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

Wanderin' the world, at will, by any means

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Archives for March 2017

Loaded Coal and Locked Dreams

After kickin’ it for a week in a townhouse off of Martin Luther King Blvd., gettin’ high off edibles, and free climbing the Flatirons in Boulder, I felt eager to hit the road again.  Meeting up with my old college partner-in-crime made me reminisce the past.  Honestly, my life has not changed much since college.  I just want to fuck around, live hard, and free, with a little work in between and provide for my wife.  Whether I have a roof over my head or not, she does and always will. Everyone around me is growing up, adulting so-to-speak, and I’m just stuck in a transience, trying to see as much as I can, recently, by train.  

That night, with the warm mountain air touching my skin tenderly with a lust, I packed up my gear and began my long tramp to 31st street.  The RTD public transportation service resided in downtown Denver, but my intentions were not public transit.  I sought to catch the next freight train to, well, nowhere in particular.  See, once I got that gypsy blood flowing, that urge deep down in my gut, to just get up and go, it did not matter where I ended up.  That wholeheartedly defined adventure, freedom, the foot-loose beauty of the steel beneath me as I sailed away across the country.  Most people in society see a man with no job, a backpack and coal dust on his face as a detriment to society, a waste, a bum. But, we picture it differently and with those thoughts ringing my brain like a wet towel I just moseyed along, inching closer to the ballast, steel, and my ride outta town.

I always left for the yard right before sunset.  The best time to creep around the yard for recon, hiding in the shadows of freight cars, trotting along the ballast, in search of a departing train. Denver yard antagonized me, partly because the activity amongst the city. People in Colorado walked. They ran, jogged, put themselves in the outdoors, which as a train tramp felt unknown to me.  I wallowed in the darkness, not because of its inherent dangers filling the shadows of the street lights, with booze, drugs and prostitutes, but because I walked alone in the night.  Night camouflaged me from security, citations and potential jail time.  I knew its risk and wandered anyway.  

Those eight miles strolled by in a yawn. As I roamed 31st Street to enter the yard behind Denver’s industrial complexes and closed-off construction areas, in the midst of gentrification, I stumbled upon a closed road.  The perfect entrance.  I tiptoed reaching the ballast, scanning the yard for cameras and without hesitation I ran. The first three empty tracks sprawled out across the ground, vacant of trains, with only steel, spikes and wood separating me from hiding for my next ride out of town.  I hopped up on a stopped train, planting my ass and pack inside the fox hole of a grainer.  The clock ticked and my body waited patiently, ready for the next train no matter the direction.  The ground rumbled in an uproar as I felt the vibrations of an oncoming locomotive and my spirits rose in an elated manner.  Her wheels purred against the steel in a tender squeal as the engineer worked the air brakes, ten, twenty, thirty empty coal cars rolled by, but she ceased to halt.  I sat up and pounced on my feet, jogging along the train, waiting for my ride, the back unit.  Clenching the ladder I pulled myself up as I skedaddled to the side door.  I jiggled the handle and tried to open her up, but my attempts remained nil.

“Shit another locked unit.”

I hopped off and watched her sail away, heading north to the unknown, as an oncoming train squeaked by on the 1st main line.  I looked ahead and my eyes met with a worker’s flashlight, as he checked the air hoses on an adjacent train, oblivious to my existence.  Immediately I changed my course, hopping onto the ladder of a southbound loaded coal car.  She rolled slowly through the yard.  Slow enough for me to switch sides of the train putting me out of sight of the yard.  Again the unit rolled by and I took a second attempt at the side door with futility striking my efforts.  

“Fuck it…”

I jogged along up to the next loaded coal car, climbing up the ladder, in plain view, throwing my body and pack against the grime and dust of the steel box.  I lay across the jagged rubble, coal poking my back and legs as plumes of dust crept into every crevice of my body, assaulting my nostrils and caruncles.  I scratched my eyes a teary red and sniffled, my eyes set on Big Brother from above, watching me from the masts of the yard.  I escaped unseen on the slowest, dirtiest ride ever heading south to industry.  

Where? It did not matter.  We chugged along at 15 mph through the frosty night sky.  The clouds smiled with a twinkle of the myriad stars shining over the silhouette of mountaintops.  An effervescence flowed freely through the air with pine and cheer.  I stood up plowing through the small, dark, rural towns, the wind whistling, as we crawled along the tracks.

“Man, what a slow fucking ride…”

After 4 hours we meandered through the valleys to Colorado Springs, where I came up with an ingenious plan to ride the unit.  How? The nose and side door stood there locked and dauntless, but the side window now, hmmm…

I left my pack on loaded coal fragments and moseyed along towards the unit.  Using the hand railings and gripping the side of the unit I clung on like life depended on it because it did.  I reached out as far as my small wingspan could reach, crimping the top cuff of the metal with one arm and prying the window open with the other. With a few jiggles she opened effortlessly leaving a small space to crawl into.  I shifted my fingers to the top of the unit, slowly edging across the cuff like a rock climber crimping his next move. Then I reached down into the open space pulling my body upward as my feet dangled freely a story above the ballast.  I wiggled for a second and threw myself in on the engineer’s chair, walked over to the side door and unlocked it.  Grabbing my pack, I set my gear on the floor and raided the fridge for water.  With a pisser, electrical outlet and speedometer I sat in my throne, the Cadillac of rides, a multi-million dollar unit. Naturally I checked the inspection log.  I still had hours to spare before the next inspection.  So I adjusted the thermostat, sprawled out along the rubberized floor, and drifted off to sleep.

When I awoke we arrived in La Junta, CO prior to sunrise.  We sat there for hours right past the mouth of the yard, at a siding.  I fidgeted inside, antsy to leave not anticipating inspection. But that’s what fell into my lap.

As the sun poked up across the horizon it winked at me and my mind finally snapped out of my morning daze.  “Shit a crew change, inspection.  I need to get out of the DPU.”  I stared out the back window as a white dot slowly materialized into a van.  The van stopped alongside the train where I planned my escape, the side door.  With the nose locked I could crawl out of the window, but my pack would not fit.  All these thoughts rambled my brain until I heard the jingling of the masterlock outside, a flannel shirt came into view and I surrendered fearing arrest.  I did not have time to hide in the shitter.  I stood there with my hands up.  The engineer let out a small yelp as he stumbled backwards.

“Is there anyone else in there I should know about?”

“No, sir. Sorry.”

“Well step out on this side. Don’t want ya to get hit…”

“Alright, thanks.”

“You know where you’re at?”

“Yes, sir. La Junta.”


He stood there motionless for a second as I wondered how many days I’d sit in La Junta Jail.

“Go on now…have a nice day.”


And just like that all that fear, anguish and uncertainty subsided.  I walked away casually unsure of my next move.  The van rolled along towards the front engine, as I heard the ballast rumble beneath rubber.  I lingered in the desert behind the only dead tree near the yard pondering what to do.  What if I hopped back on the same train?  The yard looked dead. Nothing worked, I saw no activity, security or bulls.  I did not want to get stuck in a dead yard in a small town so I sat on the idea.  

Sure enough after an hour the units powered up and air hissed filling the hoses for departure. Slowly she began to glide along the smooth steel beneath her feet.  I ran quickly, scampering to a loaded coal car, scaling the ladder, for yet another tussle with coal.  A battle I surely lost as every orifice, and pore of skin covered in a black dust like a walking Grim Reaper.

We cruised along for 20 miles and stopped again next to the Arkansas River at a signal.  I wondered if he locked the window to the unit? Surely my curiosity made me check, but first I tried the side door. Locked, as I thought. After a few moments, I found myself sitting back in my 5-star ride, gaining access through the very same window as the previous night.  I smiled and laughed as I rode the same train I got pulled off of, in the same unit, of all else.

I peeked out the window watching the riparian vegetation outline the riverbed cascading alongside the train.  Shortgrass prairie scattered between vibrant green willow shrubs contrasting the countryside engulfed around me.  I felt freedom and at peace just watching the diverse scenery slowly change around me. Without any exertion on my part other than twisting off a cap to my next water, it felt legendary.  A generation of culture just out there to see it all, no matter what or where it was, by train, and I found myself slowly becoming apart of it. Not because I had to, but because I chose to, while temporarily out of work waiting for my next job to pick up.

Shortly, we entered Oklahoma, growling through open, desolate plains, with tractors and silos more commonplace the further we ventured. Farmers tilled soil in their fields, highways drowned in the freedom of emptiness and suddenly after the next crew change I found myself in another state.

The next big approaching city, Amarillo, stood within a few hundred miles of my location after leaving the tip of Oklahoma for the Texas Panhandle.  The train snoozed along the tracks slowly putting along the steel at unbearably slow speeds.  High and rolling plains snarled at me with mounds of redbed clays and coarse sand in the distance.  Among the prairies I witnessed mesquite woodlands as I basked from my swivel chair, peering out the window.

After 30 long hours of riding, and several crew changes I planned my hop out closer to town, scrutinizing the speedometer carefully to find the appropriate time to hop off.  As we rolled past Route 66 towards the coal industry I watched the sun sink below the horizon emitting bright shades of pink and blue sky beyond the dashboard of the unit.  15…10…8…6 mph flashed across the screen and I walked the plank with my gear strapped to my back, hopping off to figure out my next plans.  Where to sleep?

Suicide to Springfield

Train Hopping Springfield

The sound of steel bouncing around under tons of empty coal cars lulled me into a meditative state, neither asleep nor awake.  With every sudden stop, sideout, signal or crew change I kept my wits about me and woke up from my trance-like daze.  Riding empty coal felt much like a gondola, missing out on the scenic views of America, just waiting to end up somewhere new, to continue wanderin’.  But, my ride did not last long that night before halting in Marion, Arkansas just a few miles over the Mississippi River.  Fear encroached my body, prying my eyes open, keeping me sleep-deprived, afraid of becoming another hobo victim to loaded coal.  My head bobbed in and out of sleep, as I tried to stay awake, with the night sky bellowing its chilling bursts of laughter making the empty coal car feel like a walk-in freezer.  I packed up my gear and pulled myself up the inclined wall, untying my rope and fleeing down the ladder into the yard.  Tiptoeing around the yard, pip…pip…pip…the ballast jostled beneath my boots.  My eyes wandered to the tracks, watching a yard dog shunt together a string of freight cars towards the east end of the yard.  Hmmm…maybe my train just stopped in the yard on the main line I thought.  As I crept through the yard crossing strings of freight cars my mind succumbed to complete exhaustion.  I wobbled parallel to the tracks.  Dragging each of my feet, I veered off the gravel access road.  I bushwacked through the woods in case security happened to drive by in the wee hours of the morning.  I marched through mud and muck, dead trees and sticker bushes, leaves and corn crunched and crackled with every step as dogs yelped in the distance.  

Train Hopping Springfield

Train Hopping Springfield – Ridin’ suicide through the Ozark Mountains

I slithered in the shadows like a snake zigzagging along the ground, but why I did not know?  No one came, and why I wandered to the front I did not know either?  In my mind I heard a loud whoooooosh thinking all the air released, meaning my train was not going anywhere for a while.  Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.  So I walked towards the front to confirm, taking a roundabout, ridiculously complicated approach, to see if the front engine still connected to the consist of empty coal cars.  No sooner did my squinty little eyes approach the front-end did that son-of-a-bitch air up causing me to fumble in my tracks and dance around like a madman.  I pounced for the nearest empty coal car as she started rollin’ at a slow 2-3 mph speed and climbed up the ladder.  But I did not make the same mistake twice, jumping in and sliding down on my ass.  No, I tied that rope up around the first rung quickly, throwing the rest of it inside the car and continued to shimmy myself in, unscathed, cold and bone-tired.

I sat there on the frigid metal floor, pissed that I left my cardboard towards the end of the train, yearning for its insulation.  I also forgot to check the back-end of the train for a DPU, an unlocked unit meant a warm heated floor to sleep on, a cozy bathroom to drop-a-chop, and a power outlet to keep my phone charged.  If only I slept more to human…if only…but instead I sat there shaking like a wind-up toy.  Afraid of getting too comfortable I never unrolled my bedroll and nestled into it.  Instead, I layered up.  First, I wiggled my fingers into my wool gloves, then came my second layer of pants, and another jacket and that did the trick, keeping me warm and insulated.  However, as we chugged onward my hallucinatory naps became disturbed from yet another element of Mother Nature, not the wind, not the cold air, but droplets of rain plunged from the gloomy sky.  At first they delicately splattered across my brow and the speed of the locomotive dried them with ease, but soon an army of them started to plummet faster and faster in a monsoon of tears.

I immediately rummaged through my pack, grabbing my tarp and threw myself under it.  Instead of looking at four silver walls of a metal box my world shortly shrunk to seeing the crinkles of blue nylon triangulate around my body.  I sat like this for hours fading in and out of life in a blank state of mind.  Water filled up beneath my feet as the coal soaked it up, keeping both me and my pack dry, instead of us swimming in a fish tank.  

Train Hopping Springfield

Train Hopping Springfield – Ridin’ Suicide on Empty Coal right outside some bum-fuck town…

The empty coal train barely moved.  And when I say barely, I mean from 9 PM until sunrise we traveled a measly ~100 miles, reaching Hardy a little after 9 AM before the rain finally settled to a soft drizzle.  I sat there befuddled, unsure of my next move.  Daylight ruined any chance I had at nabbing a rear unit as I lay just 20 freight cars back from the front engine, in plain sight of the engineer.  So I stayed put in my prison pondering my next move.  The intermittent rain, lack of sleep, constant stopping and starting of the train all infuriated my already agitated sleep-deprived state.  I capitulated not long after stopping in Thayer, MO.  Did I get off at a siding and wait for the next train to roll through?  Hell no, but I got off.  That in itself involved a doozy of ninja-like moves that I pulled out of my repertoire.  How so?  Well, “Plan A” took me to the rope spread out along the sloped wall.  I gripped it nicely between my fingers feeling it ooze with murky water, coal dust lining my hands.  Water dripped down the wall in a slippery stream of fluid as I planted my feet midway in the empty coal car.  I yanked a bit too hard and with a sudden snap and a squeak my legs fell out from under me as I slid down landing into a pile of coal.  I coughed, my face covered in soot, smearing the wet black coal over the back of my pants and onto my hands.  “FUCK, GOD DAMMIT…”  This called for “Plan B.”  Now what was “Plan B?”  I had no fuckin’ clue.  I looked at my options, throwing a 40 pound pack over a 10 foot wall….impossible, my guns could not even throw a shot-put over that, let alone my gear.  So I improvised.  I walked over to the cross-braced section of the coal car and started to climb my way up the slanted beam that connected to the middle like a triangle.  Once I reached the top beam I pulled myself up, chucking one leg over.  My muscles screamed in pain with the extra weight, but I found no other way without any usable rope.  My feet swung freely a story above the ground as I wiggled towards the perimeter of the empty coal car.  I made swift movements progressing forward like an inchworm until reaching the top rung of the ladder, climbing down to free myself from the hell below.  A dog barked erratically across the street as I walked the train hoping to reach the back-end in time to bag the DPU, but nope.  Instead I cast eyes on the face of a young woman whom looked astonished as she planted her eyes upon my legs walking across the ballast by the train.  I knew I blew my cover, with her and with the engineer, but I needed out.

I drifted towards the woods bushwacking through fallen trees, branches snapped and rattled beneath the rustling of leaves until a sweet silence hit the air and the hoses began to hiss once again whispering near departure in my ears.  I stood up and hopped on the only car available in plain view, a floor-less empty coal car.  Yup, I rode suicide, clinging onto anything and everything for fear of getting thrown off from any future slack-action.  Her once soft melodies chugging along the tracks, steel-on-steel, became a cacophonous mess of rattling for my drained ears to hear, but it kept me awake and ticking.  For the first time in hours my eyes felt nourished and awake, not due to sleep.  The blurring views around me, the countryside whistling in the wind, cows grazing, and the Ozark Mountains standing tall in the distance with the hue of blue horizon floating above them like the ocean floor, it all gave me juice.  I clung onto the little porch available, taking in the scenery like the bum I was, freeloading across America to Springfield, MO.  I looked down between my feet watching the centripetal acceleration of the axle spin vigorously along the tracks. The rail wheels smoothly reverberated against the tracks, clickety-clack…clickety-clack, as we bumped and jived through each small town getting closer to Kansas City, MO.  Railroad crossing after railroad crossing I stood still and camouflaged in black attire.  I remained visible to the outside world if a person really paid attention as the train plowed through their town, looking past the blinking red signals and at the empty coal cars flying on by, to see a lone hobo ridin’ the rails.  But, most too occupied on their smartphones never witnessed my whereabouts to call me into the police, hell, even a police officer himself did not notice me, and if he did he just did not care.  

She rolled into Springfield, MO right as the sky fell asleep, closing her blinds to the world, without the slightest sunset peeking between the dense layer of stratus clouds.  Rain finally ceased and I found my opportunity to hop off as she rolled delicately along the tracks behind a plethora of industrial buildings.  I held onto the rung with my right hand and proceeded to jump and run letting go as I picked  up enough momentum.  She trotted along towards the yard as I bid my farewells, scoping out the woods for a place to set up camp, and as her butt-end rolled past me, I snickered with a gritty smile, shaking my head.  The unit cruised by flaunting me as I spent the last 21 hours escaping the rain.  “Son-of-a-bitch,” I thought.

Train Hopping Springfield

Train Hopping Springfield – Goin’ through a valley

I waddled along over the ballast and the tracks drifting into a thick section of sycamore, cottonwood and short-leaf pine trees.  Autumn leaves piled beneath my boots softly whispering between the gusts of wind with each rustle.  I sought out an open area to lay out my bedroll and pack across the mountain of leaves configuring a tarp shelter above it. This shielded me from any potential rainstorm while the flames of my campfire pacified my existence, out there alone in the wilderness.

Fuck Outta Here White Boy

Train Hopping Memphis

The stiff concrete made me toss and turn early morning. I continued to lay there unable to wake from my comfortable zzz’s until broken free by the charming noise of a bellowing horn.  I thought none of it as I packed my gear in a lackadaisical fashion, ready to tramp it down the highway, hitchin’ into town.  Train Hopping Memphis looked like a bust after ending up in Rossville IM Facility.  I sat 40 miles away from Memphis, my next hop out spot, taking me one step closer to Denver.  I scuffed my boots down the slanted concrete embankment, bracing myself with every step, as the locomotive at the signal came into plain view.  My slow pace quickly turned into a rampant scamper into a field of wheat.  I followed the wye towards the left, trudging through the dense brush, stalking the train for the perfect moment to hop in a well.  I stood silently minimizing the rustling beneath my boots, the rust-colored leaves crinkled softly with each tiny step.  An engineer stood toward the front engine as I hid behind the barren branches of the woods.  Twigs crunched and snapped as I plowed deeper into the brush, tramping parallel to the tracks, counting the freight cars one-by-one.  My incognito attempt to reach the middle of the train left me in complete exhaustion.  I removed one article after the other, my pores drenching in sweat, and then I hit a crossroad with yet another obstacle making my path longer and more drawn out.  My boots squished as I reached a creek, moist clay engulfed them like quicksand, and I slipped and slid reaching for a tree to break my fall.  My hands clasped the base, continuing to fall forward with a loud scrunch, as if I pulled a lever, flinging my legs spastically as I plopped both feet into the bed of the muddy creek.  Water splashed like the sound of a belly-flop into a pool.  I stood there expressionless, shaking my head, as I sunk deeper into the mud.  My hands fumbled for anything, reaching for tree roots to pull me out, as I peeled my feet up out of the glue.

Train Hopping Memphis

Train Hopping Memphis – Right outside Rossville IM Facility, creeping through fields to hop on a train

But that did not end my battle with the swampy creeks of Tennessee, just a few feet further ahead lay another one, too wide to jump across.  I followed the banks, my boots squeaking with each step, until I found the narrowest point to cross.  A fallen tree trunk lay across the creek.  I treated it like a balance beam as I steadily walked across, one foot in front of the other.  It felt like an eternity since I left the bridge, bushwacking through the woods to walk a measly length of 20 freight cars, still leaving me in sight of the engineer.  Instead of trekking through the woods I moseyed further into the adjacent, ripe, corn field.  I roamed around the brink of the woods like a maze leisurely treading along back towards the train tracks.  By this point I no longer saw the front end of the locomotive making it at least 40 freight cars back.  A thick section of sticker bushes, vines and branches separated me from the ballast.  I stomped through, slicing my hands, and fingers, getting tangled in the yarn of weeds surrounding me.  But, I kept at it, furiously pushing forward with a tense bit of anger draining my brow.  “GODDAMNIT, fuckin’ shit…”  A small culvert lay before me.  I unstrapped my pack and threw her over, jumping shortly after.  The first DS I tiptoed along looked ride-able judging from the plethora of monikers etched in the steel.  Reaching up the ladder I poked my head over to see a small well and porch fit for riding.  I unzipped my jacket and took it off along with my t-shirt letting them breathe in the sun, soaking in the rays to dry.  I cooled off briefly, the breeze tickled my nipples, making my hair stand on end as I poked my head out past the container to see the signal.  She changed green and that soft sound of air fizzled in the hose between the freight cars, gently hissing its harmonious sound of departure.  I layered up ready to move out, and stayed low for the next several miles as we reached Memphis, hopping off behind the Target, where I stocked up on the essentials, canned fish, trail mix, and peanut butter.

Train Hopping Memphis

Train Hopping Memphis – Ridin’ an IM outta Rossville, gettin’ me 40 miles closer to civilization to hop out in Memphis, TN

To avoid the yard in Memphis I walked to a further hop out, 12 miles away. East Memphis felt neighborly, with white picket fences, immaculate homes in gated communities and a copious surplus of churches.  I felt safe as I trotted along on the 4-hour trek, putting me at the signals before the Mississippi Bridge, right after sunset.  But, I misjudged the thought of potentially ending up in the ghetto past dark.  I guess I brain farted and simply overlooked that high probability.  For the first time in a while I walked with a stone-cold petrified expression plastered on my face, alert and ready for any precarious situation, hoping it didn’t end in violence.  Despite carrying a thick stick, strapped to the bottom of my pack, this would not help if a gang jumped me and started throwing slobberknockers from every which way.  I walked at an awkward speed through the abandoned streets of West Memphis.  Vacant buildings with broken windows and shattered glass scattered across the sidewalk became all too common as I crept through the shadows of the hood.  The lights shined dimmer giving me a ghastly chill as if a spectre followed close behind ready for a malicious attack.  My head swiveled like a meth addict fiending for dope as paranoia cast over me afraid of my milieu.  Boarded homes with structural damage occupied families with their rusty junkers slumped over rubble where driveway once resided.  Lights peeked through the boards of these homes along with yelling and other commotion.  I kept walking like a speed-walker who couldn’t run.

As I walked deeper into West Memphis I put myself in a ghetto of black people, all hood, all racist, and the hatred flowed so freely off their tongues as they sat on their corners treating them like stoops.  They sipped on grape j00se getting tipsy in the street with their homeboys huddled around em, rappin’, cursin’, nigga this, nigga that, until they spotted me.  The only white boy roaming the streets of the ghetto at 9 PM, with a backpack, caught their drunken eye.  

“A man…Aaa man…I’m talkin’ to you cracka ass white boy…yeh YOU.  The fuck you doin’ here boy…”

My head shifted from looking at the ground to the inebriated group of black men lounging on the corner.

“I…I…headin’ to…”

Before I even got the chance for the words to roll off my tongue one cut me off.

“KEEP WALKIN…I SAID…KEEP FUCKIN WALKIN…ain’t nobody care about your white ass…get da fuck outta here boy, before sometin happens…you know what it is…”

My feet kept marching forward as my head stuck glued to their fake silver chains, oversized t-shirts and sagging jeans.  Didn’t they know in prison that meant you were down? I broke free and tilted my head back to the street, walking further and further away, my ears catching glimpses of laughter, and antagonizing phrases trying to provoke me.

“You rap white boy?”

“Fuckin’ pussy ass mo’fucker…that what I tought…KEEP WALKIN…shiiiiittt…bitch.”

This wasn’t some college party where a drunk kid threw a punch and I beat his ass.  I stood there as a pariah in a crime district, where my color skin was not accepted, surrounded by gangs and groups of men five deep.  People probably got shot and stabbed every day here.  Security bars lined store windows with bulletproof glass shielding clerks from potential harm and here I tramped through all the muck.  My eyes caught glimpses of handshake drug deals going down, along with a lot of people just standing around staring at me with beady eyes of disapproval.  I just kept on walking counting the miles down until my destination.

I avoided confrontation, kept my head down, my hood up and wiggled my hands into my gloves.  Why? It covered my skin making the “W” disappear from my chest.  I calmed down, and shifted to a more casual, comfortable stroll, slowly exiting the turmoil behind me.  

My stomach grumbled, but I feared walking into any fast food joint this late at night in an area where I was not well liked.  So I let my appetite plateau from a gurgling digestive noise to an empty void state.  Involuntarily muscle spasms felt like pulsating ripples of loose skin.  My legs shook and I began limping onward so close to my destination I almost crawled to ease the discomfort, but I kept my spirit up and hobbled forward.  

Train Hopping Memphis

Train Hopping Memphis – Downtown West Memphis Street Art

I reached an abandoned district of low-income housing.  Brick buildings stood there decrepit, every opening nailed with wooden boards, and graffiti scrawled over every inch of wall, “RIP Betor” (Rest in Peace Ronnie Bobal, a graffiti artist from Memphis, TN who died of a heroine overdose at the age of 29).  East Georgia Street set me a mile or so back from an easy access point to the tracks right behind the industrial wasteland of rubble in downtown West Memphis.  A smile broke out across my exhausted face as grease dribbled down my hair and into my red teary eyes.  I glanced up to see a spastic black man dancing in the street next to a dime-store hooker.  She stood there tall and in 6-inch red heels, covered in a red scandalous shawl barely covering her fat ass.  Her bleach blonde nappy hair mixed with streaks of brown masked her eyes.  She wore enough makeup fit for a circus clown.  She waited patiently as the man danced, tapping his shoes together, singing, spewing non-sense out of his mouth.  He grabbed her hand and placed something in it.  I presumed it a twenty or another denomination of money.

I tried to creep by without conversation, but my efforts were futile.  “Yo kid, what you doin’ here…you in the army.  That a big backpack to be carryin’…name Kevin…where you from?”


“Nah kid, where ya comin’ from?”

“Hunstville, Alabama.”

“HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA….daymmmm…how you get all the way to deez parts?”

“Hoppin’ trains, that’s where I’m headed actually…you know if the tracks are closeby?”

“Ohhh shiiiittt…yeh…yeh…yeh…not military, so you a train hoppa.  You a train hoppa kid…you hop dem trains and end up places.  What are ya…like a straggla?”

“Hah…yeah I guess…I work seasonal jobs and wander around between, headin’ to Denver.”

“DENVER…by train…boy it cold up there…you crazy.  How you hop the train…like how you a train hoppa, where you ride?”

“Porches, boxcars, grainers, anything with a floor really…”

“Huh…you speakin’ non-sense kid…where you from?”

“Delaware, I told you already.”

“Nah but where ya comin’ from…”

“Huntsville, Alabama”

He chattered his teeth as his head bobbed and weaved side-to-side.  I noticed his short-term memory was shot to hell, as he reiterated the same questions over-and-over until finally I broke free of his antics.

“I gotta get goin’ dude…gotta catch one of these trains to get to Missouri.”

“Oh…you a train hoppa are ya…you hop dem trains…Well…nice to meet ya.”

The broad stood there speechless, and expressionless.  I knew her line of work made hard circumstances for her and put her in danger.  She just stared blankly like a zombie as he grabbed her hand, swinging her arm, as they stumbled into the adjacent field.

I skedaddled on down the empty street figuring he just paid her for a blowjob behind a bush and chuckled.  What a fuckin’ night I thought and I made it out alive.  Air brakes screeched and wheels squealed along the tracks catching my interest.  My head jerked to the left and I sprinted behind the vacant complex, laying low in the empty parking lot sprawled out against trash and rubble.

Two NS front engines gingerly edged along the tracks, stopping briefly before the river.  Their cargo consisted of empty coal trains, exactly what I wanted to hop to get to Kansas City, MO.  I jumped up to my feet and flung my pack over my shoulders ready to make a run for it.  As I set foot on the ballast I checked both directions of tracks only to see another oncoming train.

“Shit…,” I backed down and fled to the dilapidated wall of crumbling brick, seeking cover.  My ride slowly crept along the tracks picking up speed until crossing the bridge leaving only coal dust in her tracks.  “Dammit, that was my chance outta here,”

I lay down briefly against the earth her cool breath chilling my back as my ears wiggled in excitement from the noise of a oncoming front engine.  BNSF crept by me at a snail’s pace with empty coal cars following behind in the consist.  I wandered behind the shadows of coal cars walking another mile in the direction I previously came.  My body drowned in sweat and I de-layered while I thought about where to ride, trying my best to keep my eyelids open from their droopy, jaded state.  Every coal car sat there porch-less, and I did not want to ride suicide through the night.  I strolled alongside the string of coal cars roaming towards the back-end of the locomotive.  A car parked alongside the train and caused me to halt in my tracks, retracing my footsteps, any attempt at riding the unit looked nil.  So what did I do?  I walked all this way probably 14 fuckin’ miles.  I wasn’t giving up that easily, not to empty coal, not to any stopped train.  So without hesitation, I clasped onto the brisk rungs of a ladder and hopped into the top of an empty coal car.  The slippery metal box felt intimidating like a fortress with deep impenetrable walls.  I let go of the ladder and immediately slid down the 45 degree slant planting the back-end of my rump against the floor.  Coal dust spattered into the air brushing soot across my face, causing me to cough uncontrollably.  I pulled out a few pieces of cardboard, laying them across the coal covered floor.

Train Hopping Memphis Empty Coal Car

Train Hopping Memphis – Empty coal car at night rollin’ outta of Tennessee over the Mississippi River

Then came the ingenuitive thinking.  How the fuck would I get out of here with my backpack?  I monkeyed my way between the reinforced beams of the metal box swinging up the triangular buttress.  My ass sat against the frigid beam, my legs dangling freely, a story above the ground.  Well, that looked impractical with my 40 pound backpack on, so I pulled out another idea from the old noggin’.  What about rope I thought?  I reached in my pocket pulling out 20 foot of rope, tying it in half with knots every few feet.  I shimmied across the perimeter of the coal car, my legs scrunched between its inside and outside wall as I progressed towards the ladder.  Tying a loop around the first rung and throwing it down into the car, it just reached the top of my backpack.  

“Fuck yeah…”

I braced myself with the rope and climbed down the wall like a soldier.  Now, I just needed to stay awake whenever it stopped so I did not die from getting crushed by loaded coal at the industry.

Creepin’ Outta Rossville IM Facility

Train Hopping Huntsville

I camped in the woods for two weeks right outside of the Rocket Center, where my wife works, traveling 3,000 miles by freight to see her.  It looked like Train Hopping Huntsville lay ahead in my future, but who knew what the road left for me in these dreary days.

Each and every goodbye came with its own price, more heartache and more shed tears. I cried. I weeped. I moped for miles as I left Huntsville headed for Denver.

With no place to go, but the road, I felt at home again. I walked along Bob Wallace Highway towards the train tracks expecting a long, strenuous walk. Tears dribbled down my cheeks from my bloodshot pallid eyes as I wandered like a ghost down the sidewalk. FREDDIE stuck out his rear-end, cascading a series of empty, floor-less, 53s in the distance with double stacks yonder. I crept between the Dollar Store and a chain-linked fence, inching closer to the ballast along the tracks, keeping my head on a constant swivel. The sun skipped through the clouds making me more visible to the world, but with little hesitation I sprinted for cover, using the locomotive to shield me as I tiptoed parallel to the tracks. My eyes focused on the diagonal shadows shining through each car I roamed past, suicide was not my ride. I kept searching, until I found a well. My hands grasped the cold steel, climbing up the ladder and that thrill of ridin’ became all too familiar again. I lay down on the porch, shimmying my body underneath the grate, waiting patiently for that soft, soothing sound of air to calm my ears for departure.

Train Hopping Hunstville - Rollin' along the Tennessee River by Freight

Train Hopping Hunstville – Rollin’ along the Tennessee River by Freight

Three hours passed. I lay still, anxious to start rolling along the steel. Moments later she granted me my wish. We cruised along chugging with subtle ease across the Tennessee River headed towards Memphis or at least I thought.

I lay low, as I always did riding IM, to reduce my chances of getting pulled off, and cited or jailed. It killed the scenery, but sometimes I just enjoyed the ride, goin’ nowhere on freight trains, waking up in a new place, with a new day and new destination ahead of me. That was adventure and I found it slowly becoming more of a lifestyle.

The sun sank under the horizon and in drifted the breezy night sky chilling my body as its bones twisted against the steel. I forgot my cardboard as I shivered there, reaching for my sleeping bag. I lay there like a mummy dozing off in a slumber, phasing in and out of sleep as we scooted closer to the yard. But I misjudged this one.

I woke up in a hazy daze, bright lights drowning my eyes in pure suffocation. Where the fuck was I? I flickered my eyes and hustled, jostling my belongings together in a hurried mess.
“Fuck…fuck…shit…I gotta get outta here. I’m smack dab in the middle of an Intermodal Facility.”

Train Hopping Hunstville

Train Hopping Hunstville – Fields of Green as I enter Tennessee

I bolted at lightning speed sprinting towards the main gate down the gravel road. A camera looked down from above, but I paid it little attention, bustling and rustling through sticker bushes and tall weeds as I hid in darkness. Thorns wrenched my skin with each thrust forward as I muscled my way off the path in a panic. But then I looked back between the shadows and stopped to regain my breath, huffing and puffing with a faint wheeze. Nothing approached and I began to ease over, standing there in my boots. I fumbled through the shrubbery back towards the access road. My limbs drooped in a sore state from over-exertion as I marched along looking for shelter. When train hopping you will find your bed often times is under a bridge. That very night I slept softly curled up under one, hearing the faint nibbles of a field mouse chew on my bread. My mind wandered wondering where tomorrow would take me and if I’d ever make it to Memphis?

Johnny Jitters and the Yellow Tarp that Could…

Meth in Maui

“This is a throwback story from our time hitchhiking around the island of Maui. When the wife and I were bummin’ it on the Hawaiian Islands for our honeymoon.  I’ve added dialogue based on memory.  I will continue to post stories as I get around to writing them from my recent travels.  Please comment if you enjoy it or have any suggestions on how to improve my writing.  Thanks and enjoy!”

After a two and a half month long stint of roughin’ it near the sandy loams of the North Shore, packing chutes, and landscaping, our gypsy blood took us on another transience, Maui.

My wife never thumbed it before, and I spent my first time hitchhiking with a woman, so it made a first for both of us. After booking a luxurious flight in coach, at about $3.00 per mile, courtesy of the immaculate godsend, Hawaiian Air, I set my expectations high for this sought out paradise.

We stepped off the plane, our packs strung high around our backs, with no particular destination in mind.  I looked up at the sinister sky cackling down upon us.  Her thunderous cries reflected in the copious puddles beneath our squishy tracks.

“Damnnit, we just left Kauai cuz of this shit,” I yammered to Kelly in a hissy fit.

“We’ll figure it out honey…I’m sure there’s a pavilion somewhere to stay outta the rain.”

We watched as taxis and shuttles picked up a limitless amount of tourists dressed for vacationing.  They sported ridiculous straw hats, Hawaiian t-shirts, sandals, scandalous skirts, and high-end name brand attire.  The lot of them squished into the shuttles, stuffing their enormous suitcases on-board as they stood, shoulder-to-shoulder, to get to their rental cars not even a mile away.

We walked; our boots squeaking through the pools of water on the sidewalk, following the wails of the ocean.  The soft pitter-patter of drops splashing against us slowly stopped. But once you’re wet, you’re wet.  We poked along, tramping past an industrial parking lot, jam-packed with rental cars and antsy taxi drivers, waiting to make buck.

A campground lay ahead beyond the coastal dunes and wetlands of Kanaha Beach Park.  The sandy shoreline birthed life to a plethora of flora.  Between the swollen, green, leaves of Bacopa and Pickleweed, lay a diverse co-existence of native jungle plants thriving amongst Hibicus, and Ironweed trees.  With over 30 species of native plants, each mile spawned new eye-candy for our wanderlust.

I plopped my ass in the sand, digging a pit to start a fire, while Kelly gathered tinder.  The Stratus clouds parted like the Red Sea, opening up a clear picture of West Maui.  Its lush rugged mountains and dense rainforest twinkled yonder calling my name with a soothing lust.

I fumbled around in my pack for the instant coffee and a couple ramen, while we stoked the fire amidst the humid bits of rage.  The sky calmed to a misty dark hue.  Sprawling out on the sand we sipped cowboy coffee, so dark, so strong, so dissatisfyingly tasteful, without an ounce of clothing drier than hours prior.

Meth in Maui

Meth in Maui near Kanaha Beach Park right next to all the homebum paddies in the woods.

“We should probly find a spot to lay it down for the night, as old Brisk would say,” I mumbled.
“Lay it down,” Kelly muttered?

“Ya know…camp…home bum it…find a spot to sleep for the night,” I snickered with a childish grin.

“Oh, you don’t have to be a meanie pants.”

“Yeah…yeah…well it’s gettin’ dark…alotta meth heads camped up around here.  I saw all their tents and shit scattered in the woods.  Not sleepin’ near those homebum paddies. Let’s get at it…”

“Okkkkay, five more minutes, I wanna enjoy more coffee first, pweaseee.”

I shook my head with a bit of smirk curling up my face…”Yeah…yeah…,” I muttered.

The serenity of the waves splashed against the shore like a tranquil lullaby as we squabbled between the jetties seeking shelter.  I peered off between the brush, Tree Heliotrope and Naupaka clustered together like a forest of lillypads, rustling followed, by a grueling shadow.

Meth in Maui

Nothin’ like instant coffee to make the body feel good

“We’re bein’ followed,” I whispered under my breath.

I reached down in my pocket concealing my knife in the palm of my hand as we walked gingerly along the coastline.

“How can you tell?”

“That shady dude over there…see em…he keeps stoppin’ behind the bushes whenever I look over there…looks spun out or somethin’…just sit here here…wait for em to leave…”

Just as I unstrapped my pack I heard footsteps approaching, getting closer and closer.  I turned around with a fierce stare of anger dwindling in my eye and remained silent.

“Hiii, uh…uh…uh…you guys…you guys didn’t see…see a yellow tarp…did ja…did ja…you didn’t…you didn’t…take it?…see I set it down…down over there…or well…maybe it was over there…well iunno…but it’s around hurr, somewhere,” he stuttered while his eyes flickered like a dead man twitching.

“No, we didn’t see it.  I don’t have a tarp…threw ours out a few days ago cuz of holes…gotta get a new one.  Sorry bud, hope ya find it,” I said.

“Ohhhh….okkk…,” he mumbled as his teeth grinded against one another.  He moseyed off, his head bobbing from side-to-side, as he wandered back through the trash infested homebum camps, spun out on dope.

“Seee…not stayin’ anywhere near here…fuck that guy, Johnny Jitters…accusin’ me of stealin’ his shit…people like him ya wanna stay far away from at night…last thing I want is this ass-hat stealin’ my shit at night cuz he thinks I got his tarp.  Damn junkies. Let’s head out the other way towards the campground.”

Kelly nodded and we wandered along the shoreline retracing our footprints in the sand.  The rain held up despite the hellbent tears of Mother Nature following our every footstep.  We wandered towards a dense section of Ironweed as the sun whimpered behind the clouds, finding a camp near the base of the shore.  With no tarp or waterproof shelter I prayed for one night out of the rain, just one.

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