I completed a 12-hour, 354-mile run up the Feather River canyon in the Sierra Nevada and through the Black Rock Desert. This is mostly roadless country off Amtrak’s routes, so the number of living people who’ve seen it could fit into a room. Heh heh.
I caught the UP in Marysville, Calif., at 6:43 a.m. after a rough night dozing in weedy patches and pacing the tracks in search of a slowdown point (Marysville doesn’t have a yard!) Finally I barged into a mission and asked for someone with train expertise. An old black guy advised that the train might slow down at the UP/SP intersection near the cemetery.
The train almost took me instead of vice versa. For an awful second I hung on the brink of my last ride. But years of chinups paid off and I cranked myself into the boxcar. Then, to mock my efforts, the train came to a full stop. I instantly switched to a piggyback because the box was closed on one side. The pig had shade under the trailer but nowhere to stand up.
As we climbed higher and higher along the river, the scenery was ineffable: forested mountains and rugged canyon walls with tough trees clinging to the side and small waterfalls pouring down. The land dried up as we (I was the only passenger) chugged east into Nevada.
The Black Rock Desert was a barren, godforsaken stretch, like all of Nevada, with salted-up soil, a dead lake, and arid buttes marching into the endless horizon. For entertainment I counted the carcasses of railroadkill cattle along the tracks, some of which had shrunken down to hide, horns, and rib cage. Some had not.
I spent a depressing evening in the crass and unfriendly town of Winnemucca, Nev., eating at a cheap casino buffet and managing seven hours of sleep in a motel room (had to treat myself after that first night in the weeds) before taking the 6:13 a.m. Amtrak back home. The Amtrak follows the SP’s more southerly route through Donner Pass.
The UP is the Cadillac of railroads. It’s prosperous and tightly managed, with many trains, concrete ties, welded rail. Too bad they’re hobo-bashing bastards, like the Santa Fe.
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.