Locomotive whistles from Portland to Eugene

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On Friday night, August 2, 1991, I rode Tri-Met bus #17 to the Southern Pacific yard adjoining the Eastmoreland golf course. According to the map, a promising line runs down to Medford, at one point paralleling Cow Creek. To reach the yard from the nearest bus stop, one has to walk through a fairly daunting warehouse district. Two men were exchanging something through their car windows as I scurried past. A local road dead-ends at the tracks, forming one border of the golf course. A thick-trunked tree stands there, providing some cover.

It was about 8 p.m., and there were already three pros biding their time. Two of the three tramps called themselves Clark and Jam. The third was a Mexican who spoke surprisingly good English. Clark was balding and twentyish; he spoke little and amused himself with hackysack. Jam, fortyish and mustached under a billed cap, was eager to talk. “As long as we stay out of sight here, they won’t bother us,” he said, not needing to clarify who they were.

“Look, Oakland’s hot! Stay out of there. I got knifed once. Those gangs’ll kill you for that pack. If you wanna catch out on the UP over the Feather River, you can do it in Marysville next to the levee – you know, where the mission is. Can’t catch out in Niles or Livermore – it’ll be goin’ 15, 20 miles per hour there SP runs one out of K Falls down to Black Butte and straight to LA every day.”

Switching to my intended ride to Medford, he advised, “You can get out in Medford, but don’t try it in Ashland – it goes 15 miles per hour there ” He clarified why my first SP train in June had headed to McMinnville instead of Salem: “Trains with scrap metal always go to that junkyard in McMinnville.”

Jam had quite a few stories to tell, claiming to hit the road whenever he cashed his VA disability check. I found his knowledge of the routes impeccable, but as the hours wore on, it seemed unlikely that one man could have seen and done all that he claimed. Career trucker, tunnel rat in Vietnam, discoverer of drug runners’ corpses beside the tracks I had no desire to call his bluff, though. Clark, when he tired of hackysack, claimed to be an on-again, off-again college student from Ohio, who was off for the time being.

About midnight Jam pricked up his ears. From hearing the locomotive whistles, he recognized that they’d hitched up the real power instead of the switching units. Running at a crouch, we scurried beside the likeliest train. Jam found a perch aboard a grain car, suitable for one rider. The Mexican crawled aboard a piggyback, hiding between the truck trailer wheels. Clark and I abandoned our piggyback for a boxcar with one open door. We leaned against the sealed door and stared out. It was my seventh train of the summer, but I still felt that peculiar thrill when it lurched to life. We were off! Beside the track, the headlights of the bull’s sedan speared the side of the train. We rolled past the brightly lit golf course, out of metropolitan Portland, into the Willamette Valley.

There would be no scenery on this, a four-hour night ride. The region between Portland and Eugene is the most densely populated and developed in Oregon. The landscape alternated between orchards and lumber mills. The latter, even more garishly lit than the Eastmoreland links and belching columns of smoke, possessed a malignant splendor. I’d viewed much, much worse, though, in the industrial waste dump that is the Soviet Union.

Clark turned out to be an irredeemable Marxist. Shouting above the din of the boxcar, he expounded on the theory of surplus value and denounced the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait. I sighed and shouted back my retorts. Discovering my academic specialty, he asked the one phrase he remembered from a tour of the USSR six years ago. “Gde botanicheskii sad?” he bellowed. “Where’s the botanical garden?” I translated. He guffawed, “You’re the first person I’ve met on the rails who knew that!”

We sat back down on the chilly, gritty metal floor. Clark produced a bottle of Gallo red wine, swigged, offered it to me. It tasted damned good because of our satisfaction on catching a train. Clark reminisced about some of his past rides, including one when his train highballed past his Ohio destination and ended up in Gary, Indiana, 14 hours later. He shouted out a toast of sorts. “Isn’t the Handy Railroad Atlas awesome?” I laughed out loud. Then we drank some more. At about 4 a.m., we rolled into SP’s Eugene main division. We went to sleep.

I blinked as the boxcar doorway gradually filled with sunlight, like a photo negative turning into a print. It was shortly after 6 a.m. “Howdy, folks,” greeted a brakewoman as she inspected our car’s lines. “You’re in Eugene.”

We scrambled out toward a certain overpass, one that spans the yard area for outgoing trains. All the north- and southbounds head out of there. Track 1 was for Portland, track 2 for Vancouver (trains with scrap metal that would pass through Portland), tracks 3 and 4 for K Falls and more rarely for Medford, track 5 for westerly destinations like Coos Bay on the coast.

By now, we’d soured a bit on the Medford run. There was only one train daily, Jam had said better scenery could be had elsewhere, the brakewoman had exclaimed, “You wanna go to Medford? Why?!” We decided to catch out back to Portland whenever we could. Digging holes and filling them, I thought. Clark had a copy of Huckleberry Finn. Murphy’s Law operated, so that on what would be my longest day of hanging out, I had nothing to read. At about 2 p.m., Jam noticed that his train was about to pull out. He pressed 2 cans of soup into my hands and slipped Clark some food stamps. Then he strode off to the 3 track. “Nice guy,” Clark mused. “But he’s always talking about violence!”

My mood approached desperation as the long day wore on. We were miles out of town; I could hardly walk to the Greyhound station. Other trains pulled out, but not ours. I could only sit it out with the ancient passivity and resignation of the tramp who recognizes that he can’t hurry the train. Clark was laughing uproariously over his book. I hated him.

Finally, shortly after 9 p.m., the train on track 2 ground to life. We’d loitered about 14 hours since waking up. Clark recognized the whistle of a long-haul locomotive. “They’re not switching it!” he stated. “It’s going out. You wait here – I’m gonna ask the engineer.” He came back breathlessly. “It’s going on to Vancouver. The engineer said he’d slow down to 15 or 20 in Portland. Let’s go!” The train was rolling out. Since Clark had more experience, he was designated the car-picker. Running beside the rear end of a car, he dropped a small bag on the deck, but there was no deck and the bag fell through to the tracks. “Holy shit!” he said.

A few cars later, a grainer popped up. This definitely had a wide rear platform and a hole drilled into the car where one could crawl in to sleep or hide from bulls. We made ourselves at home; Clark began to play blues harp. I briefly climbed to the roof, not a favorite position of mine, to enjoy a loftier view. Albany, then Salem, rippled past our train. I asked with some trepidation how we planned to jump off in Portland if the train would still be clocking 15 or 20. Clark answered, “You can get off on the fly. You know, you can still get off even if it’s going faster than you can run. I’ve done it. Sometimes I’ve been pushin’ it, but I’ve done it.” He added after a pause, “Make sure the way ahead’s clear. You don’t want to run into a streetlamp or something.”

I’d learned from some turn-of-the-century memoirs how to leave a moving train. One was supposed to lower himself to the ground, still clinging to the ladder. He was supposed to run until his speed equalled the train’s. Then he had to push himself away from the train, sprinting with his torso tilted back (to prevent falling over), until his momentum was spent. But I’d never heard of doing this if the train’s speed exceeded the tramp’s.

Clark was asleep when we approached the Portland yard. I looked around. Familiar sights – the Southeast Portland neighborhoods and McLoughlin Boulevard – popped into view. Then I saw the golf course’s light towers and the dirt track that the bull’s sedan always plied.Clark was in position to be nailed by the bull’s headlights.

Being detected had never helped a hobo. I leaned down and screamed, “Clark! WAKE UP!” He woke up immediately, pop-eyed. From my expression, he recognized the problem. Without a word, he sprang to a safer position and hid. The dreaded headlights flashed past. It was time to jump off. I swallowed hard and looked down. The train was going great guns. I tentatively lowered myself to spin my legs over the gravel. Then I pulled back up onto the platform. “It’s too fast,” I said cravenly.

To his credit, Clark didn’t excoriate me for cowardice on the spot. We were out of the yard and still zipping northward, approaching the Portland Amtrak station. Just barely, the train seemed to slow. “Try again,” he suggested. This time I could move my legs almost in pace with the train. It was probably a little over 15 mph. If I kept dashing at this unsustainable pace, I would eventually trip and turn into human dog food.

Cursing both gung-ho instructors who jump off on the fly and trains that don’t slow down in big cities, I shoved off and sprinted at an angle away from the train. My head and torso were tilted back to counter my inherited momentum. After four or five herky-jerky strides, I was able to stop. Behind me, I sensed Clark’s frame pack flying through the air. Then he fearlessly disengaged from the train. He had jumped off only an instant after me; yet he’d landed more than fifty feet away. A recurrent line ran through my head: “You gotta respect the machine.” We’d ended up among some warehouses. Consulting a Portland street map, we picked out Hawthorne and crossed the river.

Check out the previous chapter from Rail Rides and True Adventures here.