Anybody know any hobbies that don’t include large industrial machinery?
After 15 trains and 2,800 miles in two summers of stolen weekends, I am ready to move on. I have taken in just about all the Western scenery that I desired (Amtrak and 2 Canadian passenger trains finished the job, hauling my butt for many thousands more miles).
Every ride and its attendant activities constitute a severe physical beating. The time-saving Greyhound trips to the railroad towns have surpassed my endurance. On July 30, I shall finally meet some other recreational tramps. Typical Abdul Rahim timing. I meet helpful people after having painfully taught myself the art. Anyway, they are holding a reception for a Vermont state senator and ex-tramp now running for governor. He probably does not call himself “Feather River John” in his campaign literature.
For some time I’d been eyeing a route known as the Highline. For the 90 miles between Klamath Falls, Ore., and Bieber, Calif., it belongs to the Burlington Northern. South of Bieber, the line falls under Union Pacific ownership. Three motives acted on me like a red flag on a bull:
- 1) no Amtrak service
- 2) no parallel highways
- 3) UP wants to abandon the route.
I had two main misgivings:
- 1) a well-founded skepticism about the speed and service frequency of a branch line
- 2) I didn’t know the route’s terminus. It ended up requiring two full days. By the way, the route extends 262 miles from Klamath Falls to Oroville, Calif. No brushes with death this time. No colorful or sinister travelling companions. The pros shirk this line because it runs too few trains.
I arrived in K-Falls on Tuesday morning after an overnight trip and immediately stalked to the BN yard. The train runs only three times a week. This first day’s run lasted only three hours and 90 miles, through the Modoc National Forest, past Lassen Volcanic National Park, and Lava Beds National Monument. At 2 p.m. Tuesday, a brakeman explained that the UP crew would take over at 6 a.m. Wednesday. I was a bit annoyed, having a day and night to kill in Bieber. It is a microscopic, sorry-looking hamlet of hangdog poverty. It consists of a few deafening sawmills and some Third World shacks. I read a fat novel while the sun shone, dined on liver and onions in Bieber’s sole eatery, then retired to an empty auto rack. Tiring of the hard concrete floor, I adjourned to a vacant locomotive. Shortly after 5 a.m., I pushed the locomotive door open. An autoful of railwaymen approached from behind. Now railroaders are a tolerant lot, but they do not enjoy seeing a transient emerge from a “unit.” I yanked the door shut and tumbled back inside.
Typically for the interminable second day, the train missed its official departure time by five hours. I threw the first of what would be several tantrums, screaming and throwing rocks in the middle of nowhere. Finally, spent, I lay back down in a grassy field – just what the pros would have done all along. Solitary hoboing has many drawbacks, one of them the lack of someone with whom to share the frustrating delays. The scenery improved dramatically south of Bieber, in contrast to the flat semi-arid forest and lumped volcanic rock that had dominated the first day. I had taken the liberty of an “up-on-top” ride, that glorious and exhilarating perch on a freight car’s roof.
The unobstructed 360 degree view of darkly forested hills, dried-up riverbeds, and jagged canyons was thrilling. But to avoid tempting fate and angering the train crew, I re-descended to the grain car’s platform.We were heading south into the Sierra, into scenery that rightfully deserves an Amtrak route. Unusually for a railroad, this line ran high – hence the name Highline, I suppose. The track lies on a narrow shelf that plunges steeply hundreds of feet to the valley floor, river, and highway. No gently sloping embankment here – just a sheer drop. All around us loomed the Sierra. From my position, again atop the grainer, we seemed to be flying into space. I felt sublimely free.
In retrospect, if I’d been jarred just a little too hard, I would have become a skydiver without a parachute. But it was a risk worth taking. At the famous Keddie Wye, a Y-shaped confluence of railroad bridges, the train took a westerly turn into the Feather River Canyon. I’d ridden the canyon last September en route to Nevada in order to escape Stanford’s Centennial Days.
Then we ran into another inexplicable and maddening delay, three hours of excruciating boredom. A moving train is spectacular. A stationary one is death. With that delay vanished my hopes of catching the last evening Greyhound bus to San Francisco. I would have to spend Wednesday night in Oroville. DAMN DAMN DAMN DAMN, and much worse. To console myself, I returned to the grainer’s roof, train crew be damned. It was magnificent to watch the serpentine, three-quarter mile-long train wind out of the canyon – until a succession of tunnels came up. To avoid a sloppy beheading, I dropped back down to the deck. By the way, negotiating a ladder between cars is a sobering task. On that endless second day, the train covered 172 miles in 11 hours. I sure wish all that scenery didn’t require such a demented effort.
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.