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Rail Adventure

The rush of hot, gritty air increased as we gathered speed, passing silvery rice fields bordering the Sacramento River. A few minutes earlier we had run hard through the train yard, thrown our packs ahead, and hauled ourselves onto the flatcar. The freight was headed east from Roseville, California. Our near-term goal was Utah, with little idea of when or where we’d stop. Shaded by a "piggy-back" truck trailer, we searched for a more comfortable place.

Car to Car
"There’s nothing but flatcars to the rear," I shouted, craning my neck over the edge. Turning my head into the wind, I spotted a locomotive to the front and pointed excitedly, "Looks good!!"

Ted leaned out and shouted, "That locomotive is in the middle of the train, so it’s probably empty!" Pulling our packs behind, we crawled under truck trailers and negotiated couplings between cars. Finally we climbed breathlessly up the ladder to the locomotive’s cab.

Laughing at each other’s dusty clothes, we did a damage assessment. No injuries, nothing lost, but our hands, knees, and packs showed signs of wear from our scramble. Sitting back in the cushioned engineer’s chair, I gazed distractedly out the open window thinking we were in good shape for getting across the Sierras. After that, it was anybody’s guess.

What am I doing here?
Ted and I had met during a summer job and decided to team up on this trip for different reasons. Ted needed a ride to visit his family in Iowa before returning to a Vermont teaching position. He’d ridden the rails before, claiming it was cheap and fast. I had never before considered the rails, but was now looking for an escape adventure. I was slated for another year of graduate school before a two-year Army commitment. It was 1969, and I sensed orders for Vietnam were ahead. I wanted to see as much country as possible in three weeks, hitch-hiking the Rockies while Ted continued east on the rails.
The Long Grade
The train slowed as it started the 100-mile ascent of the Sierra Nevadas. The landscape changed quickly from brown hills and scattered digger pines to forests of ponderosa. Quaffing our thirst from canteens, we appreciated the cab’s comfort and the mountain views, tinged sunset gold. Ted ventured out onto the narrow walkway outside the cab, but his timing was almost disastrous. Just as he shouted for me to join him, we hit our first Sierra tunnel. It became pitch black and I clutched for a grip. Overpowering diesel smoke forced me to hold breathing as I groped to close the windows. Ted crawled back along the walkway, found the door, and burst through, gasping. With the windows and door closed we were safe, but the tunnel seemed miles long before the train finally emerged into the dusky light.

It had long since turned dark when we felt the train slowing to a complete stop. We heard people scurrying on the gravel and the sound of muffled voices. "Let’s see what’s happening," exclaimed Ted.
"But what if they decide to throw us off? It’s not worth the risk."
"They’ve got other things to worry about," offered Ted, leaving the cabin.
We walked to a group of railway men near another locomotive, discussing the situation and barely noticing us.
"That leaves only six engines to pull this grade," observed a bespectacled older man.
"Then we’re going to have to back down to that last siding and leave some of the cars there."

When the men completed their plans and disbanded, one of them, smiling wryly, walked over to Ted and me. "We noticed from up ahead when you two creeped into the locomotive. Hope you’re comfortable!" he laughed.
When Ted and I returned to our cab, I admitted, "You’re right; they have no problem with us."

Sparks, Nevada
It was after midnight when the train crested the Sierras for the quick descent to the Nevada desert. The train stopped at Sparks, a small town east of Reno. We saw the man who spoke to us earlier and learned that the next train would leave around 7 a.m. for Ogden, Utah. Bright flashing casino lights caught our eye from the main drag of this dirty, single-storied town. In need of food and a diversion, we walked toward the action.We each ordered some burgers and lost only a few dollars in the slot machines. A spot in the weeds next to the train yard was a place to grab a few hours of sleep. When we awoke we searched another empty locomotive, but had to settle finally for a boxcar. Two drifters joined us in the car and we swapped tales of our trip to Sparks as the freight gathered speed.

Great Basin Desert
By mid-morning we were well into the desert. Sage brush and parched earth stretched as far as we could see. The intense heat, incessant noise, and jostling began to drain our energy. When we had to stop on a siding for a westbound freight, the hot air shimmered in deathly silence. We climbed the boxcar ladder and sat on the roof, straining to see the approaching freight. It seemingly broke the sound barrier, passing with a tremenous rush of air and thunderous clap.

"Bull"’s Threat
Later that afternoon our freight again stopped in Elko, Nevada. "We need to keep out of sight," said Ted. "The bulls here take themselves seriously." Having never heard the term, I quickly understood that a "bull" was a rail yard guard.

As we waited for the train to restart, a "bull" leaned in, and scanned the car. Spotting us, he raised his billy club, shouting "Out of the car!" None of us moved. "OUT OF THE CAR!!" he repeated.
"We’re not moving!" shouted Ted.
The burly man looked at each of us in turn, deciding not to take us on. He raised his club again, "The bull at the next stop has a shotgun. If you don’t ‘vamos’ right now, you’ll be feeling buckshot. I’m calling to ensure he’s ready."
"WE’LL be ready!" challenged Ted, raising a steel ball that he’d found earlier. With Ted’s courage buoying us, we held our ground. When the train jolted forward and the bull stepped back, Ted remarked, "He’s bluffing. There’s no more stops until Ogden."

Parting Routes
After crossing the Great Salt Lake trestle in moonlight, we reached Ogden just before dawn. Dirty and exhausted,we shouldered our packs and found an all-night truck stop. We ignored the looks of the few patrons as we wolfed down the food and many pitchers of water.

When we said our farewells, Ted and I exchanged phone numbers to later compare notes on our trips. The drifters struck out toward Salt Lake; Ted headed back to the train yard; and I hit the road hitchiking, headed toward Yellowstone. I later lost his phone number, and he probably did likewise.. Although we haven’t communicated since, I still recall that rail ride and Ted’s "WE’LL be ready!"

Will Benson
Will Benson has been writing travel and adventure articles since 1985. This remembrance from his pre-author days is the first and last time that he's ridden the rails, but he claims to still treasure the experience.
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