If you’ve never ridden a long distance intercity passenger train, like Amtrak for example, you owe it to yourself to try it sometime. In this part of Wisconsin, the Empire Builder is the daily Amtrak train that cuts through the state on its way back and forth between Seattle and Chicago.
I’ve never ridden a train outside of the US, and I hear that our trains don’t match up to those in Europe, but I have no complaints about Amtrak. The ride is so smooth and quiet you feel like you’re floating along through the countryside, especially when you ride on the top deck of a Superliner car. The comfort level of the train far exceeds that of airplanes. The leg room is amazing and you can recline without giving a thought about smashing people behind you.
The passengers on today’s Empire Builder were made up of a variety of folks headed to places like Minneapolis, Glacier National Park, Seattle and all points in between. The Amish were in disproportionate numbers on this train. I struck up a conversation with an Amish fellow traveling with his family from Pennsylvania to see relatives in Minnesota. Easily identifiable by the typical Amish style: solid color shirt, black pants with suspenders and sporting a simple bowl hair cut and a beard with no mustache. I was curious about why train travel is acceptable to the Amish, but air travel is not. I didn’t know how to ask without sounding like I was belittling his religion. My curiosity remains unanswered, but it was a pleasant conversation nonetheless.
I grabbed a couple of hot dogs in the snack bar and wolfed them down. I made sure to relieve myself in the train’s bathroom to get that out of the way. I’m not a fan of taking dumps outside which I’m sure puts me squarely in the company of almost everyone. I helped myself to some extra toilet paper to put in my pack just in case. Being prepared probably minimizes the chances that you’ll need to drop a deuce outside. Leave with no toilet paper and you’ll probably end up with nonstop diarrhea as punishment.
The trip to LaCrosse seemed to take almost no time, probably because I’m such a train nut and wouldn’t have cared if it took longer. I grabbed my pack and water, and stepped off.
I hoofed it the mile or so from the La Crosse train station toward my catch out spot. I didn’t realize that the street I was on didn’t go all the way east to the tracks because it was blocked by the marsh. I wandered a bit before realizing I was going to have to backtrack to adjust my route. I was afraid I’d run out of time, so, Uber to the rescue.
I got situated finally at the catch out as the daylight was beginning to fade. This time of year it stays light for a long time this far north. As it got a little darker, I decided I would hike down the tracks a half mile or so and hide by the short bridge where the tracks crossed the channel connecting the sides of the marsh. I put my pack on, grabbed my water and camera bag, and started walking.
It was still a little lighter than I would have liked, but I felt like it was a good opportunity to get into position ahead of any intermodal trains. There are usually two between nine and midnight. It was already a little after nine.
I had made it about half way when I noticed a headlight approaching from the south. Dammit, there was almost nowhere to hide. I found some weeds growing up along the edge of the water that could provide at least a little cover. I slid down the ballast and managed to stop without getting wet. I put my water jug, a repurposed gallon milk jug, above me and off to the side where it wouldn’t roll down into the water and I waited for the train to roll past.
It was a hotshot Z train! This was it, once the engines got far enough past me, I climbed up the ballast and walked next to the train looking for the best car to ride. There were piggy back cars right next to me, but I felt like the standard container car might be better. I walked further down the train to the container cars and checked a few and they weren’t ridable. Eventually, I found one that seemed to fit the bill nicely.
My timing was pretty good, I heard the air pressure building as i climbed aboard and as I got my pack off the train started with a jolt. In addition to my gallon jug I had two one liter bottles for my water supply. As I struggled getting my pack oriented, I dropped one of the 1 liter bottles out of a side pocket and it rolled under the grate that is used by employees when they latch containers in place. That’s when I realized I had left my gallon jug of water by the tracks where I had hidden when the train first rolled in.
Dammit, I really needed that water and the thought of being on the train with only two liters, one of which was going to be hard to get too at the moment, made me nervous. I debated what to do as the train rolled toward the yard. Luckily, it hadn’t changed crews yet and it stopped for that purpose. It was a quarter mile back to the spot where my big jug of water was. After my internal debate, I decided I had to have that jug of water.
I scrambled off the train, accidentally abandoning the 1 liter bottle I had dropped that had rolled out of sight. I headed back down the train to grab my water. About the time I got to it, I heard the train airing up and it started rolling. When I grabbed the gallon jug and scrambled back up the ballast, the train was already rolling about walking speed and accelerating.
I’d told myself that I wouldn’t catch on the fly since bad things tend to happen to inexperienced hoppers doing that, I decided to let it go. I watched as it picked up speed and left my inept butt behind. All I could think was dammit, I’m about to blow another hop. I walked further down the tracks to the marsh bridge.
I’d barely gotten into position there when another headlight appeared. It was getting dark enough now that the chances of being seen were slim, as long as I stayed out of the way of the headlight. This train was rolling in on the east tracks, not sure if that’s main one or main two, but I’ll call it main one. It was an auto rack, a car carrier that is, with no ridable cars. It stopped and just sat there.
I use a Uniden Bearcat scanner that has the railroad frequency bands preprogrammed in. I didn’t hear much chatter at all. After about twenty minutes of wondering about the status of this auto rack which is a low priority train, another headlight appeared coming down main 2.
I was hoping this was another intermodal so I didn’t have to struggle like last time and settle for a grainer. As it got closer, I could see that indeed, this was an intermodal, and judging by the piggy back cars and container cars it was a Z train hot shot bound for Portland or Seattle. Perfect!
The engines idled past and eventually, It stopped next to me, and I started looking for ridable cars. I couldn’t go any further back down the train because both sets of tracks across the bridge were now occupied, so I walked towards the front of the train and found a container car that looked like it would work. I climbed on board, and got situated.
It aired up almost immediately and we started rolling. As we got to the yard, it stopped for the actual crew change. Five minutes later, we were on our way, this time for real, this time on a hot shot Z train, this time riding dirty face into the night with my gallon jug of water!