This has been a sad summer of watching the Union Pacific prepare to swallow up the Southern Pacific. Already some magnificent trackage is doomed. In May I said goodbye to the Royal Gorge. In August I made my pilgrimage to the Modoc Line.
The Modoc extends for 220 miles from Klamath Falls, OR, to Flanigan Jct. in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. It is some of the bleakest and most powerful landscape in the West. High desert, lava beds, stands of ponderosa pine, valleys curling toward distant ridgelines. There has been no passenger service since 1937. Having learned all this, I returned to a world that I love visiting, but would never care to inhabit.
I popped up in K-Falls on Friday morning. The long, hot trainhunt was exasperating. While I had rarely encountered so many helpful rails and tramps, I’d never encountered such diversity of opinion. Here is a sampling of advice on the Modoc:
Two rails and a hobo: “I think it’s already left.”
Two hoboes on the south end: “That’s the Modoc train right there. Doesn’t leave till tonite.” [They were right.]
One rail: “I think it’s called for 7 tonight. Look for 4 units.”
My problem was that, despite what I’d heard, there was no four-unit, lumber-dominated train in the yard. Only one southbound, headed for Dunsmuir, left all day from the middle of the yard. Many southbounds ran down the main, but I doubted the Modoc was one of them.
After the heat broke, I stalked off to the wye more than a mile south of the yard. No bulls or hoboes here. The speed might be uncatchable, but at least the Modoc train would be unmistakable when it curved left.
I was snoozing on a discarded foam pad when the Modoc arrived. It wasn’t even Friday anymore. To my relief, the train stopped and a crewman jumped out to open the switch manually. Welcome to the 1930’s!
I spotted only a long succession of sealed boxes. Hurriedly, I nailed the last of six, not four, units. The track was so decrepit that much of the time, we cruised at 10 mph. It took 10 hours to cover the 200 miles to Wendel, CA. The brakeman, who seemed almost pleased by my presence on this obscure and lonely run, hung around to talk and turned on my cab’s heater.
“They’re going to CTC [upgrade, not scrap] this line,” he claimed of Union Pacific. That was welcome news, if it is indeed true. I turned around in Wendel, CA, a sorry desert hamlet. Going on for the Modoc’s last 22 miles to Flanigan Jct would have committed me to riding another 250 miles east to Carlin, NV. By 12:30 p.m. Saturday, I was chugging back to K-Falls. The harsh rhythms of desert yielded to the irrigated wetlands of NE California. Flocks of waterfowl danced iridescently through the wildlife preserves, a farmer waved from his fence, the smell of freshly cut and stacked alfalfa embraced the open-air rider. As the day gently faded, the train was winding through high ponderosa forest and I was daydreaming aboard a bulkhead flat.
Having reached K-Falls, I looked for a ride home. The main was clear for hours. There were three trains in the yard hooked up to south-facing power, but nobody was home. I did not want to find myself on another Modoc run. However, in roaming through the yard, I unwittingly blundered into perfect position to nail a southbound.
One idle train stood between me and the main, so no passing engineer could see me. Several rows of live and dead trains were at my back, warding off the bull. A hotshot glided south; I climbed over a coupling and nailed the last unit.
This was the height of effrontery, riding a unit on a pig train. I had created a new bind for myself: how on earth to escape these comfortable quarters once we reached Roseville. I slept on it. Things worked out in Roseville; an early exit at 13 miles per hour and a swift hike onto residential streets freed me from socializing with the bull. It shouldn’t be like this. Learn that a scenic line is being scrapped, race out there at considerable hardship to ride it for the last time.
When the barbarians tore down Penn Station, the New York Times editorialized, “We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build, but by those we have destroyed.” You can add several thousand miles of Western scenery to the indictment.
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.