Eluding the cops from Richmond to Mojave

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There are better places than Richmond to hang out in after midnight. I was reluctantly eyeballing the BNSF yard in this ghetto and refinery town when headlights trained on me and a lightbar came on. It was the city PD, not the bull. I stood up very slowly, keeping hands visible. The last thing I sought was an officer-involved shooting.

Since non-RR cops are rarely out to bust tramps, I played it straight. “I’m hoping to catch a train tonight. I don’t know what your policy is …”

“I don’t have one. You know what kind of neighborhood you’re in?!”

“It’s not a good one.”

“It’s not a good one at all! Why were you hiding behind a couch? You’ll get mugged and you’ll have no money and a hole in your head! Good luck – I hope you catch your train. Just don’t come back to this neighborhood!”

Under the watchful eye of three cars’ worth of Richmond cops, I marched several hundred yards north. The train would be faster and more dangerous to catch, but I eventually found a decent hideout. The street beside the tracks, though serviceable-looking, is abruptly closed off. I lay invisibly on the other side of the concrete barriers.

At 12:40 am a short pig train rolled out. For the first time in six months, I charged out, snatched a grab-iron, and escaped my emotional prison.

This journey carried an element of revenge. Last March in Barstow, I tried to catch a freight for the Tehachapi Mountains. The bull evicted me twice and I went home a disgraced Greyhound-riding loser. Now I was approaching from the opposite end.

Every spring the rains revive the Tehachapis and turn them a vivid Irish green, but passengers have been excluded from this run since 1971. Rail policy has forced scenery buffs into the civil disobedience of hoboing.

During the night ride out of Richmond, we stopped several times to pick up cars, so I moved to a well. In the moonlight, pools of flood water glistened in the ruined fields of the San Joaquin Valley. Sunrise dispelled the dismal cold and revealed blossoming almond orchards near Bakersfield, where I settled back for the joyous climb into the green and sunlit uplands.

The spring rains have transformed the Tehachapis into a chocolate -and-emerald canvas of tilled fields and hillside pastures. I leaned against my car wall spellbound, lost in admiration and in contentment at having achieved a frustrated mission. After traversing those scenic glories, the tracks dropped to the desert floor. I was on the ladder to dismount in Mojave when a car passenger threw something at me.

This was too much. I recklessly dismounted the moving train and headed for the car, clutching a rock. Fortunately for all of us, the crossing gate lifted and the motorist “sped” off.

I had jumped off in Mojave solely to turn around. Soon enough, an Oakland-bound UP/SP hotshot stopped for some switching and I found a well, about 80th of 120 cars. Seven mixed units were hauling the monster.

We returned to the Tehachapis under a patchy sunset. A light mist had settled over the gentle, rolling folds of the landscape. Darkness fell and a demoralizing cold set in. I alternately slept or shivered in my sleeping bag while having weird, staccato dreams.

Around 3:30 a.m., we pulled into an unfamiliar, garishly lit yard bordered by a military supply depot. I found out it was Lathrop, south of Stockton, and returned to my well.

After three hours of immobility, a black SP unit and three Armour yellows hitched to my end of the train and hauled it past a floodlit penitentiary. Slowly, I realized that I was in for an unexpected bonus. Because of last year’s merger, we would be heading for Oakland on the Altamont Pass/Niles Canyon stretch of the Feather River Route. No passengers have seen it since 1969. We crested the pass, surrounded by windmill-topped hills and heartbreakingly green pastures. Then the train slowly rumbled through Sunol and rugged Niles Canyon, the last bucolic remnant in the East Bay.

All good things come to an end; so did this ride in a dismount near the Coliseum. I spent the post-trip in a bit of a trance. Something about hoboing – maybe the long hours for reflection in a landscape meant for giants – crystallizes regrets and yearnings, large and small alike. Occasionally I wish that my old cross-country coach could be there to time these all-or-nothing wind sprints alongside a departing train. But you can never be 17 again.

(Read more Rail Rides and True Adventures)