I wondered why we had stopped. I looked up the tracks and couldn't understand what I was seeing. There seemed to be a haze along the tracks, like fog. But only near the buildings that were alongside the tracks just up from our unit. Wait! Those weren't building, those were freight cars! The fuck? What were they doing there? On their sides? They were a long way away from the rest of the train. Who'd left them there? Was that our train? Holy fucking shit. Was that our train? Was our train scattered about like you see in aerial photos of train accidents in Bombay?
And then it occurred to me. Those were the grainers we were going to ride. Our grainers were now tumbled ass over teakettle 50 feet or more from the tracks. Our. Grainers. The ones we were going to ride. Three or four cars up from our unit. The haze was dust and grain in the air. These cars were wrecked. Totally destroyed. Not like Bring a crane and we'll put them back on the tracks, but more like Bring a cutting torch and a flatbed. Grain was spilled everywhere, still spilling in fact. Everything looked so settled. This had really only been a few seconds since the accident, and yet nothing was moving or rolling or swinging or burning. It was all planted there as if some grisly tableau. A film set waiting for special effects and fake-bloodied actors. It was hard to believe, even though we had just experienced it. I was thinking this was last summer, but I guess it was February this year. A friend called who was visiting from BC who'd never hoped, and we talked perfunctorily about someday taking a trip. Now he was showing up and I had to make good on my offer.
We really didn't care where we went, and started out in Roseville with the idea of going north to Dunsmuir or east and going through the passes. Instead of course, we got impatient and just took a train that stopped in front of the catch-out spot going south. Whatevs. We debated between a few rideable grainers near the back of the train but the weather was a bit chilly and damp and the cars were facing the wrong way and we didn't want to ride dirtyface. So instead we climbed in the rear helper unit at the end of the train. I'd never ridden in a rear unit, though I'd ridden in the back unit at the front of the train.
This unit was more techno they'd I'd ever seen. Most units look barely improved since the 19th century, all levelers and buttons and gauges. This one had not one but two touchscreen computer monitors giving constant readouts of engine status, speed, limits, position, everything. We were terrified that such a high-tech unit would immediately know we were in it and snitch us out. But we were under way soon and if they knew we were there, no one came (and how could they once we were moving?). After a while, we figured out how to switch off the lights so we could sit in the chairs and watch the world go by.
And of course it takes us south toward Stockton. Good old Stockton. I've been there as many times as I've been in places I actually like, like Dunsmuir, but never by choice. If my train is going to take a "wrong turn" it's going to dump me in Stockton. I could catch out in Indianapolis going east and a few hours later end up in Stockton. Maybe the name says it all: Stockton. Stock town. The town where stock is sold and unloaded and slaughtered and whatever. This time however it passed through Stockton (whew) and headed down the central valley corridor.
We lazily lulled in our plush locomotive cab with the occasional Where-The-Fuck-Are-We glance around. Rolling down through the long quiet central valley, we were lulled by the repetitious and monotonous view and insistent rocking, we all fell into a dead sleep. I found a few scant square feet to curl up in uncomfortably and with some weird anxious dreams, lost consciousness.
Lights! Suddenly awake! What's happening? A red light! A screaming alarm! Where was I? The fuck? On a train, looks like, in a unit. Oh yeah! Shit. I'd been jerked awake. Air brake release? Were we discovered? Was it us? Should we stay here, stay low, hide? There was a bright red light on in the cab and the alarm was still screaming. No I do not think staying here would be a Good Idea. Not at all. Something was going on, and it wasn't us. There was a door in the nose of the cab and I thought this was exactly the time we should use it. We gathered our shit up in seconds and were out the door. And swung down to the ground and walked safely away.
Insert colorful crash scene here.
We were stunned and walking around like dumbshits. We realized that somehow minutes after the crash, cops were already on the scene and we'd better make haste to look less conspicuous. We stashed our packs and went around the wreck to take some photos. There was a wheel/axel set sitting on the tracks a 100 feet from anything else, disassociated from its car. Large stretches of the tracks were completely twisted and unusable anytime soon. The rest of the train from the point of the wreck was almost out of sight. I don't doubt that they had a big fast emergency stop too, but the rest of the train still took long enough to stop that we could barely see the severed end of it down the line. Apparently when cars stop by plowing into the earth and tumbling end over end, they don't go as far as the rest of the train that still has its wheels.
We took our photos and then returned for our packs. Clearly no trains were going to be running on this line anytime soon. So we walked a few miles to the loneliest, most humble Amtrak station in America. Our new train took us to Stockton where of course, we hung out for a few days waiting fruitlessly for a train.