Oakland to Austin via the Sunset


We were looking to ride the Sunset route in the spring. Cyd wanted to see Austin, TX and I had heard some good things about the place so we got ourselves to Oakland and wandered the Desert yard waiting for the Roseville train. It arrived in the afternoon and began its brake inspection. As we watched the train roll by us I realized there was not enough wine and wanted to make a trip to Trader Joes for a couple more bottles. On our way back from the store we saw a group of riders hangin' around the tracks in Emeryville.

There were 5 of them and a dog. We all hung out and drank wine with the hope that the train would stop at the signals nearby. Sometimes they do and other times not. This time not, so we slept there and made plans to catch it stopped during its inspection the next day.

We caught our train as planned, loading up into a boxcar. The car was cozy with 7, a dog and plenty of boxed wine. It seemed like we were all Roseville-bound until we got to Martinez.

I knew something was up because of the slow speed through the yard. Once the dark figures with flashlights appeared alongside the train I woke Cyd and gathered gear. Luckily both doors were open and it was dark out.

The train came to a stop. "Everybody out, this is the police", was yelled as flashlights lit up the boxcar. Our companions and dog surrendered on the cop side while Cyd and I made a break for it to the dark woods nearby. After a few moments, having not been seen by the police, we snuck back onto the train as it aired its breaks. With a peek out and a wave we said "goodbye" to our recently met companions.

We made Roseville by morning. It was raining and we jumped in a gondola so it got nasty. Once we got out of Roseville we nabbed a boxcar on a siding near Stockton. From there to Colton was quick. I especially love the Tehachapi Pass with its long winding curves and the Cajon Pass with its view from above of the BNSF security checkpoint.

Colton was good for an easy mini-well to Yuma. Once we got to the Colorado river it was time to forget about the heat and dust with a cool swim. The river satisfied our every hope. We stuck near the river's edge for another day before moving on.

Early in the morning we caught a 48 bucket with a 40 container and rode it to Tucson. Cyd has family in Tucson so we stopped and got a nice dinner with her uncle.

Back at the yard we met a couple other riders. One we had met a few months prior and another that got into a fight with a good friend of mine. Good hearty chuckles came with that story. We all drank our share that afternoon and split ways before night, or so we anticipated.

The train rolled in, a double stack, and it had a perfect 48 bucket for our journey east. We loaded up and waited for the brakes to air. I remembered that there was a tower to check for riders a little ways down so I peeked around the corner and sure enough there was a rail cop in the tower.

The officer was closing in fast so we threw our gear and ran for some bushes. Union Pacific's PFE yard can be tough as it has long stretches of fencing on both sides and little coverage at the west end. Best to be at the rear of the train for this yard.

After the train passed the cop drove back into the yard and we walked back to further our friendship with the other riders and wait for a night train. It was about 12 hours later when the next stack rolled in. It had a Cadillac bucket in the same spot we got before. After jumping on I gave another peer around the corner and our little friend was in the tower again but with a spot light. It may not have been the same cop considering the duration between trains. Things were starting to seem difficult. Minutes before the train aired up we decided to get along the side of the container and roll past the spot light while hidden from view. Some would say this was dangerous, but it got us out of Tucson and blazing through the night towards El Paso.

We woke up and looked around at the vast desert surrounding the train. It was a beautiful sight and we were ready for Texas. Upon our arrival in El Paso we noticed many Border Patrol vehicles along the way. At one point we rode right along side a Mexican town. As we came into El Paso there were cameras on poles pointing in every direction, a Border-thug helicopter and many vehicles. We were very anxious to see if we would be able to ride through.

Once we came out of the tunnel that runs under the city Cyd immediately informed me of some Border-thugs in the yard. We got our gear ready and bailed overboard as the train came to a slow. It was all clear on one side so we started running towards the fence as soon as shoes hit dirt. Not a moment to spare as a Border Patrol vehicle with lights flashing rolled alongside our car on the other side. We made it into town and did our best to disguise.

With a little look around the Cotton street yard it was a quick decision to get a bus out to the Alfalfa yard. A few blocks before the bus stop another rider hopped off a bus and introduced himself to us. I'll keep him anonymous but he was a genuine friendly hobo with many stories of the years he had been riding. He showed us the catch out at Alfalfa yard and we three waited three days for a train. Not much was stopping, working, or doing anything slow enough.

On the third day we got a stack train that was built in the yard. Our friend was not in as much of a hurry and optioned not to run after it so we parted. Within moments we were flying fast towards the Sierra Blanca split. Our train went the Sunset route further south through Alpine.

We enjoyed the ride from El Pisshole to Alpine, gliding at a fast pace towards unknown territory. Once in Alpine the crews swapped and we were closing in on our final destination. About 10 miles outside Alpine, while I was getting comfortable with some lunch, Cyd made a weird noise with a mouth full of toothpaste. I inquired as to what the ruckus was about and she promptly pointed behind us and said "he totally saw us". I would have never noticed. The Border Patrol constructed a rider checkpoint tower to trump all towers in the middle of nowhere and we had been caught off guard.

We packed our gear and waited for the inevitable. As the train came to a siding it slowed. Not so bad, maybe we were just meeting another train or getting past by Amtrak. As the white SUV's began to show up with the Border-thug green paint scheme we knew our trick was caught. We jumped off and ran to the bushes on private property nearby. After doing a thorough search of the train and even adding a false start so as to lure us out the train took off without us.

We let the train go because things seemed a little tense. Voices were coming from all directions of the brush jungle we hid ourselves in. Within a quick second 2 pistols were drawn and a Border-thug came at us fast yelling in Spanish. "We speak English!". I croaked towards the hollow bore closing in. At this the 2 agents relaxed though kept the pistols pointed. "What were you doing on the train", the mean one asked. "I wasn't on the train", said I. They did not believe me but I stuck to the story so as not to walk into an unnecessary arrest. Finally the chief told me that they did not care and were not going to arrest us for riding the train but that it would be inconvenient for them if we did not admit it was us so they could stop their search. At this I complied and relieved the dozen officers surrounding us.

It was about 100 miles to Del Rio so we hitched a ride in the back of a pickup the entire way. If you have to hitch, a pick up bed is about as close to a train as you get. We were very thankful.

Del Rio was easy enough and we got lucky with a boxcar in the night. Because of all the hype we had been experiencing with security I voted that a grainer porch with high walls may be a little more under the radar so we moved to one nearby at the next stop. This particular porch was as safe and secure as any I have seen. Yet somehow, in the darkest hours of the night, a man with a flashlight woke us from slumber. "What country are you from?". I informed him we had been taken off a train by Border Patrol earlier that day and would really appreciate continuing on our way. He seemed to have forgotten we were ever there and away we went.

San Antonio was a break from the tough security of the Sunset. We were finally a short distance from Austin. After checking out the Alamo and a few train yards we set up camp and waited at a siding for a NBD. This attempt failed and we wound up catching a train to Houston in a fit of drunken impatience.

A stroke of luck I'll never understand was when a rail cop rolled alongside our train while we were in the Kirby yard and he began searching each and every well down the train starting with the one after ours. We felt pretty good to not be chosen for sacrifice that day.

Getting into Houston the weather got wetter. We hung around Tower 26 until a slow BN rolled by. We were hoping for a northerly but it turned east and we were going further from our city of choice. By early morning it was clear that the train had tied down a few miles outside of Lafayette so we stuck out our thumbs. We got a ride with two ladies going to the drive-thru daiquiri shop in Lafayette. The line was 10 cars long and blocked one lane of traffic in the center of town but no one seemed to mind. After we 4 were given our large daiquiris with straws in and ready for sipping I realized that this was very unlike anything in my home state, California.

Our friends dropped us off at the yard and we seemed to be in luck with a possible rear unit. Or was it the front? We got on a grainer and decided to go to New Orleans if the train didn't go towards Houston. N.O. bound we went. Having been to N'awlins last summer it was in our interest to get the next one going back so when the chance arose we switched trains at a siding.

Our WBD turned out to be a pleasant one as we got a night time survey of every Union Pacific and BNSF yard in Houston before it turned north. Things were looking good and Temple was in our sites; until we were cut in Somerville.

A day at the reservoir was a much needed rest. Complete with a BBQ and beer we were rejuvenated and ready to catch the next northbound. It started to rain once we got back into town so we took shelter on a covered porch of an abandoned home facing the train yard.

A NBD unloaded rock train showed and we hopped into a deep gondola. A few miles outside the yard I noticed a suspicious looking white vehicle at a crossing up ahead. We were slowing fast and it was time to be ready. Once we stopped, the SUV raced up to the front and a man began walking down the train and looking in every gondola. We decided to let the train go and walked 10 miles to the next town.

At this point it was Austin or bust so we stuck to our thumbs and wound up with some good rides, lots of free food and a hotel room for the night compliments of a local church. The following day we made it to the famous city limits and tuned in to a great city with cheap public transit, jammin' music, an excellent library, polite folks, and enough trains to get us further north and eventually to our next destination in Wyoming.