Freight riding with Generation X from Roseville to Eugene

As I tried to sleep in the bushes adjoining the yard, a city cop shone his flashlight in our faces, inquiring into the whereabouts of “a Mexican wearing a white shirt”.

My little hideout wasn’t so wonderful.

A northbound rumbled out of the yard at 3 a.m. “It’s too fast,” remarked the Hispanic who had been sleeping closest to my hideout. “I know,” I answered distractedly.

I was chasing the train in ludicrous fashion; there’d been no time to pack up, so I was running with an unfurled sleeping bag in my arms. Only one kind of car would accommodate my unavoidably sloppy throw: a flat. Got it.

The Southern Pacific, the sick man of Western railroading, keeps abandoning routes and selling real estate to stay solvent. I wanted to catch the Cascade route, between Roseville, Calif., and Eugene, OR, before it suffered the fate of the Siskiyou line.

You never know what’ll happen. This time I’d get to ride under a forest fire and share a grainer with two atypical tramps, Generation X-ers.

My sorry northbound of empty flats and boxes simply died in Dunsmuir. After helplessly watching a hotshot roll by just a few miles per hour too fast, I trudged a mile to the townsite. There I could catch the next one at zero miles per hour. It was a long hot day, so I relaxed on the bank of the Sacramento and soaked my feet.

The next hotshot bore me and a legion of other riders to K Falls. We rose up into the Cascades, into Mt. Shasta’s realm of tumbled mountains, heaps of volcanic boulders, and distant valleys. Two girls sitting on the right-of-way (how did they get there?) photographed me as my car rolled past. I held up my own camera, just another tourist. Their laughter was sweet.

The next morning, I hopped a northbound for Eugene. The Klamath Falls-Eugene stretch was my primary goal: namely, the long climb past Odell Lake, up to Cascade Summit, through Willamette Pass. Endless stands of hangdog-looking Douglas fir carpeted the slopes; above them birds wheeled exuberantly in the summer sky. They say that Palamedes devised the letter epsilon when he observed cranes in flight.

In Westfir, the train abruptly slowed to a crawl. To my dismay, a forest fire was smoldering directly above the tracks, while firefighters waited for the train to pass. A Chinook (?) dumped a bucketful of the Willamette River onto the flames, to little avail.

Eugene was glorious, even if “Animal House” was shot there. After pedaling a rented bike through its civilized neighborhoods, I popped up at track 7 for my ride home. Two Generation X-ers, who looked suspiciously like grunge rockers, latched on to me. “You mind if we ride with you?” “Well, if you like,” I answered grudgingly. You always take a risk when you share your car. “You guys ridden before?” “This is our second ride” “…Your second?!”

Despite that start, we hit it off somewhat. They turned out to be that rare species of rider – not demented hobbyists, not pros, just ordinary Joes who were willing to try a new mode of transport. Soon I no longer noticed the nose and lip rings. The Vietnam veterans among the tramps might object more strenuously.

We rolled uneventfully back up the Hill, where sleep came with surprising ease. I remember little besides the bracing cold and my starriest night of hoboing since Laurel, Mont. The sky dripped pearls of white-hot fire. There was no light pollution at Cascade Summit.

On my last night, I returned to the bushes of the Roseville yard. However, some crackdown had begun in the last few days. Unmarked sedans crunched the gravel near the bushes all night; a bull’s pickup truck trained its spotlight on an incoming southbound; a police chopper cast its beam over the sleeping town in pursuit of some fugitive. It was time to leave Roseville.

Somebody once evoked the sensation of starting a journey: “Then the little sedan swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle might happen.”


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