Crossing Stampede in my secret life

We all need secret lives. I had to flee again, back into the wilderness aboard a freight. They say the Lord protects fools and children, so I was counting on double protection. It came in handy because I did some of my luckiest and least astute riding on this trip.

My target was the Stampede Pass route on the old NP between Auburn and Pasco, Wash. Back in 1983, it was mothballed but not abandoned. On December 7, 1996, after the boom in Pacific Rim trade had overwhelmed the other cross-Cascades mainline, Stampede Pass resumed operation. The economic dynamism of my parents’ native country partially accounted for the reopening, a reversal of history that almost never happens in railroading. Now we hoboes had that rarest of windfalls in life – a second chance.

On Friday morning I found the weedy depression between the Auburn wye tracks and sat. And sat some more. From 5:20 a.m. to 2 p.m. – nearly nine hours – not a single eastbound rolled out. I was so desperate that I chased and jumped an eastbound eight-car, freddy-equipped string on the extremely slim chance that it might be headed to Ellensburg. There have been stranger things in railroading.

But inevitably the train backed up and the crewman at the switch drawled, “You just did all that runnin’ for nothin’, son. We’re headed to Tacoma, not to Yakima. Don’t go catchin’ trains like that. People get all cut up.” I slunk away, hoping I hadn’t poisoned the well for future train-hoppers in Auburn.

There were people to see that night in Yakima, so I gave up and took Greyhound east. Now I had only one chance left, my return trip, to ride over Stampede.

On Sunday morning I nailed a westbound in the pretty college town of Ellensburg. It covered only a mile before stopping again. Long inured to inexplicable delays, I was prepared to sit indefinitely. But a tramp stalked past my car. “There’s another train right in front of us.”

“Who told you that?” I challenged with my usual charm.

“I saw it,” he replied. Then, because my expression must have been less than intelligent, he added dryly, “I figure that if you got two trains, the one in front is going first.”

I had never come across two same-direction trains stacked up on the same track. If the tramp hadn’t rescued me from my own stoical incuriosity, I could have sat for untold hours on the second westbound. “Thanks for tipping me off,” I muttered as we picked out separate cars.

After an awkward pause, he said, “Yeah.” I wondered when was the last time anybody had ever thanked him for anything.

A light Washington drizzle accompanied us as the mixed freight departed the lush Kittitas Valley hayfields. It slowly climbed past low basalt cliffs into the Snoqualmie National Forest. The rain cut the visibility but gave the Cascades landscape a misty Chinese-painting effect. At last I was experiencing this nearly secret route. There were fresh stumps next to the track; the section gangs must have chopped down overgrown firs that blocked views of the line. Crumbling trestles led to ghostly, abandoned tracks that curved off into the forest. Lulled by the train’s rhythms, I fell again into dreaming of times long past and things that never were.

Naturally we picked up speed on the downgrade. The sun broke out in Lester, near milepost 60, dispelling the cool grayness of the Stampede crossing. I glanced at the aspen-shaded riverbanks that are being despoiled by tract housing. Every train journey reveals new subdivisions.

Happy to have scored a daylight trip over Stampede, I jumped off in Auburn. My luck had held for six years, and I had learned something along the way. There will be other rides but not at this pace. My student days are over.



The Stampede ride ended one stage of my life; it was my last hobo trip as a graduate student. Some years ago, I showed up in Portland’s Brooklyn yard with nothing but a gym bag and a rage to learn. The West is full of secret places that sing to the heart. You can’t see them by Amtrak and you can’t see them by car. I did what I had to.

The memory of them all lingers still. Stampede Pass. The Deschutes River. The Feather River Canyon. Tennessee Pass. The Royal Gorge. Raton Pass. The Columbia River Gorge. The Blue Mountains in winter. The Tehachapis. The Bitterroots. The Rockies. The Cascades. The Sierras. The Black Rock Desert. The Mojave Desert. The Modoc Plateau. The Pacific Coast.

I was lucky to have the gift of time. As a student, I was free from a 50-week-a-year job. And, like everyone else who has ever caught out, I was tutored by other recreational riders, lifers and railroad workers. The free time and the guidance were treasures beyond price.

My greatest debt is owed to the tramps. They would never see me again, had nothing to gain, were absolutely hard up. Yet to a man they offered information about trains and spared me the hardship of figuring everything out for myself.

In the summer of 1991, a few months before I caught a Feather River freight on the Marysville levee, a tramp and I were stalking a train. He suggested various places to catch out on the fly, including that levee. Eventually he asked, “How fast can you run?”

Fast enough, it turned out. Most of the time. Still, his question – so simple, yet so metaphorical – has haunted me ever since. I thought about it while taking notes in unheated Russian archives, then while languishing in the airless night of finishing a dissertation. My life would become a losing race with failure and despair, but I could always envision the next escape to the realm of the freights. There I had wings.

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