Baggage Car Junkie

why railfans are the best of people ¦ photos & story by alexander b. craghead


We had our own chasers too....

[Click on image for larger version.]


The classic excursionist's view -- and viewblock!

[Click on image for larger version.]


Out the door while on the OT bridge... that green stuff is the Columbia.

[Click on image for larger version.]


Okay, the superelevation wasn't thatsteep, but still....

[Click on image for larger version.]


Who can't love that face?

[Click on image for larger version.]

I'LL ADMIT IT, I'M A BAGGAGE CAR JUNKIE. I'm the type who pays for a seat on an excursion and never uses it, except to store a coat or extra gear. I'm the guy who hangs out an open eight foot doorway, waiting for the next great photo op, a camera glued to my face. I'm the guy who burns six, (six!) rolls of film to get probably three good pictures.

LIKE MOST STEAM EXCURSIONS, OURS, behind a jet black #4449, has a baggage car. They usually play host to a snack counter and a gift shop, but most people, like me, have come to lean out the gaping openings in the sides. These are the car's doors, it's treasured spots, making even the last seat in the observation car seem like second class. There are four of them, two to each side, barred from the elbow level on down by three two-by-eights. Leaning out of these openings provides some of the best onboard photographs of the train to be had, and it seems that everyone here has a camera somewhere on them, at the ready.

But the experience is more than visual. Like most, this baggage car seems to have been built sometime before the First World War and later rebuilt to it's present, somewhat inglorious appearance. As always, they seem to have forgotten to replace the shocks and springs on the trucks, if indeed it ever had any. The rhythm of the locomotive and the joints in the tracks ricochet through the frame and into our feet as the floor pitches and rolls like it's riding on a twenty foot swell. First timers aboard are obvious by their green gills and constant lunging for a handhold.

Our car is near the end of the train, but even from this distance, some of the taste and texture of a closer ride is still preserved. Blowing past us are thick, vaporous billows of steam and exhaust as black as night. An occasional smattering of cinders blows our way as the fireman throws in some sand to keep the flues clean; it's burning emits a familiar, sooty smell to be remembered forever.

Then there is the wind. For example, sticking your head out the door at forty-plus M.P.H. while traveling into a cruel Columbia Gorge headwind is, to say the least, exhilarating! Maintaining a conversation requires yelling against it's deafening power. Keeping your mouth shut is advisable, if you don't want your cheeks plastered to the sides of the next car back. The things that wind can kick up also argue strongly for eye protection- wiser junkies than I have come equipped with clear plastic safety goggles. Without them, a stiff breeze can make your eyes water and give you a Marlborough Man squint that will last for weeks afterward. And just because it's nearly seventy out? With that wind-chill, don't think it won't be cold!

APPROPRIATING A SPOT AT A DOOR AND KEEPING that spot requires a special blend of tact and polite rudeness. Wanabe photographers watch for openings like buzzards. I, drawing on previous experience, squeeze into tight places by crouching under the first two-by-eight- this also gets me pictures without the heads and hands of my companions in them, provided that a grab iron doesn't pop up to take their place.

Once staked, I glom onto my position till the last possible moment, until someone crowds me out or asks to be let in. I don't want to give it up, the experience is remarkable, but it is precisely because of this that I must give way, and offer a chance to addict another.

Unlike the dome or the lounge, the baggage car is a place to gather for the entire train. Alliances form in this car, temporary friendships based on helpful hints or a few chance comments. A teenage boy beside me at the rail has a disposable Kodak camera, I have a second-hand, dated workhorse SLR. Somehow, a conversation starts, and he tells me his camera is best because it only cost three dollars. I turn to him and yell over the roar of the wind in my ears that my film cost seven. We both grin and start laughing. Another, a man with a digital camera who missed his train to Seattle, (and found a better way to spend his day,) asks for some advice on the route and where he'll get the best photos from. As we enter a series of 's' curves, we move to opposite sides of the car and shout to each other as the good locations arise. Invariably, we arrive at the proper side of the car too late to share in the opportunity, but sometimes, we both get lucky. A short moment shared at the rail with a young Indian couple and their small child leads to a conversation about the demise of steam in that country, and some of the more interesting programs still running here. We junkies are not a lonely bunch.

Later, a dome class passenger comes down to see what all the fuss is about, and complains to no one in particular about the ride in the baggage car. I frown and say, "Are you kidding? It's part of the experience!" But he's not a junkie, he doesn't understand. I smile at one of my companions and we shake our heads as we bounce in perfect rhythm to the tune of the train.

TIME GOES BY TOO QUICKLY. Soon we are back at Portland Union Station, and we disembark. As I go back and collect my gear, my legs, from five hours in the ocean-going baggage car, don't want to go steady again. For a few moments before I leave, I sit in the very last chair in the observation car. It's a good seat, almost as good as the baggage, but lonelier.

I'm sad to leave, sad to see my fellow junkies go. For these spur-of-the-moment acquaintances never last; some of these people- most of these people- I will never see again. We rarely, if ever, exchange names- we are merely our faces, whatever we are when we are not aboard the train. Strangers, yet kind ones, companions for a few captive hours. Yet the experiences that we shared, the smoke and steam and cinders-in-the-face, will exist in our memories for a lifetime.

In the meanwhile, (for a couple of days at least,) the slightest jar, the slightest scent of sulphur, the slightest hint of a whistle on the breeze will bring back all the sensations of the baggage car, and memories of my fellow junkies who I may never see again. But there's always the next trip, and new junkies to meet, and who knows? If I'm lucky, maybe I'll recognize a face in the crowd....

Back Home