After the Memphis - Pasco mixed freight, that I'd come in on, left, I saw a few eastbounds. The first one was a mixed freight: there were no rides, it was almost all reefers and loaded lumber cars. Then there was a stack train with neither rideable ribbed wells nor pigs. The last car on it was a five-pack of empty brand-spanking new 53' wells.

Then some westbounds came through. First, a mixed freight and a couple of stacks. Then, a "Boeing Special", consisting of one locomotive and one flatcar with a piece of fuselage on it. Next, a "trash train" came in from Seattle, full of "Regional Disposal Company" containers on flatcars. That one was on the old main track, north of and above the below-street-level 'north' and 'south' mains.

A few hours had passed when I caught my first freight train of the day. It was a mixed freight that I had discerned to be a PASNTW (That's Pasco - Northtown, MN). I climbed in a hopper and waited a bit, but then it creaked and groaned and slammed about, and headed for the yard. I got out and walked back to my perch under the bridge. Well, I figured, next one will be the one.

Once, I saw a new-looking green Jeep Cherokee drive by, on the other side of the tracks, but I thought nothing of it.

After my lunch of peanut butter and bread, I caught on to an eastbound COFC/TOFC. There weren't any rideable wells, but I found a pig, or a semi-trailer on a flat car, that offered some security. I heard it described as a CHC (Chicago), I think, on the radio. I climbed on, and it moved to the east end of the yard, on track 3, next to the mains. I figured out from the radio chatter that the crew wasn't in yet. I didn't see any other activity, though, so I just laid low and waited. After an hour, a westbound grainer rolled in. Another hour passed. Nothing.