Chong Phli Village
“This post goes back to over a year ago when I was hitchhiking through Southeast Asia to meet up with my friend in Chong Phli Village to go rock climbing for a few weeks. I am up to 127,000 words in my book and this is a small excerpt from one of the chapters. I have almost completed my rough draft of “Jungle: Wanderin’ West” and just need to edit it before I start sending it out to publishers. Wish me luck. I am hoping it turns out to be a great read for all of you who have been interested in my stories and whereabouts over the past few years.”
For the first time in a month I stopped hitchhiking to enjoy a few weeks of climbing with my buddy Bond from the States, meeting up in Chong Phli Village. Somehow we always found a way to meet up with each other regardless of location. I met up with him countless times before, particularly on my bicycle tour in Indiana and Colorado, so meeting up with him in Thailand felt no different.
Chong Phli Village Bungalows in Thailand
We climbed Spirit Mountain in Chong Phli Village and in the tranquil islands of Koh Yao Noi, Thailand, off the coast of Krabi. Fine limestone tufas, cavernous rock and an array of climbs spanning all difficulties filled the region. I was not an avid climber by any means, not compared to Bond anyway, who spent numerous hours at the rock gym, training daily, climbing all across the United States and the world. He pushed me in many aspects of the sport, sometimes to the point of frustration, climbing routes I had no business on. But, I enjoyed the views, the physical and mental exhaustion with sending a route, or just the feeling of the outdoors. There was nothing quite like dangling from rope 300 feet off the ground with my best friend, looking down at the clear turquoise ocean beneath our feet, knowing we scaled the side of a limestone tower in one of the most beautiful paradises, a getaway from reality.
Our first few days in Krabi we climbed the dusty tufas of Spirit Mountain in Chong Phli Village, breaking free of the routes for random exploration. Bond brought a 2-person tent along with all his heavy gear. We wanted to camp, but the owner of the bungalows disappeared. So we trekked through the unknown following the perimeter of the mountain through the lush jungle looking for a place to setup camp. We bushwhacked through palm trees, crouching through cavernous limestone holes, descending steep, slippery grades until stumbling upon an overhanging cliff face freeing us from one important element, the rain! Dry leaves rustled under our feet as we set up the poles to the neon orange tent, stashing our gear inside to continue exploring the vast terrain surrounding us.
Rock Climbing Thailand with Trevor Stuart. My first experience doing multi-pitch.
We roamed around unsure of our direction or what we were looking for, wandering around the perimeter of Spirit Mountain, and free climbing slabs of limestone. My fingers pained as I positioned them on the rough rock, callousing over and forming blisters from my lack of climbing. I only climbed outdoors with Bond. This was the first time I set my hands on rock in almost a year and it hurt.
It was not your typical climbing with rope, proper shoes, quick-draws and a grigri (belay device). We climbed free of gear, bouldering small 20-foot sections of limestone, traversing steep pitches covered in dirt, and hanging onto bare shrubbery as we planted our feet. Bond stopped as we scaled half of the mountain, reaching a point of no return. I peered behind me up a small grade of mountainside and saw a pitch black hole in the shape of a cave. We slid across the rubble, dirt and rock falling off the cliff face, as we neared the dark orifice. What was inside? Everything looked black. It looked like an ice cream scoop chunk of rock the size of a dome shelter removed from the limestone. But, why was it black and not sandy brown? I neared closer, tiptoeing into the cave. A cold breeze bellowed from the mouth of the cave chilling my skin as I inched closer. Bond stood back, waiting for approval to enter. “HOLY SHIT MAN, I whispered loudly!” The wall moved with small flutters of black wings lined up like an army of soldiers prepared for war. “What, Bond uttered whimsically?”
Just outside of Chong Phli Village Bungalows looking at Spirit Mountain in Thailand
“The wall is covered with fuckin’ bats dude. They’re everywhere. I thought the wall was black, but it’s not…just the whole fuckin’ wall is covered in them, come look. I whispered afraid to wake them and get covered in guano or worse bitten.”
“No shit man…sweet as,” said Bond chuckling under his breath.
He turned on his video camera to capture the footage as I slowly paced around the cave, finding an opening with a beam of sunlight protruding through. I wondered what was on the other side…maybe another cave perhaps. Placing my feet in two footholds I reached up, crimping limestone in one hand and reaching into an open hole above me with the other. I fell back losing my footing as a buzzing sound echoed from one of the many holes of limestone.
“What the fuck was that,” I yelled, as Bond stood there circling about the cave with his camera.
“Looked like a huge ass bee…or somethin’,” he said confusedly.
I shuddered backwards stumbling over my feet until bursting out into sudden shooting pain.
“FUCK…my ass…my ass…What the hell just stung my ass,” I rumbled?
I pulled down my pants in a non-homosexual manner.
“Dude no homo, check my ass cheek, I think I have a stinger in it…it fuckin’ hurts,” I squealed.
Bond chuckled in a girlish giggle, snickering and laughing uncontrollably with his video camera capturing every moment of my bare-naked ass.
“Dude seriously, am I gonna be alright? Are Thai bees poisonous? What should I do?”
“Hahahahah…I think you’ll live,” he said in a dry tone, with the camera lens pointed at the enflamed, red bulb forming on my ass.
I pulled my pants back up. “Thanks dick…”
I was not allergic to bees, but damn did my ass cheek feel like an erupting volcano. The burning sensation mildly subsided as we walked back to camp, removing the stinger from my tender rump carefully, calling it a day to remember on Spirit Mountain.
The routes at Chong Phli Village scarcely ranged from a few dusty, low-grade, tufa climbs, to steeper pitches with waiting times on the routes. We shortly realized after a day of climbing we needed a wider spectrum of routes and we would not find it on Spirit Mountain. Whole walls were in the process of being drilled and bolted so where would we go next? Certainly not our spider infested camp along the mountainside, but another free night of camping seemed to suffice for the time being.
In the morning we hit the road for Ao Nang, hearing about islands off the coast of Krabi, a climber’s paradise. Tourists clung to the sidewalks of Krabi shuffling between their luggage bags, waiting for taxis and boats to arrive to take them to their hotels. Our Jeepney arrived taking us on a short ride to the dock where we waited for our speed boat to depart. Long tail boats swung around near the coast boarding passengers for private rides to the islands surrounding the coastline. They resembled oversized canoes with large propellers sunk a few feet into the ocean causing them to look bottom heavy with a slight upward slant. They skipped through the water like rocks, their antique wooden frame catching the true feeling of island life in Thailand. We boarded our speed boat sitting in one of the back rows on school bus seats. I looked out the back watching the huge wake we left behind between all the unfamiliar faces of tourists flashing pictures and videos with their cameras. Bond took out his video camera and started taping with a goofy, commentator voice trying to capture scenes of our island life. He pushed the camera in my face acting like a clown as I shifted my eyes through the shaded windows trying to catch a view of islands in the distance. The motion of the ocean lulled us to sleep and after a half hour we reached the island. I opened my eyes and picked the sleepy dirt from its crevices as we lined up behind the rest of the passengers waiting to hop off the boat. Bond packed a backpack full of clothes and a duffel bag the size of two full suitcases. It weighed at least 50 lbs. making walking long distances unreasonable.
We stepped off the boat onto a dock full of vans ready to transport tourists into town. I wanted to walk, but knew with Bond’s luggage he might die of exhaustion and never make it. We took a van with no destination in mind, having no prior arrangements. The driver suggested the rock climbing bungalows. We nodded in agreement, having no idea where that would take us, our eyes peering out the back of the truck as we cruised around the winding roads of the island.
For us, we wanted to go where the climbers stayed to meet people with similar interests and possibly get boats coordinated to climb Grateful Wall a little north of Paradise Resort off the northern part of the island. We had heard about it from some local climbers in Chong Phli Village, a shady paradise, free of the sun 24-hours a day.
We arrived at Namtok Bungalows where Bond booked a room and we split the cost of an automatic scooter at 150 baht per person per day. I slept outside in a hammock on the porch, not wanting to share the small bed with him, enjoying the cool ocean night breeze with each peaceful night of sleep. I lay there suspended in the air between the wooden frames of the bungalow.
Namtok attracted all kinds of people across the world. We met people from the United Kingdom, Thailand and Sweden. It was like a Swedish ghetto there. All of them came out on vacation for a few weeks of climbing between their jobs. The women did not shave their pits, but they all could climb, and well at that.
We met a couple from the United Kingdom who traveled around the world for the past year climbing in different countries, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Europe to name a few. There was a different breed of people on the island, and I experienced my first hostel without having to sneak into it or fear getting laid by an ugly German chick with a pitted face and manly voice. I liked it. I felt like I fit in despite my limited climbing and lack of gear. It felt like family. We all ate breakfast together and sometimes dinner, climbing different portions of the island during the day, alternating routes and ropes between different groups of climbers.
Sunrise in Koh Yao Noi near Namtok Bungalows
The majority of our day we spent grinding it out on the wall for spectacular climbing. We dug into multi-pitch climbing for the first time in our lives experiencing some of the longest climbs in my life. I remember the feeling of limestone rock rubbing up against the bottom of my climbing shoes while I dangled 300+ feet off the ground, just feet away from the final anchor on a four pitch climb. I looked out at the scenery surrounding me. Silhouettes of small islands looked off in the distance. A cloudless, endless blue sky blended into the ocean like as if an artist painted a canvass of blues before my eyes. Sweat filled every inch of my body, but nothing compared to it, not in the slightest. We stood there with our feet planted against the limestone towers like gods looking out at the sea. What an immaculate feeling it was and the routes never got old even after 15 days of intense, non-stop climbing.
Despite the product of happiness from climbing along with the adrenaline, there was an associated fear and risk with it. Climbing scared me deeply. It was not the fear of heights, but the fear of falling that made me queasy to my stomach. Lead climbing especially scared me due to the potential fall factor, but in order to see the views I needed to do it on the multi-pitch routes, so I did.
But ironically, lead climbing and experiencing my first multi-pitch routes did not scare me nearly as much as the sketchy dirt road to reach “Big Tree Wall” and “The Mitt” (a few names of the climbing walls on Koh Yao Noi). Each morning we awoke dreading the unsafe, 45-minute drive to the wall. Neither one of us knew how to drive a scooter. We literally handed over 300 baht each day and kept the set of keys along with two helmets for our time on the island. There was no paperwork or legal forms to sign, insurance required by law or permits required to drive a motor scooter. We just put the keys in, turned on the ignition and wobbled along the road. Most of the drive we putted along cement until turning off down a beaten path, following the power-lines to the northern part of the island, with a narrow dirt roadway taking us through the dense jungle. Small houses made of bamboo and wood stood off the roadway with happy smiles exploding off every native. Pot holes the size of small sinkholes encroached the road making it a doozy to avoid getting flung over the handlebars. Even with much practice of taking the same route daily we still crashed multiple times. We rode where the roadway looked most practical not to crash, which often times meant driving on both sides of the dirt path, into oncoming traffic. This was common practice in Thailand, especially on the island. But it also made for a dangerous drive along the path around steep curves and bends, up steep hills and around sandy banks. Several times we ate shit, swerving off the path into bushes, the scooter sliding out from underneath us as we skid through sand, yanking us over the handlebars, while we winced in pain. We practically started playing rock-paper-scissors shoot for who would drive, loathing it each day, in both the morning and night. If I did not drive, I held onto the back of the motorbike with my fingertips as my abs tightened, the huge backpack on my shoulders clanked over each bump, counting down the minutes to safety. It always surprised me when one of the most expensive resorts on the island resided near the climbing walls. Who in their right mind would drive that path every day to reach civilization? We walked away each day with scrapes, bruises, and gashes on our legs, forearms, knees and faces, not from climbing, but just from driving that damn scooter. And here sat a pristine hotel on the shores of a private beach, away from all the touristy areas, away from most of the island life. Just a death race to Paradise Resort Hotel and we drove it every day except when we climbed on “Grateful Wall” and split the cost of a speed boat with the other climbers at Namtok.
For three weeks we ate an assortment of meat from street vendors on Shish Kebabs, consisting of liver, lungs, and all other unknown organs hanging on a long toothpick-like stick. Few spoke English so we did not know the foods we ate, but they tasted delectable enough. The same little meat stand brought us back each day wanting more, even if the meat sat out for hours in the hot-baking sun, with flies buzzing around it and no food codes to hinder them from selling it. We set aside enough time each day to make our regular food stops. Every morning started off at the corner mart with rolls of sticky rice wrapped around jackfruit or mango. The sweet burst of energy gave us enough of a boost to hold out until dinner time for multiple rounds of food between the little meat stand. We left the wall before sun-down to reach it in time. This was just a snack though, a mere appetizer to the true amount of food we consumed on a daily basis. Climbing for eight hours plus, every day, put us in a calorific deficit. Both Bond and I were eaters. Bond more so than myself, whom once consumed 72 ounces of steak and a pound of mashed potatoes in 30 minutes when we were in college. We ate three main courses daily. Meals fit for kings for a mere few dollars consisting of rice dishes with beef, other meats and vegetables mixed with a spicy dressing. The Thai people liked their spices.
After long days on the wall, many nights we winded down, smoking bunk weed we scored from a Swedish climber named Hampus at the bungalows. He scored it from a local who probably grew it on the island. We did not ask. I did not want the death penalty for smoking herb or knowing about the dealer, but it got us high and made the pain from a long day of enduring blood-pumping forearms, stiff fingers, sore joints and achy muscles fade to limber, relaxing bliss. We also got the munchies hardcore. But unlike the States, dipping a few more dollars into my budget for the day actually put a meals-worth of food in my belly, a fresh meal at that. Multiple nights we set out on a munchie mission for lassie’s, shakes, fried rice, curry, cashew dishes, or anything that would satisfy our hunger and we found it.
Those three weeks I felt lucky to have a true friend with me, experiencing some of the best moments of my life in another country with a different culture, food and way-of-life. The hardest part of Thailand was saying my goodbyes to Bond, one of the people closest to me in my life, to go back to his normal life of nursing. That feeling put a lump in my throat, making me hold back tears. Although I knew we would meet down the road again. Goodbye always took a while to say, even without words.
The dirt paths you take to get to Paradise Resort before hiking to the climbing walls.
When we made it to the mainland Bond’s taxi stopped to pick him up. After a brief man-hug, I watched him fade away and our time climbing in Thailand felt almost surreal.
Train Hopping Cheektowaga
Letchworth became my favorite hangout to disengage from work-related activities outside of the drop zone. Recently I found myself relaxing by the upper falls on more than one occasion, not just to hop passing trains (Although on this occasion train hopping Cheektowaga was in the near future), but to free myself from the stress of work and temporary settlement in WNY.
I set off for a two-day adventure adding another line to my rail riding experiences. These random bits of travel between work made me feel like a 40-miler, but nonetheless, the thrill and pure freedom of riding through the countryside brought smiles to my face. Aside from a hop-out in Flagstaff, where literally the train pulled up as I arrived at the C-C, this came as a close second for my quickest hop-outs, taking roughly 30-minutes.
Train Hopping Cheektowaga – passing through the countryside by grainer
I stood there mesmerized by the sheer girth of the trestle bridge, spanning across the Genesee River. My mind felt blank and free as the mist splashed my brow from the falls. In that split second I heard the faint screeching of wheels rolling across steel between the rapid thrashings of the waterfall and my heart began to race. I gave Kelly a quick hug and kiss and sped off, galloping up the rustic stone stairwell as I began my chase for freedom on the rails. The train crossed the trestle bridge, going northbound to the unknown. My heart thumped with adrenaline rushing through my veins as I matched up the units rolling by at a smooth 8-10 mph pace. I spotted a grainer with a porch a few units back, towards the end of the train, and made a run for it over the ballast. Carefully, I grabbed onto the ladder and threw myself up it as my feet ran with the beast. It screeched and squealed around the curves until straightening out on the mainline ready to roar to its blazing speed once over the bridge.
This added my first grainer to my train hopping experiences. I stashed my gear and myself in the fox-hole as we rolled through towns, fearing getting pulled off the train, or thrown in jail. With 3-hours of daylight left my eyes gazed out at the near panoramic view of the countryside. My pupils locked onto the greenest pastures with cattle grazing off in the distance. Corn husks sang as their leaves rustled in the wind. The clouds surrendered their puffy, white, cumulus texture to the beckoning, vibrant colors of the sunset as a montage of beauty enveloped the horizon.
Train Hopping Cheektowaga – Fox-hole Status
The short journey to Cheektowaga made this one of my shorter train rides, but the pure splendor of nature’s majestic presence made every mile worth it. We slowed to a light roll as we entered the yard in Cheektowaga and I made a run for it in the bushes, hiding briefly until I walked in the shadows.
Strawn Avenue took me down a bicycle path parallel to the train yard and I spent much of my night listening on my scanner for night-bound trains going south, away from Canada. I lay under a bridge beneath the I-90 reading monikers from past train hoppers as I drifted away into the coolness of the night. A train with Auto-Racks strung together on the main line ready for departure, but my eyelids remained heavy and closed, drifting slowly to sleep.
I awoke at 2 AM and relocated to the freshly mowed field by the power-lines off of the I-90. By early morning the train departed without me on it and I decided to wander around the city. Dirt paths by the railroads led me to shade from the scorching humidity of the sun. I loitered at public parks indulging in some reading and stumbled upon the CSX yard, with minimal security, other than a tower, and a bull. Eager as I felt to catch out during daylight, little cover existed, and hopping a night-time train did not fit into my schedule as I worked the following day. All trains that stopped on the mainline in the CSX yard looked hot and may not have stopped for 4-8 hours for their next C-C, leaving me in NJ or further east, with little time to make it back to work.
Train Hopping Cheektowaga – Nothing but a cool breeze and trees in the distance…
So my adventure shortly came to an end, but I learned more about the yards from listening, and watching the operation unfold around me. Soon I will no longer be a greenhorn as I continue to gain more experience on the rails. I look forward to January 2017 when I plan to hop trains for 4-6 months after finishing my job in Hawaii as a parachute packer. If nothing else, when my season ends here in WNY, I can say I hopped out over the Letchworth trestle bridge before the state replaced it with the newer one in 2017. I rode in both directions from Cheektowaga to Binghamton for a piece of history most will never experience.
Train Hopping Cheektowaga – The speed, the adrenaline, the thrill of ridin’ the rails…
Train hopping Binghamton
“Happy Birthday Marien! I hope exploring Castle on the Hill, your first skydive and train hopping Binghamton made your birthday one to remember buddy.”
After spending a few months backpacking around Europe with his girlfriend, my friend booked a ticket back to the USA and took a bus to Rochester, where we picked him up. Arriving Sunday with the intentions of making his first skydive, he waited patiently with anxious urges to jump only to get it pushed back by the sunset. I felt responsible in some way, but I held to my promise and tried to make this the best birthday of his life. Out of all my friends back home in Delaware he was the only one who took the plunge to visit me at WNY Skydiving and with that the story unfolds, a three day escapade filled with adventure, adrenaline, a little doggy and my wife.
With a small trek through the landing area on the drop zone, following the perimeter of the corn, we roamed through the brush. Thistles and corn stalks scratched our legs with the starry night sky illuminating our path as we walked deeper into the woods filled with dry pine needles, neatly stacked wood and dead fallen trees. We propped our tents staking them between the tall trees, their tops swaying from the faint whistle of the wind, as we set up our camps. With four logs positioned in a square I began to add tinder to the fire, kindling it with paper plates and toilet paper. Its flame lit the night sky with an orange blaze, sizzling, crackling and popping bits of charcoal. We scorched marshmallows over it for a midnight snack before dozing off to sleep, its heat fading away into the brisk night, as we drowned in peaceful bliss.
Morning, we awoke to a light drizzle and gloomy sky, with the work-day cancelled we set out for Castle on the Hill, in Dansville, NY. The drive took us through the rural countryside filled with green pastures, endless wheat hills and desolate small towns along back-country roadways. My friend never explored an abandoned building before so I felt excited for him and his first urban exploration experience. We parked the car at the local park and walked half a mile towards the castle on the hill. Decaying since 1971, it stood tall crumbling to the decadent force of nature, which took over a majority of the complex.
Dansville: Castle on the Hill
History takes us back to 1798 when Nathaniel Bingham stumbled upon a water source of rich minerals and opened a spa in Dansville called the Dansville Water Cure facility. He practiced Water Cure or hydrotherapy as he believed the water from “Breakout Creek” contained therapeutic properties bringing his theory to life in the year 1854. It flopped without much success and the property was sold.
Caleb Jackson purchased the complex in 1870 naming it Our Home on the Hillside. Both men believed in hydrotherapy, but with his discovery of Granola and his persistent efforts, Our Home on the Hillside became especially popular. It drew legendary icons including Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton among others such as, Frederick Douglass.
But the building took a turn for the worst with a fire and even after the Jackson Family fireproofed the building, bringing it to a larger scale and spending $200,000 on construction, modern treatments and advancements in medicine and pharmacology surpassed any popular efforts of the water cure philosophy causing the institute to go bankrupt in 1914.
The building continued exchanging hands without prospering until 1929 when Bernarr Mcfadden purchased the sanatorium. The witty yet eccentric business man renamed it the Physical Culture Hotel as his involvement in body building structured the ideal of the resort. The hotel took on roles of a hospital for the ill while maintaining a popular buzz among the wealthy. Celebrities who stayed at the thriving resort indulged in tennis, swimming and starlit views from the roof with dancing and sunbathing.
Marien looking down at the rubble from Castle on the Hill
After McFadden’s death the building was reacquired but steadily dwindled to its death in 1971 and now stands there to this day, slowly decaying, brick-by-brick until it will eventually collapse, sliding down the hill spreading its debris across Route 256.
The iron staircase of this 5-story building told a tale of its heyday symbolizing the prestige and wealth of those occupying this hotel. We walked through the dust, and rubble, floor-by-floor peering out windows and creaky doors that dropped off into oblivion. Sections of flooring gave way to decay, and complete rooms crumbled to the ground leaving an empty space full of rusted piping, and brick rubble where parts of the roof fell to its demise. We walked cautiously through the main hallways, distraught about entering any rooms for fear of falling to our demise. Graffiti lined the walls with tags, and evidence of teenage love along with political banter scribbled on the roof, “Feel the Bern” and cryptic messages, “Did you bring the salt?” near the elevator shaft. I did not feel spirits here like I did in the JN Adam Memorial Hospital but our exploration was limited due to the sad state of structural support in the Castle on the Hill.
We stood in plain sight on the roof as we followed the main I-beam across what remained tiptoeing over concrete and brick avoiding any holes or soft spots with serious caution. The view of Dansville cast out below with its stormy sky, a pastel of gray clouds blended with the greenery below making it feel like a picturesque haunted film with us in the center of it. Droplets of tears shed from the clouds touching our skin faintly and we raced out of the building, exiting at a different location to avoid citations. The state of decay made our exploration limited, but we managed to escape the downpour by seconds following a long drive home in rain.
We camped that night like all the other nights, deep in the woods, behind the corn stalks, between the tall pine trees glistening from the fire. It took a bit more effort this time to start a fire, but we kept at it and persistence brought us warmth. The night ended with crackling embers and a cool breeze sending us off into a deep sleep, a sleep only felt in the outdoors.
Marien making his first skydive at WNY Skydiving
With sleepy eyes and the sun poking its light through the pine trees we both woke from a deep slumber, taking several minutes to finally adjust to getting in motion. So what did we do after our trek back to the hangar? We made a skydive! My friend made his first jump and surprisingly did not shit his pants due to his strong fear of heights. My boss yelled, “Welcome to the Jungle Baby…You’re gonna DIE,” as I laughed, with my foot on the step of the Cessna 182. Marien looked shocked with an exasperated look on his face. He turned slightly pale, “Oh Fuck…I’m not gonna die?”
We all situated ourselves in the plane as we flew to altitude and to my surprise my buddy remained calm despite his dreadful fear of heights. My skydive felt like any other jump, but the true joy came from the fear, pure adrenaline and feeling of accomplishment when we hit 10,000 feet. I felt proud of him as I opened the door with a smirk on my face, the relative wind swaying my hair every which way as I pounced off the step into a front flip. I felt proud that he faced his fear and all the feelings he felt would go from fear to a happy sense of accomplish upon the chute opening, which it did from his loud remarks of joy. His freefall, like many others, including myself, involved opening his mouth and yelling profanity.
The experience is like none other. The pure adrenaline upon putting your foot out on the tiny metal step of the C-182 while the wind chills your body sending goosebumps up your legs and arms making your hair stand on its end is incomparable. But then you jump, plunging out into flips and shit, until you get stable in a belly-to-earth position, while the Tandem Instructor pulls the drogue out and the wind rushes all around you, flapping your cheeks at 120 mph. Your eyes tear up under the goggles; your throat dries out from the wind; your heart pounds from the adrenaline and you spend more time trying to look down as you fall to your death than enjoying the experience around you. Then, “POOFFFF,” the chute opens and you scream profane words of joy and excitement. But that’s not where the adventure ends. You still have a canopy ride down to earth and with swift toggle turns and 360’s you find yourself on the roller coaster ride, which you thought you would experience in freefall. Then you land and you cannot believe what you just did…You jumped out of a fucking plane and survived and your life will never be the same. It’s like chasing the feeling you get after your first bump of cocaine. You stand up on your two feet and kiss the earth. This is what it’s like to live. This is living, but there’s more to this adventure. It does not end here.
An iron stairwell…
After our skydive, the work-day ended and we found ourselves on the road again with a short trip to Letchworth State Park to check out the immaculate views of the three waterfalls along with the old trestle bridge built in 1875 with hopes of train hopping lingering in the back of my mind. My wife and I grabbed the Empire Pass and drove down to the Upper Falls. Marien and I carried our backpacks with the intention of catching out on a train. I generally knew trains rolled through there on a daily basis later in the evening between 3 PM and 10 PM, but did not know specific times. So we enjoyed the view of the falls with the backdrop of the trestle bridge and active cranes moving about behind it. The mist of the waterfalls splashed against our faces as they continued working on the new bridge. Kelly read a book as we soaked in the precious views waiting for the work-day to end. We paced back and forth with our packs strapped over our shoulders, waiting and wondering when and if a train would slow down around the curve of the bridge. If it would slow down just enough to catch on the fly. Most of train hopping is safety, with knowing which units are rideable and at what speeds you should hop on when catching on the fly, but a lot of it is patience as we found out.
Exploring the roof and trying not to fall through…
Kelly left us in the park as she hit the road for the drop zone around 5:30 PM. My original assumption of the train arriving around 5 to 6 PM was incorrect. Marien and I waited along the steep, muddy hill by the tracks. A group of construction workers roamed through the woods surveying the area for trees to trim back, scaring us, as we lay on the hill with an incognito presence. The patience killed us, but it came with every train hopping experience I could think of, so we waited. The workers eventually left as their 8-hour shift came to an end so we wandered around down the tracks, south of the Genesee River. We killed the time by starting a small campfire and eating some beans we packed for our train hopping adventure. Food eaten on the road tasted better, I do not know why, but it just did.
The clock dwindled onward as 6 PM turned into 7 PM and then we started wandering back to the bridge. I looked for monikers and marks of other train hoppers and found one scribbled under the trestle bridge by Tomato back in March of 2013. I knew this spot was hoppable, just when and where was the question. We plopped our asses on the concrete foundation underneath the trestle bridge as it creaked, whistled, and made faint noises, from what we did not know. I sat there perplexed and wary of the lack of daylight. I did not want to catch on the fly in the dark. With a completely bummed look on my face I threw in the towel after 5.5 hours of waiting without any results. We roamed back down the stairs we climbed initially to reach the tracks, and followed a footpath to the Genesee River. A look of disdain crossed both our faces, but a night of wild camping in one of the country’s best parks would not be so bad, so we made the best of it. We skedaddled down the slippery slopes of slate and walked along the banks of the river looking for a spot to camp, free from people and animals, particularly snakes.
9 PM approached and the last bit of sunlight peeked out over the horizon for one last final farewell. Then we heard it! We both looked at each other with a look of excitement as adrenaline pumped our blood. Jumping, jiving and hustling up the embankment by the river we saw a train putting over the trestle bridge with grainers, boxcars and gondolas attached to it. I huffed and puffed with my pack on my back and water jug in hand, running up the steep path towards the railroad tracks. The rustic stone stairwell meandered back and forth, zigzagging to the section of Park Drive which remained under construction as the new bridge was being built. A look of hopelessness pummeled both of us as we sat there huffing and puffing, with our hands on our knees, bent down, and sweaty. We kept at it, but when I looked up the train already passed. “Only 15 cars,” I thought? Normally the freight rolling through there is miles long. Sweat poured off my brow forming puddles beneath my feet. The night sky laughed at us for our futile efforts and now we needed to find a camping spot in the dark. But all hope was not lost, we continued to stake out the bridge, maybe luck was on our side or maybe it was not.
We camped out on the hill and I grabbed his flashlight as my vision adjusted to the darkness unfolding around us. We sat and waited, debating whether we would catch on the fly in the dark, or if we would just camp on the hill and suddenly our choice slowly came to fruition with the loud bellow of a train horn coming from the north of the Genesee River. A look of terror crowded Marien’s face, but he held firm to following my actions.
Train Hopping Binghamton without realizing it…
After a few minutes the train gradually chugged by with it’s bright light shimmering off the main unit. We scrambled down the hill, running towards the tracks and waited. I turned on the flashlight once the conductor approached the bend as to not giveaway our position. The bolts spun too fast on the wheels. So we stood there and waited as a mile of the train passed us by, waiting for that split second decision to hop on a safe, rideable unit. Would it come? We both stood their anxious, stupefied, mesmerized by the sheer size of the freight train slowly gliding by us, its wheels screeching around the bends of the tracks and suddenly our opportunity presented itself. I locked onto an Intermodal Doublestack 53′ T-Well unit traveling a few miles per hour and caught on the fly, climbing the ladder with ease as Marien followed. We set foot on a hotshot ride to freedom as we moseyed over the Genesee River on the old trestle bridge, headed south to the unknown.
That feeling of riding freight came back to me and nothing beat train hopping. I looked over at my friend and a huge smile cast out across his face. I knew he felt the same feeling in that moment. The feeling of adventure, the unknown, and riding into the night without a worry in the world, looking up at the starry sky, appreciating the finer aspects of life around us as we rode through nature on our freight train ride to freedom. I wished time did not matter in that moment, but I knew the adventure was short-lived with my work schedule limiting my adventures and his schedule limited as well. We enjoyed the night sky, the wind hitting our hair, swaying it every direction and the stars smiling down at us, their bright faces illuminating the countryside around us as we made a clear shot to Binghamton in just 4-hours.
Train Hopping Binghamton
The first chance we got we hopped off in Johnson City before entering the train yard in Binghamton. I hung off the ladder and steadily ran out over ballast as to not fall and fuck myself up, he did the same as I shined our only source of light, making sure no signage existed ahead. We walked through the night in a dead city, with no one on the streets and the only sign of life from hip-hop blaring out windows. The train yard always existed downtown in the ghetto, which meant two important pieces of information, walking at night became a bit more dangerous, but at least the Greyhound existed nearby. We huddled up that night by the tracks, shimmying into our bivysacks under a cozy, spacious bush by the abandoned part of town, soaking in a few hours of sleep before a bus-ride back to Rochester. That was how I sent my friend off to Boston on the epic birthday of a lifetime, exploring Dansville: Castle on the Hill, making his first skydive and train hopping Binghamton on his first experience ridin’ the rails.