Train Rides

In the winter of ’75-76 I had decided to go to the UK to travel after a South America trip fell through. The plan was to hitchhike with Lars from Santa Rosa to Dunsmuir and ride freights up to Vancouver where I could get a cheap flight. Lars was going to visit family in BC. Surprisingly, my parents offered to give us a ride to Middletown. We left a couple of weeks before Christmas, 1975.

The four of us are heading out of town towards Middletown. On the way, Lars entertains us with a very long and involved story about how he and Dave Anderson had bought two VW vans in Spokane and driven them to Santa Rosa. Both vans broke down multiple times; the only saving grace was that they never broke down simultaneously, so there was always one to drive to the nearest town for parts. The motors of both vans were rebuilt during the course of the struggle home, which lasted ten days. The vans’ interiors had been stripped, so Lars and Dave were reduced to sleeping on the oil, gasoline and grease-soaked floors. All of their clothes were filthy and saturated with petroleum products. My parents and I listened in fascination. The highlight of the story is when Lars says that at some point in this living nightmare he started to believe that he had been killed in a car wreck and gone to hell.

Dropped off in Middletown, we go to a gas station to take a leak. We walk into the men’s room and I take the urinal. Lars looks at the filthy toilet and announces “I don’t want to pollute my piss.” And starts to piss in the sink. I finish and go outside just as another patron heads in…

We get to Dunsmuir before dark and find a train waiting to head north. This is my first time hopping freights, but Lars is an old hand at it. I look up at the chest-high cars we have to get up on. “They’re big up close, huh?” Lars says. The first car we get on is a tanker of some sort, black and greasy. The train starts off, slowly climbing along the Sacramento as the moon starts to rise. It is cold and a foot of new snow has fallen. I sit comfortably, not wanting to move much as the train sways and jolts, but Lars takes off and clambers all around the car.

Eventually we clear the Sacramento canyon and head north over the lava plains at the foot of Mt. Shasta. It is clear, beautiful and very cold. The new snow blankets the plain and reflects back the bright moonlight and the mountain towers over us. For some reason the train halts and we hop off our tanker and scurry along to a more comfortable boxcar with a wooden floor that helps absorb some of the punishing vibrations.

Klamath Falls is the first yard we will come to and Lars is worried; apparently the word is that the yard bulls are mean and persistent there. At some time early in the morning we arrive and stealthily leave our car and hide in a dark corner of the yard. It appears as if another northbound is getting ready to leave, so we work our way along it until we come to an open boxcar. Wanting to get out of sight, we pick this one and in we go. Soon we can hear the sequential clang of the couplings headed our way as the engines take up the slack; the jolt of the car’s first motion coincides with its coupling’s CLANG and we are off, out of K Falls with no problem.

Except for the car. Instead of the nice cushy wooden car we had, this is a cold, noisy torture chamber. It is like sitting out in the snow in a water heater having three maniacs pound on the outside with crowbars. We have hours to go and can hardly hear each other speak. We settle down for the ride.

Somehow we manage to fall into a troubled, light sleep and awake with the dawn.  We are riding down the left bank of a large clear river passing through a canyon with bare grassy slopes. The river looks big, 5000cfs or so and we spend a long time speculating what it might be. John Day? Deschutes? We are so provincial that we have absolutely no idea of Oregon geography or what river the main north-south train line on the West Coast might follow.

Our train finally hits the Columbia, and we cross to the Washington side. The snow is gone now but it is still very cold, and the skies are grey and somber as we rattle and bang in our cold steel chamber down the great river to Vancouver.

Lars has no comments about the police in the Vancouver yard. Our train slows and we wander the yard wondering what to do next. We walk down a very short train with some large, sort of cylindrical objects covered in tarps on a few of the flatcars. Just then a yard man appears headed down the train towards us. We get ready to run for it when he yells out, singsong, “Hotline for Seattle, who wants the hotline for Seattle?” We do, run back down the train to a flatcar and board.

Hotline indeed. This train has probably 20-30 cars and four engines. It feels like we get up to  70 or 80 miles and hour and hold it the whole way. Now the cold starts to bite.

By the time we get to Seattle it is dark again. At least the rain and snow have held off. We lose the Hotline and get on a slow train headed through town, hanging on the back porch of a hopper car. It is an odd sensation to go through downtown Seattle this way and have all the car headlights spot us as we pass the crossings down under the Alaska Way Viaduct.

In the yard at the north end of town we decide on a break and head off until we find a Safeway. Brussel sprouts are on sale, and at a very good price, so we get a bunch of them and retreat to the hollow square in the center of a small Christmas tree lot  near the store entrance and start to boil them up. As we sit there, warming our hands on the steam, a very agitated man runs in and yells “Hey! Hey! Hey! What are you doing!” and then stops as he sees the steam pouring out of our pot. Breathing  heavily, he says “God, I thought the trees were on fire!”. Surprisingly, he laughs at himself, and at us, cooking our Christmas brussel sprouts, and lets us stay and have our supper.

Back at the yard we find a flatcar loaded with 3-foot concrete pipes, stacked many feet high. Plastic end covers provide us a good windbreak and we bed down. It is clear again and cold.

Lack of sleep from last night has made us tired and we are relatively snug, so we fall asleep. When the train slows, some unkown time later we both wake up and look blearily around. The Sound is close on our left, and to the north and northwest we can see the lights of a city. “Bellingham?” The train stops. We peer around trying to figure out where we are for a while longer, until the train starts to move again. Suddenly, we realize where we in fact are: “Blaine!”  Which means that if the train is starting up again, it has stopped because it is at or close to the Canadian border, which means it will cross soon, which means that if we don’t get off NOW we will get busted big time for trying to ride a freight across the international line.

With no time to pack, and the train accelerating, we just start chucking our gear off, and when it is all gone we follow.  We spend the next few minutes in the dark collecting packs, sleeping bags, etc. along fifty yards of track.

With the arrogance and ignorance of youth, we walk straight to the border and present ourselves at Canadian Customs and Immigration. I have a passport and $500. Lars has about $20. It is 3AM, we are both filthy head-to-toe and Lars is in his usual tatters. I am relatively natty, wearing my new heavy wool pants I had bought for my winter hitchiking trip.

An icily polite immigration man looks us over with obvious distaste and asks us the purpose of our visit. “I am going to the UK”, I say and get back “Why are you leaving from here, rather that from your home?” “Flights are cheaper from Vancouver” (the truth). He nods, accepting this, but still not liking us. To Lars: “And you?”. “I’m visiting relatives on Vancouver Island”.

He looks at us. “How much money do you have?” I show him. He turns to Lars, who blurts out “Half of that is mine!” The immigration officer looks at me. “Is that true?” “He can have it if he needs it” I answer. At this point he gets tired of us and hauls us off into separate rooms, where they grill us for a while.

Finally they bring us out together. The original immigration officer hands me my passport and says “You may proceed. Mr. Holbek, you may not, and you must immediately return to the US.”

Lars and I walk back out into the sodium lights, shake hands and he heads off into the darkness, the last I see of him for a number of months. I head east for the truck crossing several miles away, hoping to get a ride at this hour of the morning.

In December of 1976 Lars and I went on a climbing trip in the Sierras. This was the drought year, and it was for that reason that we even could think of climbing where we went: Donner Summit. There was no snow. At the time, I was attending UC Berkeley and living in the walk-in closet of an apartment I otherwise shared. The apartment was up behind the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, just east of Lake Merritt. Lars met me there, and we hopped a freight out of the Oakland yard. Our plan was to change trains at Roseville, where we would catch a train over the summit,, where, if it slowed enough, we’d hop off. Failing that, we’d ride on over to Sparks and hitch back to the summit and climb. For some reason lost to memory, we made two trips.

We catch a night bus at Lake Merritt and head down into the free-fire zone of West Oakland, which in these mid ‘70s is rife with violent crime. Soon we are the only whites  in the bus, and in the harsh interior light I can see the other passengers, mostly workers heading home, eyeing us. No doubt our shabby clothes and huge packs filled with climbing and winter camping gear seems affected to them, poor people who can’t afford the luxury of playing at it on vacation. I am nervous about wandering the streets down here, but Lars is nonchalant: “I wouldn’t think this was such a bad neighborhood if you didn’t keep telling me.”

Our first foray takes us somewhere east of Roseville, and for whatever reason we return to Oakland.  Hitching rides back, we get picked up by a longhair in a muscle car. I get in the back. We listen to an 8-track of “Cat Scratch Fever” by Ted Nugent very loud and for a long time, the speakers close to my ears . It is the first and last time I knowingly listen to any music by Nugent except for hearing the title song on the radio for years after.

Picking up a westbound in Roseville, we ride in the cab of a small dump truck high up on a car carrier. It is clean, warm and has a nice view. We are comfortable and happy, get to Oakland and make it home unscathed.

At my apartment, Lars discovers that his tent is missing. This is a major blow, since a tent is a big investment. We head back to the yards and wander around until we see the dump truck we rode in on across a huge fenced-in parking lot. After much yelling we get the attention of a worker, who hears us out and goes over to the truck to “look for the tent”. He comes back and says it isn’t there. We don’t believe him, but head back to my place, pack and go back to climb, taking my tent.

Another freight to Roseville, where we again switch trains. Since it’s cold, Lars wants to get into an engine. Pulling up over the Sierra, they stack 4-5 engines at the head of the train. We find an empty one and climb in. Another advantage besides warmth, according to Lars: there is a speedometer which helps to pass the time.

We ride over the summit in warmth with good views, but the train doesn’t slow down and so we get hauled into Sparks, a truly dismal place. We work our way back through the nightmarish city-edge of Reno-Sparks until we can get a clear shot at a ride back up to Donner Summit.

Arriving, we get a place to camp. We have to go a ways to a creek where we break ice for water, but there really is no snow at all and we both find it surprisingly unnerving, this being December.

One of the climbs we wind up doing is a short, hard 5.10, a thin crack in a vertical dihedral. Lars can’t lead it so I try. Somehow I get up it with my usual damage: completely trashed hands. Some time later, I take a fall, and smack my right kneecap directly on a little nubbin, almost immobilizing myself.

This of course ends the trip, so we decide to wait to see if we can jump on a freight slowing down as it crosses into the snowshed. While waiting, we run into some other climbers from Santa Rosa. One of them, Malcolm, is particulary disliked by Lars. I don’t know why, but I get the impression that Malcolm thinks that he is as good a climber as Lars, which infuriates Lars, who thinks that Malcom is a fool and a dork. A male standoff ensues and I am the staff that Malcolm is to be beaten with. It turns out that Malcolm had been working on that same corner that I had lead after Lars couldn’t do it. A long detailed argument between them over who could claim first ascent rights ensues. Malcolm seems to have done it before I did, but he had tried and failed a number of times apparently. “He did the first on-sight lead then” Lars proclaims smugly.

Eventually a train comes by. Lars gets on with my pack. Barely able to walk, let alone run, I watch as his outstretched hand starts to receed as I lose ground. Facing being left behind on the Summit with no gear, I manage a burst of speed and make it with Lars’ help.

In Roseville, we leave our train and get into an unhitched boxcar to wait for a train to Oakland. We pass the time with a number of “shorty-buddies”, real hobos, real alcoholics with whom even I can’t bring myself to drink.

We are out of food, so I give Lars the last of my money and he heads into town to get something to eat. Cold and hungry, my mind’s eye is imagining a loaf of bread and some cheese, something nourishing. About a half an hour later Lars shows up, face shining with pleasure and pulls out a half-gallon of strawberry ice milk and a box of Nutter Butter Peanut Butter Cookies.

On an evening train back to Oakland, we ride towards the setting sun, comfortable behind billets of freshly milled lumber on a flat car with ends on it. The floor is wood, the lumber is clean and smells sharply of pitch even in the wind. Between the end of the flatcar behind us and all of the lumber in front of us we are secure and out of the wind. The tracks lie to the north of a huge marshy body of water and the sun is shining with a bright, clear yellow light between its reflection from the marshes and the dark clouds above. It is damp and cold- a perfect winter scene whose view is unhindered by any enclosure. This is why you ride freights.

Lars pulls his dirty orange down jacket out of his pack to get warm. Half way out, we see that one sleeve and a good part of the body of the jacket is coated with honey. Digging deeper,  Lars finds his tupperware honey container has opened.  Rather than warming himself, Lars spends the next half hour licking his jacket clean. I do not offer to help.

We arrive in the dark, filthy and black with railroad grime, not to mention several days of climbing. Lars has somehow torn the right leg of his pants to above his knee. Now comes negotiating Oakland, from the yard to Lake Merritt, late at night. Apparently we are protected by the spirit that provides for fools and the insane. Those whom we pass look at us like ghosts and leave us to our business…