Chasing freights in Dick Cheney’s hometown

There are few experiences sadder than returning to a Western railroad yard 12 years later.

In 1993, starting out of Laurel, Montana, I had launched a two-week journey — between bouts of whitewater rafting, hiking, and driving around BLM lands — over the Bitterroots and Cascades all the way to Puget Sound. One of my many vivid memories of that summer, and of so many others in the 1990’s, was the extent of the hobo population in towns like Laurel.

Men would rise out of bushes and weeds when a freight arrived, or they would jump off en masse short of the yard and its waiting bull. Now that population was gone, decimated by welfare reform and several nationwide security crackdowns.

For 12 years I had remembered the road not taken out of Laurel, the southward BNSF turn toward Cheyenne and Denver. I had always placed Wyoming on the bottom of my list of Western states, because its trackage tends to traverse rangelands, high plains, and the like; my first priority had been canyons and Rocky Mountain passes endangered by track abandonment.

Now I had the time and inclination to revisit Laurel and go south 540 miles to Cheyenne. The plan would take me down the arid center of Wyoming through the Bighorn Basin and the Wind River Canyon, on a route without passenger service since 1967. Train buffs consider the canyon the photographic highlight of the line: a winding, 12-mile-long passage through soaring granite walls in the Owl Creek Mountains. The railfans generally mourn the rarity of trains (four to six daily, each direction) and their propensity to hit the canyon at night.

I rode into Laurel on the single daily bus from Billings, leaving behind Polish backpackers headed for Yellowstone and other points west, and headed to the scene of my crimes in 1993. It looked much the same: the same field bounded by tracks on all three sides, the same gas station east of the north-south tracks.

I hid behind a storage shed for several hours, confident that the sheeple patronizing the casino and gas station would not deviate one step from the care and feeding of their cars. Eventually, the overly large hoboing pants I had bought at a Salvation Army became untenable.

The last thing I wanted was to chase a freight while my pants fell around my ankles, so, gripping the waistband, I trooped off to the local thrift store and spent 75 cents on a belt. No longer wearing a clown costume, I turned back toward the shed and my stashed frame pack to see a departing train that meant business. Since it had the old “Jolly Green Giant” BN units up front rather than MRL blue, there was a very high chance — like 100 percent — that it was headed south. My trudge turned into a run.

Meanwhile, much to my relief, the cop or supervisor watching the train parked north of the main rather than south, so that the train blocked his view of me. As the freight veered toward the promised land, only a civilian at a crossing saw me catch a grain car. The train stopped two times in the first 50 miles, giving me the dreary conviction that I had hopped a local. But things picked up, and after miles of coulees and irrigated farmland flanked by distant escarpments, the tracks paralleled the Bighorn River between variegated rock walls fading softly into the dusk, a foretaste of the canyon I hoped to see in daylight.

At 10:30 p.m., I pulled into tiny Greybull for yard work. Besides a crew change, the rails had car switching on their mind. My train slammed to a halt with such force that I was thrown into the bulkhead. Soon enough, the brakes popped. We had lost our units, as well as the rear of the train. My car, once roughly 10th from the rear, was now the second to last, and we had no freddy on the end, meaning that I had to relocate fast. Those cars were going to be dead for hours, maybe days.

Then came one of those moments that reward experience. A string of pig cars, which I remembered from the end of my old train, cruised by, and it had the crucial freddy blinking on the end. THIS was the live train. I zipped across the gravel and clambered aboard, spreading a tarp on the floor of my latest car and lying there in a parody of sleep. At 4:30 a.m., six hours after I had reached Greybull, the train took off; the upside of rotting in town overnight was that a daylight passage through the Wind River Canyon was now inevitable.

The countryside fanned out under a rising sun that gained heat and intensity almost minute by minute, burning off the desert nighttime cold as we pounded out the 100 remaining miles to the canyon. Suddenly, the freight was winding through a maze of granite and gnarled trees. We were on the western bank, across the river from US 20; the sun blazed against the bluffs or directly in my face or onto the river, depending on what direction the track was pointing.

Next came Boysen State Park on my right, a reservoir that to my eye appeared hideously diminished by drought, since rock formations were rising out of the dwindling water. Afterward, the train hit sagebrush badlands so free of eyewitnesses that periodically I climbed up on top to be blasted by the stiff summer wind, until we halted on a slight downward grade west of Casper. On my right, cars buzzed heedlessly into and out of town, but we were immobilized for whatever operational reason.

Noon passed, 1:00 p.m. passed, and we stayed in suspended animation somewhere above downtown Casper. High noon on a motionless steel car can be mighty uncomfortable, especially on a summer day in Wyoming. I could not see how close I was to town, but I preferred to find out on foot rather than die wondering. At least the walk was downhill, and eventually I reached a Hardee’s, where I hydrated on free refills and, at long last, brushed my teeth and scrubbed my face.

Various place names and photographs in downtown Casper, maybe 15 minutes away, soon made it clear I was chasing freights in Dick Cheney’s (rather hardscrabble) hometown. It turned out to be a good day for reading and brooding, because my former ride did not enter town ’till 4:00 p.m. As of 7:00 p.m., it and another eastbound remained tied down in the yard, subject to a post-9/11 security requirement: the paranoid good people at F. E. Warren AFB north of Cheyenne prohibit any train from passing thru their base at night, lest anybody with a name like Abdul Rahim jump off a grain car to steal an MX missile for home use.

In disgust I stalked across town to the bus station/Parkway Plaza Hotel. Judging from my sources, Casper to Cheyenne was not a stretch that justified waiting all night. I had held down my train for 316 out of 540 planned rail miles. There were people to see in Colorado and thoughts to entertain about someday crossing the Great Salt Lake eastward and then making a left up the state of Utah into Idaho. Hopping freights may seem like a slow way to reach a Basque restaurant, but dreams are all we have.