In the early 1960’s, a kid from Boulder went to Yosemite with the legendary Royal Robbins and, after a month of climbing, rode the freight trains across four states home to Colorado. Without any freight train experience, and only the spirit and example of his mentors Robbins and Chuck Pratt, that kid was in for an adventure.
In the golden age of Yosemite climbing, Royal Robbins was the best climber in the valley—and the country—and he became my personal tour guide to those famed big walls. In 1963, we first met in Colorado and put up a new, difficult climb on Longs Peak. I was 16 and he was 28. A year later, we climbed in Eldorado and Boulder Canyon and he invited me to travel with him and his wife, Liz, through the southwest desert and then to Yosemite. My parents trusted the two California bohemians. Royal was kind and assured my mother I would have a grand experience. Nothing was said, however, as to how I would return home.
After a rich month of Yosemite climbs and scrounging in Camp 4, I began to miss Colorado and my friends there, especially my climbing partner Layton Kor. I listened to Royal as he spoke with Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost about a new climb on El Capitan already named The North America Wall. Royal told me they had invited Yvon Chouinard, but he had not yet arrived in Yosemite. I could be the fourth man if Yvon didn’t show. I was excited but knew not to get my hopes too high. Nor would I feel any malice toward Yvon if he suddenly appeared in the Valley. When Yvon did slink up the dirt road into Camp 4, an air of both guilt and worry about him, I knew I would only be with them in spirit, the fifth man on the team—a designation as meaningful as the fifth Beatle.
When they set out for The North America Wall, my Yosemite odyssey came to an end. With little to no money left, I had only to figure out how to get home. Rick Horn, a fellow Colorado climber who I did a few routes with in the Valley, was also ready to leave and proposed that we travel by freight train. I had heard Royal talk about hopping trains in his younger years, about how, when he was in the Army, he caught them during weekend leaves, to get back to California to climb.
I gathered my gear, my pack, my rope, my sleeping bag and my small blue suitcase. I mailed home a large climbing scrapbook Royal had let me bring along—it had been a kind of Linus blanket to me. As the climbers started up El Cap, Horn and I stood by the road near Camp 4, thumbs out. A couple of green-suited rangers with flat-rimmed, Smokey Bear hats, gave us a look. I had watched one of them roust two climbers from the comforts of Camp 4 due to their overly vagabond look or because they were mildly belligerent. The rangers felt contempt for climbers who pilfered leftovers from abandoned plates in the cafeteria. Sometimes a climber was classified as having “no visible means of support.” The phrase later became the name of a climb.
Horn and I must have looked tolerable, because we escaped un-molested. It troubled me, though, as we left Yosemite, that I would not get to say goodbye to Royal. I thought of the good food Liz always prepared. I appreciated her desire to make sure my needs were met. I would never forget our climb of Shiprock, that 2,000-foot non-sequitur in the southwest desert, where I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with her in a shallow cave as Royal led above toward a star-filled sky. I remembered how the three of us stood together at sunset atop Castleton Tower in magnificent red solitude. It was the third ascent of that Utah spire.
A young man, who said he once raced cars for a living, picked Horn and me up. As we sped out of the Valley, passing beneath El Cap, I strained my eyes to see where I knew Royal was all business. Why didn’t I climb the Nose of El Cap with Horn? It was time to leave, but I knew I would soon return. At the east end of Wawona tunnel, I glanced back at the waterfalls, monoliths and lofty trees. I gripped the seat with my hands, as our driver sped around curves and gave us a wild, tire-squealing ride west down Highway 41 through Sierra forest to Fresno.
Sitting there, I carried with me all the emotion and memory of climbs I did in Yosemite. One of the first was when Royal sent me up on Sentinel Rock with Chris Fredericks. Royal wanted me to experience the route without the guarantee of his presence. It was almost a test, although by now I had climbed quite a few big walls—including the Diamond and Diagonal on Longs. Fredericks moved slow, like a turtle, with all the time in the world to spare, while I was used to the speed demon Layton Kor. Fredericks made strange whimpers. He was not about to fall. He simply made those noises. I thought of the Camp 4 boulders, all the moves Royal shared with me, how he pulled with his right fingers as he pushed in opposition with his thumb. I remembered when we drove into Yosemite, how I thought an immense white cloud had filled the sky. A rare smile came to Royal’s stern face as he saw me realize that great cloud was El Capitan.
The race car driver dropped us off at the Fresno freight yards. We waited for hours as it grew dark for any sign of a north-bound train. We had gone from the clean air of the Valley of Light to air full of diesel. Long lines of lonely boxcars whistled with wind. An occasional switch engine puttered by. Rick and I walked over to the edge of the yard a short distance and found a pay phone, where I called my parents. I told them I was in the Fresno yard, and heard silence on the line. My mother had a friend who’d been killed by a train, and when at last she spoke, she said, “I wish you would do something else. Please be careful. I love you.”
It continues to amaze me the liberties my parents granted me through so much of my youth. My mother, a teacher and no less responsible than the best of parents, recognized that I was a free spirit. Beyond whatever wise counsel she and my father were able to offer, they knew they could not interfere with my dreams.
Rick and I waited in the smoky dark for a mass of moving steel that would take us north. A black man in a suit, with no shoes, walked up. He asked the way to Chinatown. I said Chinatown was in Los Angeles, to the south, and another in San Francisco to the north. The man told us he had been jumped by two men. They stole his money, his new white Stetson hat, his shoes, and when he resisted they smashed his hands against the track. He heard them mention the word Chinatown, his one clue in his search for the men. He shook my hand, and I felt his broken bones. He continued to converse and to hold my hand. “May the Lord strike me with lightnin’ if I’m lyin’,” he said, “I have a Christmas name, Wil Noel. Wilbur No…el.”
Wilbur told me he had been in the navy and once received a phone call from President Kennedy. The President addressed him as “Wil.” “May the Lord strike me with lightnin’ if I’m lyin’.” Bored, Rick wandered a short distance away. At last, our new acquaintance, Wil, told me I was the only person who ever had listened to him or cared what he had to say. He continued to shake my hand and said he would find me when he got to Colorado. He found a discarded paper cup on the ground and with a cinder wrote my name on it. “A trick I learned when I was in the military,” he said. Wil shook my hand one last time with his broken bones and wandered away in the dark.
Rick and I caught a freight which carried us a few miles north, to the end of the yard. We waited here all the next day. As the sun fell to the horizon to the west, I caught sight of a man who sat in weeds not far from us. He stared down between his knees, into the dirt. His face was pink, rugged, and sunburned. He clutched a full, unopened bottle of wine he had resisted breaking into. I ambled over and sat with him a short while. We spoke. I hoped possibly to learn of a life such as his.
I returned to Rick, as a diesel pulled several flatcars south through the yard. Two men stood on one of the cars. With eagle eyes, they spotted the bottle of wine. One of them jumped from the moving train and sprinted toward my acquaintance who sat hypnotized to the weeds. The runner grabbed the bottle and ran back toward the train. As the train sped up, he sprinted down the cinders. An outstretched hand received first the bottle, then the hand that held it. The other man pulled him onto the flatcar. I glanced back at my rugged, sunburned friend who sat in silence, his head hung low. He shook his head slowly in disbelief.
At last, a Southern Pacific freight moved north. As I ran beside a flatcar, I threw my small, blue suitcase up and made a difficult mantel with my heavy pack. My legs dangled, nearly brushing the wheels. We enjoyed the first-class accommodations of that flatcar, as it carried us out of Fresno. At dawn, we arrived in Roseville and jumped off. The sun rose through smog to the east, an orange ball above the horizon. We changed to a boxcar. Inside, we used our packs and rolled-up sleeping bags as chairs to enjoy views of the Sierra Nevada out the open door.
Freight train travel can be slow at times. It may take days to cross three states, unless you catch a faster train, a “hot shot.” A train is a wonderful place to meditate or write, a place to forget time. If you could get a woman to go with you, as I would a few years later, it is a wonderful situation to be in another’s arms below the firmament and to leave behind your cares. There is no better sleep than on a freight, with those cradle-rocking undulations of steel, and not the hard bouncing, shaking, drunken stagger that happens with older boxcars or “flat wheelers.”
After Roseville, the train circled upward through forest on a steep grade with great views of the Sierra, toward Donner Pass. The clean granite and huge trees of those mountains reminded me of Royal and Liz. On the way to Yosemite, we had stayed a night at their winter chalet at Donner Summit.
Horn and I rolled into the yards of Ogden, Utah, the next afternoon. Rick knew this to be a place where they trained “bulls,” railroad detectives, and as many as 35 bulls might be in the yard at one time. One had to learn the ropes—and there were other dangers. We had to block a boxcar door with a piece of wood, so we did not get locked inside or it slam shut and chop off one of our heads. We jumped from our train before the yard, walked around the yard, and at its south end caught a train on the Union Pacific line to Salt Lake. Here, we would catch the Rio Grande to Denver.
In the Salt Lake yards, we leaned against our packs and at last drifted to sleep. A train to Colorado moved south. We had paid attention for hours, then, after we closed our eyes, did not see or hear our train start to roll. We awoke to the noise, as the train sped up. We grabbed our packs and ran. It became clear the train was now going too fast.
Then a wonder took place, one of those exclamation marks in life we call a miracle. The engineer saw us, slowed, and waved for us to get on. To hear the domino bang of boxcars as they crashed together and see the train decrease speed gave us new energy. We ran beside a piggyback, a flatcar that transports semi-trailer trucks, and as the train slowed, we jumped on. We settled under a truck between its huge rear tires. A piggy-back was the ideal way to ride the freights in warm weather. The truck provided protection from rain yet allowed for a view out both sides—whereas in a boxcar often your view was only out the open door of just one side.
Railroad workers were not our enemies. In fact, most of them were willing to help. They would fill your water bottles—as long as you were not a runaway. In the middle of the night, they might let you know the car you were on had to be uncoupled from the main train. Some of their fathers rode the freights during the Depression. The train roared and rattled over Utah’s Soldier Summit, the weather growing colder. Winter was about to arrive. It snowed and then stopped. We found ourselves in Grand Junction’s freight yards, where again we needed to change trains. We climbed onto a flatcar and rolled out our sleeping bags. This was asking for it, should we be caught out in the open in a storm. Our freight roared through the mountains, where any tunnel gave us warmth for a short spell.
We passed Winter Park. The upcoming, infamous, nine-mile Moffat Tunnel was near, and we held our sleeping bags open in the wind—to fill them with air. We crawled into them and—at the entrance to the tunnel—held our bags closed. To minimize the need to breathe, we didn’t move a muscle as we entered the blackness. We were happy for the tunnel’s shelter out of the cold yet knew the danger of breathing too much diesel smoke. Some years later, they would place blowers in the tunnel. In 1964 there were few or none.
After four or five miles, we used up all the good air and began to inhale the dirty stuff. We emerged through East Portal, after a million ties through dark smoke for six miles under the Continental Divide. We gasped for the untainted, cold air of the Rockies.
This would be the first of many freight train adventures (and probably the least problematic of them all). Not quite two years later, I would take the young kid Roger Briggs home from Western Colorado on the freights after an adventure in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. In 1967, I would jump off a train in Sacramento, roll down a hill, and break my elbow, then head to the Valley and, with that broken elbow, make the ninth ascent of the Nose of El Cap. In 1968, after riding the freights to California to visit a girlfriend in Berkeley, I would begin to return the same way. II had been suffering from a kind of PTSD and went into a crisis deep in the night where I considered jumping from a speeding train. Some kind of intervention of the gods saved me.
In the mountains west of Denver, Horn and I lay in our sleeping bags on our flatcar. We were exposed, and a hard snow fell on us. Each short tunnel gave us a moment’s respite from the frigid air. I squinted from my sleeping bag, eyes half blocked by my stocking cap, and between tunnels I saw a single, brilliant red line across the length of the eastern horizon. The sun would be up soon .
In the break between two more short tunnels, I could make out Eldorado Canyon below us. I could picture Layton Kor, that tallest gendarme on the mountain, like James Dean, the personification of restlessness and wild energy of American youth. Horn and I bounced, shook, and shivered. The snow let up. The sharp point of the Yellow Spur was a black silhouette—Royal and I had stood on that pyramid summit. He and his partners were far up The North America Wall by now, they too in a storm. I had returned from paradise on a snowy freight train and roared toward the morning of creation.