The summer I graduated high school, my parents bought me an Amtrak rail pass and off I went to explore the West. First stop was Glacier Park, Montana, where I spent a few days hiking in the Northern Rockies. It’s also where I met a guy who was doing the same thing I was--traveling the country by train--except he was doing it by hopping freight trains. Being a typically idiotic 18-year-old, I thought that sounded, well, awesome. So, the next leg of my journey, Montana to Seattle, was done by open flat car, with my new buddy leading the way.
It turned out we caught a train that was returning empty freight cars, which meant it was hauling at top speed, without stops, which meant no food or water or bathrooms all night and most of the next day. I froze on the fast-moving train as it flew through the night and the forested Pacific Northwest, but when you're eighteen, things like that are just another part of the adventure.
So was being enveloped by pitch-darkness for a half hour in the fume-filled Cascade Tunnel. Built in 1929, it’s the longest railroad tunnel in the US (7.8 miles), and as we crawled up through the guts of the mountain, it seemed like it. When we entered, on the bottom of the east side of the Cascade Mountain Range, it was hot and humid. After the half-hour chug through the tunnel, we emerged in clouds, surrounded by a dense pine forest and a 25-degree temperature drop.
After Seattle, I happily resumed my Amtrak accommodations -- sitting all night in a coach seat, with a bathroom and drinking water near by, suddenly seemed luxurious. But my brief experience “riding the rails” is something I’ll never regret, unless my son decides to try it. Do as I say, Jake ("Don’t do it!"), not as I did!
Me and my freight-hopping mentor (I don’t remember his name) as
AN IDIOTIC 18-YEAR-OLD
(after a sleepless and freezing night on an open flat car)
I recall trying not to breathe much when we were in the Cascade Tunnel, and then looking back when we finally emerged to see diesel smoke belching from the same hole we'd just left.
SUNRISE FROM THE FLAT CAR
SOON AFTER SUNRISE
AROUND THE SOUND
Puget Sound on a typically cloudy day, looking back as we head south, snaking along the water's edge, Seattle-bound.
Hello and goodbye from a couple of freight-hoppers.