America By Train: Eugene, OR to Sacramento, CA

Eugene Oregon

Murals and frescas of black, white, and brown painted on a wall next to the Eugene Oregon train station, next to a brick and concrete jail wrapped in silver barbed wire.

A giant brewery, the roof of a building beyond a parking lot covered in solar panels. Rossborn Lumber Company, another massive lumber yard outside Eugene spanned several football fields or more, with stacks of lumber and a massive complex of interlocking buildings; smokestacks billowing a thin white smoke upwards. Rail cars waited on spurs heading into the lumbermill, stacked with treated wood wrapped in bleached and black tough burlap paper.

We passed single family homes with small yards, one, two, and three bedroom homes. Some one story, some two, one could see their grey siding walls and shingled roofs.

The I-5 valley corridor continued past old trailer parks with yards interspersed between prefabricated homes; trees and neighborhoods with garages, master bedroom windows, concrete driveways.

We entered hillier country, slowly exiting the long agricultural valley. A teepee and greenhouse with plastic wrap to trap heat; a few buildings clustered in an oak grove near the train tracks. We rose into the hills. The train passed under high voltage power lines which carved a wide swath up a hill cleared of tall Oregon pine.

Oak and maple trees filled the valley floor. Pine trees covered the ridge lines above. We passed a multi-mile reservoir in the valley of a pine forest. Hills bordered all sides; a long sloping narrow dam. The train slowly rumbled past the water way that narrowed. The banks were lined with rings of red soil, sediment, and compact clay. The last mile or two was grass land and meadow, as the water receded. The sides of the reservoir rested far above a narrow river running like a small a tributary through the canyon.

The reservoir was far from empty, but far from full as well. And the train continued through thick pine forests and paralleled the valley below that narrowed into a river floor lined with trees as forest sunlight streaming through the thick foliage dancing off pine needles and branches bathing the forest floor in a greenish yellow light. Into the forest the evening sun shined bathing the earth in a golden aura reflected on the pine needles, oak tree trunks, and brown dead pine. Under the fresh green canopy and sun, once again we dissipated into a wall of green piercing through the steep fern covered ceiling through a golden valley where the sun’s fading light illuminated the foliage below, periodically casting a bright flicker onto the trains side, the sunlight blinding as it passed to the earth blinding through distant clouds.

A man in his sixties, bandana covering head.  Grew up in Oakland, lived in southern Oregon. He was cooking and crabbing at twelve, worked construction, in building and foundations. “It didn’t pay rent, but it was plenty of money, real nice. I could drive a convertible car. It didn’t pay rent, but it’s enough if you want it.”

“My father was a crabber and an alcoholic, my mom was a housewife. They split up at four years old.  They had two boy and two girls. “

“My childhood, well, it was loud, always kids running and lots of cooking in the house.”

“I wasn’t used to getting paid nickels and dimes, thousands, not hundreds. I got into drugs.”

“I kicked it four different times, I had a dealers habit. I needed $1,000 a day. Even as old as I am, I have opioids. I don’t do drugs now like I used to, regular drugs. Nobody will give me that all at once; I almost died. I overdosed five to ten times. I drank then. Now I don’t drink or smoke. Now I drink every once in a while. It’s amazing I’m not dead. I don’t know only if I am set, if I get this back out and I’ll do right…”

I’m Talhewana Indian, chicuiwawa. Grandmother was a queen. Lived in the hills. My family they were messengers. They would run from hills to hill to see what was around. Conquistadors came, all the shit with the Spaniards. Grandfather raised me. I spent a year alone with him, telling stories. What do you think you are he said, Mexican? No, you’re just as much French as me. I was thirty five in nineteen eighty nine. I took him in. No one wanted to take care of him. I said I’d take care of him. He spoke French, actually. The reason you have the strength, that’s where my strength came from.

When you’re crabbing, 100 pounds at peak 200 pounds, over the head you throw pots out in the ocean, throw it over your head, picking them up, over and over, you throw it out into the ocean.

All I like to do is drink, fight, and fuck. If I wasn’t into learning and working and having a nice car, that’s all I would be doing.

I got into it with my uncles. They were tied to the drug cartels and stuff. My half uncle was into it. Half my family went into it, half went and worked for the government. Chemical, biological, scientific; they worked on rockets; mathematics. All my family, we have a high IQ.

I’m researching the beginning of my book. At twenty I was at a machine shop. Jack London square, Oakland machine shop. 16 red. A piston exploded and decapitated this dude. I mean, I was standing right next to him. I have almost died multiple times.

I got stopped speeding, parking. It was three hundred to get me out. I got busted, I went to the doctor, got shrapnel pulled out of me. I got stopped, busted for ticket avoidance, I had to buy my house out. Never made it to my friend’s funeral. He was decapitated. I left reds, took some valium, I think, I got in a car crash, started running from the cops.

The cylinder, under so much pressure; they have these braces with a tight fitting. They have to have a tight fitting and another failsafe, or it will explode. They have six rows of high powered pistons, and more upstairs. When that cylinder flew up it cleaned his head off. There was nothing left. They have four big pressure brass fittings. It wasn’t working up to pressure. The fitting was loose. The shaft dropped, and then, that was it.

I’m going to Oakland to find out what happened; to visit that place again; to see if they compensated him, his family, for the mistake.

I worked with a lot of pressure and forces. I was sick, I’d said anything to anyone.

I’ve had five heart attacks and one stroke. I broke a cardinal rule, got involved in others arguments. I love to fight, but don’t get involved in others’ business, right?

I was drinking with these guys, and one hit his woman. I got involved, a guy slammed the door breaking my arm. I got a black eye. Never do that again.

I spent ten years working crab in Alaska. My mom tried to keep me away from my uncles. After two or three years, I got close to drugs, started using them. I have a crazy metabolism, talhenawa I am. I’d shoot enough that ten people would die. I started smuggling. I’d go to Bogota, take a tuna fishing trip, smuggling heroin. I ran to Oregon to raise my boys. How can you change when your friends, everyone lives next to you?

I went away, I have two sons, they’ve never seen the inside of jail. One son worked for Safeway fifteen years.  One works at Bountiful Electric Company. He builds big huge metal towers, I can tell talking to you. I did some things, made some boys; they had life like me. I taught ‘em how do some shit. It doesn’t matter if thoughts take you to the moon. You gotta work for it. I never once hit ‘em,. I have two girls too. I was beat from a young age. My mother took me to Baja. My grandma raised me. She loved me. I could do no wrong in her eyes.

I had a lot of vitality, I was strong. Once I got to be twelve I would box, break people’s ribs, breaking jaws and cracking ribs. I liked to fight. I would box at the boys club.

They kicked me out of Alameda with my dad. He was a commercial fighter for ten years, liked reading a book.

When I was crabbing, it’s exciting. If you don’t have respect for the ocean, you should be ready to die any minute. I have a part when I was younger. I’d go to Alaska. Two seasons; You’d be up thirty six hours before getting off your feet. Until you finished running string. That’s what you did. Everything, crab, cobb, you have to stay on top of shit. The minute you falter, the ocean will swallow you up. On the boat we’re all the same, what black green blue; I have lots of friends left in Oregon, in Alaska. We all had camaraderie. On a boat you can’t stop like working construction and quit your job. You’re at sea; you have to finish.  60’s, 70’s 80’s steel boats had web, etc.. rules.

People leaped on the ropes throwing pots, a crane or buoy to drag pots from tip of south America to Alaska. Cod don’t do it. Only crab.

The pots weigh 90 to 120 pounds; you grab pots and throw them off the back deck.  They are tethered to a line or rope, people get their foot caught; they would get pulled out and drown.

The odds of being alive are zero. You have two seconds to say, Oh shit. That’s it. Oops.

If someone helps you. Maybe. I’ve seen at least four guys who went over. You think your home. You have to be strong. Some bigger, some small, it put that stress on your body. The new ones, greenhorns. We would make a ride doing 350 pots, a three day run, You’re not going to get off your feet for three days. You have axes and hammers to knock the ice off the boat, or the boat will sink. You put your crab, not crabbing with pots. You break away ice or you’d be sunk.

Tuna is cool, only warm water.

A woman with long curly hair had gotten on just after Williston North Dakota, She arrived on the train and was turning tricks, sleeping and propositioning men up and down the cars.  She would pick up men through the train, had been doing it since Montana, as we were talking she stood at the back of the train, her eyes looking out at the pine forest drifting behind us, as if she might jump, to escape the life, at one point she swung her hair back, it cascaded down her back, the man I was talking to stopped to glare hungering hard. She was almost desperate, had been casing both trains going from man to man, picking them up, taking them to the bathroom downstairs, or somewhere, she’d end up cuddled up with a different man asleep every few hours, sleeping in a different rail car, it seemed she might jump, the forests seemed calm, peaceful inviting, the train was moving slow, only about thirty miles an hour, maybe a bit more.

A kid, an Amtrak attendant in his twenties walked up, asked if she was alright as she peered out the back of the caboose, longing to freedom, to return to nature, a lost innocence, maybe, to get out of the life the cycle of drugs of sex of turning tricks across country the trap she had fallen into.

My name is Jack, the older man, with a bandana around his head, a pony tail braided down the back of his head, wearing flannel and baggy cargo shorts, a bandaged wrist and arm from the recent fight. Name’s Jack, he mentioned before leaving, leering lustfully at the young woman glancing out towards the forest in suicidal ideation. “I got a couple girlfriends in Oregon. I love women, don’t want to live with ‘em though.”

We stopped talking, returning to our seats.

By this time my fellow passenger had returned to his seat after puking, fallen asleep and woke up. We started talking.

“I am a cod fisher, we go to the Alaska Aleutian islands based out of Washington. You go out then on unemployment you get six hundred a week. You go out, stay out three months, then go work three, four, maybe five months. Sixteen hours a day; with a crew of 10. We fish cod. We were down one. A guy broke his hand. When I got off, I got drunk. I eat five, ten thousand calories a day. We had work breaking ice with a sledge hammer. People break their hands, legs. You can’t go home; its not like you’re off work and get a pink slip. You can’t take off. I’ve got a Columbian girlfriend. You want to see? He flipped through his cell phone showing pictures of knocking ice from the boat at night with a sledgehammer, his girlfriend in a tight black dress.

“I’m going to the central valley.” He was slurring his words in a thick accent, still obviously heavily intoxicated.

“I’ve been on land now three or four days. We were catching cod, almost to Alaska. With crab you make thirty or forty thousand in three or four weeks. You work 20 hours a day, you lose 20 pounds; at the end of winter it seems your skinny; you can’t build any muscle because no matter how much you eat, you get no rest. You’d be lucky if you can sleep in your clothes on the ground.  I worked in a fishery, working 18 hours a day. The sun would come up and I’d get tired, want to go to sleep, realizing I had been working all night. I don’t like seeing the sun when I’m out on the boat, because I get tired, I realize when the sun comes up I should sleep.”

“I need surgery now; I hurt my back, have a black crushed fingernails. You burn 10,000 gallons of diesel a day when people get hurt out there, you don’t take them back until you’re done. With cod we make $5,000 a week.”

He was drinking, almost threw up again. “Its hard work,” one of the train attendants cut him off. We ended up passing out sleeping in our chairs. Roberto got off in Sacramento, just before dawn.

            We arrived in Sacramento the day after the legislature passed rent control.

The sunlight broke out; the eastern sky was a fiery red. It was Thursday morning as the train rumbled into Sacramento, first past an almond factory and packing station, then a shanty town; trash and tarps, piles of dumped soiled linen on the side of the tracks by a corrugated metal wall. The train rumbled into Sacramento at dawn. From the station one could see tall buildings of hotels and offices downtown, rising beyond the train station as the sky and surroundings city rose illuminated by the morning’s light.

After a brief stop to drain the train’s lavatories, we left. The next stop was Davis, CA

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