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Brian Cray - Hitchhikin', Trainhoppin', and Wanderin'

Wanderin' the world, at will, by any means

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Archives for February 2017

The Sunset Line Meets Border Patrol

Train Hopping Texas

I fiddled in and out of sleep as she turned sharply, winding along the cold steel tracks, shrieking and howling through the desert. Her cries masked the bellowing hollers of the coyotes in an almost soothing lullaby. I lay there shivering from the whistling wind of the night, chugging along towards El Paso.

Shortly the scintillating starry sky shifted to a heavenly sunrise. Its orange rays tenderly kissed my eyes waking me as she stopped in El Paso train yard. I lay there curled in the corner of the well, hoping to ride her through, further east into Texas. My eyes wandered to the wooden masts spaced evenly throughout the yard. They picked up a camera projecting down on my train. I remained still. The loud rhythmic beats from my chest echoed before me as I feared the worst.

Minute-by-minute my anxiety became more tolerable and then the sound of air whistled in the hoses, Fffffffffffffffffff…With a sudden jerk she rolled gingerly through the yard as I peered up at camera after camera waiting to get pulled off. My scatterbrain shuffled through thoughts of the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” regret engulfing my poor decision to stay on the train. But, suddenly the masts vanished along with the cameras. Her steady roll switched to an upbeat charge and she screamed along the tracks, roaring through the desert.

I unzipped my bivy and stood up; the wind blasted its rapture along my thick curls, elating a smile amongst my face. Mounds of sand cast out for miles and in the distance I saw dirt roads meandering over mountainside beyond the border into Mexico. Trumps wall ceased to exist, but I wondered about the security?

Train Hopping Texas

Train Hopping Texas ridin’ the Sunset Line

For miles I witnessed nothing but granules of dusty sand, and scrub brush until reaching the outskirts of Sierra Blanca, where the mountaintops chiseled their own beauty into the desert. Plateaus of sedimentary rock eroded to rhyolite formations standing tall between the sandy loams and clay as I found myself staring at Roundtop Mountain. It’s said to have the largest deposit of heavy rare earth elements in the United States with a high concentration of beryllium in its northwest corner.

Train Hopping Texas

Train Hopping Texas – In the distance is Round Top Mountain home to the most rare elements in the USA

The train screeched meandering around the myriad bends of track sprawled out across the desert. I fumbled for my zipper trying to drain my snake for the first time in hours. I-10 cast off in the distance miles away so I felt safe from the naked eye. As I held my limp noodle directing his stream over the well I saw a beam of red infrared blaze by me. Without much thought I sighed after relieving myself, eager to lay back down through the next small town, but then something happened. The air brakes squelched slowing her motion to a steady coast a few miles outside of Sierra Blanca. My ears drowned out the sound of the train and a sixth sense encumbered my body. I felt strange as she continued to rustle along the steel, slower and slower, until a voice hollered from a light signal, “GOT EM…” The train halted abruptly as the man radioed over his walkie-talkie.

He towered above me decked out in Border Patrol attire, as I showed my hands like the criminal I was, leaning up against the train.

“Are you a US citizen?”

“Yes, sir,” I stuttered, my thoughts drifting closer towards jail and what type of cell they set aside for me.

“Well, what ya doin’ on this train kid…you know we coulda shot ya…ya got lucky did ya.”

“Just tryin’ to get to Alabama sir, to visit my wife and find temporary work.”

Border Patrol scored the lowest on their civil service exams. They weren’t real officers. His only authority was holding me until the police arrived to verify if I was a citizen, had drugs or warrants out. I knew this, but I kept my mouth shut and remained respectful.

“Shoulda just taken the bus…get ya a ticket for 60 all the way to Jacksonville, FL.”

I did not utter a word, standing there with a blank stare and bullshit clouding above his last statement.

“Well grab your bag now and be careful hoppin’ off…just stand over there and no funny business…I’m not in the mood to run.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

The patrol officer reached in his pocket pulling out a tin of longcut dip. He pinched a fat lip down with his fingers, browning them over with tobacco as he stuffed the horseshoe in his mouth.

He mumbled and spit unintentionally…”What kinda work ya do kid?”

“Pack parachutes sir…job starts up in a few months…just lookin’ for something to tide me over til then…”

“I see…skydiving…how old ya?”

“27 sir…”

Two vehicles skid along the gravel access road and doors slammed shut as three police officers walked towards me. In total I counted three officers, four border patrol, and a German Sheppard.

“Well here’s the officers…we’ll see what they wanna do with ya.”

I sat there on my pack expressionless and humdrum, ready to answer the same series of questions again.

“What’s your name?”

“Brian Donaldson”

“Can you hand over your ID please? I have to check the system to see if you have any outstanding warrants.”

I finagled for my wallet pulling out my Colorado drivers license. That’s the last real address I lived at back in 2013. He pulled out his iPhone and tried running it, but instead spent the next ten minutes calling it in.

Train Hopping Texas

Train Hopping Texas – Nothin’ but sand for miles…that desert feelin’

“Dispatch I have a Brian C. Donaldson here, with the following address and license number, trying to see if he has any outstanding warrants.”

As I already knew nothing came back. My record surprisingly stayed clean all these years with only one arrest for being drunk in public with no identification.

“Do you have any drugs or weapons on you?”

“No sir, just a 2-inch knife I use to eat food with.”

“Throw it over here please…you sure you don’t have any drugs on you…even small traces of marijuana. We’ll throw you in jail for it…speak now and we might let you slide.”

“No sir…no drugs.”

“Please stand, spread your legs with your hands over your head. What’s in your pockets?”

“Camera, phone, USB charger, plug, wallet, toilet paper, gloves and that’s it sir.”

“Please take them out for me with no sudden movements.”

“Alright sir.”

I spread my belongings out across the sand and then he motioned towards my pack.

“You sure you don’t have any drugs on you?”

“No drugs sir.”

“Open it please…”

Train Hopping Texas

Train Hopping Texas – Entering the bend right after Santa Teresa, NM

I reached in placing each article of clothing and camping gear on the ground like a display at a yard sale. They searched my Motrin for pills, but surprisingly enough, no oxycontin lay mixed between them, awe shucks. A look of exasperation rattled their brows. No drugs, no warrants and no weapons, what would they charge me with other than criminal trespassing?

I did not know, they did not either. The officer squawked once more over the radio, “Eh uhhh…everything came back clean, what’s your boss want us to do with this kid? Union Pacific pressin’ charges?”

The engineer grunted over the speaker, “Nah uh, am I good to go already? You did your search of the whole train…we good to move along?”

“Yes…” a look of astonishment glistened on the officer’s face. “Damn kid you lucked out.”

But, really I didn’t. My ride to Houston slowly left, taunting me in her tracks, leaving me stranded near the border in a town I did not want to hitchhike.

“Well kid. Alabama you say…pack up your stuff and throw it in the bed…We can take you as far as county lines. Next town is Van Horn. That’s the best we can do for you. Got a 4 mile walk. Oh, but Texas law says if you ride in a police vehicle we need to cuff you…hope that’s alright. Have a story to tell your kids one day,” he chuckled.
“Yeah that’s not a problem sir.”

I placed my hands behind my back and he cinched the cuffs around both my wrists. With the help of the other officer I propped my foot up inside the truck and he hoisted me up in the passenger’s seat, buckling me in for the ride.

The cuffs sunk deep into my skin ripping into my bones. They felt uncomfortable to say the least like bondage with no foreplay. I sat back silently while he weaved in and out of traffic on the I-10, his thumbs twiddling around on his phone as he texted. I wondered how many days thumbing it before getting a ride to Pecos, my next train out of here?

Face Tats and Steelies

Face Tats and Steelies

I awoke later that morning to the sun piercing its rays upon my droopy eyes. My eyes flickered with a perturbing itchiness as I rubbed sand and dirt out of the corners of them. My nose felt clogged like I inhaled plumes of smoke from a fire. Snot rockets ceased to help. I staggered to my feet unaware of where she stopped. I slept awhile that night, at least 8 hours, so I feared the worst, ending up in Tucson yard. I heard another train roll past my freight car, the sharp sound of air brakes screeched the air, followed by a complete stop, and metal clanked like dominoes. Naturally my curiosity led me to take a peek over the wall of the gondola. I inched closer to the wall poking my head slightly over. Sure enough…she lay stopped in the departure yard, next to a row of antsy locomotives, ready to depart at any time.

As I waited for an opportunity to hop the 5-foot tall, mesh fence, I plotted my escape. With my head low, dressed in jet black gear, I stood silent. I heard the faint sound of gravel crackle beneath tires as a vehicle drove past an Intermodal stopped on the main line. My body lurked hidden in the shadows, unseen, and I continued my game of hide-and-seek. The bull continued driving along the train, getting further and further towards the front engine, until he looked like a black speck. That’s when I made my move, sprinting for the only bushes near the fence. I huffed and puffed gasping for air as sweat dribbled down my forehead profusely like the fat kid in gym class. Man, I needed to stop smokin’. I recouped for a brief second and pulled myself up the mesh fence, treating the tiny holes like finger holds on a climbing wall. With one thrust I threw myself up and over the fence and the shoulder of the highway broke my fall.

I trotted along casually. My toes tingled and their once numb existence started to pain again as they regained feeling. Breaks came often followed by sporadic napping as with each new step came a thousand needles pricking at my frostbitten toes. I washed them diligently, but still managed to suffer from a thick crust of athletes foot on both of my heels. Walking came with the territory of traveling on the cheap, hitchhiking, train hopping or taking the bus. I did not complain, instead I lounged outside of the Wal-Mart, resting my feet, and charging my phone.

My ass sat comfortably on my pack, which hung onto its last threads. People looked at me scornfully as they walked by, the typical reaction towards travelers in any town or city. I nodded respectfully and held my pride, ready to hop the next train to Texas, getting me one state closer to my wife.
A small lab puppy piled on top of me, galloping from his owner.

Train Hopping Tucson

Train hopping Tucson with the Dirty Kids

“DOBSONNNN….DOBSONNNN….get ova here….NOW,” yelled the owner.

As he stumbled into view I witnessed a drunk man about my age trudging along the sidewalk. His scruffy blond beard, face tats and punk clothes screamed Dirty Kid as he hobbled closer into view. He looked rough; his body covered in stick and poke tattoos and he reeked of Steelies.

“HEY kid…why ohn’t ya come over there with us…hiccup…got a group of Dirty Kids kickin’ it by the dumpster.”

“Alright man…I’m just chargin’ my phone real quick.”

“Awe c’mon…ya can do that later kid. Kick it with us…we’re drinkin’ Steelies…DOBSONNN…get the fuck over here…fuckin’ dog needs ta learn…”

I took my eyes off the plus signs that curved up his cheeks towards his temples, following him and his puppy over to the Wal-Mart dumpster. I felt out of place. I rode trains, and hitchhiked for fun and because I found myself temporarily out of work with no place to live. But, we all ended up there, sitting Indian-style under different terms.

“Oh…almost forgot…I’m Star…this is my old lady Stacy…and these are two Dirty Kids we uhh…uhh…just met…I uhh…well what’re yer names again…,

“Olivia and John,” they said.

“And yer…burrp.”

“I’m Brian.”

“And where ya comin’ from Brian? How’d ya get ta Tucson.”

“Came in on a train earlier this morning from Phoenix. I was with a group of three other Dirty Kids, but I think they’re all back in Phoenix…they got too fucked up last night and couldn’t catch on the fly.”

“Pfff…trains ya say. I got my fair share, 30 or so…where ya headed Brian?”

“Alabama to see my wife, think ima continue ridin’ the rails til Birmingham, figure it out from there.”

Star continued to schwill Steel Reserve after Steel Reserve falling deeper into a sloshing mess of slurred speech.

“Well fffuck…we’re all hhheaded to a rrrainbow gatherin’ in New Mexico for 3 dddays. Ima cccook…ggonna be ddoin’ some ppeyote, acid…ggood times kid…ggood times…get ya a lil further.”

“Dunno Star…much as I ppreciate the offer…I’m tryna get there as soon as I can…three days is a while.”

“Wwell…ride…lleaves…rride…leaves tonight. If I…if I could jjust…get ahhold of this fuccckface…he probly…he probly…tripppin’ his face off…Went ta New Mmexico…hiccup…earlierr tah-day…to gget…acid…he’s def tripppin’ face. Sposed ta be hereee.”

“Thanks for the offer bro, but I think ima just keep riding.”

“Ya…okkkk…you say so…hop out eeeast…is all the way…the way dddown there…mileee…two…eeasst.”

“I already know where it is, but thanks.”

“Fuuuuccck…I neeed muh gearrr…where is this…fucck? Stacy…stacccy…grab meee a burrr.”

“Star? I already been in there five times today. Fuckin’ tired of walkin’. Go in and get it yourself and bring me one while yer at it.”

“But…but…babeee…you know I ohn’t have ID…puhleeease?”

“Damn you Star…makin’ a pregnant woman walk all the way over there, in the way back, to get ya another beer…fuckkk…alright. Gimme a smoke babe and I’ll go.”

“Alriggghtt…Heyyy…Brian…hiccup…sorry…I keep bummin’ off yaaa….haave another…smoke?”

I reached down in my pocket and grabbed an American Spirit out for both of us, passing the lighter in my hand. My once full pack I ground-scored on the way over here, now felt empty, with only a few cigarettes left.

“Feeel bad…keeep bummin’ off this kid…kid we jusst met….thanks Brrrian.”

I pulled out a loaf of bread and a can of peaches, passing them around the circle. Stomachs gurgled faintly through the sound of passing cars and a solemn look of hunger struck the circle of Dirty Kids before me.

“You guys want any of this, or any cigs? Also got an extra chilli if anyone wants it.”

“Yeah sure!” John and Olivia spoke up for the first time that whole night. The love birds sat there cuddling hand-in-hand whispering in one another’s ears like school children. Olivia cutely twirled John’s long, lustrous, golden locks around the tip of her finger and giggled in bliss. As I passed the can of peaches my heart shattered in jealousy…I missed my wife and the same moments we shared just months prior hitchhiking around Hawaii.

We all puffed on our cigarettes passing the time until night fall. Star continued to binge drink Steel Reserves getting inebriated until the point of complete non-sense rolled off his tongue.
“Neverrr…neverrrrrrr…wouldd I…suckk a DICK….awwghhh…just…nastyy…I’d cudddle…naked with a duuude…mayybe kisss em…buttt nahhh…justtt ohn’t doo it…”

Everyone chuckled and I felt like I stepped into the same shit-show as the previous night. I tried to think of an escape plan to rid myself of this drunken Bastard and his hussy. Despite his cheerful nature and harmless charm my gut told me to leave. Too much alcohol and Dirty Kids never bode well, especially with new encounters. Then it happened for me while Stacy pranced back sippin’ a Steelie in-hand.

“Well guys, as much as we wanna stick around, Olivia and I gonna head to bed, gettin’ dark out and we wanna settle in for the night…”

“Awwwwwwe maaaaannnn….reaaaaally? Reaaally,” muttered Star in his limp state, with his eyes rollin’ around his head like a pinball machine.

Off walked the straight-edge, traveling couple, and just as I tried to speak up and politely leave, in stumbled two more Dirty Kids, Will and Daisy.

“We’re hoppin’ outta here in three days…gonna take Will on his first train…gotta celebrate…,” yelled Daisy in a charismatic voice.

Will jammed out to EDM with his ear buds in, rockin’ back-and-forth, feeling the music as he reached in his pocket and popped some pills.

“Fuuucccckkk…gimmmeee some,” cried Star.

Now the circle turned into a rave, a rave I wanted nothing to do with, as I sat quiet on the concrete. Stacy pounded a Steelie and chain-smoked a pack of cigarettes. Star sloshed around, bobbing his head and laughing. Will stood their dancing in his own world as if in a trance and Daisy, she babbled on-and-on too.

“Damn girl…you better get that drink outta yer hand…and what the fuck…smokin’? What I tell you about that…yer pregnant…last year when I was pregnant…I quit…had to…not good for the kid,” pleaded Daisy.

“I knowww. I knowww. Cuttin’ back,” exclaimed Stacy.

I sat there stupified among a bunch of goons, when all I wanted to do was ride trains and write.

Daisy calmed the commotion amongst the group.

“Guyyyys…settle down…guyyys. Good news, seven is in town, he’s just a few miles away.”

“Nooo shitttt,” cried Star, giggling and shuffling about. “We gotta seeee em. Wee got ta…we got ta…”

And with that notion the lot of them stood up, cramming all their packs and gear into a shopping cart headed towards the local bus stop.

“Bbbrrriannn,” yelled Star. “Yer not comin’…?”

“Sorry dude…dunno seven…and it’s kinda outta the way.”

With that exchange of words our paths followed down different roads and I found myself wandering the streets of Tucson in the yawning of night. I remembered the hop out from the week prior, before visiting my dog and the in-laws in Phoenix. So I carried on through the dark shadows and non-existent street-lights heading towards the industrial complexes downtown.

Unsure of my train, I waited at the dead end of the road, laying beneath a cactus on a cobblestone walkway, creeping in the shadows. Trains rolled past, horns blasted, lights pierced brightness at my eyes, the sullen sound of steel creaked before me. I just basked their like a seal waiting to make a move.

Hours passed and I found myself lurking in the wee hours of the morning, debating sleep. The crisp sound of my zipper ruffled along my pack and I ceased movement briefly, listening to the sound of a distant whirring. As it inched closer its deafening noise screeched louder coming from the west. The hellion inside me tip-toed along the adjacent wall by the train tracks. An incognito ninja of the night who failed horrendously at finding a ride-able freight car quickly. I ran and ran, peeking under each car to find a ride-able porch or well. My frustrations grew with each wobbly step on the ballast as cars drove past along the highway.

And then it happened, my flashlight shined bright against the floor of a freight car on an Intermodal.

“A WELL,” I smiled with snickering success.

I climbed the ladder and off came my pack as I wisped away into the corner of the icebox, reaching for my mummy bag to keep me warm. I hoped to wake up in Texas past the Border Patrol checkpoint as my mind drifted quickly to sleep.

One Man, One Needle and a Greenhorn

After visiting the in-laws, watching the Super Bowl (uninterested) and getting squeaky clean, I felt that itch to hit the road again after a few days of being housed up.  So that’s what I did, I hit the open road, taking cheap public transportation to the train yard in downtown Phoenix, where I met back up with my road dog, Rooster.

Of course, with a 40 in hand, a few schwills, belches and nothing but time, I knew a long night of drunken shenanigans lay ahead.  Not that I partook at all actually.  I laid off the booze as my doctor, Mr. WebMD, told me it was bad for my recent frostnip experiences ridin’ the rails down through Oregon.

As such, we sat, bullshitting to pass the time as we scoped out the non-existent yard from the overpass.  The yard dog worked trains below, but nothing left, nor arrived, as vibrant colors blasted across the Arizona skyline like a volcanic explosion.  Slowly darkness crept in and we skedaddled below, to the bird-shit infested viaduct, finding refuge on the pavement.  Rooster worked on his second 40 as I sat there completely sober, wiggling my toes in disappointment.

“Man…I’m tryna watch the yard…soak it in…drink…bbburrpp…leave tomorrow…night…maybe?”

“I’m down for whatever Rooster.  Like to get out tonight if we can…see where it goes dude.”

“Fo Sho…bburrpp…hiccup…shiiittt…Dirk’s in Phoenix bro…ima hit him back…seee…if he can come through.

“Cool, surprised he’s back from LA so quickly…”

“Shiitt..he’s bringin’ someone…some chick he met…”

“Aight, well…cool I guess…I’m not ridin’ 4 deep though man…you’re just asking to get pulled off…”

“No doubt…hiccup…no doubt…”

An hour passed and I only heard the brute force of freight cars shunt together like Zeus firing bolts of thunder down from Mount Olympus.  We lounged in the shadows and from the distance street light the silhouettes of two travelers rose.  Dirk and Elena stumbled into the group.

“Sup guys…got a newbie here…showin’ her the ropes…just dodged this oog, hippy kid out west who was rollin’ with us…had no fuckin’ shoes…blew up my spange spot, layin’ sprawled out on the sidewalk like it was a yard sale…couldn’t have it…she wanted to come with…hope that’s alright.”

“Yeah no problem dude, Rooster already told me about it.”

“Hi…I’m Elena. And you are?

“Brian”

“Rooster”

“She’s a greenhorn guys, don’t give her any shit, we all been there once. Your bud ain’t have much himself either does he?”

“Eh I’m up to 12 I think, but yeah I’m still a newbie, much to learn out there,” I said.

“How’s the yard lookin’ guys,” said Dirk.

“Dead as fuck…might be here awhile…”

“Aight…well ima take a nap…where we campin’,” said Dirk.

“Over there, past the shit pile, there’s a hole in the fence, nice grassy spot by the overpass there,” said Rooster.

Elena followed him as if uncomfortable of our presence, which I understood completely, after all, we just met.  Without hesitation we shortly followed in her footsteps, forming a small circle against the wall, passing bottles of booze, with sidewalk slammers and Four Locos getting schwilled around.  I passed, only sipping on some bitch drink, Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

What started off as joyful, quiet conversation quickly escalated to belligerent drama.  No one slept. I tried, tossing, turning, and wiggling in my nylon bivy, but a storm of repressed emotions sailed along the seas yonder, screeching my eardrums.  Outcries, tears and suicidal tendencies flowed from the once quiet young girl before us, the greenhorn, to the now schwilly-wasted fool.

“But…but..you don’t even understand guys…like I’m a woman…I’m hormonal…and I…and I…did something…something…really bad todayyy.  Wahhh…wah..sniffle…cough…I killed something…an animal…I…I…hate myself.  Why did I do ittt? I can’t believe I did Heroine…sniffle…I just wanna die…like…you don’t even understand…you have no idea what I’ve been through…sniffle.”

“Calm down foo…you’re gonna blow up the fuckin’ spot…handle your own shit on your own time…what the fuck did we talk about already,” grumbled Dirk in a raspy angered voice.

You’re here with a lot of knowledge at your table.  We talked about this shit.  Pull up your panties, hold back your tears, sleep it off.  Stop fuckin’ screamin’, yellin’ and all kinds of shit…we’re sleepin’ in someone’s back yard,” grunted Dirk.

I sat there with a blank stare of disbelief…”What in the fuck did I get myself into,” I thought?

Metal rattled from behind us, clanking under footsteps.  My eyes scanned the figure, a disgruntled tenant with his arms crossed came into view.

“What the hell’s goin’ on back here?”

“Uhhh….Sorry…just calming her down…tryna catch the next train outta here…we’ll clean up our mess…be outta her in the mornin’,” stuttered Dirk.

“Oh…well, alright…just keep it down please.  I live here.”

“Awe thanks man,” we mumbled in slight unison.

All the commotion made us split.  Our spot got blown up by some 19-year old hipster with daddy issues.  But fuck we all have our share of problems, if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be kickin’ it in the dirt.

Dirk motioned over at me, “Let’s get outta here, find a spot to catch out, can’t stay here no more…”

We all rolled up our sleeping bags as the cool desert breeze brushed against my naked face.  I just wanted to run far away from everyone and catch the next train out of here to Tucson.  Elena calmed down and ceased sniffling, but her drama came with a continued annoyance like a persistent fly buzzing around.  Rooster stumbled and slurred his words after his fourth 40 and god knows what else he drank.  How we would catch out tonight I could not fathom?

Dirk and I walked along watching the others trickle behind.  Rooster held his fair share of alcohol, but even he fumbled around a bit zigzagging back-and-forth down the asphalt parallel to the train tracks.  Elena, she squabbled the same non-sense over-and-over again like a CD skipping the same lyrics.  She stumbled. She fell, tripping over her own two feet countless times like a baby learning how to walk.  We pulled her up off the pavement after face-planting. Her body felt like a limp noodle dripping with blood. It smeared across her cheeks and down her fingertips screaming staph infection. She giggled, babbling on about death.  I felt truly sorry for her mental state wishing I could help her lost soul.

Dirk came up with a small plan, nothing spectacular, but perfectly doable.  We huddled up under a bridge past the mouth of the yard, and out came bellows of jumbled words from every person.  I felt like I stepped into a circus act.

“Aight..aight…everyone shut the fuck up.  Here’s the plan.  Elena…you and Rooster need to sober the fuck up.  Train should be rollin’ in in about 3 hours…plenty of time to nap…sleep it off.  I took you under my wing to learn to ride…right? That’s why we’re out here…remember?  Not catching a train drunk…now are we,” said Dirk?

Elena murmured, slurring her words in a drunken stupor as she cuddled up under a blanket, inching closer towards Rooster, snuggling against his intoxicated body.

“Alrrrright…but I’m justttt so upset…I mean…I can’t believe…”

Dirk cut her off, “Just go to fuckin’ sleep for Christ’s sake.”

“Okkk…”

They lay there, out cold, like dead bodies oblivious to the world.  Dirk and I sat there on cardboard, itching to catch the next ride-able train, whether on the fly or not, it did not matter. He opened up about his life, the drugs, the downward spiral that led him to the road of freight hopping.  The teary-eyed look on his face made me empathetic of his issues, holding back the remnants of my own past, with a lump in my throat.

A sudden pause of pure silence sliced the thin desert air, and suddenly after the tremors of pain subsided, he sputtered words of approval from his mouth.  “Care if I shoot up here in front of ya?”

I paused, unsure of how to respond, yes I cared, but it’s his life and if he chose to go down the path of destruction, who was I to stop him…

“Sure, I don’t mind…”

He unbuckled the strap to his bag and pulled out a syringe, slurping the liquid into it from a spoon.  Without hesitation the needle pierced his skin, out squirted a drop of blood beneath the other tract marks between his tattoos.  The first attempt in his forearm did not take so he searched around for a more viable option, the basilic vein.  With a quick poke the needle entered and the fluid dispensed flowing freely through his bloodstream sending the pain below.

I cringed at the sight of him shootin’ dope.  I hated needles and just watching it made me nearly faint.  His mood shifted as he sat there spun out on dope.

“Elena WAKE UP…trains comin’…wake the fuck up already…you got your nap…come on…we’re here to ride…god dammit…”

I looked over at Rooster who lay there peacefully snoring, snuggled in his sleeping bag as if in a cocoon.

“ROOSTERRRR…wake up dude…come on…train is comin’ bro…wake up.”

He did not budge, flinch or move at all.  I repeated myself multiple times but my attempts remained futile.  Dirk managed to get his mess-of-a-road dog together while he jittered and fidgeted from the dope, amped and ready to hop out.

She stumbled and fell yet again, not in any condition to ride a stopped train, let alone catching one on the fly.

“FUCK YOU GUYS…fuckin’ suck…you fuckin’ suck.  Took you under my wing to ride trains…not teach you how to hold your alcohol….Fuck it…I’m goin’…you goin’ Brian?”

“I don’t wanna leave Rooster behind bro…”

“Think the two love birds are stayin’… HEY…you guys together now…you ridin’ outta here together?”

They nodded in agreement.

“Sorry Rooster…I’m goin’ dude.”

The front engine roared, a blinking light flashed and I knew the yard dog roared down the steel tracks like an iron snake, but I wanted on that train.  I wanted on that train now.  She clunked and clanked picking up speed, progressing forward, and the first gondola I saw I made a run for it.

“You goin’,” said Dirk.

“Hell yeah”

I ran; my pack thumped along my back and ass, plodding across the ballast, as my hands reached onto the cool metal ladder.  I wrenched my fingers around its cool breath, and as I pulled up, I flung my knee straight into a rung.  My feet found the step and I scurried to the top, jumping inside, hiding in the corner.

Rollin' down the tracks in an empty gondola for Tucson, AZ

Rollin’ down the tracks in an empty gondola for Tucson, AZ

She shunted together a few more strings of freight cars and after two hours of laying there on the brisk metal floor, nestled inside my bivy, she purred along the tracks towards Tucson.  Dirt, sand and other debris fluttered around inside the rattling box, poking my eyes and taking my nostrils hostage, as I moved deeper into my sleeping bag, drifting further into sleep.  A smirk broke out on my face and I wondered if our paths would ever cross again?

Speedballin’, Spacebags, Sidewalk Slammers

Train Hopping Colton

​We awoke in a field straight across from Wal-Mart ready for train hopping Colton.  My head throbbed from all the whiskey we drank the night prior and my brain ached as if someone squeezed it from beneath the meninges.  I swore to myself I’d take a night off from the booze, but we all know how that goes…

“Rooster you wanna hit up Wal-Mart…I need to charge my phone?”

“Fo Sho, lemme just sleep another hour.  Fuckin’ tired bro.”

“Aight…”

I felt content looking up out at the mountains, their peaks drizzled like white chocolate as I sat in a city surrounded by peaks.  For the first time in weeks I started to regain feeling in my frostbitten toes as the temperature roared into the high 70’s.  That hour flew by quickly, dazing off into oblivion, I found it odd how I kept myself occupied so easily.

Nonetheless, Rooster yawned and stretched with a big sigh, “Oommf…we need to get whiskey for the train ride.  Think ima take a break from trains today…if that’s ok with you?”

“Word, sounds good dude.  Get some rest, check out the yard, try to find the hop out spot.”

“Fo Sho, gettin’ drunk tonight.”

“Aight…I’ll have a few dude.”

We stood up, wobbly and hungover, for a brief tramp to the Wal-Mart, flinging our gear down on the sidewalk by an outlet.  One after the other, Dirty Kids approached.  Dirk looked like a typical train kid with Carhartt pants, some holes blown out in the ass, a studded, sleeveless, jean jacket patched out over a grimy hoody and a newsboy cap.  His greasy short black hair shot out from under his cap and his tanned skin reflected many days of trampin’ on the open road.  His little dog pranced next to him with her shiny golden-brown fur and cute swagger.  Cid on the other hand wore shorts over long johns with flaps of camo cloth dangling behind his ass.  He sported a buzz with a patch of long blonde hair swaying off the back of his head all under a studded and patched cap.

Colton train hopping

Doggy in the sun, gettin’ ready for train hopping Colton

Dirk grabbed a marker to make a sign, scribbling the word “FEWD?” In big, bold, black letters.

“You think the kids these days will get it?”

I chuckled, “Yeah…looks like Food…am I right?”

“Yeah, pretty broke, tryin’ to fly a sign to make a few bucks before headin’ to see my sister in LA.”

“Haha, no doubt,” I said.

Rooster and I offered him some food, but he declined.  He just wanted some beef jerky.  Rooster set off to grab some and peaches while we all loitered outside of the monopoly.

Cid looked over at us.  “Any you seen Randy anywhere…I was supposed to meet em here. Haven’t seen em…”

Dirk blurted out, “Yeah he caught a train north…other day I think.”

“Really…what the fuck…why the fuck he goin’ North? Well ok…guess I’ll kick it here for a bit…see if he shows up.  I’m broke as fuck, haven’t had my name ran here since 09, wanna keep it that way.  Any yous tryin’ to score some dope?  I know a home bum who sells it under the bridge…”

Dirk chuckled with a sudden spurt of joy, “Yeah man…was spun out last night, but why not?  You guys wanna chip in on a spacebag tonight?”

I nodded, “Yeah I’m down, but I’ll pass on the drugs.”

A flabbergasted expression broke out across Cid’s face.  “What you guys gonna do all day then?”

Rooster walked back into the circle, throwing a package of chipotle beef jerky towards Dirk.

“Score, thanks dude.”

“No problem. Me and Brian are gonna check out the yard for the eastbound hop out. Kick it, relax, then drink later tonight.”

Cid scoffed, holding back laughter, “Wwwwhaaat? You don’t drink durin’ the day?”

“Nope. Only at night.”

“Haha okkayy. Well we’re gonna go shoot up dope under the bridge. Spacebag later?”

Everyone nodded in agreement. As the two walked away I noticed Dirk left his phone plugged into the wall. Rooster ran to catch up to him and we returned his phone.

Cid mentioned, “Oh btw hop out is near Cedar…it’ll be an IM.”

“Sweet,” we said.

We trucked along following a road parallel to the yard headed towards Cedar to check out the hop out or lack there of…

Train Hopping Colton Yard

Get drunk…ride junk…train hopping Colton

Both of us chipped in for sidewalk slammers, two 40’s and two Four Loco’s. We watched the yard from a distant grassy field, taking cover near the only lone tree.  My ass left an imprint of dirt and grime on the cinder block beneath me as we scoped out the yard for eastbound trains. Everything plowed through the yard westbound, and the only eastbound trains rolled too fast to catch on the fly.  Not sure if Cid juked us in the wrong direction, but no trains stopped, CC’d, or slowed down enough to hop out from said location.

“Dude this definitely isn’t the hop out Rooster. It is Sunday…so iunno, maybe check out the mouth of the yard a few miles back tomorrow?”

“Yeah, he was full of shit dude. We’ll check it out tomorrow.  I dunno about you, but I’m gettin’ drunk. Dirk never hit me back.  Don’t really wanna hang with a bunch of junkies anyway.

“True…just seems like bad news. Let’s drink, figure the hop out tomorrow…”

Hours passed and it looked hopeless so we started to tip our elbows, getting tipsy off sidewalk slammers.  Plans fell through for a communal Spacebag and after hardly any schwills I passed out in a vacant field on a patch of grassy pavement covered in prickly goat-heads. That night I awoke stumbling around to piss and lodged at least ten of those fuckers in my frostbitten feet.

“Fuckkkk…what in the hell…”

I reached down plucking the little needle-like balls of thorns out of my feet and immediately drowned into a drunken sleep.

The sun fried my face with its vibrant rays awakening me too early in the morning.  My eyes sagged with a tiredness about them, but surprisingly I felt fine, no hangover.  I looked over at Rooster, who lay there dead on the pavement, as the sun tickled his beard with undulating heat.  Sweat broke out across his brow, but he just lay there unabashed by its torment for hours.

I passed the time reading an old kid’s classic, The Boxcar Kids.  Peering into the yard I watched as the yard dog worked and broke up trains while the main lines remained dormant of traffic. Ocassionally westbound IMs cruised by, but nothing eastbound.

Brrringggg…brrringgg…Rooster leaned over like a sloth and answered his phone.

“Yo what’s up? Who is this…”

“Cid, did you steal my fuckin’ pack?”

“Hold up man…this is Rooster.  We weren’t even with you guys the other night…what’re ya talkin’ about?”

“Ohhhh shit…my bad…Dirk gave me the wrong number…we were speedballin’ all last night with a group of friends…pack went missin’…we’re cool man…my bad…thought you were one ah Randy’s friends…”

“Oh…well hope you find your shit bro.”

With a click of his phone and a long yawn he sat up and looked over at me.  His bloodshot, teary eyes drooped in the fierce sun.

“Man, I’m fuckin’ tired as shit…still…”

“Haha you’re just hungover Rooster…we’ll go grab some grub and head further up the yard to find the hop out.”

“Fo Sho…ima pack up my shit and we’ll roll out.”

Trampin’ along down the highway we wandered parallel to the tracks.  A Union Pacific worker honked his horn sending us a friendly hello as if encouraging us to hop a train out of Colton.

Train Hopping Colton

Colton, California…the beauty…stoked for train hopping Colton

Wal-Mart felt like the ultimate bum spot full of train kids, and home bums alike. We met more drug dealers cruising around on bicycles, all spun out on dope, asking if we were holdin’ or needed any “supplies…” It made me realize how incredibly easy it was to get meth on the west coast.  Not that I wanted that shit.
We loitered, charged phones and handled our fair share of harassment from rude locals.  Some old, wrinkly bitch, with half her teeth, snarled at us, spit projected from her mouth like she just took a slobberknocker to the face.

“Nope sir-e, you ain’t gettin’ my dollah…no way…dirty ass, non-workin’ scum bags…tryin’ take my hard earned dollah…nope…”

Under my breath I mumbled, “Suck a dick lady…I never asked you for your fuckin’ dollar. I’m not spangin’ or flyin’ a sign…fuck off.”

My frustration got the better of me and Rooster calmed me down.

“Dude, chill out. It’s not worth it.  People like her are lookin’ for a reaction.  Be nice or ignore her.  She’s not expecting that.”

I cooled off and my temper subsided, taking his advice kept us out of jail.  So it did not further escalate to a physical altercation.  The ugly bitch and her man stumbled away from the vending machines all strung-out and bickered their small, vulgar, vernacular towards us.

“Whatever…”

We tramped towards the overpass at the mouth of the yard, just studying it like a textbook for an exam.  Junk trains all lined up in the yard awaiting departure.  Railfans ruined our attempts to hideout under the bridge, as we waited patiently for their train boners to diminish.  After a few snaps with their Nikon cameras of some grainers working in the yard they reached their climax and hit the road down the I-10.  We hustled along the overpass, scurrying over the guardrail for the clearance box under the bridge.  Several tags scrawled out everywhere along the concrete covering the structure wall-to-wall.  We left ours of course, scribbling them on in thick black marker, Jungle EBD, Rooster EBD.

No sooner did the felt-tip marker leave the wall did we hear the ear-piercing thunder from the horn of a departing train.  She rolled past at a slow speed, clicking and clanking along the steel, with a consist of mixed manifest.  Rooster fumbled for UP’s phone number, calling in a boxcar on the locomotive, while I scrambled down the slippery, dirt embankment.

“Go…go…it’s headin’ to El Paso…” he screamed over the noise of the train.

I ran along side the last freight cars of the train, dancing along a grainer.  As my feet danced, my hands clasped onto the brisk ladder, pulling myself up and propping my boot on the last rung.  I scuttled aboard the train throwing my bag onto the porch and squeezed myself and my pack into the fox hole.  I felt claustrophobic in there like a tunnel rat during the Vietnam war, but I made myself cope with discomfort for at least a few miles outside of Colton Yard.  I wanted to stay on this train.  After all, it brought us one step closer to Phoenix, dropping us off in Tucson.

Train Hopping Colton

Foxy baby…train hopping Colton grainer style

At the first siding we jumped off to find a more comfortable ride.  Gondolas sat about ten freight cars up the line, but we did not know if they were loaded.  So instead, Rooster hustled off towards the backend of the train, trudging along the ballast.  He yelled back at me, “High wall grainer, two cars down, bud…LET’S MOVE!”

I threw his gear over and hopped off with my pack clung around my shoulders.  My lungs gasped for air as I dashed for the open grainer, afraid the air might release and our train might escape from us, but it didn’t.  We chucked our packs on the porch of the high wall and waited for a higher priority train to pass.  What did we do to kill the time, you ask?

We got loaded and took schwill after schwill of Black Velvet Whiskey.  I hated the putrid taste of all liquor, but getting tipsy on a train definitely made it easier for me to catch some zzzzzz’s at night.

Black outlines of mountains cast out into the desert as the train accelerated along the thin rails of steel.  Rooster sat there bundled and calm looking off into the night sky, as I did myself.  I knew what put him into a trance-like daze, the pure beauty of the night sky. The stars froliced among the full moon and to the north, Venus struck the sky with her brute, blinding ecstasy.  We both lay there against the cool metal porch, the train rattling full-throttle, as we sipped whiskey and lost ourselves in the vastness of Mother Nature.

Train Hopping Colton to Tucson

Look at Venus…she so pretty…train hopping Colton to Tucson…

As we approached Tucson we both took shifts sleeping.  I hardly remember fading away, while the train jarred and wiggled along the tracks, but I did for at least a few hours stuffed inside my sleeping bag, boots and all.  As the train lulled along the tracks my eyes broke out into a saccade, fixed on the dark silhouette climbing the ladder of the adjacent freight car.  I heard a holler from Rooster, “Come on up dude…let’s train surf the roof of this grainer…”

“Fuck man…I don’t know…”

Everything I learned about hopping trains, train safety and the dangers of riding on the roof, all made me apprehensive towards it.  But, she rolled along gingerly in-the-middle of nowhere.

“Alright,” I yelled up at him following his every move up the ladder.

He roared from the top of the train like a madman as I held onto the top of the ladder.

“Well come on up…made it this far…”

My heart thumped with loud bangs knocking my chest cavity from pure adrenaline.  “This was so fuckin’ stupid,” I thought as I crawled up onto the roof, my knees buckling under me as I held onto the side grates of the grainer.

“Well stand up, walk around a bit…make it quick…”

I stood up quickly like a baby taking its first steps.  It wasn’t so bad.  Actually I felt a sigh of relief exit my lungs.  I stood there, above the highway, chugging along through the desert towards Tucson, surfing my first train.  The wind wrecked havoc on my body, chilling every inch of me, making my hairs stand on end.  My hair cascaded behind me into darkness as I locked eyes onto city lights and in those few seconds the world stood still. I felt freedom in its entirety.

We skedaddled down the ladder and safely hopped onto the porch of our high wall grainer.  I wiggled into my sleeping bag, immediately feeling the warmth engulf my body and frostbitten toes.

In the past month I experienced more on trains than ever before, but I learned one important lesson on my long trek from Seattle down the coast of California to Tucson.  Never underestimate winter and what Mother Nature’s unpredictable fury can do to your feet without the proper boots!

Train Hopping Colton

Sunrise in Tucson after train hopping Colton

We arrived in Tucson and hopped off before entering the yard, laying it down at a dead-end street by an industrial park.  I thought about my feet and how I neglected them over the past month, wondering if irreparable tissue damage in my toes would ruin my life of travel by trampin’, hitchhikin’ and ridin’ the rails, but only time would tell.

Later that afternoon my feet tingled with a warm, numbing sensation and pain shot up through my toes as we walked. We put the road on hold for family, hitching a ride with Rooster’s aunt to Phoenix who saved him from possible arrest in Tucson for panhandling. That was that…now let my toes rest and heal up for a few days.

Here Comes the Rooster

​Bakersfield made me feel like a home bum after five full days of holding off on train hopping.  I still cannot feel my toes in either of my feet, but hey, as I sit here in the sun, peering out at the yard, I feel relieved to head further into the warmth.

Abandoned Bakersfield

Slept in an abandoned boat for a few hours in Bakersfield

That last bone-chilling night in Bakersfield, with a film of frost on my bag, waking up to a text message on the roof of a church, made me smile.  My breath froze in front of me like plumes of white smoke as I walked to the train tracks along the dark streets to finally meet my road dog, Rooster.  With three points of attachment I crossed over the knuckle of two boxcars holding onto the brisk metal ladder.  Hopping onto the ballast I turned around looking for Rooster and noticed an open boxcar so I climbed in hoping he might see me.  Shortly after the air hissed like a vicious snake I hopped off, afraid of leaving him behind.

Panorama Park Bakersfield

Panorama Park

Rooster stood inches taller than me with a lanky frame and two backpacks next to him.  His long black hair and scruffy beard hid his face along with a baseball cap.  He gradually added new studs, pins and patches to it as he found them on the road.  Aside from that, we looked pretty similar, not really fitting into the whole “Dirty Kids” appearance at all unlike other travelers we bumped into.

Cherry popped – 1st Unit

That day rekindled my spirits having a buddy to kick it with by the tracks while waiting for our next ride out of town.  Much of train hopping is patience, using that time waiting to keep yourself occupied.  With small talk it made it lighter on my mind to pass the time.  My thoughts did not wander as much. I took a break from reading and writing for the first time since I hit the road in late November.

Bakersfield Train Hopping

Purring along through the mountains

We plopped our gear and asses on the sidewalk treating the overpass like a stoop.  We waited patiently kicking the time with words until the faint squealing of steel raised our brows.  A large train slowly rolled into Bakersfield headed southbound.  Our heads moved from boxcar to lumber to oil tanker to gondola, scanning the train for a rideable freight car.  Inch by inch the locomotive slowed to a screeching halt as we sprinted towards the gondolas on the train.

I climbed up ladder after ladder, my fingers turned a rusty brown as old paint flaked off the car.  Poking my head over the side my efforts remained futile as every car loaded to the brim with wood.  Adrenaline pumped as we galloped along the ballast our hopes slowly dwindling with each loaded car we passed.  I followed behind Rooster as he stealthily climbed into the bright yellow unit at the backend of the train.  To my surprise he jiggled the handle and we both scurried in quickly placing our gear in the bathroom then laying out on the floor.

Here comes the Rooster

We never called in the train, but we knew it headed south or east. Bright sunshine lit up the cab as we lay flat on the floor ready to hide in the bathroom if an engineer inspected the unit.  The locomotive continued rolling through Bakersfield steadily picking up speed as we rode Cadillac in the luxurious unit.  The small area filled with comfy leather seating, a toilet, outlet to charge our electronics and most importantly computerized train controls that if touched would surely get us pulled off the train if not arrested.

Trains for days

The unit purred as loud exhaust bellowed from the engine.  It pushed the cars faster and faster until we plowed through the yard whistling smoothly across the steel beams for the mountains.  I looked down at the speedometer and just 13 miles out of Bakersfield the locomotive gradually came to a halt.  I panicked.  My heart raced fearing the worst.  Maybe someone called us in from a crossing? Minutes turned to what felt like hours as our train waited patiently hoping to chug along the single track through the Tehachapi Mountain Pass.  My anxiety faded and once I heard the air release a spark of joy illuminated a white smile across my face.

Inside of the cab

We plopped our asses in the chairs as she squealed around the steep curves, clanking through the greenest of mountains.  Cows grazed yonder, sipping from the dry riverbed, a motionless puddle of water.  Dry trails of tributaries faded out of view between the barren trees as we chugged along getting closer to the desert.

The door opened and the sound of diesel exhaust roared from the pusher.  Rooster walked out onto the plank.  The cool breeze tickled my nose as I followed behind him, grabbing onto the railing tightly with each step forward. My hands clasped the cold metal, ch…ch…ch…ch rung in my ear drums, rattling out every sound, but the sound of the locomotive hauling tons of freight.  The sun began to vanish behind the dark silhouettes of mountain and our journey on the plank ended quickly as we scurried back in the cab for warmth.

Colton, California lay just past the Tehachapi Loop and with the night sky fully immersed in bright, twinkling stars, we pulled out a bottle of Whiskey.  I did not drink too much, especially when traveling alone. Drugs and alcohol left my life years ago, but with new company on the open road I made an exception, taking a few schwills to new experiences.

Colton, California

I felt schwilly after passing the bottle back and forth with the last drop of whiskey burning the back of my throat.  The train chugged along at 15 mph through the mountains until gaining speed over the pass.  We now entered the desert and kept our eyes peeled for entering the yard to steer clear of the bull.

The train pummeled along the tracks putting us straight in the yard and kept rolling and rolling.  “Fuck” we needed to get off as it started heading westbound.  It slowed down to a few miles per hour and we grabbed our gear, darting out the back of the unit.  Headlights shined in my eyes as the bull sat there in his vehicle playing on his phone.  I made a run for it, sprinting towards the highway, breathing heavily as I scrambled over the flimsy, chain-linked fence.  I looked back at Rooster.  “Come on dude…GO…GO…the bull is right there…” He hobbled faster throwing his two bags over the fence as he climbed his way to freedom.  Once over, we casually walked down the shoulder of the highway to find a spot to sleep.  The bull never noticed us or he did not care, either way we managed to stay out of jail, and citation-free.  A Wal-Mart towered above the other industry near the yard and we set up camp in the adjacent field, sleeping on a nice grassy patch under a hill by the open road.

Goin Nowhere

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