by Braden Diotte
From San Diego to Los Angeles we played by the rules. We paid our fares, waited in line, boarded when told to, refrained from smoking, urinated in toilets, kept all limbs inside while the train was in motion, and waited for it to come to a complete stop before disembarking. We behaved like gentlemen, administering restraint in the name of civilization and for the greater good. For our compliance we were given one last sunset over the ocean, one last charge on our cell phones, one last opportunity for a hot cup of coffee, and one last taste of comfort before we walked out of the Los Angeles Union Station and into industrial no-man’s-land under the shroud of night.
Almost as quickly as we stepped off the east side of the Cesar Chavez Avenue bridge and under it, we unanimously peed like derelicts upon a graffiti-strewn wall, brandished knives as we traversed the railway corridor alongside the concrete banks of the L.A. River, and nestled ourselves inconspicuously into a mountain of rubble, conveniently placed at the best end of the Union Pacific Intermodal Operations yard. When the racket of the ghettobirds and trains-not-ours subsided, we were left with the sound of our own blood. And when the racket of our racing hearts subsided, the subtle-yet-unmistakable sound of idling locomotive engines emerged from noise floor.
More a sensation than the actual perturbance of air required to qualify something as a “sound”, the low-frequency rumbling teaches itself to you. The uninitiated can rarely detect it. Only until it is loaded full of significance will one attune themselves to its register.
With a quick scramble up the rubble pile, we confirmed that three engine units were tethered and being prepped for departure on the yard’s leading track. They would leave at midnight. We passed the moments with smalltalk and silence, occasionally breaking to hunker from the spotlight of a police helicopter or to casually spy the rides on passing freight. The full scorpion moon dominated the sky to the east, and the downtown skyline dominated the west. But it was the wash of red light being cast from the rail signals to our north that was coloring our world. And when those lights turned green, we were the first to know.
We clambered over several sets of rails in a jog toward the yard mouth. The train was not within our sight, but we could hear its rpms rising and its dominating presence growing stronger. We skirted the outside of the yard fence in almost full visibility under the orange metal-halide lamps, triangulating on the third unit and pacing ourselves for it. We lurked in the shadows when we saw the lead engine poke its nose from the yard and then stop completely, as if it had also seen us. Like a turtle’s head, it sucked back into the protective shell of the yard, and disappeared deep into its belly. At a loss, we returned to the rubble pile and waited; for a cop; for a chopper’s spotlight; for the engines to return. Whatever was to come next would be where adventure had led us, and for anything we were ready. But nothing happened at all. Over the following hour, the unnerving silence petered completely into midnight stillness as the adrenaline left our bloodstreams, and we adapted to comfort amidst the scrap metal, broken glass and poly-legged creatures that we couldn’t see. It was only at the plateau of this comfort that the engines returned with forward horns blasting. This time they came faster than before, so we worked double-time gearing up and re-executing our previous strategy verbatim to find ourselves upon the front stepladder of the third and final engine unit. We boarded single-file and then bumbled in confusion around our inability to locate the handle that opens the door on the nose cone; three men on a platform built for one. The train slowed, adding to the stress. Had we been spotted? Another train barreled by on an adjacent track on the other side of the rubble pile as our train came to crawl, then a stop. Once we realized that this third engine unit had been connected to the others backward, my companions quickly made their way back down the stepladder, as I stepped back onto a surface that wasn’t there.
There are limited components of the human architecture that can assist us when falling backward. All of our limbs and joints have evolved to favor the world that vision brings, and thus they face forward for their primary operations. It could’ve only been milliseconds that I was pivoting off the deck of the locomotive in a free-fall with an extra 25lbs of weight strapped to my back, before my right hand reached out to grasp the stepladder’s handrailing that quickly passed into my periphery. My left boot snagged in the gap between the left handrailing and the chassis of the locomotive. Splayed across these two points, I slid near-completely upside down until I reached the bottom of the handrailings. When I stopped, my head was a foot or two above the rocky ballast that lay below, and the lowest part of my dangling pack was scraping on it. I paused for a moment (though it didn’t matter, as time had ceased), and silently assessed my mortality or lack thereof. I honed in on my left foot, still twisted and stuck in the handrailing, searching for the slightest sensation of pain. There were none. My right leg was floating free, but was in dangerous proximity to the stationary steel wheels tucked within a dozen unfavorable places to snag a shoelace or pant-leg, should one find its way there. It might have been as easy to initiate some kind of “controlled fall” the remaining distance to the ground, but with my foot trapped and the looming expectation that the train would be moving again soon, I pulled myself up with everything my right arm had to give until I could rest my right foot safely upon the lowest step. It took just as much effort to unlock my booted foot from its predicament, but when it was liberated I climbed the ladder back to the platform, then down the other side to where my companions were still standing. They say that only seconds had passed.
On the better end of the third unit we found our elusive door handle, and made our way inside to the crew’s cab. We hugged the floor and waited for the train to move forward, and when it finally did we kept hugging the floor. The radio in the cab was tuned to the right channel for the L.A. yard, revealing some actions before they were executed, though still heavily coded in esoteric railspeak. So when the train stopped again and then reversed, we knew that it was going to happen. Double-backing; the crew was still building the train, attaching one long section of railcars to the next with each roll back into the yard. And when the work was done and it was time for us to go, we could sense it in the enthusiastic punctuation of the voices on the radio. One last call came through before the engines ramped up their rpms for departure.
“You know you’ve got riders?”
We watched only the tallest infrastructure pass from the floor of the cab; concrete overcrossings and cameras on poles. Each passing lamp post strobed our eyeballs with soft orange light in a hypnotic rhythm, syncopated against that of the track below. The train built speed, and speed became our cover. We took position in the three captain’s chairs; upright, angular, facing the wrong direction like everything else in this third unit. When we knew we were near Burbank, we waited for the jostling and irregularity in the track rhythms, and when it came we took posts at each window, where I watched a section of rails deviate from us steadily to the west, and then disappear; the coastal route to Oakland; slower, more scenic, though it didn’t matter much at night. But not this time. We were going northbound, central.
When we were clear of most of the city, we stepped out onto the nose for a smoke that became an hour. Slivers of other people’s lives arrived like photographs and faster that comprehendible, our aftward eyes tracing their eventual movements like Doppler-effected memories or assumptions. The lone driver waiting at a stoplight in an empty intersection. The transient setting up camp for the night in the doorway of a tailor, next door to the 24-hour donut shop. The nine police cruisers scattered haphazardly in front of the Saugus Café, all lights flashing, not a soul in sight. Last call.
We watched beams of green and red light from the signals ahead distort through the hot diesel exhaust spewing from the top of the lead engine, and then project upon the taller of the two intermodal shipping containers that were stacked on the railcar just behind us, its dirty white box working as the screen of an impromptu avant-garde theater; an improvisational 3D film for which there was no content, and for which we were given no glasses.
The dewy chill of the Tehachapi Pass eventually drove us back to the relative warmth of the cab, and before too long we were sleeping.
When we woke, the train was stopped in Bakersfield and the cab was flooded with daylight. If the crew had any interest in finding us, this is when they would’ve done it. But they didn’t, and that crew drove away in the van that the new crew arrived in. Minutes later we were once again under way. Over the next few hours we slowly graduated ourselves from the floor of the cab to the captain’s chairs, and slowly the captain’s chairs swiveled and adjusted to become our chairs, and by the time we reached Stockton we were the captains, our chairs now reclined, windows open, feet propped up onto their sills, the reflected light of infinite agriculture passing through them. On occasion we’d come upon a small yard, a passenger station, a trackside crew or some other reality that would demote us back to the floor, though even these actions became tertiary after a few iterations. So comfortable we’d become that by the time we reached the Elvas Wye, where the coastal and central lines reconnect just east of Sacramento, we were ready to abandon post. With each junction we were assured that this train would take us clear into the Pacific Northwest without incident. Eugene for sure. Portland, probably. Perhaps even Seattle. And when we would’ve reached the colder climes and mountain passes north of Shasta later that night, the protection of the crew cab would’ve spared us certain discomfort. But it might have been a shortage of that very discomfort that instilled a sense of lack, for every perk that was offered to us by this cab, this train, was at the expense of our adventure. Other rides on the same train were neither an option, as it was constructed entirely of double-stacked 53s and piggybacks. At Roseville we attempted to look a gift-horse in the mouth and plot our next move over lunch at the café just paces from the north mouth of the yard. But Roseville came and went, the train never slowing enough for a safe departure.
Just north of Redding, we perched upon the rear-facing nose cone again, to better appreciate the lush greenery about us. With the sun now low upon the horizon, harsh shadows of mountains and treetops cast long across the snaking Sacramento River, whose course we followed. Mt. Shasta loomed further north, whitened with snow, its presence mixing with that of the falling temperatures to foreshadow some alternate story of what happened to us that night, had we stayed on. But when the sun set and our train rolled into the sleepy town of Dunsmuir for a scheduled crew-change, we wrote a simpler story, based around the comforts of pizza, beer, motel rooms and television, living vicariously aboard our former train (which by then was approximately knee-deep in snow and sub-freezing temperatures as it crested into the Cascades) while we nodded off to a 70s horror flick called “Terror Train”.
A dozen hours later we convened upon a trackside café for breakfast, where they’d surely seen our type before. It was just as we’d scraped the last of the eggs from our plates that the familiar rumble caught our attention. The new train paraded its way through the middle of town, displaying all of its ride-friendly wares for us to select from, and then stopped for its crew-change just long enough for us to climb aboard and hole away in the cubbies of several Canadian grainers before it dragged us back into the pines and up the steady grade. The rhythms of the track beat like snares against the textural dissonance of the metal-on-metal whines that emanated from every wheel around every curve, and the music reverberated back to us via the canyon cathedral below. On the tightest curves, when the noise was most intense, we could spy each other from our respective grainers, each of us standing and clutching a crossbar, facing outward toward the better of our two vistas, unstated but cumulatively agreed upon by sheer turnout alone. And when the curve was long enough, we could spy the rider in the red jacket about fifteen cars ahead of us, doing the same thing.
From some perspectives, snow-capped Shasta merged seamlessly with pillowy white clouds traced with gray, lending all the more radiance to the places where sunlight and blue sky broke through. In one of those places, we spotted a bald eagle resituating itself amidst its oversized nest that rested precariously atop the highest and sagging limb of a lightening-stricken tree, each playing its respective part in one collective scene of hobbled nobility. From other perspectives, a roaring river of rusted metal railcars tore through its well-worn corridor, merging seamlessly with nothing save the handful of souls that rode within or upon it, each playing their respective part in another collective scene of hobbled nobility.
By the time snow could be found on the tracks below us, we’d traded California for Oregon, and in the notorious yard at Klamath Falls we hid silently for hours, deep within the bellies of our strange Canadian grainers, sharing clandestine text-messages between them regarding all matters of movement, yard operations, location and humor, like modern-day Cold Warriors. In other places, when stopped on an isolated section of doubletrack in wait for a southbound freighter to clear itself from the singletrack, we’d reconvene trackside to combine our solo experiences. At one place, the rider in the red jacket came back to acknowledge us, and once he’d gone his female companion came back to do the same. Through mild conversation and querying, it was apparent to them and to us that nobody’s throat would be slit during the night. They were young and dirty and beautiful, and were in it for the long haul, so we sent them off with much of what we wouldn’t be needing, since it seemed that we’d be in Portland by suppertime.
By the time we neared the summit of the Cascades, we could touch the clouds. The setting sun was lost in the pines to our west, and every former shadow was now cast in ice. A deep guttural vibration resonated the string of metal railcars to the tune of the engines as they billowed their black. Even our best efforts couldn’t keep it from entering our lungs. The meter of time slowed and eventually stopped when our own cantankery ceased in wait for the daily southbound Amtrak. Periodically, we could hear the echo of its engines bouncing off adjacent mountains from the canyon below, providing due warning that accommodated miniature hikes away from our grainers to defecate in communion with nature.
Gravity paved the way for our downhill run, sometimes so fast and fierce that we pondered the name of the man who was sleeping at the brake lever. Blurs of white were broken by tunnels of black like a stream of binary riding on a carrier of sub-freezing wind. When we were no longer pressed against the bottoms of the clouds, we could once again see through them into the deep and dark blue of a post-sunset sky. And when the dense pines so bogged in snow were gradually replaced by barns and grazing fields, the clanging of the bells of the first crossing we’d intersected in hours signaled our arrival into the suburbs of Eugene under the cover of nightfall.
We could hear taunts of the trains racing through town in the not-so-distant distance, from the quiet switchyard on the outside of town where our train came to rest and released the air from its brakes. We were low-priority freight, and were being treated as such. After a significant spell of absolute stillness, we made good use of the dark to hold congress in the narrow strip of rocky ballast between our train and the fence separating the switchyard from some variety of factory that would occasionally interject with a deafening hiss, as if in opposition to our proposed measures. The first time the brakeman rode by on a silent set of boxcars being pushed from much further ahead, we petrified as if we’d seen a ghost, his flashlight rhythmically swinging in a lackadaisical motion that seemed more fluid than natural physics would permit. And when he returned time and time again like the night-shift prison guard, we watched him pass from deep inside our cubbies.
We lost hours in that switchyard, napping with one eye open, half-heartedly concerned with the future. The crew’s flashlights could be seen as they walked about the engines an easy half-mile ahead. Had they not been there, we could commit fully to our abandonment of the train in pursuit of genuine rest. But for as long as they took interest in this train, there was hope that it would eventually roll forth. So when, amidst the silence, the delicate sound of air passing through the pneumatics of the braking system finally tickled our eardrums, we knew to expect those first few centimeters of crawl before the slack between each coupling would be let out into the full-force SLAM! that would christen our departure onto the next leg of the journey. And when it finally happened, it happened just like that.
Under way, the northern midnight air crept down every collar and up every sleeve, loaded with icy drizzle that performed tactical acrobatics to ensure discomfort. My companions took cover deep inside the grainers, wrapped in down feathers and insulated from the cold metal surfaces by planks of cardboard. In the absence of such brilliant foresight, I draped myself in an undersized cotton blanket that I’d purchased ten years prior in Tijuana for ninety pesos, took bumps from a thermos full of cold caffeine, and stood on the insulated rubber soles of my twenty-dollar boots, propped in such a way so that if I were to fall asleep I’d stumble away from the churning teeth that gnashed consistently and indiscriminately mere paces from my platform. When the train would stop, and it did many times, I’d step down and run a few laps trackside to coerce the blood into motion and rouse my cohorts from their cubbies with ETAs and observations. They would patiently entertain me until the horn-blasts of the oncoming train were apparent and our movement was imminent and they’d return to their bedding and slumber and I to my glorified paper-towel and mind-over-matter strategies for ignoring the coldness.
At one of these stops it was apparent that there’d be no more of them before we reached Portland. Should our train have been bound for Seattle or one of the big switchyards to the east, we’d have been foolish to expect it to stop there, either. Though all of the northwestern cities had been weighed as possible destinations prior to setting out, we’d cumulatively agreed on simply heading “north”, and taking our cards as they were dealt to us. But nothing can end a long cold ride better than a soft landing, and my soft landing was in Portland. They had their sights set on Bellingham, Washington, just shy of the Canadian border. So when we rolled into the yard south of downtown pdx under a pale dawn, I made my way perpendicular from the tracks onto a nearby highway, and before the tail-end of our train had yet fallen out of sight, was whisked away to a breakfast of Belgian waffles with strawberries and whipped cream that digested famously while I slept the day away in a comfortable warm bed, though periodically waking to the slight pangs of guilt that came with knowing that my friends were still wicking up the cold Cascadian drizzle like sponges, pressing forward, with their waffles and warm beds still several days on, northbound.
©2011 by Braden Diotte