Box Car Diaries
by Jack Mills, March 16, 2016
Thursday, 8 September 1977
Met Chuck at Klamath Falls airport per plan. We walked to Denny’s, had dinner, then went over to the yards. Arrived about midnight. Slept there for a few hours and then got 173 out at daybreak. We had the only open boxcar on the train. Each of us slept for several hours as we headed toward Bend. The train stopped for only a minute in Bend then headed toward Maupin and the Deschutes river valley. Nice ride – beautiful day. Saw a coyote and a number of deer along the way. Arrived at the Columbia River about 6 PM. We walked through a long dark tunnel and then to the bridge. As we crossed there was a strong wind blowing up river. We had dinner in the Wishram Lunch room; four beers in the bar then slept that night along the tracks.
Friday, 9 September 1977
Got a good breakfast in the Lunch room, talked to a number of tramps then walked back to the bridge where we washed up in the river and waited for the Vancouver train to Pasco. Nice day again - no wind to speak of - hot and lazy. The tramps tell us that there is a new black bull in Klamath Falls who is bad news. “Even the blacks are afraid of him” they say – we didn’t see him though. Got a boxcar and left for Pasco about 3:15. It was a clear warm day and we had a good ride. We rolled into Pasco at dusk and I resolved to jump the train near town so as to avoid the long walk from the hump. I took a nasty spill but was able to get up and run along the train and get my pack. Chuck decided to stick with the train so I’m waiting for him near the Amtrak station. When he arrived we went into town and got dinner at the “Tip Top”. Later we returned to the overpass and sat by a fire talking until just passed midnight. That evening we met an interesting tramp. He was 31 years old and had spent 17 of those years in various institutions - Boy’s Ranch, Texas penitentiary, etc. He said his latest rap was for robbery. He had stolen about 30 guns somewhere in the Bay Area, and had gotten out because of the end of the indeterminate sentence system. As the fire blazed he talked about prison life, his theories of racial purity, flying saucers, mental telepathy, and drugs. He also claimed that white folks who slept with blacks, even prostitutes, were weakening the race and should be shot. He further claimed that he was a genius and that voices spoke to him. Two women, one younger would tell him things now and then, like that he was going back to prison. He wasn’t sure if this was telepathy or drug flashback. He said that he had done fairy dust and that it “messed with his mind”. Later he claimed that the FBI was going to use him as a secret agent and that he had known this since the age of 7, although this hadn’t happened yet he said. As he talked he seemed bitter and aggressive. The last generation has fowled things up for us and everyone is getting weak he declared.
At about 2 AM we went down to the tracks and got some sleep in a boxcar. We were up by 9 but the train didn't move so we went back to town and had breakfast. On our return we talked to some tramps who knew Okie Fats in the old days. Back in the boxcar again and its 2:30 in the afternoon - still no action - hope it rolls soon. Finally got out at 4:15 PM. Hot ride - arrived in Spokane at 8:20. The train took us to within 200 yards of the “Denny's” overpass. We hiked to Denny's, had dinner, picked up some vegetables and walked back to the overpass. The Assistant Yard Master said that the Whitefish train would be out at about 4AM so we slept and waited.
Sunday, 11 September 1977
We caught the #84 out of Spokane at 6AM. Unfortunately we found that the car was filthy with coal dust (we hadn't seen this in the dark). When the train stopped at a siding we were able to change cars. The new car had a jammed door so we had to do with the left door only. We arrived in Whitefish at 3:30 Pacific time, checked into a hotel ($13.50 for two). We cleaned up, had dinner, and then hit three night spots with a local and his wife: The Hanging Tree, the Disco, and the Blue Moon. We closed up the last one and got to bed at about 3:30 AM.
Monday, 12 September 1977
In the morning we got some breakfast, did laundry, and waited for a westbound until the afternoon. We finally got out at 2:30 PM and arrived in Spokane at 8:10 PM. We got dinner and slept in a boxcar again. There was a bit of an incident leaving Whitefish. Four or five tramps were riding together in a boxcar down the train from us and they had some trouble. Two of them left their friends, their belongings, and the car to make a quick trip to town. As they came back the train just started to move out. They ran hoping to be pulled on by their buddies but the train was moving too fast so those in the boxcar decided to jump off. First they tossed their gear - sleeping bags, backpacks and then water jugs which burst on impact. Then one jumped clear landing on his feet. A second younger tramp hit the ground and flipped head over heels. A third older man decided to stay in the car which was probably a wise decision given the speed of the train at the time. We met him later in Spokane. He was left without his gear, wanted a cigarette and to know where town was. I guess he will meet his buddies on the next westbound from Whitefish.
Tuesday, 13 September 1977
After hitting Denny's we walked back to the overpass near the tracks. There we talked to an older woman and her man. She was 51 and he was in his forties. She had come up from Wenatchee and this was her first freight ride. Her man was a carnival worker and she said she had left everything to follow him. Chuck is taking pictures of a fellow from Marysville who had a dog named Bear dog and who knew Okie Fats. Lots of talk about what a good animal Bear dog was. The dog had just disappeared one day and his owner claimed that an Native American had stolen him. Later we walked down to the west end of the yards and met three Native American Sioux from the Twin cities area. We talked quite a bit and one of them got rather drunk and started hassling the yard crew so we left. We had to wait until 6:55AM to get out but we got a good fast ride to Pasco. We slept most of the way and arrived at about 11:00AM. It was a long walk from way beyond the hump yard to the Tip Top Cafe - 1 hour and 15 minutes. We got a leisurely lunch and stopped at the post office and drug store. Fortune smiled on us as we walked back to the ice house. A train with road power was waiting on the track headed for Wishram. It was a hot train. We left Pasco at 2:40PM and got into Wishram at 5:05. We washed up in the river and got dinner at the Lunchroom. Later we had several beers at the Pastime and then went to the east end of the yards to sleep.
Wednesday, 14 September 1977
We got up at about 8 AM, ate breakfast, and then went down to the east end to check out a tramp shack. Inside we found a Hustler and a Road and Track. The wind was up and we spent the rest of the morning reading. We waited and waited from about noon on for a southbound train but nothing came. More trips to the Lunchroom, store and bar helped pass the time but by 11PM there was still nothing.
Thursday, 15 September 1977
After a long wait we finally got out at 7AM. We got a car with lots of clean paper inside and slept most of the way to Klamath Falls. We arrived there at about 3:15 AM the next day.
Friday, 16 September 1977
A light rain was falling so we spent the time until daylight in Denny's and Sambo's. We walked to the road junction and got a ride within 10 to 15 minutes to the Yonna Valley store. From there we walked to Hank and Bev's place. After a visit with Hank, Bev, Jim and Wendy the Honda took us back to the Bay area.
(To Be Continued…)