Ship of Fools By Bill Vaughn
Sailing on railroad tracks won't do anything about climate change, but when it comes to cheap ways of getting from Point A to Point B you just can't beat it.
It was a belligerent April Sabbath above the 47th parallel, and we were braced against the gunwales of the sloop Molly B., scanning the livid western sky, waiting for all hell to break loose. Finally, of course, it did. It always does in this part of the world. When the squall hit us upside the starboard bow the boat heaved, the jib snapped, the mainsail swelled, the mast shuddered, and off we went on the ride of our lives.
By the time I could grab a pair of goggles to keep the rain out of my eyes we were pushing five knots. At ten knots Kitty, my wife, tied herself to a cleat. At 15 knots the jib wrenched from its stay and flapped around like abandoned laundry. At 20 knots the wind suddenly pulsed and the boom lashed about, knocking my prized Tokyo Fighter baseball cap off my head and over the stern. I started to lunge for it, but pulled back. There was a more pressing matter 300 yards aft. Bearing down hard on us, retching diesel smoke like some Third World iron works, loaded to the tippy top with pine chips and logs, was a 15-car freight train.
This is clearly the chief danger of sailing on railroad tracks. And for some veteran rail dogs like my co-captain, an attorney we called Loophole, it was also the chief thrill. I yanked on his slicker for attention and shook my arm at the problem. To my profound alarm, he laughed. “I can beat this sucker!’ he screeched like a park bench lunatic. I wrestled him for the mainsheet, but insanity made him stronger. “Think about it!” he shouted. “In two miles we’ll be at the spur and home free. We stop now, we’re cream cheese.”
I did think about it. We were moving west along the banks of the Flathead River in western Montana. The relatively lethargic freight, pulled by a ponderous 1700-series locomotive called a jeep, would stop ahead in the little Flathead Indian Reservation hamlet of Dixon. A crewman would hop out and throw a switch so the train could veer off and deliver its load to a mill in Polson, 30 miles to the north. If this blow held it would push us past the switch and down the main track to safety.
Or I could have jumped out right then. Did the rule about the captain going down with the ship apply to railboats?
The freight had slowed not one whit. Either the crew hadn’t seen us, or they had and wanted to kill us, or they didn’t believe what they’d seen. And why should they? A 14-foot Creole-blue and Miami-orange boat with bone-white sails rigged to an 18-foot mast, operated by unhappy people who are obviously trying to escape disappointing lives by sailing on railroad tracks?
Whoa! Bobby Dick, what the heck didja put in the java?
“Do it!” I shouted at last. But Loophole was already doing it. As he trimmed the mainsail to capture all the wind we could get we began to accelerate. The wheels shrieked like fingernails on a blackboard. Our third mate, an advertising designer whose height and scarlet hair have earned her the moniker the Big Red One, was wide-eyed, clutching Teddy, her little white dog, to her bosom.
I wished I was Teddy.
The wind held, and in no time at all we’d put another hundred yards between us and the headline Rez Freight Nixes Nitwits. Soon, we were clattering into Dixon toward the switch that meant life and not death. Indian kids waved; their parents stared. We hooted like chimps, jubilant, as the Molly B. swooshed past the Polson spur and out into the Jocko River Valley below the grassy hills of the National Bison Range. I pulled on the brake. Loophole let the mainsail luff. And we coasted to a stop. The silence, as they say, was deafening. Above us a bison lifted its great bushy head for a look, then went back to work.
Certain experts believe that Montana’s ferocious winds are the reason there are so many crazy people out here under the Big Sky. Day and night, season after season, these chinooks and westerlies swoop down the valleys and explode from the Rocky Mountain Front, that first wall of mountains on the western edge of the Great Plains, like swarms of big, evil birds, ripping Ford Broncos and antelope and hapless Production Credit Association comptrollers from the sweet-smelling prairies, lofting them across the prairies, and dropping them softly onto Duluth and Lansing.
Well, maybe not. But it is a fact that two of the windiest landlocked burgs on earth lie in Montana. It was near one of them, Great Falls, that the Molly B. was conceived. One late night on my sister’s ranch in the Highwood Mountains I has been forced by lack of diversion to sit and to stare. The ranch had no cable TV, no magazines other than the Farmer-Stockman and Redbook, and nothing in the library more compelling than Smokey the Cow Horse.
So I sat. And stared. Then I heard it: A mournful yowl that rose and fell like the plaint of lost souls. It was a sound I’d been around most of my life, yet on I’d never really noticed until that moment. It was the sound of wind rushing through chicken wire.
I went outside and looked at the coop. The sound was much louder there. What a waste of energy, I thought. A guy should harness this force. Oh, I didn’t want to use it for anything productive, like a windmill—there was already far too much of that attitude at large in our Republic. But it did occur to me that you could sail across the state on that wind, from left to right, and then left to right across the next state, all the way to Minneapolis, where they definitely have cable TV.
This notion was all the more appealing because I have always feared the ocean—its depth, its mystery, the beasts within that crave my flesh. I suppose this is because, like most native Montanans, I am an inept, ignorant swimmer. But there is something about sailing that compels it to transcend its unfortunate connection with the sea. Especially if you can reduce to almost nil the relentless monkey business of changing sails, trimming sails, tying knots, manning the tiller, and hiking out on one side or the other all day long. And extra-especially if you don’t have to do it on water.
The next day it took me only five minutes to find five volunteers eager to share the Molly B.’s ownership and responsibilities. We called ourselves the Shellbacks, a nickname bestowed on World War II sailors crossing the equator for the first time (before they crossed they were only polliwogs). We sketched a crude design, secured some welding bids, and set out on the search for a tight little vessel we could afford. We gave ourselves on warm-weather season to assemble the craft and sail it across the state, an arbitrary deadline but a critical one if the scheme was actually going to move from armchair to railbed.
I t was August, and the Molly B. was dead in her tracks, five miles out of Geraldine in the wheat and cattle country of Central Montana. The term “middle of nowhere” must have been coined here. Our topo map looked like it was drawn in an art therapy class for manic-depressives. The Missouri, that great lummox of a river, had left the marks of its confusion everywhere. Concealed serpentine valleys called sags wound all through these benchlands. Not far away from this spot were the Dry Falls—300-foot sandstone cliffs over which the river roared 10,000 years ago, then changed its mind. Buttressing the buttes and ridges from their summits to the tracks were natural stone walls called dikes, which were formed from lava squeezed out of the tortured ground when this area was a thermal nightmare.
The region was suffering through the century’s worst drought and felt positively primordial. The sky was full of the smoke from two mammoth fires that the Forest Service had decided to let burn until the October snows put them out, turning the sun a milky red. All the place needs is T. rex ripping the spine from some lower monster.
With permission this time, we were on a 65-mile stretch of track owned by Central Montana Rail, Inc., a genial cartel of grain growers and small-town bankers that used its line to move product to Burlington Northern’s main track connecting to Seattle. As usual, the wind didn’t blow at first. But we didn’t much care. The cooler was packed with vodka and beer. Kitty was slapping at horse flies with a W magazine. The Big Red One was off the stern, pushing. Her biceps were taught and her thighs strained against her red cotton shorts. Loophole was taking pictures of her. In our small ways we were at peace with the world.
Soon enough, a little bully of a breeze elbowed in, and we were moving. Exultant, I leaned on the airhorn we were asked to blow at crossings. The racket echoed off the chalky bluffs around us, and fool’s hens fled in terror, their feet blurring like a Roadrunner cartoon. It was complicated happiness that made us smile, something more than the mere pleasure of forward motion. For the traveler railboating is the highest form of luxury. It’s grace without cost, freedom without responsibility, touring without the perpetually annoying question “Where should we go now?”
This time, alas, we traveled only three miles before the wind died in the village of Square Butte. The place was mostly a rodeo ground, but 50 feet from the track was a bar. We decided this might be a good time to see what port life was all about.
Bob and Ralph and their wives were already inside. They were retired ranchers who have been gleefully tailing us all afternoon, holding fingers out the window of their pickup to indicate our speed—when we were moving at all. “Eight miles in four hours!” Bob had hollered. “Get a horse!”
Wind or no wind, the Molly B. was a marvel of simplicity. The $50 rowboat we found for sale in an alley was bolted to a six-ribbed cart of heavy channel steel. Stubby axles were welded to each corner and eight-inch aluminum wheels designed for railroad work carts were mounted on the stubs. The mast, boom, mainsail, and jib were cannibalized from a 1910 new England knockabout called a Whitecap Sailor, and rigged with steel cable shrouds. The brake system consisted of a lever that forced pine blocks lined with industrial belts against the rear wheels.
Smitty, the mechanic who installed our brakes, looked the craft over and announced: “This here’s a railboat, ain’t it!”
“How’d you guess?” I asked. “It’s the only one around.”
“I built me a sail-powered snowmobile.”
After a polite pause, Loophole said “How’s it work?”
“It don’t,” Smitty said. “Thing went ten feet, fell over, and broke.”
I didn’t laugh. We had experimented with a braking system that involved throwing a big triple hook over the stern and hoping it caught in the ties. The fact that it never did saved the boat from being ripped in two.
Now, of course, I would like to claim that the railboat is my invention. But I cannot. Some months before the Molly B. was conceived I came across a drawing that showed men clinging to a railboat as it tore across a prairie. The text explained that the Kansas and Pacific Railroad used these vessels in the 1880s to ferry maintenance men to track that needed repair.
As Harry Truman said, the only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.
On the Molly B.’s maiden voyage, after a pious christening with a bottle of Kessler beer, Montana’s first microbrew, we hoisted a home-made square-rigged sail of ripstop nylon attached with D-rings to an aluminum mast. Amazingly, this Spanky-and-Buckwheat contraption survived the first big blow. The second gust snapped the top piece in two. We tried to make a splint with a two-by-four and duct tape, but it was not a pretty sight. We concluded that square sails, because they can’t apprehend enough port and starboard wind, are not good for railboating anyway. The triangular for-and-aft rigging of the traditional sloop, on the other hand, proved to be just what the doctor ordered. When the crew got a little more railworthy we aimed to try out a spinnaker, that tricky, handsome sail that balloons from the bow of a ship like a frog’s air sac.
Because the Molly B. weighed less than 400 pounds, it was easy for the crew to hoist the bow into the four-horse trailer we used for transport. Once the bow was up the rest of the boat, minus the mast and boom, rolls right in, ready to be secured with rope. Transport by horse trailer was good because railroad police cruising the highways next to the tracks weren’t likely to stop people who looked like witless shitkickers. We hoped.
Eluding the authorities had so far been a minor irritant in our quest for the perfect rail, but it would become a real problem as time went on. The supply of abandoned track in America had been dwindling for years. Scrap steel was worth more all the time, the railroad business was in flux, and salvagers—the bane of railboaters—were becoming as thick as maggots. There was truly “dead,” or abandoned, track here and there, but most of our voyages were made on fallow track that was used irregularly. Freight moved over these lines “on orders” whenever there was enough product to warrant a trip. We had steered clear of the state’s main lines despite the fact that the two big ones span the entire length of the state. The Molly B.’s wheels would have closed the electrical circuit on the rails, alerting a minion at a flashing screen somewhere that dopes were violating the sanctity of the lines, and exactly where. Traffic on several miles on either side would slow, then stop, and irate henchmen would be dispatched to haul us in.
It was a vibrant summer evening fraught with heat lightning. We had been sailing at ten knots along dead track that runs the 30 miles from Philipsburg to Drummond in Granite County. It was a smooth downgrade all the way—as close to the perfect rail as anything we had experienced. Cut hay laid drying in the fields, and the air was full of its scent. In the gathering dusk, with no headlights or farmlights in sight, we were beginning to feel a little like castaways. Two-foot Russian thistles had grown up between the ties. They sighed as we glided over them. A bottle of kiwi soda laced with vodka appeared, and we passed it around, pensive, lost in thought.
I’d been thinking about my dream. In it, I looked very much like Mel Gibson in The Road Warrior. Kitty and I were living in a diminished post-nuclear world. Electromagnetic pulses had destroyed all the internal combustion engines. The Shellback base was a brick powerhouse that once supplied mainline locomotives with juice. Every morning we sallied forth on the Molly B. in search of food. We had very little competition—social antagonism has almost vanished along with most of the human population. There’s just us Shellbacks and some mutants who tried to steal our food but we fought them off and . . .
So much track, so little time. We still had a 70-mile spur from Missoula to Darby to conquer, over tracks where I had once proposed to local politicians a commuter train you could drive your car onto and where prostitution and casino gambling would be legal (they had stared). Then there were some legendary legs out in eastern Montana, such as the Bainville-to-Opheim spur. Yet here it was World Series time and we were only now just getting around to completing the Granite County trip that was called a month ago because of darkness.
It was warm out, but the sky was sending messages about changes to come. We put in and were immediately whisked away on a good strong wind. A mile down the line, however, we had to brake. Some rancher had built a jackleg fence right over the track. A string of lurid scatological expletives bursts from Loophole’s mouth. Rather than portage, we disassembled a section of fence, rolled the Molly B. through, and rebuilt. Then we were off.
Around the bend we were stopped by a crew of teenage boys working cattle. They were on horses and four-wheelers, and their horses spooked as they approached us. “We stopped you because we thought you was hunters and this here is posted,” one of the kids says politely, staring at us as if we had dropped from the sky. Actually, I think he was staring at The Big Red One. He pointed to our craft. “But I see you ain’t hunters. Damn, that is the strangest thing I ever did see.”
We agreed that it was, and they let us go on our way. It had grown a cooler, and the sky had darkened. The Molly B. suddenly lurched to a grinding stop. The rusted rails here have been bowed by the sun, and the boat had dropped right on the ties. We got her back on the track and moved ahead on a spirited wind. A mile down the line we passed a hundred head of beef cattle that stared in their dense, passionless manner. Then they decided to go along with us. So we made our way down the tracks surrounded by a crowd of hungry bovines that believed we must be the hay wagon. It was fun for awhile, but Kitty, who grew up on a cattle ranch, noticed that four young bulls on the edge of the herd seemed to be put out about something.
The wind died abruptly and the Molly B. squeaked to a halt. The cattle stopped. The bulls stopped. There was some exploratory bellowing and pawing of sod. “We’re probably safe as long as we stay in the boat,” I whispered like a golf announcer. “But if they decide to get, you know, physical someone will have to decoy them while the rest of us run to the fence. I pointed to Loophole. “You.”
But foolish heroics weren’t necessary. It had begun to snow. Big, soundless flakes soon frosted us and the beeves with white. Forlorn, they turned away from the tracks and lumbered back to their pasture. Two of the young bulls butted heads, lost interest, and wandered away.
The season was over. We didn’t exactly sail across Montana, but we had covered a lot of ground. If we wanted an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records we could probably have had it—there weren’t any rivals. But we just don’t care. We scorned glory. It was enough to know that when the spring sun melted the snow off the railroad tracks of America the Shellbacks would return.
COPYRIGHT © 2006 BY BILL VAUGHN