Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
In my mind, freight trains have always held some kind of special mojo. As a kid, I’d read about them, and sung about them. I loved the story, “The Boxcar Children”. I’d seen freight trains, and I’d always wanted to ride them, but at the exalted age of twenty-two years, I never had hopped on board a freight train. However, my best friend Mel had. Around 1970, during one of my many early retirements I’d gone to New Mexico with Mel and his delightful wife Andrea. They were going to stay, so I decided to ride the freights back to California from New Mexico. Mel told me what to do, what to watch out for, and took me to the local division, in a town called Belén (Spanish for Bethlehem) near Albuquerque. I learned from him that a railroad consists of stations and divisions. At a division, as you might imagine, the track divides and goes on from there in two (or more) directions. At the stations in between divisions there’s only one line, and the train may stop or not, depending on if it has freight for that town. So you could wait a long time at a station for a train to stop.
Figure 1. Riding the rods. Only for very desperate men, there are lots of more comfortable seats on a freight train.
But at a division, the incoming train cars are split apart and re-assembled into new strings, depending on where they’re headed. So if you can figure out which string of cars is going where you’re headed, you just need to jump on board. Then after while they hook up the engine, and you’re on your way. Mel told me the kinds of cars that were best to ride on. He recommended riding between the wheels of the trailers on “piggyback” rigs, the setup where a truck trailer is mounted on a railroad car. He said that usually you could ask the brakeman which way the various lines of cars were going. He said to watch out for loose freight of any kind, it could shift and crush you. He told me about the “bulls”, the railroad guards, and how to tell them from the brakemen.
We rode to Belén and I got out at the division in the late evening. Mel and I talked and laughed, discussed the layout of a typical train yard, and all too soon he shook hands and hugged, and he walked to his truck, came back with my canteen I’d forgotten behind the seat, and then he was on his way. The sun was setting. A full moon was rising. It was still early spring, snow on the hills reflected the moonlight. The night was clear. I watched the lights of Mel’s truck disappear, he waved out the window. I shouldered my backpack, turned around, and walked into the freight yard in the growing darkness.
As usual, Mel had given me the straight story. I saw a man in the yard. He was clearly working, not pretending to work or just looking around, so by Mel’s guide he was a brakeman. I went up to him. He said that they were making up a train on a certain track, call it track number 8, heading west. He directed me to the main line. I walked along the main line to track number 8, the short section of track leading off the main line where they were making up the westbound train. But there, I couldn’t find anything that looked good. No piggyback rigs. No empty boxcars. The best bet seemed like a “flat with ends”, a flatcar with no sides but with a seven-foot (two metre) tall wall at each end. I didn’t like it because I was totally exposed, there was nowhere to hide when the train came to a station. But it was all I had, I’d walked up and down the line of cars and couldn’t find anything better. So I got on and sat down at the front end, with my back to the end wall. And waited.
Figure 2. Flatcar with ends. Note that the deck is long and narrow, and lacks any type of handholds except the sockets for the stakes at the edges of the deck.
Suddenly, the flatcar was slammed back as the massive locomotive engine hooked up. I was surprised by the sudden motion. Later I learned to recognize the noise as the cars slammed together, one after one, down the line after the engine hit the end to hook up or to start pulling. I learned to brace myself at the sound before my railcar jumped, and to recognize whether the sound meant the car would jump backwards or forwards. But that first night, I knew nothing, I just got slammed backwards. After another wait that seemed interminable, we rolled out. Soon the train was slowly pulling out of Belen. The moon was fairly high in the sky by that time, the air was desert clear, and as the train slowly picked up speed, the wind was icy. I put on another layer of clothing.
At first, the train moved gently out of the division. We started to roll at a very gradually increasing speed up a long incline. The night was fairly cold, and I was on top of the world, finally I was riding the freights. One beauty of the train is that it goes where people and cars aren’t. So I rolled through the night with only the moonlight under a crystal cold sky. I can’t tell you how I felt right then, like I’d conquered the world, like I was the king of the hobos, my hat would barely encompass my head, I was the anointed one … a feeling which, in my now much longer experience, I find is often followed by curious circumstances, and unexpected and often unwelcome occurrences, and this was no exception.
I later learned that some flatcars, either flats or flats with ends, are mild-mannered. They roll along smooth as glass on most any rail-bed. Other flatcars have rather nasty habits when they’re empty. When they get up to speed, they start to flex and twist from corner to corner, a great racking movement where one end twists one way and the other end twists the other way. Afterwards I heard hobos call them “Galloping Gerties”. But then, I knew nothing about Gertie.
So I was sitting there convinced I had it all sussed out, king of the road, top of the heap … and as the train picked up speed, first the flatcar started to flex gently, a few inches up and down corner to corner. And at first it wasn’t much, but as the train’s speed continued to increase, so did the flexing. And soon the flatcar was twisting and bucking like a wild horse of my cowboy days, jerking up and down a foot (30 cm) or more every couple seconds. I could no longer sit down, I was being flung in the air, and sometimes smashed back up again by the rising floor of the flatcar as I fell down after the first launching. The moonlit landscape was flashing by in jerks and fits as I bounced. I knew I’d be beat to a pulp by an hour of that, and I had hours ahead. I knew I had to do something. I couldn’t stay where I was, I had no choice, I had to move.
I looked back, down the moonlit length of the flatcar. Mistake. Bad mistake. For the first time I had a full appreciation of what was happening. In the moonlight, the far end of the car twisted and jumped to the right as my end jerked to the left. The whole car was shaking and racking and groaning, strange mechanical wailings issuing from unseen connections, and of course there is nothing to hang onto anywhere except at the ends, and there are no handrails on the deck of a flatcar, just the boulders whizzing by, and gravel and death and trees flashing past on either side, and red railroad signal lights and death’s crimson gaze blinking blood in the moonlight, framing that godawful crazy jumping bucking length of featureless steel deck, no handhold until the holes at the very edges if you start to slide towards …
My mind skittered away from that slippery slide in fear and I turned and pointedly looked the other way. I decided that I didn’t care in the slightest what I might find ahead of me, I was going forwards, in fact I wasn’t even going to look backwards again, it was much too ugly. One way or the other, I couldn’t stay on galloping Gertie, the bitch would kill me and the idea of walking the length of that flexing, jerking, bouncing slippery steel plate turned my bowels to water, so forwards it was.
There are steps up and around to get past the ends on the flats, U-shaped steel bars welded to the cars, slippery and small. I climbed around and down. My backpack kept pulling me off-balance. There’s a narrow ledge to stand on once you get behind the ends. I rested a moment. Then I had to get across from my car to the car in front. I looked to see how I would make the crossing, seeking out and deciphering life-and-death details of a totally unfamiliar situation in the moonlight.
The cars are joined only by the “knuckle coupler” that you see between all freight cars. It forms a narrow, constantly shifting, insecure pathway between cars, with no handholds of any kind. I could see the cross-ties flashing below me in the moonlight, I quickly looked away. I decided looking down was not a good plan. But I had to look down. I dithered as long as I could. I established the location of the air hoses coupling the cars, potential snares. I watched how the knuckles moved. Eventually I’d seen where everything was, two or three times. But I still couldn’t make myself do it … and galloping Gertie kept trying to buck me off. What finally decided me was the strangely comforting thought—“Well, at least I only have to cross this butt-ugly son-of-a-bitch once.” So I gathered all my courage, and planned my steps, and skittered as quickly as possible across the knuckle coupler from car to car, grabbing on to the other side like a drowning man latching on to a liferaft. For a long moment I clung there without moving, just happy not to be slammed up and down. Things were looking better.
The end of the car that I was now standing on looked from my vantage point like the end of a regular railroad boxcar, the kind like a giant long box with walls and a roof. I racked my memory, but I couldn’t recall any details about this car from when I’d first got on the flatcar. I stuck my head around the corners and looked forward. No sign of a boxcar door on either side, just high walls all around. There was only a narrow ledge where I was standing. Whatever kind of a car it was, I needed to get up on the roof of the car and keep moving forwards, I couldn’t stay there. I started up the U-shaped bars that passed for a ladder on the end of the car.
But when I got to the top of the ladder and blithely stuck my head up over the top edge to see how I’d proceed forwards, something hard smacked into my forehead. I was totally shocked, it was completely unexpected, as if someone slapped my face in the middle of a peaceful conversation, I almost lost my grip in my surprise, I pulled my head back down below the edge and clung to the ladder. I had no idea what had hit me, but I didn’t like it. After I felt my face, I could see some blood on my fingers. It looked black in the moonlight. I crouched down on the ladder, protected by the top edge of the car, wondering what the hell hit me. Carefully, I peeked over the parapet again, and in the moonlight I could see that what I was traveling on wasn’t a boxcar at all. It was an “open hopper” car with no roof, and it was filled with wood chips right up to the brim, chipped up logs going to the pulp mill, small chunks of wood actually. And as the train rumbled through the night, the wind was picking up the chips and chunks of wood and slinging them back along the length of the train at forty-five miles an hour (20 m/sec) or so. There was no way I could face that machine gun spray of wooden bullets without an armored suit. I’d been incredibly lucky, the piece that had hit my face was a small one, a larger one and I could have released my grip on the ladder from the shock and fallen down between the cars … my stomach churned.
I climbed down the ladder, shivering with fear, and with the delayed reaction to being hit in the face, and with the bitter cold. I considered my options.
Unfortunately for the “considering” part, I didn’t have any options. There was nothing to consider. Fact. I couldn’t go over the parapet into the face of the wood chip machine gun. Fact. I couldn’t cling like a gecko to the vertical ladder for unknown hours. Fact. There was no path along the sheer vertical sides of the hopper car. Fact. I couldn’t stay on the ledge I was on, way too thin, I’d drop from exhaustion.
Conclusion? Duh. I had to go back, and cross that eternally thrice-damned knuckle coupler again. My gibbering mind resolutely refused to even consider what I would do after that. It protected me, on some level it knew I simply couldn’t afford to go there. One deadly opportunity at a time, what might kill me next would just have to wait its damn turn, I was too busy staying alive now to even consider the future.
Don’t believe what they tell you. It doesn’t get easier with practice. That’s pure bull. It was not one bit easier to cross going back, it was harder. The cross-ties were still a terrifying blur underneath. They hadn’t gotten around to installing a handrail in my absence. Plus although the car I was on was loaded and stable, I’d be mounting Gertie while she was bucking and straining in the moonlight. All I could do at that point is figure out my movement plan, where I’d place my feet, where I’d end up on the other side. Then pick a moment in time and balance my backpack and go for it. Somehow I started across again, my only memory of the trip the blur under my feet and all my total focus on the knuckle, and I made it and I climbed around the end of the flailing, lashing flatcar, out of the wood chips, and reconsidered my lack of options. I found that if I flexed my knees with Gertie’s bucking I could stand up at the end of the flatcar, but only because I could hold on to the steps on the vertical end. If I let go it looked like I was failing a drunk driving test, staggering, struggling to stay upright. It was exhausting just to stand holding on, I was thrown back and forth by the flatcar. But time was running out. The train was rolling along a long straight flat section, and it was still picking up speed, bucking higher and higher. I had to get off the car before it threw me overboard. The pucker factor before even starting that death walk was well in the red, what would it be like in the middle? Again my mind skittered away … and slowly, against my will and driven by the harsh lash of necessity, I prized my hands finger by finger loose from the last handhold and started the agonizing trip towards the other end of the flatcar.
At the front end of the car, I’d been protected from the flying wood chips. But as soon as I started toward the rear of the car, they started to hit me. Stumbling and struggling to stay upright on the wildly flexing flatcar floor, increasingly blasted by soda-cracker-sized pieces of wood driven by the wind as I moved forwards, I found I couldn’t stand up. I dropped to my hands and knees and I cursed and clawed my way toward the far end of the car, struggling to stay away from either terrifying edge of the unending length of featureless slippery steel, the edge where death cheerfully waved and smiled and beckoned me every time I took my eyes off the floor beneath me to check my position. Incessantly pummeled by the wood chips, slammed up and down and scrabbling like a demented crab on my hands and knees to keep away from certain death, first shrinking away from one side, then frantically clawing for distance from the other side, for what seemed like longer than my entire lifetime up until then, I finally looked up to find myself cast up at the foot of the far end of the car, and I used the steps on the end to stand again, the wood chips peppering against my back, and clambered clumsily up and over the steel ladder around the end, and stood once again on the narrow ledge and clung to the far side to recover. I was alive, ah, I was alive and away from death’s beckoning doorstep. The wood chips couldn’t get me there, and I could catch my breath, although it was still hard to hang on to the bucking flatcar. I clung to the steel stair rods and tried to recover.
But that just brought me face to face with what I had determinedly avoided up until then, the new ugliness, the ugliness that once again my mind had resolutely ignored during my draining, terrifying peregrination from one end of galloping Gertie to the other.
I still had to cross another knuckle coupling to get off of the bitch.
Each one was harder than the last, it never got easier, and by now Gertie was into serious bucking mode, frog hopping, changing leads, sunfishing, reversing direction, the whole rodeo repertoire. And with the jumping and plunging, it was still necessary to do that slow countdown, at this point I knew it was 1 – 2 – 3, I planned it out, my first foot will go on the back side of the near knuckle, second foot on the flat spot beyond the far knuckle, third step onto that skinny ledge, I see where the handhold is, I have it all planned out, I know where the air hoses are. I’m ready. I readjust my backpack, and I start to take the first step …
… and the train hits some funny spot in the rails, and the knuckles flex and slam and shake side to side, and Gertie puts an extra hitch in her getalong, and my hands freeze around the cold steel steps to keep me from moving and my heart freezes in fear, and after that it’s even harder to go the second time.
It’s curious to be in a situation where you have one and only one option. Usually in life, you can do something, there’s almost always a Plan B—call the tow truck, try another route, call the cops, use another tool, get in touch with your mom, go ’round the back way, ring the office, usually in life you have more than one path open to you. Unfortunately, that was not my situation.
There was no Plan B for me, so eventually I was forced take my heart into my hand, at the given instant I just let go and took the first step and once again I crossed the knuckles in the uncaring moonlight with the cross ties scything a lethal hiss just below my feet and they still haven’t installed the damn handrails and I don’t ever look at the train rails hungrily glistening below, I never look at the rails, nevernevernever look there, I just go and don’t stop for anything, across and over and onto the next car … man, I hate train knuckles …
When my heart calmed down enough for me to look around, I found that I was at the end of a “gondola” car, a flatcar with low sides about four feet (one metre) tall. I climbed in. There was a small open space for me to stand, maybe a metre (yard) across and running the width of the car. Beyond that my way was totally blocked. I faced a tall wall, the near end of a stack of forty-foot (12m) lengths of 12″ (30 cm) steel pipe. I couldn’t go through them. There was no way over them, they were piled in a pyramid. There was a small space in front of the stack of pipes. I was done, the game was up, couldn’t go back, and I wouldn’t go forwards, no way I was going forwards. That much was clear.
Now that the adrenalin level had dropped out of the stratosphere, and I wasn’t riding Gertie, and now that my heart had stopped beating on the walls of its bony prison in a fearful attempt to escape, suddenly I was both totally drained, exhausted like I’d couldn’t remember ever being before in my life, and cold, an interplanetary chill that went to the bone. The wind from the speed of the train was frigid beyond belief. I looked around, I could see for miles. The moon rode over the high desert, mocking, ice-bound. I could feel the cold of outer space sucking the heat out of the landscape through the bone-dry high desert air. I opened my backpack that was somehow still with me. I put on every piece of clothing in the pack. Every shirt. Every pair of pants. I put all my socks on, one extra pair on my feet and the rest on my hands. I had a ratty old GI sleeping bag. I got inside, all the way inside, and pulled the opening closed.
That driving, shrieking, swirling railroad wind was blowing from far beyond Jupiter. It just laughed at me.
It didn’t have to come through no steekin’ openings, instead it came blasting straight through the sleeping bag and stabbed its icy fingers past all of my clothes, skittered down my back, froze my feet, made my teeth ache, ran over my stomach, tormented my ears. I dozed fitfully, shivering, bitter cold, teeth chattering in time with train wheels, and never able to tamp down my constant fear. I would push it away, and it would come back, again and again.
I was afraid, a fear I couldn’t quell, because in the moonlight I had clearly seen that the only chains on the load went around the pipes themselves. Nothing but their own weight held them from sliding along the body of the gondola car, and pipes are hollow, so not much weight. Mel had warned me not to do exactly what I had to do, put myself in the path of shifting cargo … so I spent the rest of the ride fearing that the engineer would slam on the brakes and the whole load of steel pipe would slam forwards against the steel end of the gondola car, and they’d find my body in a couple weeks by the smell, divided into perfect 12 inch cookie-cutter sections, baking on some railway siding in the hot desert sun … not a conducive image for a peaceful night’s rest.
At the next division, in northern Arizona, I jumped off of that traveling mousetrap as soon as it slowed down, actually before it was even slow enough, I was inexperienced, my return to earth was far less than graceful, but thankfully not particularly spectacular. I was just glad to be terrestrial again, because when that gondola car slammed to a stop somewhere in the yard, I damn sure wasn’t going to be inside with the pipes. Back on the earth, stiff and cold, I found a dark corner of the surrounding desert and fell asleep, wrapped up in my sleeping bag. At least there wasn’t much wind, and I slept warm and toasty … I had on plenty of layers.
I awoke sweating and cooking in the morning sun, with my mouth all dry, roasting inside my clothes. I sat up and looked around. Stone desert. I grinned at the sky, happy to my toes to be alive and warm. I drank some water from the canteen Mel had remembered, peeled off layer after layer after layer, and started out again. I walked from where I’d jumped, along the rails, maybe a mile to the freight yard at the division. I’d lived through my first freight train ride, and I knew it damn well had to get better from there … because I couldn’t conceive of any possible way it could ever get worse. And indeed, despite making a couple of half-hearted attempts on my personal best for raw freight train ugliness, attempts that I don’t care to remember, I’ve never had a worse freight train ride in my life.
As if to mock me, my next ride was the absolute opposite. I hit the mythical hobo jackpot. On the spur line making up for the west there was an “auto rack”, a specialized railcar for carrying automobiles. And on the top there was a pickup truck, oh my. I scrambled up the sides to the top of the auto rack, tossed my gear in the back of the pickup, and got in. I rode that way all across the northern end of Arizona. I tell you, friends, on a fine warm day there is no more noble means of transportation on this planet. The truck was strapped down by the axles, so the suspension of the truck soaks up all the road shocks, you ride in luxurious comfort. The body of the pickup blocks the wind, you can sit up and look out over your domain, you can see forever. And since yes, it is illegal to ride the rails, being up high I could simply lie down and be totally hidden from the railroad bulls that patrol the railyards at the divisions, and from the stationmasters in the stations.
So I rode through the miles of lovely early spring in all of the comfort and ease and luxury that a man could every want. My eagle’s eyrie even looked down on the dome cars of the passing passenger trains. After going through icy hobo hell, I spent the day in warm hobo heaven, what the hobos call the “Big Rock Candy Mountain” where the cigarette trees grow, basking in the sunshine.
“In the Big Rock Candy Mountain, the bulls have wooden legs
The bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit, the barns are full of hay …”
Heaven indeed … after dark we came into the next division. I got out and got directions from a switchman. He said they were making up a train on a certain track, call it number 5, and it wouldn’t leave ’til after dawn. I walked along the main line reading the numbers on the switches until I found track number five, and I had good luck again. I found an empty boxcar this time, the first one I’d found. I looked around and found a stick of wood. I got in the freight car, and used the stick to jam the door mechanism so it couldn’t slam shut and trap me inside, as Mel had warned me to do. I lay down and went to sleep in my bag near the middle of the boxcar.
Early in the morning, about 3 am, I felt a bump as a locomotive hooked up to the string of cars. Not long after that, we started to move. “We’re starting early,” I thought, “the switchman said not until after first light”. I looked out of the open door of the boxcar, I could see the scenery start to move in the moonlight. I fell back to sleep as the train started to roll out West, and the miles started moving under me. I was glad to be on my way again.
Now, unknown to me at that time, in some railroad yards, there is a small artificial hill built at one end of the yard. It is used to sort the railroad cars onto separate tracks by destination. It works like this. A small “donkey” locomotive slowly pushes a long string of railroad cars up and over the crest of the small hill. One by one, each car is released separately from the string as it comes over the hilltop, and it merrily rolls downhill picking up speed and heads out on the main line across the flat. And that single car runs easily and smoothly along the main line, with only that slow soporific click of the rails to show it’s moving as it heads down the main track to be attached up to other cars already hooked up together and waiting on some given side track branching off of the main line. And at some point in each car’s easy run a switch on the main line is thrown, and that single car is shunted off the main line onto the side track, to add to the correct new string of cars being made up to go somewhere else.
And now imagine, if you will, that in the middle of that smoothly running boxcar you can see there in the moonlight, rolling its solitary way down the main line, an adult imbecile lies sleeping, unsuspecting, his head full of idiotic dreams of a locomotive pulling his boxcar westward and the endless miles unrolling beneath his recumbent form …
And when, at the end of that lovely long run from the top of the little hill, and after being switched onto the proper side track, that smoothly running empty boxcar finally hit the three dozen or so stationary, fully loaded cars that were its new partners, it made a horrendous, brain-squeezing, heart-stopping, sleep-destroying, Last Judgement trumpet crash of metal on metal and stopped.
The three dozen or so fully loaded freight cars we hit didn’t move one bit, and the car I was in came to a total and complete halt. Instantly.
I can’t blame my body for what followed.
It simply obeyed the law. In this case the relevant statute was Newton’s, which says “Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.”
Unfortunately for me, the kind of motion my body tended to stay in would have done honor to a Roadrunner cartoon. I was sleeping crosswise to the rails in my sleeping bag, and when the boxcar stopped I was rolled over and over like a log, two or three times, and I got seriously slammed and flattened against the end wall. I would have peeled off of the wall and dropped to the ground after the impact like in a cartoon too, but I was already on the ground, so instead I was still plastered to the wall, feeling about an inch thick. I groaned, and tried to reinflate myself, which didn’t work as well as it does in the cartoons. I rested for a moment and took stock. Where was I? Why was it dark when the door was open? Where had the full moon gone, I knew it would be up all night? What the hell had just happened? Had we been in a train crash? And above all, what was that tooth-grinding, deafening, incredible noise when we stopped?
I stuck my head out of my sleeping bag. I couldn’t see anything, total blackness. I got up, checked for missing bodily parts. I felt my way from where I was along to the door. The open door had slammed shut with the crash. The only reason I wasn’t trapped inside was Mel’s stick that I’d put in the locking mechanism. I leaned hard on the door. It didn’t move. I pulled harder, and it came free and I rolled it wide opened, and looked outside.
It was still well before dawn. The low-hanging moon lit up the small hill they pushed the string of cars up and over, it illuminated the rolling cars, it laid out the whole scene perfectly. More cars were rolling past as I watched, and being switched onto other side tracks and crashing into other strings. In fact, the moon illustrated with total clarity what a fool I’d been, rolling westward in my dreams. In my experience moonlight is good for that kind of thing, for showing a man he’s an idiot. The moon has seen me do some very foolish things. I left the moonlit doorway and I went back to sleep, but I slept hard up against one end of the boxcar, I never slept in the middle of a freight car again, always one end or the other.
After dawn, the real locomotive hooked up, and we rolled away. After a while, I got up and looked out the boxcar door onto a beautiful warm day. I sat in the door of the boxcar with my feet over the edge, and watched the day unfold. I watched my bruises develop. I watched the desert miles unroll on a long run that day, a magic carpet journey that included a place in the hills where the front end of the train turned back on itself so tightly, I could see the engineers driving the train as it curled back towards me, and then the engine ran through a tunnel right directly underneath my dangling feet as I sat in the door of the boxcar.
Trains don’t follow the roads, so I saw parts of the desert I’d never seen, endless vistas without a sign of human habitation, no billboards, no power poles, just the wild … I love trains. And toward dusk, mine own personal train car pulled into Bakersfield, in Southern California.
I slept in some recondite spot I discovered around the yard, and I rolled north again in the morning. For some reason lost to memory, I’d decided to go to Redding, in Northern California. I did fine up to the big division in the middle of the state, Roseville, near Sacramento. I got off there, talked to the switchman, got on another train, a boxcar … but it was the wrong train. The train started rolling straight up the warm, pleasant Central Valley of California. I sat in the door in the boxcar again, entranced by the view. But then the train turned right, and started climbing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I said Whaa? Redding’s not this way. Soon we were up high again, and once again the damn icy wind was whistling past the open door. And that train was tireless, it went through towns and never stopped once. It’s not a like a passenger train where you can pull on the emergency cord and stop the whole thing. I was just a mouse on the back of the dragon, you don’t get off until the dragon stops, but at least I was out of the wind this time, inside the boxcar.
Oh, wait, not true, now that I think of it the train did stop once. In the late evening it stopped at a frozen siding with absolutely no sign of habitation, with snow around on the ground. I hopped out and watched a passenger train go by, passengers almost always get right-of-way, freights usually get bumped temporarily onto a siding to let the gentry pass. They looked all warm and happy in glow of the lights in the dining car at dusk, and I was happy for them, because they were on a train too, good on ‘em, finest way to travel … but I didn’t envy them. I figured I had the better deal by far.
I stood in the cold wind stamping my feet and watched their train grow smaller. I heard the locomotive starting up, and the crash of each car being yanked into motion started to ripple back along the train as the slack came out. I ran to jump back in the boxcar before it got jerked into movement, braced myself in the door jamb against the shock, and we were rolling again.
After a ride that seemed to take forever, without one chance for me to let go of the tail of the tiger and return to earth except that desolate, unpopulated snowbound windy siding, the train finally stopped way up in the north-east corner of California. I got off, dead tired. I stood by the highway for hours, hitchhiking. Finally a man let me ride with his tools under the camper shell in the back of his pickup to Redding. It was cold in the pickup. I didn’t care, I was moving, and besides, I’d just seen real cold, and I was out of the wind. The next day I hitch-hiked back down to Santa Cruz, where I was living at the time. A new season was starting up, retirement time was almost over, time to go back out on the ocean and make some more money … commercial fishing again, what could be better? But that’s a story, and likely more, for another time …
After that fishing season ended, with money in my pockets, I retired again, and my girlfriend and I hitchhiked up the coast to Oregon. It was gorgeous, summertime, warm and sweet as Oregon is that time of year, smelling of hidden streams and secluded forests. We turned inland to Springfield, and from there we caught the freights back down to Sacramento. We started out lucky, we got a great boxcar out of Springfield and we were on our way.
I’ve ridden the rails in some lovely parts of the world, but that ride was amazing. We found a boxcar in the yard, the brakeman was friendly, pointed out a good car, wished us the best, warned us to watch out in Klamath Falls, tough division he said … people can recognize lucky suckers in love, I guess, never happened when I rode by myself. After leaving Springfield, the route goes through the mountains. There’s a long string of tunnels on that route. We were young, and as the train rolled in and out of the tunnels, and the enveloping darkness gave way to bright sunlight only to plunge us back into the gloom, with each blast of sunlight revealing new vistas of forests and streams and the heart of the wild, clearings and mountainside, we made long, wild, all-encompassing love in our bedroll on the boxcar floor, matching out energies to the rolling and swaying of the train, laughing, the train wheels pounding, screaming, driving …
Around noon we were sitting in the door of the boxcar and we rolled, a bit unexpectedly, into Klamath Falls. I wasn’t thinking too straight, likely a lack of cerebral oxygen, all my blood had gone south, and like fools we didn’t immediately jump up and hide ourselves away, we were still sitting in the open boxcar door when we hit the station. As we rolled through the yard, what the hoboes call a “mean bull” spotted us. He did a curious thing. He was standing a ways back from the rails on the station platform. He gave us the evil eye and pointed his finger at us across his forearm, and kept it pointed right at us from the moment he saw us until we rolled out of his view. I knew we were in trouble, how stupid to have forgotten the brakeman’s warning … but dear god, what a perfectly splendiferous way to forget it … we both grabbed our backpacks, and as soon as the train stopped we jumped out of the boxcar, sprinted down the line looking for a hideyhole, and jumped in to an empty boxcar we chose because we saw a couple pieces of plywood and some blocks of wood inside. We took a piece of plywood, and we laid down at the end of the boxcar, and we laid the plywood right over top of us with the end near the door touching the floor so you couldn’t see under. From the door, it looked like the plywood was just tossed there with one end sitting on some dunnage (“dunnage” is wooden blocks or plywood or anything used to hold cargo in place from shifting).
Very soon, we heard the bull come by. We had already seen he was overweight, and clearly he was out of shape as well, and had evidently run to catch us. We could hear him puffing and blowing like a land-bound whale, he panted straight past our boxcar, headed to our previous location, and we grinned at each other and stifled laughter. After while he came by and stuck his head in the door of our car, but saw nothing out of order, we heard him coming and stayed perfectly silent, unmoving, facing each other under the plywood, eyes sparkling. We laid there on the floor under the plywood for maybe an hour, laughing and talking in whispers in case the bull came back, until the train started up again and pulled out of the yard.
Our new home was much nicer than the old boxcar. It had some special dunnage bars in it that are used to wall off part of the car, to keep cargo from shifting. The bars were as long as the width of the car, and had hooks on each end. There were corresponding holes all over the inside walls of the boxcar. This allowed the bars to be installed anywhere, to keep the cargo from shifting if the boxcar is not full. We hooked three of the bars in a row at seat height. They made a bench the width of the car, just aft of the boxcar door. Then we put one dunnage bar in up a bit higher, leaned a piece of plywood on it down to the ground behind the seat, and we had comfortable grandstand seats with a plywood backrest for the remainder of the ride.
And what a stunning ride that is. Running south from Klamath Falls, the train circles halfway around the base of Mount Shasta. Shasta is an unusual mountain in that it has no neighbors. It sits alone in majestic splendor alone on a wide plain, a roughly symmetrical cone over 14,000 feet (4,300 m) tall. It was in rare form that afternoon. The “orographic cloud” (a cloud caused by air flowing over landforms) it often gets over the top was as white as the remaining snow near the peak. The train gave us one vista after another of Shasta, we sat in our grandstand seats in wonderment and watched the light change on one of the world’s most stunning mountains.
After rolling for a couple of hours around the base of the mountain, the train descends into the valley of the upper Sacramento River. The train starts into the valley in the upriver direction, then when it nears the river it takes a wide turn called the “Cantara loop” and then follows the river downstream. The Cantara loop is a dangerous section, where in 1991 a railroad chemical tank car went off the rails and into the Sacramento, causing a massive fish kill. But to us that day, it was a beautiful wide sweep that ended with the train racing the clear bubbling river down the valley.
Just before dusk, we came to Shasta Lake, a lake formed by the damming of the Sacramento River. The train crosses the upper lake on a couple of bridges, including the Pit River bridge, fifth highest railroad bridge in the world. We sped across the bridge, five hundred feet (150 m) above the placid waters below. The sunset on the lake was stupendous. The train rolled on without stopping.
The floor of the Central Valley of California is almost perfectly flat. As a result, the trains can go at high speeds. When we got to the flatland, the train sped up, and we were flying through the night. We both fell asleep sitting on our comfortable scenic view bench, with my sleeping bag wrapped around us. About midnight, my girlfriend woke me up, frantic. She’d awakened and noticed that the high-speed bouncing of the train had moved her pack near the door. She went to grab her pack, she said, and the train lurched and she accidentally knocked it out the door … what could we do, she asked me? She knew there was nothing to do, but she was still half asleep and not thinking straight. Memory is curious, I still remember what I said to her that night—I said sweetheart, freight trains are a lot like life, because when you are on a freight train you can’t put on the brakes, so you might as well enjoy the ride. And she gave me a hug and a sleepy smile, and drifted off again. I learned a lot from that woman.
Around 3 AM we got into the division at Roseville, near Sacramento in the middle of the state. We hopped off when the train slowed down to enter the division. It was dark. We walked to a nearby gas station. When we got into the streetlights, we both busted out laughing. Of course, we were totally filthy, hiding on the floor of a boxcar for a couple of hours under a sheet of plywood will do that to you, and riding the freights is a grimy, dusty business even on the best of days. We were both a total wreck, we looked at each other and laughed and laughed. We went into the restrooms and cleaned up as best we could, and waited until dawn at a truck stop. At daybreak we started hitch-hiking back to Santa Cruz. It was time to come out of retirement again, another fishing season would be starting soon.
One of the most recent times I rode the freights, decades ago, I ended up spending a chilly night in a boxcar with an old hobo. He was still fighting World War II. He told me General MacArthur had put him in charge of making sure that the freight trains were actually going where they should go, because MacArthur knew that the communists were re-routing the freights to incorrect destinations. So the hobo’s job was to check on them to make sure they were headed for the right places. I thought about him, then and since, and I realized that while I loved sleeping in a freight car, I would hate to have to sleep in a freight car, and he had no choice.
But it worked for him, he was a happy man, he had a dry place to sleep, and an important job, keeping the freight trains of America safe from Godless communists trying to steal our vital bodily fluids … and he was content in his boxcar. Jim Hill, the builder of the Great Northern Railroad, never chased the hobos off his trains. Jim said, or at least every hobo believes Jim said, “The bums built this railroad, the bums can ride on it.”
Me … I vote with Jim.
THRENODY—To be sung at eventide.
As I listen for the whistle, lie awake and wait.
Wish the railroad didn’t run so near,
‘Cause the rattle and clatter of that old fast freight
Keeps a-makin’ music in my ear.
Go bum again … go bum again …
Well, I wouldn’t give a nickel for the bum I use to be,
Work as hard as any man in town.
I got a purty gal, she thinks the world of me.
A man would be a fool to let her down.
Go bum again … go bum again …
Ah, hear that whistle blow,
Hear that whistle blow!
The wheels are saying to the railroad track.
Well, if you go, you can’t come back.
If you go, you can’t come back.
If you go … you can’t come back …
[Lento e doloroso]
So ev’ry night I listen, wonderin’ if it’s late.
In my dreams I’m ridin’ on that train.
I feel my pulse a-beatin’ with that old fast freight
And I wish that I was just a bum again.
Go bum again … go bum again …
So my thanks to you all for riding the freights with me, and at this point every one of you knows much, much, much more about riding the freights than I did when I first blithely hopped on board the train to hell … so while I certainly wouldn’t encourage anyone to do anything illegal like hopping a freight train, dear me no, and as should be clear, I tell these stories merely as cautionary tales, to warn the good honest decent folk of this world against letting their children follow me down the primrose path to perdition, and I am purveying this information strictly for educational purposes only, so please don’t try this at home, I’m a highly untrained professional … and yet, and still, the world is a ginormous place full of untold wonders both legal and ill-, and the freight trains are rolling as we speak, with various humanoids concealed on and in and about them in bizarre and dangerous locations, in defiance of common sense and law and reason … in a world like that, I can only wish that every one of you has adventures to make mine pale in comparison.
So here’s your canteen, my friend, and for goodness sake, watch out for Galloping Gertie … me, I’m gettin’ back in my pickup truck and driving away, leaving you alone right where you’re standing, in the growing darkness at the railroad division that’s nearest to your home, with just your backpack. A switchman is working by himself down the line a bit, you see the full moon climbing the eastern sky, and the wild mysteries of the world are calling to you from the hilltops—that ancient, atavistic siren howl of the unknown that always makes your scalp tingle and the hair on your neck grow uneasy, and in the gathering darkness, you turn from watching my truck disappear and walk towards the main line, and the first of the railcars looms up, silent, unmoving … the dangers and delights of the world are always waiting for you and you alone, and life’s few years are far from enough to drink them all to the dregs. Time’s a-wastin’, the engineer blows his whistle long, hop on board … I can only warn you that you can’t put on the brakes, and I can only wish that you enjoy the ride of your life as much as I’m enjoying mine.
… from Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …