Oregon by Rail

Words + Photos: Molly Steele

The last couple of months had left me restless for something less than easy, almost as if I’ve had a perpetual caffeine-high. I get so caught up in the fantasy of travel and vacation, sometimes forgetting that the most meaningful experiences, for me, are those that require me to try.

I just felt afraid of trains, just for a moment, after having decided finally to sit down and write about the last week. It was 10:15 on a Monday night and I was en route to the train tracks in Downtown LA. It was 10:15 on a Monday night and Kevin and I were prepared for battle, riding the rails in the bitter cold of winter. Our goal was to catch the nightly, a straight shot from Los Angeles to Portland. I stepped purposefully along the steep border of the tracks, looking out for the occasional passing patrol car. From under the tracks, a light in the distance flickered across the face of someone seemingly living in the rafters of the overpass. I wondered what it would be like to live here in the LA river channel.


After some time, we were nestled in the mini-well of a double stack train car, watching the lights of downtown disappear into the distance. Riding the freight made me think of how many people there are in the world living their own private lives. The people making a home under the bridge, wanderers in their sleeping bags rocked to sleep on the back of a train car, rock climbers hanging off Half Dome in the night between their climbs. This was my choice.


We rode the train all the way from LA to Portland and it took us 32 hours. We rode through 15 degree temperatures at night and snowstorms around Mount Shasta. Several times I unzipped my sleeping bag to find that I was covered in snow. Too cold to get out and make some food on my camp stove, or to drink water, or even to sleep. I just lay, looking out at the trees in the night, covered in snow, and seeing, occasionally, a creek or a path of footprints weaving through the trees.


We eventually made it to Portland and with no trouble hopped right off. We took public transportation into the city, which felt pretty funny. I honestly hadn’t known if we would make it there without getting arrested or having to change our plans, so here I was in this city with not a plan in the world. I walked alone through the dark streets, happy to have my backpack off. It snowed; quite a bit, in fact. As the snow turned to ice locals and tourists alike were stuck taking baby steps. We left the city for New Year’s Eve, camping with a small group of friends on a river in the coastal ranges. On the first day of 2016 I lay in the grass looking down the Oregon coastline and feeling alright.