It had been nearly a year since my ecstatic daylight ride through the Wind River Canyon of Wyoming. I flew into Salt Lake City, arriving for the first time since 1999. The corruptly won 2002 Winter Games had left behind a light-rail system that I checked out, and the wave of in-fill development prosperity had enriched the previously deserted neighborhood around the two grand old train depots, turning the latter into renovated public spaces surrounded by shopping centers and food courts.
Better than the wrecking ball, I guess. I eyed the Wasatch range running beside the city and thought again of my lengthening time on the Least Coast, how it was turning into my personal version of the designated-hitter rule: something that has gone on for too long but need never be embraced.
Finding the shabby present-day depot, I caught the nightly Amtrak out to Elko, Nevada, where I intended to pursue a freight back east to Ogden, Utah, along a fabled freight-only route. Elko is a small town on I-80 that has two tracks heading west and two tracks heading east.
Since Union Pacific bought out the perishing Southern Pacific 10 years ago, the UP now has the ability to ship its transcontinental freight on those two tracks, good surge capacity but arguably a waste of resources for many years. My plan was to ride across the Great Salt Lake on a 12-mile-long rock causeway, the longest railroad viaduct in the world. In 1959 the causeway replaced a wooden trestle that had stood in place since 1904. It has not had passenger service since 1983; once again, the car-loving, train-shorting society forces one to become an outlaw to see something.
I arrived in Elko on schedule by Amtrak’s standards. There was one 24-hour casino and restaurant, the Red Lion, that I remembered from days gone by. After having a steak at about 5 a.m., I hoofed along the old highway and downhill toward the railroad yard. Hiding in Elko presents a problem, since it is a desert town with no woods. On one side of the tracks, behind barbed wire, somebody farms sand, far as I can tell. On the town side, there is a string of light industrial properties with no more cover for the miscreant. I did what I could by sitting on top of a short hill. There were parked truck trailers blocking view of me from above, and drivers on the road below would have to roll down the window and stare uphill to see me.
At about 8 a.m., as the sun moved upward and the pounding heat grew, the headlight of the first eastbound popped into view. I watched the entire train cruise by until it stopped for a crew change. Absolutely nothing was ridable — it alternated sealed boxcars and reefer cars that had only open-view decks on the rear, under noisy compressors. Out of desperation, I jumped a reefer car, figuring my earplugs would at least protect me from hearing damage. Of course, it was a vain attempt to ride in the open in this day and age, and it was promptly foiled when a yard worker in a truck saw me.
Off I leaped, scaling the barbed-wire fence into the brush (the “sand farm”), while the rail cruised back and forth beside the train to ensure I was no longer on it. Eventually he was satisfied and let the train go, while I watched it in frustration. It was already becoming quite hot and dusty; central Nevada is never a good place to sit without shade.
A second train, a chance for a redo, showed up a few hours later. It was a stack train, which promised speed all down the line to Ogden. Finding a car with a well, I climbed in and lay flat in a crucifixion position that kept anyone on the ground from seeing any part of me through the holes in the walls. Fortunately, the Elko yard has no bridge that a cop can use to stare down into the cars. Things were going swimmingly well, the train was easing out of Elko scrub central, and then my camera fell through a hole onto the tracks.
I leaped off the moving train, undeservedly surviving the rash jump, and stood disconsolately waiting for the train to recede. When it did, I recovered the undamaged camera. A yard worker came by but saw my miserable expression and drove on. I had now failed on two trains, unheard of. Even more unheard of was the freakish way that I had blown the second one, a stack train that would have carried me in style to Utah. For the second time, I went over the barbed wire to lie on my stomach and try to be shorter than sagebrush.
When the third train came, now at 1 p.m., I had long since tired of taking precautions and strode up to a stack car only 10 cars behind the still-occupied unit. Of course, the fates rewarded me for my poor attitude — the crew either did not see me or did not care. Finally, ecstatically, I rode out of town beside the runoff-swollen river, headed for Utah.
At Wells, where the old WP and SP routes diverge, the train took the Salt Lake City turn and I felt a pang of disappointment. I would not be seeing the causeway after all. However, the Amtrak route did have its compensations in daytime. We swept into a horseshoe curve and over golden rangelands exuberantly curling up to mountain ranges. Periodically we shot out of a tunnel to yet another view of soaring rock and aching, vaulted sky, before descending to the lunar weirdness and stinging winds of the salt flats.
On the other hand, the stench of rotting beef on the hoof was a disturbing complement to the scenery. This was the first time since the Black Rock Desert ride in 1991 that I had seen and smelled so many dead animals beside the tracks. Some were cattle that the train had clobbered; farther away, their equally dead, weed-poisoned brethren dotted the landscape, their legs sticking straight up in the air. When the train hit the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake, there were thousands of seagulls, a considerable number of which also lay dead. Seagulls all look alike.
The next day I took my time, naively figuring there would be enough trains to Pocatello. I discovered that the state capitol would be closed for renovations for a few years, which scotched any in-town sightseeing plans. After riding the UTA bus to Ogden, I played slack-jawed railfan for a few hours and examined the museums inside the old train station. I then strode through a grassy passage between a junkyard and an overpass and found the waiting spot behind a boulder, which Grinch had described.
The nearby river would ordinarily have been pleasant but was a swollen man-killer this time of year. Nothing but Nevada-bound freights emerged from the yard. Feeling grumpy and disinclined to camp out all night and hold down a train through frigid darkness, I gave up as evening came on and found a $28 motel room.
The next morning, wondering if the train ran before midday, I made a point of hurriedly taking up my spot. For the first time in months, I saw another tramp staking out the yard; as usual, we did not acknowledge each other. Once again, the hours ticked by, and I was NOT going to let a no-show train immobilize me all day. When the lunch pangs struck, I trudged back to the city park where I had eaten the day before — in Utah every walk is twice as long as you expect, because Brigham Young ordained that every block be twice the normal length — and again had beef-tongue tacos.
Upon my return, I approached a Mexican tramp laundering his shirts in the river and asked him about the maddening Pocatello train situation. “They generally run’em at night. I heard one last night,” he replied. “I was sleepin’ out here about 3 o’clock. Hey, do you have a sleeping bag or something — you’re not planning to ride like THAT, are you? It gets coooold up there.” He spoke absolutely smooth English, and I had to wonder what he could have accomplished if he had had a platform in life.
The rewards of train-hopping are immense, but you undeniably spend much time in absolute frustration, staring out at tracks that say nothing and yield nothing. A second straight day had passed with nothing but Elko-bound trains. I began heading in surrender toward the Greyhound station, mentally bracing for a wretched Greyhound ride up to Pocatello. That was when a train on the third track started pulling out.
This train was the first I had seen not from the very center of the yard, so I thought, Maybe, just maybe, it will swerve up to Pocatello. I caught a grainer and watched the head end curve, against my wishes, toward Nevada like every other train I had seen these last 2 days. Immediately and exasperatedly, I jumped off.
Then I reconsidered. Hamlet is a role you should never play beside an accelerating train, but I stood there and thought how disappointing it had been to ride into SLC instead of into Ogden. This was my chance to see the causeway. Finally I bit. We rode through irrigated countryside and suddenly, in the blazing late-afternoon light, hit the pungent inland sea.
The ancestral trestle, a succession of decaying wooden pilings, soldiered on into blue infinity beside the causeway. We thundered over the lake in about half an hour; much to my amazement there were a few times when I had to hide from workmen even out here, in the middle of the Salt Lake. Darkness slammed the scenery door shut as we entered Nevada, and the temperature dropped rapidly, turning the march through Wells and the desert into a night of balling myself up inside the cubbyhole with energy only to admire the star show overhead. It was past midnight when I worked my way out of the yard and headed to the Red Lion for another chewy steak.
Abdul Rahimov has a Ph.D. in Russian history from Stanford. He studied earlier at Harvard and grew up in Illinois in a railroad-dominated town.Rahimov prefers to use a pen name to avoid attracting unnecessary attention from railroads. He lives on the East Coast when he’s not living in a train.