He said he’d been doing the run between Pasco and Portland for thirty-two years. He took a summer job with the railroad and got hooked. “They own us. But we’re well taken care of. We’ll make $1,000 on this two-day run. I’ve got a hotel tonight, and a per diem. We make good money.”
As the Columbia River turned the same deep red as the smoke-tinged sky above us, we passed nothing he didn’t know. There was the orchard where they tried a new apple hybrid only to find out years later, when the first harvest finally came, that the apples had no juice. So they ripped it all out and planted hay.
He pointed out a spot near the locks where pelicans had started showing up, just in the last two years. “California pelicans. Your pelicans.”
We passed a marijuana farm with a tall barbed wire fence. And those trains across the river? “That’s Union Pacific. The enemy!” He was a Burlington Northern Santa Fe man, thirty-two years and counting. “Look at this. Here’s where they bring all the trash down from Seattle and Tacoma. Cars and cars of it, it stinks. Guys drive it all one truckload at a time up and over that hill behind us. They’ve got a valley it’s going to take 100 years to fill up.”
He hit a bear cub once. “When you’re up to speed with one of these things, it’s gonna take you half a mile to stop. So.”
And then there was the story about when his train derailed and shut down the highway for two weeks. They had to bring in barges with giant vacuums to suck up all the spilled grain. “I didn’t even know I’d derailed. Saw the air go, and couldn’t get it back up so I stopped to take a look. The back thirty cars were off and all over the road. It was a mess.”
New lights came into view, a slowly blinking field of red he said was a wind farm that went on for miles and miles and always made him think of Christmas. The river opened up and turned into a perfectly smooth mirrored surface. “This is where the wildlife preserve starts, and goes on for a while. Usually around this time is when you’ll see a lot of deer. They come down to drink, we’ll probably see some.” He’s quiet for a moment, searching. “Ah! Yeah. There’s one. See?”