YOU ARE HERE: IVPress HomeCollections

A Reader Writes by Pat McCutcheon

April 16, 2002

It was a dark and chilly morning as we waited for the Amtrak Sunset Limited, heading for points east. One by one and two by two we gathered at the "depot," a cement platform on the outskirts of Yuma. Sleepy-eyed passengers wrapped frigid fingers firmly around steaming cups of coffee or their preferred morning beverage.

As we looked to the west for the approach of the 4:19 a.m. Sunset Limited, some of us began doing the tribal dance of early-morning travelers, stomping our feet, hoping to coax a little warmth to our toes. With a little imagination one could see early pioneers, waiting for the stagecoach to civilization and away from Fort Yuma and the Wild West.

We were waiting for the 21st century version of the stagecoach, Amtrak.

Shortly after we began assembling the "railroad dick" appeared, a county sheriff's deputy. He and his partner were assigned to the area to meet the trains, assuring passengers safety, and to watch the yards for "bindlestiffs."


Bindlestiff was a common term in the past for hobos — men who rode the rails around the country during the Great Depression, looking for work. Some women were bindlestiffs, but it was more common for men to hit the rails, hoping for any type of work and a better way of life for their families.

One of the greatest songwriters and activists of his generation was a bindlestiff, Woody Guthrie. He crossed the country, talking with migrant families, telling of the inequities of their lives through his music, and bringing them to the attention of the public.

My father and one of my uncles were bindlestiffs in their younger days. Listening to tales of their adventures I used to wish I could ride the rails, meeting people and keeping journals of my travels. What an exciting life that would have been! Tales told around hobo campfires are legendary.

The sheriff's deputy announced the 4:19 a.m. was going to be about 30 minutes late. Resigned to our fate, and somewhat sustained by coffee, we began talking with one another. Where are you going? To visit family or friends? Why travel by Amtrak rather than fly?

Since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the threat of anthrax, many people were choosing to stay home rather than travel. Most of the

people were frequent fliers, but they had always wanted the Amtrak experience.

We learned the sheriff's deputy and his partner patrolled this area and a large part of rural Yuma County. Their job was to assist people, and prevent any troublesome situation from escalating into a violent one.

"Where's your partner?" I asked. The officer waiting with us was the only deputy we'd seen.

"He's in the van. He's watching the area around us. If he spots trouble, he'll respond immediately."

He's in the van, warm, while you're out here, shivering. Some partner! I thought.

Suddenly the deputy wheeled around and ran for the van, calling "Partner! Partner!" He jumped in the van, turned around and headed west. In a few minutes he was back. "Partner almost got him," he said. "He ran into a building and the guard caught him."

That's when we learned "Partner" was a 90-pound German shepherd, a member of Yuma County's canine corps. Partner was always on the alert, and when he saw something amiss he'd hit a button and the back door of the van would open and off he'd go. He was trained to "hold," but would

attack if instructed, or the officer was in danger.

The deputy said he and Partner had been together for three years. He and his former canine partner had worked together for seven years, until he was retired with honors.

The 4:19 a.m. Sunset Limited was approaching at 4:49 a.m., so we gathered our luggage and moved within the designated yellow lines. We wished each

other a safe and happy trip, and thanked the officer and Partner for watching over us. We boarded Amtrak's eastbound Sunset Limited, and began searching for our assigned seats.

>> PAT McCUTCHEON is a Westmorland resident.

Imperial Valley Press Online Articles