Portland to Whitefish

by macksemil

Last week, a very good friend of mine Wes called me. He had just returned from an ill-fated road trip with his partner and an acquaintance of theirs. Wes split from the group in Fairbanks and hitch hiked back to Oregon along the old Alaskan highway, taking turns with the driver and covering the whole trip in under two days. Once he made it back to Portland he was going to catch a train east back toward his home of New Hampshire, but was waiting on a Saturday night. After talking to myself and a more knowledgeable local source, he was dissuaded from waiting and came to my house to stay for a few nights. We had a good time catching up and in a few days I was convinced to end my streak of comfortable monotony in the Willamette Valley and ride a new train line with Wes. The BNSF high-line into Montana. In Whitefish, Wes would continue east while I turned around and headed back west.

On Monday night Cedar drove us out to Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s Lake yard in Northwest Portland, where we followed information that we had to find our eastbound high-priority intermodal train, the Z-PTLCHC. We waited alongside the yard behind a closed business for a number of hours waiting for the train to pull out of the highly populated and lit train yard. Around 3 am, a train backed right into the loading dock of the business and replaced the boxcar sitting on the tracks with an empty one. The worker riding the back ladder of the string must have seen us scurry through a hole in the fence into the empty lot of a neighboring business. We sat tense for a while under semi truck chassis but saw no unexpected activity in the rail yard.

Around 4:00am, the engines on the train we were waiting for came into view on the mainlines. It pulled forward with a string of doublestack shipping containers attached. We scanned the cars passing by and found some rideable mini-wells on the train. We moved further north in the yard, expecting the train to lay up for a while before departing. The train backed onto another string and sat, we snuck up on our rides, freezing occasionally if we spotted a worker or headlights. Eventually we found the cars we were looking for. Wes and I boarded separate cars and rolled out our gear and went to sleep. After a long night waiting, I finally drifted off around 5:30am and woke up in the Columbia Gorge.

Eventually the massive Columbia faded into the distance as the train turned Northward toward Pasco and the high desert. The scenery became decidedly more monotonous. The sun became noxious and I took to hiding under the grate of the mini-well and putting sunscreen on my face. I forgot to go pick up a hat before leaving, a mistake I was kicking myself for.

Finally we reached Spokane, it’s sprawling mass of bank buildings visible through the holes in the walls of the well I was riding. The train coasted through downtown. I sat back looking up at windows of office buildings and warehouses as we neared the train yard. Spokane is a town that is known among train riders as a tough town for riding through due to the persistent railroad bulls that work there. It was around noon and I was riding on a car that didn’t offer much cover. Hiding under the grate helped a little bit, but if the bull was watching from an overpass I would surely be spotted.

As we glided through the yard, I spotted the bull sitting on a little raised roadway watching the train pass through. I thought that I had made eye contact with him and as we got out of the yard I packed up all of my gear and turned on the radio scanner to see if someone was coming to pull us off the train. I couldn’t hear much over the noise of the train but did happen to catch the words “County Sherfiff.” I was sure that we were going to be met at the crew change point in Hauser, Idaho by the Sheriff.

We pulled into Hauser shortly. Our train was sitting alongside a gravel road and a few other sets of tracks. I quickly poked my head around either side of the train to check for the Sheriff. Nothing. I turned on the scanner again and listened intently. The dispatcher and car knockers in the Hauser yard were chatting, but nothing about trespassing transients. The next few hours crept by while our train was changing crews and refueling. I stifled my urge to go get Wes and tell him about the situation to see if he wanted to bail and hide in the nearby trees or not. The sound of the train charging its air brakes is a godsend to the tramp who is sure they have been spotted. The hissing sound was music to my ears, and we started slowly rolling further east. We had somehow avoided being seen by the bull. Later I would learn that Wes was fast asleep in the uncovered part of the well from Pasco all the way through Hauser.

The train snaked around hillsides along lakes through Sand Point and onward into the sunset. I drifted in and out of sleep in the cooling mountain air as we climbed into Montana.

As the air became cold I rolled out my sleeping bag and fell quick asleep. Some hours later I woke up as the brakes on the train applied and we slowed to a screeching stop next to a small grouping of houses and some trees. I heard the crunch of ballast rocks as Wes jumped out of his car ahead of mine. “Welcome to Whitefish” he greeted, and I tossed my things off the train as well. We had barely enough time to put our sleeping bags away in the tall grass next to the tracks before the the familiar hissing of the air brakes announced further eastward journeys for our train.

Wes had been to Whitefish a few times before but was not familiar with this area of town. We walked dead-end streets in the fancy neighborhood for an hour or so before we decided to just cross the trestle leading into the west side of the yard. Soon we were walking on a bike path down by the river and crossed under a plastic construction fence by the bank to find a place to roll out and sleep until daybreak. We visited while rolling out gear and kicking rocks aside to create a reasonably comfortable sleeping surface.

“Anybody in there?” I poked my head out of my sleeping bag, groggily. “You can’t sleep here.” A cute young conservation worker in Carhartts, a safety vest and hard hat was standing over us. As she walked off we slowly got up and started packing our gear. Soon she returned with a more accusatory tone “Hey, is this the first night you guys have slept here?” “Yeah, we just got in last night” we told her. She told us that some tools had gone missing; we assured her that we had enough to carry already and didn’t steal anything. She was contented and we emerged from the riverbank after exchanging goodbyes with her and her co-worker.

Wes and I stashed our packs in a nearby stand of bushes and trees and walked into town to find a diner. The usual place, a diner inside of an old caboose, had been turned into a frozen yogurt place so we settled on the Swift Creek Cafe and each ordered an omelette and coffee. After settling the bill and smoking a rolled cigarette on the bench outside of the restaraunt we walked to the train museum (home of the fur bearing fish) and the library to use the internet. Checking the weather, we saw that a thunderstorm was coming in for the night. Our plans of catching trains that day postponed, we resolved to go to an abandoned house on the lake that Wes knew of to stay dry for the night and catch our trains tomorrow. I considered hitch hiking to Missoula to see a friend but decided to stay in Whitefish with Wes.

We walked out to the jungle by the tracks on the east side of town. On our walk back to the bushes where we had stashed the packs I went into a smoke shop to buy some bulk roll-your-own tobacco so I could stop bumming smokes off of Wes so much. When I came out again Wes was chatting with a young guy on a mountain bike who offered to roll a joint for us. Wes obliged and we were standing in an alleyway chatting for a while with our new friend Luke when we felt the first drops of rain.

We hoofed it to our backpacks while it was starting to drizzle and crossed through the closed construction zone along the bike path behind the backs of some city workers watching a geyser of water shoot straight up out of a pipe in the river. We walked to the lake and found the house. Sitting on the porch smoking cigarettes and enjoying twenty-two ounces of beer apiece we watched the placid lake become violent with wind and rain. Thunder reverberated between the sky and foothills. Bolts of lightning flashed and connected with the ground across the lake.

Gradually the storm moved over us and the thunder and lightning drifted on to the hills in the south. The flashes of lightning still illuminated the lake bathed in fading evening light. The surface of the lake became glassy once again, reflecting the oranges and blues of the evening skyscape.

After the rain, Wes and I walked to the store to get another round of beer and some food for dinner. We returned to our lakeside hideaway and talked into the night over cigarettes, watching the stars peek through the clouds drifting slowly above. I drifted off to sleep shortly after we ranted about punk rock and sang lyrics from Toxic Narcotic.

The morning started late, cathcing up on sleep from the past few nights. The rain continued intermittently but stopped for good just after noon. We made our way to the beach to cook up some coffee with my wood stove. I walked to the bathroom and on the way back was trailed by a couple of traveling kids who were walking to the lake house.

 They introduced themselves as Chicken Wing and Ash. They had been woken up by the cops that morning for sleeping directly under a no trespassing sign. Chicken Wing had gotten a promise of work at the beet harvest in North Dakota. Ash came along on the ride for the fun of it, but was heading out to North Dakota eventually to take care of his friends’ dogs while they “worked beets.”

The two of them had bought a bunch of liquor and beer and were starting to get a little tipsy while we packed up. Ash offered his phone number and a place to stay in central California. They had some other friends we had seen in town coming down to to the lake to drink. We wished each other well and headed out to the jungle to wait for our train.

As we were heading out from the neighborhood by the lake we passed the conservation worker who had woken us up a few days prior. She stopped us and explained that she felt really bad for accusing us of stealing her tools and that they had tracked down the two stolen water pumps at a pawn shop in Kalispell. She wished us a good day and was on her way. After stopping at the store for a restock on food, we ran into another train rider named Jessie walking out to the jungle.

She had come out here with a guy she met in Spokane. Jessie told us that he had a felony warrant for home invasion and once the cops ran his fake name in the park downtown he took off, leaving Jessie, who was not particularly upset about the ditching. Now she was headed to Great Falls to visit her sister, but was camping up in the jungle for the next few days.

We waited all day for a westbound train, and in the afternoon Wes walked back up to the spot we got off the train a few days prior to try to catch his eastbound train. Jessie and I chatted while I updated my journal for the first time in over a week. We tried to get a fire started to cook on but all of the wood and paper were wet from the storm. Soon she left to go meet with another traveler who cleans the jungle on a regular basis, Bruce.

Before she left an older guy with a few dogs approached the campfire circle and sat down. He introduced himself as Raz. Jessie had told me about the cops and railroad bull coming into the jungle a few days before to look for Raz, he told me it was due to him getting pulled off of a train in a nowhere town in Montana. They were trying to “hem him up” as he put it. Raz had just returned from drinking at the lake with all  of the other traveling kids in town.

They had all gotten really drunk and started fighting. The commotion caused someone to call the cops who arrived right as a few of them were about to come to blows as they could hardly stand up, Raz said. An older tramp was trying to fight the cops and got arrested, and I had heard later that Chicken Wing and another young tramp were arrested as well. Apparently everyone else kept a low profile or skipped town because I didn’t see them again. Raz had managed to slip away while the cops were distracted by the other people fighting. Apparently his gear had been driven off with in a friends’ van and he was coming up to the jungle expecting to find them. Unfortunately the gear was in the next town down the road, Kalispell. Luckily, Raz knew where his friend stashed his gear and used his sleeping bag for the night. He offered me a few beers and we were able to build a big fire. We stayed up talking for a few hours.

Raz was a seasoned tramp, he told me he had been riding since he was fifteen. That makes twenty four years of riding. He winters in Montana and rides the rails up in the northernmost sections of the high-line during the harsh winter. Raz told me that he “likes to keep his blood thick” in the winter by not drinking as much, and that “sooner or later you’re in a thermal and hoodie at fifteen degrees.”

Wes was trying to get a ride into Havre, Montana during the night to minimize the chance of getting caught during the thousand mile inspection that takes place there. With no trains and his window of arriving in Havre during night expired, he walked back across town to come camp up at the jungle for the night. I wanted to roll through Spokane at night so I passed up on the westbound trains that came between 2:30am and 5:00am and decided to give it another try the next day.

I remember waking up at sunrise to one of Raz’s dogs, Chevy, licking my face. He was sitting on a log smoking a cigarette and left for town soon after, but not before Chevy slobbered all over my face again, waking me up a second time. Wes and I woke up and made some coffee and breakfast around eleven. After, Wes agreed to watch my pack at the jungle while I walked into town to get some more supplies at the store. On the way home I found Raz drinking on a porch with a townie, he had gotten in touch with his friends and was getting his gear back that day. Then he was headed down to Missoula to take care of some things. I wished him well and continued on my way. When I returned to the jungle Wes and I smoked a parting cigarette and he walked back across town to the other spot.

I spent a long day mostly by myself, Jessie stopped by for a few hours and I slept for a few hours. When I woke up I found a pot of spicy ramen noodles and corn that Jessie had left for me to eat. I made some more coffee in anticipation of a long night. Before nightfall Jessie came back and grabbed her pack. She was headed east to Havre to hitch hike to her sisters’ place in Great Falls. Soon after she left I saw Wes roll by at sunset slightly concealed by the wheels on a semi truck trailer mounted on a flatcar. Another few hours later and I saw Jessie roll by on the porch of a 53 foot container car. I remember feeling very alone being the last one in town.

I built a fire and listened to the announcer for the high school football game echo off the foothills. Bulldogs 7, Cougars 7 in the third quarter. The crowd cheered and booed at the appropriate moments as my little fire sprang to life and I intermittently scavenged the nearby area for sticks to burn. As the trains went by I went to the clearing at the edge of the jungle to watch them roll by. In the background was an amazing array of stars, the constellations all clearly visible. Ursa major and orion sharing in my impatience for a train, I returned to the campfire to rearrange the coals and put on more sticks.

After several hours of sitting alone by the fire I heard a westbound train pulling in. I had done this a few times throughout the night, once fooled by an Amtrak and again by a unit grain train. This was the real deal though, and I found some ridable mini-wells not far from the entrance to the tracks where the BNSF railcop’s “NO TRESPASSING” sign had been altered with marker to say “WE KNOW TRESPASS.”

After a few moments I realized that I had left my pouch of tobacco around the fire. I decided against running to fetch it due to the quick crew change time and was glad to have stayed put. Soon I was waving goodbye to Whitefish as I rolled on into the night back toward Sandpoint. I rolled out to sleep quickly as it had been a long lonely night by the campfire.

Tossing and turning through the night in the cold we passed through the high mountain lakes in Idaho and eventually wound our way down to Hauser as the hazy morning light found its way into the sky once again. I stayed in my sleeping bag, drawstring pulled tight, and hoped for a quick crew change. The bull in Spokane probably started work at eight, and if I could slip through before then I would be in the clear. Any time after that and it was a bit dicey as I had heard many reports of the bull there aggressively watching the high priority trains pull through the yard and scanning them for riders. My recent experience spotting the bull a few days prior gave merit to these stories and I was on edge as we glided through the Spokane yard without incident. I was in the clear.

There was a chance that the train would route up to Seattle, taking me through Wenatchee, the Northern Cascade mountains and the longest railroad tunnel in the United States, the Cascade Tunnel. I was disappointed to return to the high desert on the way to Pasco, the route I had taken on the way out to Whitefish. Although I hadn’t bathed or had a good night’s rest in six days and the thought of home was inviting, I was really looking forward to seeing some new scenery. Fortunately, I did get to see the part of the Columbia Gorge that I had slept through on the trip out.

In the shade of the high container cars on either side of me, I rolled comfortably through Pasco, Wishram and on into Vancouver. The train stopped before crossing the Columbia River drawbridge so I jumped off the train right by the river walkway and headed across the bridge back into Oregon. Later at home I would discover why the people on the bus were staring so hard; my face was brown with accumulated dirt. It had been a good six days of adventure.