Train Hopping Loaded Coal

Train Hopping Denver

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, train hopping Denver, riding blind.  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.

Train Hopping Denver
Loaded coal out of La Junta, Colorado

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.

Train Hopping Denver
Hoppin’ back on loaded coal after getting pulled out of the cab by the engineer

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.”

“Well…alright…”

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.”

“Ohhh…Thanks?”

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.

BNSF Unit Train Hopping
The end locomotive at Dusk, hopping off by industry somewhere in Texas

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