Train Hopping Arizona
I hitched out a few days ago with Randolph from the Grand Canyon after spending two and a half months working in the food and beverage department in Maswik lodge. Randolph has been hopping trains for 7 years in between working seasonal jobs. He left his home in VA at the age of 18 and started walking down the Appalachian Trail. The first train he saw strolling through town he hopped on and he’s been riding the rails ever since then a few months at a time. He ended up in Montana and became trail crew up in Glacier National Park eventually switching to packing in and out food on mules.
We cruised towards Flagstaff and sparked up a joint for the ride past Valle. The last time I smoked was in Colorado when I visited my boy, James. So after a few puffs it kicked in quickly making me feel like I rode on the short bus. We talked about our lives and traveling until we reached the mall outside of Flagstaff where hundreds of trains pass through town each day. He let me out at a pull off towards the roadside where I staked out in the bushes for hours until night fall. I crossed the road and slept in the bushes next to the train tracks in a semi-lucid stupor, awakening every two hours to check my pack and surroundings. Around 2 AM a loud, screeching noise approached. Metal-on-metal ground together equivalent to the sound of chalk screeching against a blackboard. I sat up, alert and ready to approach the train. It reached a halt and then started shunting together a few cars in the yard. I made a run for it alongside the dark highway checking the cars as I snooped by through the shadows of the yard. I tiptoed up the steep, gravel, incline and found an open boxcar, which I hopped up into. The cold floor touched my ass sending chills throughout my body. I waited, antsy for it to move and afraid of getting caught, since I did not know where I was going or what I was doing. Butterflies flew around in my stomach and I felt woozy with all the adrenaline pumping through me. I waited patiently in anticipation for this beast to move as my eyes fluttered due to lack of sleep. As I nodded in and out, suddenly, the train started up, slowly rolling through the yard and I burst out into a huge grin, ready for anything ahead. Quickly, the junk train picked up speed as I cruised through the night on my first freight train. I whizzed by the open desert as my eyes adjusted to the night sky, my hand clinging to the boxcar door, the breeze hitting my face like a wind tunnel and I just smiled. Blurs of stars cast out into the bright sky as the train sped down the track towards the unknown.
The train stopped on a few occasions and my heart thumped in fear, but eventually it moved after shunting together a long series of other junk cars along the track. I traveled over 330 miles through the Sonoran desert into New Mexico where I hopped off the boxcar at mile marker 2 right outside the Belen Yard. The yard was blown up with security, ATVs, lights and tons of workers, making it hard to infiltrate, but I found a back road that meandered alongside the train yard and stealthily watched through the shrubbery at trains rolling through. Farmland stood by the yard as I walked through dirt roads finding my way to the tracks by night fall. I ran across the tracks finding refuge in the bushes across the yard.
I tried my luck catching on the fly on a few Intermodal trains that headed out of the yard, but every time I clasped my hands onto the ladder and pulled myself up onto the porch, my eyes only saw the running wheels underneath the cars, no floor existed. So I hopped off and tried again, two and three times, without any luck and pulled a muscle in my leg. I grabbed my leg in pain and gasped for breath as I looked around the yard for security. Around the bend I saw lights and the revving sound of an ATV off in the distance. I panicked and ran for the woods using all my energy as I threw myself in the bushes, covering my heavy breathing with the palm of my hand as I crouched underneath a cocoon of dead branches next to the tracks.
I waited and waited, my heart pounding in fear and sweat dripping down my legs. The train finally departed towards Texas without me on it. Instead I ran for cover in the field next to the yard taking refuge in a semi-circle of trees with long strands of wheat shielding me from view. That night I slept well without a peep of restlessness.
I decided that day to not go east, but head north or back west to see where the next train took me. I waited patiently in the yard making my way back to the same spot I hopped off the day prior. Two trains departed at the same time and I made a choice to head north towards Albuquerque instead of west. I caught on the fly, running fast with my pack jiggling side-to-side, as I clenched my hands on the ladder of a gondola. I pulled myself up and hopped in as the train picked up speed, bumping around, debris and dust flying everywhere around me as I headed towards Albuquerque.
My wife wanted me home for Easter because she missed me so I promised to see her by finding the next big city with a Greyhound station. When I got there the cheapest ticket was $90 so I said fuck that since it did not leave until 5 PM the next day. Then I bumped into Chello, a transgender traveler from Gainesville, Florida. The side of his head was shaved with a bleach blonde comb-over and stick-and-poke tattooed eyebrows above his eyebrows. We made the decision to head west towards Phoenix, AZ as we walked towards I-40 West ramp in the ghetto of Albuquerque, NM. We stopped at a Love’s gas station and immediately got profiled by a security guard who asked us to place our packs next to him while we used the restroom. Chello bought a soda and we sat outside on the curb while he made a sign for Gallup. The security guard came outside, and in the tone of any dick police officer, he asked us to leave. We obliged; as we tried to finish the sign quickly Chello sparked up a conversation with a fellow rubber tramp who traveled from AZ to NY to live in his van for the summer.
Quickly altercations escalated as the security guard came back out a few minutes later. The rubber tramp yelled at him, words were exchanged, as spit came out of the older tramp’s mouth. His five o’clock shadow, baggy eyes and receding hairline looked as if he just awoke in his vehicle not long after meeting us on the curb. But he did not take any shit from the guard, who said we loitered on the property despite us being paying customers. I kept my mouth shut as the officer ego tripped while Chello and the rubber tramp reamed him a new asshole getting us all banned from the Love’s.
We walked away and the rubber tramp invited us in his van for a ride down to the Flying J, a few exits down the road. Chello ended up sucking his dick, after the creepy rubber tramp pulled him aside and took him out back. The rubber tramp had a wife and kids, but that did not stop him from sucking a random traveler’s dick. With every exit covered in Jersey barriers we flew a sign right outside the Adult Video store where we met a dreaded man in his 30’s with a huge backpack strapped on his shoulders. His name was John Human from Flagstaff and we made the decision to walk towards the next Love’s, 2.9 miles away, because it had a shoulder on the on-ramp, which he discovered on Google Maps. We all trotted up the hill overlooking the myriad of lights shining out from the city of Albuquerque while we sought out a place to sleep. John made the bad decision of picking a field off the side of the highway with a shit ton of sticker bushes. So that night I spent the majority of my time pulling goat heads out of my feet, bivy sack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and all of my gear. It sucked and I tried to calm down Chello from his Schizophrenic paranoia as she is afraid of the dark.
After several hours of calming her down and shooting the shit we both fell asleep for a few hours. Morning came and we all tramped up the road towards the Love’s. John flew a sign on the on-ramp, Chello and I, flew a sign near the 4-way stop. We lucked out with some food from random Jesus freaks as we sat there on the curb scaring down food with our fingers and hands. We switched spots with John who gave up flying his sign on the on-ramp. Chello and I stood there for a few hours with the occasional wave and scowl as vehicles zoomed by, revving their engines up to merge onto the highway. Then a trucker stopped. He waved off as his rig came to a halt. Excitedly, we both ran towards the rig trying to hop in but the door remained locked. We walked around the front towards the driver’s side door and Don Jordan rolled down the window. Picture a trucker, with the stereotypical mustache and an attitude similar to Clint Eastwood’s, that was Don. He shot the shit with Chello after declining to give us a ride and recanted.
We jumped in for a ride to Flagstaff which took us 400 miles east. He talked smack about beating up truckers, selling drugs, buying 40 acres of property in Florida, and hitchhiking for two years in the 60’s. The man was crazy, but a great story teller and awesome person at heart. He bought us lunch at a cafe in the middle of nowhere and showed us petrified wood. His stories went on and on for the duration of the trip while Chello napped in the back of the rig between the seats using my backpack as a pillow. We passed Gallup after a few hours and continued on-wards to Flagstaff where Don dropped us off on the off-ramp next to Butler Avenue. The wind nearly blew us over as we hopped out of the rig bidding our farewells to Don.
We walked down the road headed towards Buffalo State Park to sleep for the night. The temperature dropped making the city feel like a winter wonderland, a traveler’s worst nightmare, but we continued our walk, not really thinking about the forecast as we plopped down behind some bushes and rocks. We made a fire-pit with loose rocks from the park and gathered tinder, dry wood and newspaper. As we ignited the flames the wind threw the fire in every direction making it roar in front of us. We backed up, taking in the heat, ready to set up camp for the night, and then a small splash dropped from the sky tickling the hairs on our arms. A light drizzle rustled around with the wind and we doused the flames with urine and water, unsure of where we might sleep for the night. We walked out of the park and took shelter underneath an awning waiting for the drizzle to halt. After minutes of sitting we roamed back down San Francisco Street trying to find refuge off the road. We wandered not really knowing where to go, but then I remembered a vacant building across from the hospital and saw a small bridge we could sleep under.
It spanned the length of a door frame and width fit for two bodies to comfortably sleep under. We slept head to toe and the drizzle turned to a mixture of sleet, hail and snow, as I drifted in and out of my dreams. Little tiny white specks splattered on the ground, but as it grew colder, they piled up, resembling pieces of salt.
We awoke early around 6 AM and I met Chello at the Sunshine Mission where we indulged in coffee and oatmeal. He picked up some extra clothing, and shoes and we hit the road for I-17 South to head to Phoenix. The blustery weather froze our fingers and toes as we walked towards the first on-ramp in Flagstaff. We approached a bridge and saw the tag of a fellow train rider and hitchhiker named Church so we assumed it was a good spot to catch a ride. We stood there wiggling our fingers and shaking our legs as the wind shifted in every direction making it feel like winter. There was not much of a pull-off so we gave up and took shelter in the Walmart across the street. John Human hit me up and a college kid on the side of the road both suggested we hitchhike out of the next exit towards 179 South for Sedona. The two roundabouts meant heavy traffic and in no time we found a ride from a ortho-molecular nutritionist from Germany as we meandered through the mountains of Oak Creek Canyon towards Sedona. Its greenery and rock looked like a mini version of the Grand Canyon. She dropped us off at Burger King putting us 28 miles closer to Phoenix and we spent an hour basking in the sunlight and beauty around us.
We tried to find a place to hitch out of Sedona without much luck so we started walking down the road towards I-17 South as we followed 179 South. Chello counted the mile markers as we came one step closer to the on-ramp of I-17. Tramping down the road we searched for cigarette butts as cars passed in heavy volume. I placed the Phoenix sign on Chello’s backpack and within five minutes we hitched a ride from the back of a pickup truck for 4 miles through the canyon. This man drove like a lunatic, passing cars, speeding, and swerving as we rattled around in the back of his truck, but he took us within 10 miles of the on-ramp so for that we broke out into appreciation.
We walked and walked, and walked some more, further and further away from Sedona and the small villages into the middle of nowhere, nothing but canyon surrounded us. For the first time in Chello’s lifetime he saw the real scenery of the west coast in true form and to make matters even better I spotted my first needle in a haystack, a perfectly rolled, unsmoked, joint. Of course we sparked it up and took a ride down the road mentally. Weed made everything amplified and better in nature. The vibrant colors burst out and sounds became more sensitive, but the pain in my toes and feet dissipated as we trotted along getting closer to the on-ramp while the sunset over the canyon. A car turned around and the thought never even crossed my mind that we found a ride to Phoenix until a blonde, Russian chick hopped out of the vehicle. She asked one question, “You can get in as long as you don’t smell.” So we turned and looked at each other, then jumped in the car. The whole time I felt stoned off my ass. I felt the vibrations of the music tingle the hairs on my arms and my mind felt adrift as if I was tripping. Maybe it was laced? We never found out, but the drive to Phoenix landed us at our destination so I could spend these next few days with my wife before traveling to the west coast to see more of the United States.