My alarm rang at 0530 hours, leaving me more than a little confused and groggy, having went to bed at 1230. What was I waking up this early on a Saturday for? Am I nuts? The answer to that can wait, as I did have a mission: a 0700 safety briefing at the Goose Lake Railway (GLR) train depot. It was the morning of the day that the West Coast Railroaders Group (WCRG) was undertaking an excursion down the railroad and offering free rides to veterans. I had spent many solitary hours with my dog on this railway between South 10th and New Pine Creek back in the 90s after I separated from the United States Marine Corps. It really helped clear my head when my inability to relate to civilians was grating on me, walking or running the line, sometimes as far as Stateline Road. I was excited and grateful to have been afforded this unique opportunity, but as I was soon to discover, I not only didn’t really know the railroad, but found that veterans rarely get the coping tools that these tracks provided me.
Arriving at the depot on time, I located and introduced myself to Quinton Swank, who was the GLR coordinator for this excursion. Receiving a day-glo orange WCRG excursion vest (safety first is not just a catch phrase, it is part and parcel of everything they do), I was asked to report to Luke Dodd, the mobile training team manager of the Mighty Oaks Foundation, a non-profit organization that works with veterans who are suffering from PTSD. This excursion was to raise funds for their worthy cause and also awareness of the historical gem that we have in this century-old railroad. I will speak more of Luke’s mission later. As a US Marine who served with honor, I know that we cannot do enough for our brothers-in-arms who returned home with the question, “What next?” and received no meaningful answer.
After the briefing by Ken Marty, the president of WCRG, and Swank on behalf of the railway, Dodd, himself a USMC retiree and combat vet, gave a presentation on the mission of the Mighty Oaks Foundation, and it was then time to board.
When I was told we would be riding antique railroad cars, my imagination summoned a 1934 Bugatti Type 59 with railroad wheels instead of track tires. “Red Barchetta”, a song featuring a railroad and a fast car by the legendary Canadian progressive rock band Rush, also ran through my mind, more than just once. The truth, which so often happens, was both mundane and exotic. They turned out to be compact, almost tiny, with nothing of sleek Italian design about them. A large portion of them were two-seaters, powered by a single piston, two-stroke engine, and they were designed for one purpose: to swiftly transit the lines for inspection. With very few exceptions, the 23 cars in the group were restored to historical accuracy with passion and precision, while some sported modifications either diabolic or divine. The members of the group are, one in all, devotees of riding the rails in these beautiful machines and come from all over and go to unheard-of locales in pursuit of their passion. It was as fascinating as it was infectious.
As for my ride, I noticed that most of the cars had enclosed cabins. As a street-bike enthusiast, I had no desire for a “cage” and requested one of the few that were open to the air. There were only three, but just one seat open, and so I was introduced to “Calvin,” owner of a fully restored 1942 Fairmont. As there were a few seats open in other cars, he could have easily been left to his own thoughts, but graciously allowed me to ride in his car. Not wanting to be quoted, photographed or otherwise named for publication, I still came to appreciate his skill, knowledge, and indeed, his company in what turned out to be a 10 hour test in stamina and hydration levels, not a lazy two hour lark in the country I somehow foolishly had residing in the back of my mind. But with the windscreen down and the wind in my face, nothing could kill my ear-to-ear grin.
What I did trust, and was proven correct in, was my belief that I would be seeing parts of Lake and Modoc counties that very few have seen. The view from the highway can become so very familiar until you no longer notice what is around, just the road ahead as you impatiently float along to your destination. Leave that highway in whatever manner you may, and it is an entirely different story. Cruising by a field outside of Davis Creek, a rancher was finishing up in his hay lots, having left behind approximately 100 perfectly cylindrical bales arranged in a tableau that was breathtaking in its bucolic perfection. Also in abundance were the waterfowl and cattle in uncountable numbers. We were watched with keen interest by an unflinching and non-blinking falcon that tracked us every centimeter that we traveled under his perch. Every once in a while, I thought I saw a tawny splash of color in the upper branches of a juniper, imagining it to be a sleepy cougar watching us with couched and indifferent eyes. And it just might have been, but more likely it was an errant, wind-blown Lays bag escaped from someone’s picnic lunch. I prefer the lethargic-nocturnal-hunter scenario, even if completely imagined.
We trundled and clacked along at a sedate 24 kilometers per hour, sometimes reaching a break-neck 32, Calvin at one point hitting 40, just to show me the inadvisability of such speed on rails that received sporadic maintenance through a convoluted maze of leases and operators since 1984 until taken on by GLR in 2017, a company formed by Cornerstone Industrial Minerals. The history of the railroad is a tale of waning industry and the County’s valiant attempts to retain a vital commerce link with steadily shrinking resources. In the absence of three of the four saw mills that historically operated in Lakeview, much needed and timely traffic activity was provided by Cornerstone Industrial Minerals, the Ruby pipeline, and most recently Red Rock Biofuels. Since taking possession of the Lakeview-Alturas line in 2017, GLR has been working diligently to repair and upgrade the line, but riding it in an open railcar, one can be forgiven for interpreting the task as daunting. While this writer has complete confidence in GLR’s ultimate success, the history and future of the railway far exceeds the scope of this account, which I return to at our turn-around, right before the produce check-point at the Cedarville Junction.
Most drivers had modified floor jacks or more complicated systems that lifted the car above the tracks and allowed them to easily spin the vehicle 180 degrees and gently lower it back down. The only deviation from original on Calvin’s Fairmont was the LED running lights and therefore lacked such luxury. Stopping in a flare-marked intersection, he physically hefted the rear of his car with the purpose-built, solid oak handles and quickly, if with monumental effort, manhandled it into position. It didn’t look easy by any means, but he managed it with the practiced grace of 15 years experience.
As we pulled around the bend near the nascent bio-fuel plant on the return trip, I reflected a bit on what I had seen as I tried (unsuccessfully) to dispel “Red Barchetta” from my mind. It was nothing less than a life experience that I had undertaken, but was left more than a little troubled by the purpose of the excursion. Dodd informed us of the tragic statistic of 22 veterans lost to suicide each and every day nationwide. The mission of The Mighty Oaks Foundation is to salvage legacies and save families through peer-to-peer counseling and faith-based programs in a peaceful country lodge setting. Veterans suffering from PTSD or who are just uncertain of their place in society post-service need only apply online or make a phone call and get themselves to an airport. Every service — including round-trip flight, room and board — during the week-long program is completely free of cost to the veteran. If you or someone you know is in this position, help can be found at www.MightyOaksPrograms.org. You didn’t fight alone while on active duty and there is no reason to do so now.
This railcar excursion was an amazing day and an experience that I will keep with me forever. The consummate professionalism of Quinton Swank and his crew, the passion of the West Coast Railroaders Group, and above all, the dedication of Luke Dodd and his organization have left this Marine humbled and truly grateful.