Archives for April 2017
Train Hopping Waycross
Train hopping Waycross to Savannah, GA
I sided out in Lake City early morning on a suicide empty coal car. My fingers numbed from clinging to the brisk steel frame of her consist. I wondered; with Teardrop long gone I thought of setting up camp near the tracks in the adjacent woodland. I hopped off, planting my feet on the cobbles of ballast, and through the pure silence of night I only heard the skittering of stone underfoot. As I strolled along the train a rumbling struck against her and I stopped in my tracks. I glanced off and witnessed the mirage of a body poke out from an empty coal car and elated a smile across my lips. The sound of a pack flopped on the ballast and off jumped Teardrop. He stood in front of me, still shaking from the cold flow of her breath along the steel.
“Man, I thought I lost ya back there when she dipped West. No way was I tryin’ ta get back into the yard through the woods again.”
“Nah, I kept poking my head out to see if ya hopped off, but I never saw ya….where the fuck did you ride? I saw ya climb up the ladder and go into the empty…never saw ya after that.”
“Ha…yeah. I climbed in and held onto the fuckin’ wall as we left the yard. Kinda surprised they didn’t see me cuz light shined down on my back…no way was I riggin’ a rope to the top rung on the fly. I pulled myself out once we passed the tower then rode suicide. Looks like we went about an hour west outta the way. But fuck dude…I’m tired as shit…let’s try to catch somethin’ sided out in the mornin’. If it’s goin’ east let’s hope we end up in Waycross…if not, we can always hop off in Baldwin and go for round fuckin’ two.”
“Yep, we’re here for a reason bro…it’ll all work out.”
With our haggard bodies hunched over we slowly prowled the trees for an open space to camp, ending atop a mountain of dead leaves. The mosquitoes wrecked havoc on us again. But, we lay there too tired to care, drifting away to the sound of her wheels groaning and their wings buzzing in the empty state of light.
As the sound of her wheels screeched to a halt, we awoke from a deep sleep. Her immensity towered above us. We lay there in a morning daze of laziness, in no rush to catch out.
“Fuckin’ mosquitoes attacked me all night bro…we need to get outta the south…can’t take this no more,” cried Teardrop in agitation.
“Yeah I know man…I agree,” nodding my head.
We packed up our gear nonchalantly and hopped on a grainer, waiting for her to air up. I perused her consist for something better, but each car I walked past gleaned a boxcar seal and every gondola loaded with rebar or wood. So we stayed put, I balled up in the foxhole while Teardrop hid on the porch.
Train hopping Waycross from Lake City, FL
Moments later she hissed, airing up, and the wheels thrummed along the tracks sailing away through Northern Florida. She hummed and thumped among the steel, as we peered out at the jungles of palmetto bushes and trees interlaced in Osceola National Forest. It blurred streaks of green spreading to open countryside, cattle and horses grazing between bails of hay. She stopped briefly for a crew change half a mile before the Dollar General in Baldwin. Our faces broke out in happiness as our luck changed, 66 miles to Waycross, GA.
She hugged the curve and zipped through the city while we tucked ourselves out of sight. Whistling through the countryside we crossed over into a new state, Georgia. We stood up, peering off into the distance, while we held a firm grip on her rungs. The breeze captured my hair swishing it with the wind and fields of small Christmas trees grinned a shimmering light green.
She took her time along the steel as junk trains do. After six hours of riding we hopped off, as she slowed her pace, before Rice Yard in Waycross, GA. We walked the tracks into town veering off a back road at the next crossing into the lower-income neighborhoods. Abandoned boats, garbage and clutter filled the yards we tramped past, some vacant, some not, but “No Trespassing” signs slapped to every door.
Our path changed as we stumbled upon a closed road, drifting back the way we came. But, that detour was no coincidence. The open road always manifested what we needed when we least expected it. Our stomachs gurgled as thoughts of food hung above us like halos. With a few more steps along the asphalt a soft voice of an old black woman touched our ears like that of an angel.
Train hopping Waycross getting passed by a DS heading into Waycross…
“Y’all hungry…we feed all kinds here fellas…white…black…it dohn’t mattah. Y’all travelin’?”
We turned our heads as we reached the corner of a bum feed serving dinner.
“Yes ma’am, been livin’ off train food for days. A nice hot meal is just what we need right now,” hollered Teardrop.
My eyes glazed over in a trance. The aroma of beans, corn and hamburgers lit my olfactory with pleasant smells and I drooled from hunger.
“How many plattahs baby?” She pointed at me with a motherly look.
“I’ll start with one…don’t wanna waste any food,” I said.
“What about you hun?” She pointed to Teardrop who said the same.
“We got candies, sodas, and chairs. Come on in outta the sun y’all…we dohn’t bite. Y’all look tired n’ hungry.” Her voice felt soft and warm like good ole southern hospitality.
Teardrop and I sat down, sippin’ on soda while we slurped on beans and corn and bit into our steaming burgers. The grease hit our lips as we savored every morsel and filled our stomachs, tiring us to a halt. I could not move from my full state as I sat there plump and content in a fold-up chair on the screened porch of the feed.
“Y’all can have anotha…plenty more here.”
“Nah maybe later…I’m full…just gotta digest all this food…been a while since we had a hot meal,” I said. Teardrop shook his head in agreement.
“Where y’all comin’ from baby?”
“Y’all walked that far?”
Teardrop chimed in, “Just got off the train…headin’ to Savannah next.”
“Ohhh, y’all are travelers then. Had y’all come through here a time before…12 or 13 of y’all with dogs. Be safe out there now…y’all can sit her as long as ya want, grab anotha soda.”
We basked inside, sprawled out across our chairs, resting up for the next leg of our trip. She handed us a few jars of peanut butter, the perfect train food, two platters of boxed food and offered us the hose on her front porch to wash off some of our dirt and grime.
The cool water splashed against my scalp dripping off the tendrils of my long hair. It left dark pools of train riding in the reflection of puddles and I switched off to Teardrop. Her yard collected anything and everything, the epitome of a hoarder, as we stepped over junk, grabbing our packs to head towards the yard.
We waved goodbye and hollered, “Thanks for the hospitality, god bless.”
She smiled showing her few pearly white teeth. “Bless y’all…safe travelin’.”
The clouds hustled above in a cluster of dark gray swirls. We feared rain as sprinkles of droplets fell, but it passed us momentarily, opening up to a sparkling luster of sky. Following the tracks we staked out by a lone tree near the next overpass.
Trains crept along the tracks, too fast to catch on the fly, as we watched, swallowing every last drop of plated food. The night sky beckoned with darkness and we moved along the ballast towards the diamond, hidden behind Autoracks creeping into the yard. We sought a geographic eastbound to head north to Savannah.
We tiptoed; looking down at our footing, adjusting to the dim state and when our heads rose we spotted a stopped IM DS. Her air brakes squelched to an abrupt stop at the traffic signal. I looked over at Teardrop and we broke out into a brisk jog, swiveling our heads for a bull. I pulled out my flashlight inspecting each car for a well. Suicides were all too common, and CSX was no different. My heart galloped like a herd of horses as we rushed alongside her consist, steadying to a stroll. I searched for JB Hunt or CSX Intermodal containers remembering the wells that came with those cars from previous riding. But, I found nothing, but porches, exposing us to potential cameras, and oncoming trains.
The signal changed and air hissed beneath her. We squabbled up the rungs of her ladders and lay flat across the porch as she began to inch forward. She crept through the city as still as we lay across her. Lights and crossings shone, as we feared stopping at any moment, and getting pulled off. Eventually, her creeping shifted to a humming and shortly after her humming to a chugging. Any light pollution dissipated as she smoked through complete darkness. We escaped Waycross unseen on a chilling night ride towards Savannah. Small towns appeared and disappeared in a flash.
And as we neared Savannah her tracks parted lakes, their ripples a crisp dark blue, shone from the bright reflection of the moon and the myriad stars. It was a peaceful serenity, the nectar of life, along the steel.
She slowed to a rolling speed nearing the yard. I pulled out my flashlight casting its beam alongside the train, planning my exit. I grabbed the ladder and started running letting go as she eased me to a stop. She picked up speed and through her groans I heard a tussle among the ballast and a loud grunt followed by dead silence.
My heart burst into a rampant frenzy. My eyes widened in fear. I scampered along the flat ballast which switched to a slopey slant further down, scanning the area for Teardrop. I feared seeing the remnants of his body swallowed by her tracks, blood canvassed among the steel, and my stomach twisted at the thought.
I turned a ghostly white holding back vomit as adrenalin pumped through me.
“TEARDROPPPP,” I yelled in a petrified voice.
I looked on the tracks and saw nothing but dark shadows and the blinking red FREDDIE in the distance.
“TEARDROPPP where you at man?”
I heard a grunt near the cliff by the tracks and a crunching of branches. I flashed my light down seeing a dark abyss drop off to nothing. Between the drop off a fallen tree stuck sideways 20 feet above the ground, in it groaned Teardrop in pain, holding his leg.
“Man, I thought she ran you over dude. You alright,” I said short of breath.
“I’m fucked up bro…think I broke my leg…this tree was the only thing savin’ me from dyin’…”
I slid down the ballast, holding out my hand, while he braced himself and limped towards the track. He rubbed his leg beneath his kneecap where it bulged and let out a wince of pain.
“Fuck man…well what do ya wanna do?”
“I’ll be fine…it’s not a complete break…ride it out. Gonna take more than a broken leg to knock me down.”
He limped along the tracks, grimacing while I searched for refuge. Off to the right I found a calm lake glistening and a patch of pine. An abandoned culvert lay between her and the tracks. We plopped down and nestled into our gear and for the first time in a week we escaped the pesky mosquitoes. My mind raced wondering what we would do tomorrow and Teardrop sensed it in my eyes.
“I’ll be fine dude. It’s all happenin’ the way it’s supposed to…just glad that tree saved my life. Get some rest…we’ll figure it out in the mornin’.”
And with his calming words of reassurance we fell asleep to the croaking of frogs under the moonlight.
Train hopping Waycross to Savannah, GA where I left my tag under a bridge.
Train Hopping Baldwin
Baldwin, FL reminded me a lot of Eugene or Portland, OR except it was an East Coast hub for dirty kids and drainbows. Bums, and people alike, marching down the medians flying signs, “Travelin’ Broke N Hungry” by the yard. They scored some cash and crashed track side, drinking steelies, and leaving behind an oasis of trash in the bushes. Needless to say, with all the attention drawn to us from the large group of travelers, we felt eager to leave without a trace of our presence left behind for anyone to see, but our photos, capturing the serenity of humming along the steel. But, if riding the iron snake were that easy everyone would gallivant around the country with a pack strapped to their back.
Baldwin Yard teased us and left us tired in our own tracks of rampant scurrying. We lounged on cardboard in the shaded brush behind Dollar General for multiple days, patiently awaiting our train to Waycross, GA. Several sardine cans and coca cola’s later we capitulated to the crux of riding, waiting.
The persistent nipping, biting, blood-sucking critters of the south infested the palmetto jungle causing us to retreat behind the Dollar General. My body swelled from the army of buzzing mosquitoes whom enjoyed my sweet, luscious blood, following us behind the store. Plumes of smoke left our lungs temporarily defending us from their fleet, but as the clouds dissipated, we layered into extra clothing.
We overheard a ruckus by the street corner near the Dollar General. A group of three Dirty Kids drank Natty Daddy’s, sprawling out on the porch of concrete by the train tracks with a pitbull mix. The stigma of their presence left a repulsive loathing from locals because they trashed the place, leaving behind remnants of beer cans, steelies, cigarettes and moldy dog food.
My road dog Teardrop paced over through the grass with an empty water bottle searching for an open spigot.
“Hey man, you got any spare change.”
“Don’t spange a spanger,” I thought eavesdropping on their distant conversations.
“Nah…lookin’ for water from a spigot…that open there?”
“Nope, but I got a pick to break it off if you want…,” said one of the Dirty Kids between sipping his beer.
“Nah I’m ok…”
They lay there, out in the open, covered in dirt and grime from riding freight trains. Their carrharts and bibs consisted of patches stitched with dental floss to mend the holes together. Clumps of dreads stuck together off their scalp behind their skanks, altogether they looked the part of a typical rider.
Their banter and cursing echoed through the white noise of passing cars. When an officer parked in front of the store, they vanished in the woods.
We relocated to the woods, sleeping trackside, while the blood-thirsty mosquitoes devoured our exposed skin. A northbound train headed to Waycross never came that night and we capitulated to time.
With morning spouting rays of sunshine through the shadows of the woods, we awoke, slightly aggravated and ansty to leave. We sought a different hop out. Our tense backs felt brittle from lack of food and lethargy but we kept trucking along encumbered with any adventure that lay ahead.
As we trudged across the street I saw a flock of Dirty Kids hiding in the bushes. One of them hollered and motioned over to us with a rapid wave of his arm. We crossed the 301 and scampered into the circle, whom looked like the lot we saw the night prior, but as such, it was a different group of cats.
Crazy Eyes shook my hand, with a nest of dreads locked over his face. His eyes flickered like that of a bullfrog as he sat there all jittery sipping on a steelie. To his right sat, Turtle, with a chipped tooth, long blonde dreads, a pack the size of Texas and patched out shorts that looked like 5-pound dumbbells slumped in his trousers. Finally, crouched the oddball of the group, Roy, with a curly red afro, scavies along his legs, a bright lime rain cover and quiet persona, which made him stick out, the greenhorn of the three. Of course, one dog lay down in the shade, his tongue dangling out of his mouth dripping saliva about, a home-made paracord leash dropped from his collar.
“Hey…you guys seen any Dirty Kids around last night…we were sposed to meet em here in Baldwin,” said Turtle as he crushed a steelie with his disheveled boot.
“Yeah dude…we saw three of em near the Dollar General last night…they had a dog with em…walked off down the road towards the McDonald’s,” I said.
Crazy Eyes sat there scratching his neck shedding flakes of dirty skin on the ground like snow. He spoke fast with an attention span of a goldfish.
“Yep, yep…we’re meetin’ up with em…a group of 10 dirty kids or somethin’ and 4 dogs, Gon be a riot…gettin’ drunk tonight boys…behind the McDonald’s. Hoppin’ out there. Hey Turt…lemme get some a that ciggy. Anyway, what was I sayin’,” muttered Crazy Eyes.
“You’re meetin’ up with another group of Dirty Kids by the Mickey D’s,” I mumbled.
“Ohhhh…yep…anyway…I’m sure you’re welcome to come. We’re headin’ north to a rainbow gatherin’…bumped into this dude Roy…he’s taggin’ along too.”
Teardrop chimed into the conversation.
“Nah, we’re trying to hop out tonight…head north to Waycross.”
The quiet one, Roy, finally spoke with a dry hiccup in his throat.
“Is that near the Appalachian Trail. I’m tryin’ to hike some of it, headin’ that way.”
“Yes it’s in Georgia bud,” I said.
My eyes shifted to Turtle who threw his tortoise-shell of a pack over his shoulders, hoisting it up to a comfortable position. He grabbed the three empty steelies and crushed them between his boot, leaving them in the garbage infested paddy, where signs of other hoppers previously hung out too. This was why locals in cities and towns across the USA hated us.
“Well guys, was nice meetin’ ya, but we’re gonna start headin’ to the hop out and meet up with the other Dirty Kids. See ya around,” grunted Turtle, with his heavy pack prying into his bones.
Despite his broad shoulders and husky build, I sensed a bout of pain lugging that load around.
Crazy Eyes grabbed his guitar covered in stickers and gave a salute.
“Adios,” he said. And all we heard as the three tramped down the street was his faint voice chanting, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a blow job,” between strums.
I glanced over at Teardrop and we both shook our heads, chuckling away, gearing up to snoop around the train yard. Footsteps scampered back to us and I saw a poofy afro bounce between the bushes. It was Roy.
“Hey, so I decided to stick with you guys. I mean…the other guys were cool an all, but it just seemed right…we’re headin’ in the same direction. I hope that’s not a problem?”
I looked over at Teardrop who seemed unconcerned. I tilted my head and said, “Yeah what the hell…this yard is already blown the fuck up anyway. So be honest, do you even have any trains?”
He looked down in a bashful manner and squeaked out, “Just one.”
“Alright…well we all started somewhere. So I assume you know the basics, three points of attachment, don’t cross over the knuckle of a train, don’t crawl underneath a train…yatta…yatta…yatta…correct?”
“Well trains are dangerous…safety is the most important part of hopping. The rest of it you’ll learn from doing it. Have you ever caught on the fly?”
“Well, me and Teardrop are gonna scope out the yard from the north end and probably catch on the fly on the first NBD, if it’s doable. Do what feels comfortable, but don’t feel the need to do it just cuz we did…alright?”
We scrambled through the sticker bushes, stepping over vines and dead twigs, making our way to the chunks of wobbly ballast, walking down the tracks to the yard. A field of tall brush stood tall at the diamond and we lay down near the traffic signal. The sun blistered through the cloudless sky making my shirt stick to my body like glue from perspiration. Workers lined the tracks near the mouth of the yard making us sweat it out. A NBD GM hummed by us, groaning and clanking against the smooth steel tracks, too fast to catch on the fly, so we trekked forward through the woodline. Pine needles and leaves crumpled under our footsteps as we meandered through the maze of the forest, getting deeper into the yard with each foot forward.
Roy looked apprehensive. His complexion resembled Casper the friendly ghost, as he staggered behind us, on our mission to watch the yard operations. We snuffed the chance of getting seen or at least we thought we did, as workers flocked on both sides of the tracks. Branches crunched and crackled, and leaves rustled under our footing, as we traversed the overgrowth on the east side of the yard. But, as we tiptoed closer a drainage culvert separated us from the tracks, too wide to cross, too deep to pass. Teardrop scanned the woods for materials and stumbled upon a fallen log. With three people and some brute force we managed to hoist her up, inching her forward a few feet, with each burst of strength. The swamp water splashed around us, but eventually the log hit solid ground. It acted as a narrow plank across the ditch allowing us to infiltrate the yard.
“Whose goin’ first,” cried Teardrop in a joking manner.
“I’ll go…” I raised my hand and walked steadily with caution.
Right as I stepped onto the slippery log I looked up and heard the rumbling of rocks beneath tire tracks. A work vehicle cruised by into view and startled me, causing me to jolt back to the group.
“Fuck…he definitely saw me. Did he look over Teardrop?”
“Haha, he couldn’t of looked any harder.”
With an abrupt twist of his neck, he clenched an imaginary steering wheel with bulging eyes, and mocked the driver and I laughed. We blew up the spot with all that work put in, but that didn’t stop us from crossing that damn log.
I trampled across the slick surface with a rapid hustle of tiptoeing. I planted my feet in the mud on the other side and perused the area to find cover. Two workers parked on the north end of the diamond and a black vehicle, potentially the bull.
My hearing sharpened and I heard the chugging groans of an oncoming SBD train, so I ducked for cover, underclinging to an abandoned timber pile bridge.
When the train pass I heard the trampling footsteps of Teardrop cross the ditch and we scurried to the woods.
We waited patiently for Roy. After 30 minutes he finally put on his big-boy panties and crossed the make-shift bridge. He scuttled to the bushes where we sat, swatting mosquitoes and watching the mouth of the yard. Immediately he dropped his pack and sprinted off further into the woods.
“Sorry guys…that literally scared the shit outta me,” said Roy in an embarrassed fashion.
We looked at each other and in unison said, “Huh?”
“I just shit in the woods from my nerves guys. I wanted to turn around cuz I’m scared…cuz…well…cuz, I don’t think I wanna catch on the fly. But I’m already this far into the yard and I didn’t wanna turn back, so now I’m here.”
I looked at him and held back bursts of impulsive laughter. “Well, don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with dude…but the next NBD we’re goin’ with or without you. Just wait until night and hop on somethin’ stopped on the mainline.”
“Okkkay,” he muttered in a negative tone.
Through all the pessimism, the piercing sound of steel-on-steel grinding surfaced as a NBD train chugged along the mainline.
Teardrop and I jumped up and hustled into the yard, waiting for 20 freight cars to pass, before running along her side to hop on and hide. I counted the three bolts along the wheels with each revolution, to judge its speed, placing my eyes on a grainer, three cars down. My heart raced, mind cleared, and as I sprinted alongside the grainer my hands gripped the ladder. Before I pulled myself up onto the train I focused on my surroundings, the black vehicle near the diamond, Teardrop yelling at me, and in those seconds I glanced down along the tracks. My fierce grip shattered as my fingers let go of her smooth steel rung. My foot caught a switcher and the next few steps I stumbled regaining my footing just enough to plunge away from underneath the train. Intense pain shot up through my left knee, the first part of me to hit the steel tracks, then my hands and head followed.
Smaaaaaack. Blood rushed down my face smearing a red film over the lens of my glasses as I tried to stay coherent. I rubbed my head to feel multiple gashes where a railroad spike took a chunk of my flesh. I felt dizzy. I felt groggy. But somehow instinct kicked in and I bolted for the woods, plowing over the make-shift log, seeking refuge by a fence-line of bushes. A red river of pain oozed out of my head while Teardrop quickly pulled out the medkit, grabbing gauze pads, bandaids and antibiotic ointment. I sat there in a pained daze, pushing gauze against my forehead, lucky to be alive.
Train Hopping Baldwin Florida – I learned an important lesson today…don’t catch a train on the fly on the middle track…there may be switchers that you hit your feet with and you might get fucked up or killed.
Never again would I catch on the fly with multiple tracks between me. The real dangers of train hopping scarred me in that moment, covered in blood, dirt and grime. I walked away with only flesh wounds, and all my limbs. Whatever higher power kept me alive, I thanked greatly, as death flashed before me.
We held out until night slipping back behind the Dollar General to regroup, leaving Roy behind to fend for himself. My head throbbed, but the dizziness faded as we planned our next attempts of catching out.
We scrounged together some change to buy a coke and as I strolled around to the front of the store a biker pulled up, wobbling into a parking space. Ear buds hung from his head, while he grooved to tunes, bobbing his head. He tried to sport the biker look and a blue skank, but failed miserably. Sweat dripped down from his scalp profusely weaving in and out of his short, balding, gray buzz cut. I suspected he was on something, Ecstacy, maybe?
I glanced over at him briefly making eye contact.
“Hey buddy, you a rider,” he slurred his words as he spoke to me.
“Yeah man…what is goin’ on with this yard. We tried hoppin’ out earlier, but I felt like everyone was out lookin’ for us. Yard’s blown up.”
“Well a kid died the other day, train ran him over and we shut down operations…”
“Oh shit man…”
“Yeah so it’s been tighter past few days. Where y’all headin’?”
“You’ll wanna get on the front engine that says, 874…I mean…8147.”
“Alright,” I said confusedly. Last I knew front engine numbers did not depict destination, train symbols did.
As I shuffled away he handed me a dollar. He crouched over on his bike, bouncing around, listening to tunes, and muttered song lyrics under his breath. I took his advice lightly as dark sifted through the clouds opening up our opportunity to creep back into the north end of the yard.
We crept around the mouth and meandered through the pitch black forest. Chirping, and bellowing followed by rustling leaves and cracking branches resonated off of the swampy trackside ditches. We shined our lights vigilant of any potential gators and snakes camouflaged within the earth, fearful of their presence. The I-10 RRU perched ahead of us near the Yard Tower with exposed rebar and concrete-ready cutouts near the highway. We wanted to stay incognito so we did not walk straight into the mouth by the tower. Instead we waddled through the loose layer of embankment, making our feet sink like quicksand, while traffic zoomed by in both directions. When the traffic thinned we made a run for it, sprinting across, our packs clanking against our backs like moving through an obstacle course.
My feet tired and I limped around as pain shot up through my knee. I used every bit of energy trying to enter the Baldwin Yard. My legs quivered, stomach grumbled from lack of food, and I just wanted to ‘yard sale it’ sprawling out across the dirt to sleep. The pain, the hunger, ate away at my spirit, edging me to succumb to the rough road of riding for comfort. But I kept prowling along side the yard, following behind Teardrop, despite every new obstacle in our path enraging our efforts to reach the mainline. Another drainage culvert taunted us, its still water glowing in the reflection of the moonlight, so we walked further east. A construction access road spanned across the chilling water and a beam of happiness illuminated in our smiles.
After slithering through one last section of forest, past industry, we housed up in the weeds, laying by the mainline, ready to jump her bones of cold steel on our journey north. But, when we awoke we sailed away on a suicide empty coal train, pointed NBD, but she flaunted her front end, drifting west towards Lake City, FL…an hour in the wrong direction. With three days of staking out the woods in Baldwin, we rode the wrong way.
“Motherfucker,” I said under my breath. Too tired to care, too hungry to move, but gripping the rungs of her brisk ladder through my fingers. I held on for my life above the glints of silver shimmering off the wheel of steel and wondered if Teardrop stayed on or got left behind. Maybe I’d find out at the next siding, maybe I wouldn’t. My face shivered in the constant thrashing wind as she slammed along the lines. When would she stop, going this fast, nothing looked promising?
After a few day of bumming it in Titusville, checking out the Enchanted Forest, we hit the road for Pensacola, hitchhiking Florida. The sun beamed down through the shade-less roadway as we tramped to Sunoco. My brain squawked from a night of heavy drinking with the gang, squinting my eyes in the blistering heat as we inched forward, hungry, tired and shameless. We ran low on funds, eating a toasted bagel, pizza, tatter-tot wrap concoction from the local dumpster, the night previous. With no plan, we filled our waters and lounged in the shade by the pizza shop, scrounging up some change for a coke.
A silver Prius rolled up and pulled off to the side lot. An Italian man stepped out of the vehicle pacing back-and-forth in a strange manner, chain smoking cigarettes. Rooster strolled over to him.
“Hey man, could I bum one of those off ya?”
“Stupid cawksuckin’ father and his no good, lazy ass wife. Got no friends, no pot to piss in. Where’s the liquor store bro. I dunno where I’m at? Shouldn’t even be driving. Got three DUIs.”
He handed Rooster a cigarette as he continued to pace exhuming his frustration through curses and slurs like a psychotic nutcase.
Teardrop chuckled, “There’s our ride…”
We all laughed in a joking manner as we puffed our cigs and basked on the cool concrete.
The man stumbled over with a grocery bag in hand and two empty handles shone through the plastic, mumbling under his breath.
“Yous guys know where a liquor store is? I dunno where I’m at, they’re all out to get me bro, fuckin’ spicks, niggahs, you know the immigrants? I’m too drunk to drive bro. I just need a liquor store.”
Teardrop stood up. “We’ll drive, where you goin’.”
Hitchhiking Florida with Tom Lazarro…the serial killer from hell
“I’m jus tryin’ to get da fuck outta dodge bro. Fuck Florida. Palm Beach, Miami, fuck em. I’ve been homeless before bro. Two years in Brooklyn. Jus get me to a liquor store.”
“We’ll hit one on the way dude. We’re tryin’ to get to Pensacola.”
“It’s near Mobile, Alabama…near the beach. What’s your name bro?”
“Loser. I’m a loser bro…take me there. I’m tryin’ get da fuck outta dodge. Hate Florida.”
I leaned over. “Alright man, well I need your keys to drive dude.”
He fumbled through his pockets and handed over his keys as his hands trembled and shook from alcohol withdrawal. We stashed our gear in the trunk, crammed into his little soccer mom’s car, and hit the road.
From the time we entered that small space for a 500-mile road trip across Florida, we knew something about this dude was odd. But as long as his drunk ass did not drive, we did not care. Well, at first we didn’t.
I cruised along driving the speed limit down 50 through Orlando, stopping at the closest liquor store. The peculiar Italian man hobbled out with a handle of Bourbon, a humdrum expression and stream of negativity followed every sip. His life spiraled out of control over recent days and he felt geographical location might change his self-destructive depressive behavior, but it proved otherwise as we racked up the miles. I felt a weird aura as I drove down the road. A police officer pulled out behind me, pacing our car. My heart skipped as I tried to maintain my composure, unsure of whether I drove a stolen vehicle or helped transport a fugitive on the run from the law. But, sirens and flashing lights never struck and my tense stature faded as I itched my brow in relief.
He schwilled the whiskey rapidly savoring every drop as non-sense spewed from his mouth, fading in and out, in the back seat. At first we laughed, but after hours and hours of listening to his sorry ass we wanted to leave him by the side of the road and walk.
His name was Tom L. He worked as a waiter at the Marriott in South Florida, despised his job, and his boss, but everything in his life set him on a rampage of self-loathing. I saw it in his eyes. His lackluster expression shone sadness as he surrendered to negative thoughts, staring off into space, deflecting his problems on everyone through hatred. But, really he just hated himself, holding back tears of loneliness, and sexual frustrations.
As I drove I heard him blubber racial slurs and ignorant rants from the back seat as his eyes fluttered from inebriation.
“Thhee immigrans…thhee…immigrans…ruinin’ our country. The Jeeeewwwws…they’re evil bro. Hateee em. Rich bankerrrs…don’ believvve…in Jesus. Hate all of em. Spickkks…Nigggaaas…Jeewwss…tellin’ you brooo. They’ll kill usss. The fuckin’ Zionists…countrrrrys fucked.”
His hate speech tumbled on for hours on end as his head teeter-tottered back-and-forth like a pendulum from the back seat.
“Fuck the Italians…tooo bro and the Iriiish.”
“Aren’t you Italian?” Rooster snickered.
“Half-Italian, buuuutttt…only my laaast name bro.”
He shuffled about in the back seat as I drove us along the 75 towards Tallahassee through the countryside. This guy did not shut up. He yammered on and on as I cranked up the music to drown out his antics.
With no money and the need for gas we stopped at a gas station off the highway. His card didn’t work. We literally shuffled through our pockets gathering a few pennies together, but it was not enough to make it to “dodge”.
He jumbled his words in the back seat while he tried to brace himself against the car.
“I gottta peeee bro. I gottttta peee. We neeed to get da fuucck outta dodge.”
He reiterated the same phrases over and over again as we pushed him back in the vehicle. Clearly the dark pool of fluid on his jeans meant he did not have to pee much anymore. But, we still forced him to use the restroom. He stumbled around the parking lot of the rest area, walking around drunkenly in socks, with a blank stare plastered on his face. Sweat dribbled between the craggy creases of his eyes, but after a few moments he zigzagged back to the vehicle.
We tried to settle him down to continue our journey to Pensacola. But, the man broke down, all of his emotions bursting into tears, as his pain trickled down his cheeks. His unstable behavior intensified with each mile, but we kept going, getting him closer to Mobile, AL.
Out of nowhere he mumbled, “Fucked a guy…hiccup…in the ass once. Does that make me…hiccup…gay though bro? I’m sexually…sexually…frustrated…hiccup. I haven’t gotten…hiccup…laid in 8 years bro…can’t jerk off…hiccup…the rest of my life. Eh…least it’s some sex…hiccup.”
Rooster chimed in, “Yeeeah…it makes ya a lil gay.”
He talked himself through it, reliving a past choice, blaming his actions on drunkenness. None of us cared. So he was gay, whatever?
We all laughed uncontrollably as he fixated on gay sex for the next few hours, with a soft spot for homosexuals, between his unfiltered hatred.
“He asked to put it in my butt…I said no. Sex is sex though…right bro?”
“Yeah man. Sex and romance are two entirely different beasts,” muttered Rooster.
A silence finally held up in the car for more than a few minutes. Despite Tom’s speech improving with the drive, he finally passed out, his head bobbing like a tetherball.
When he finally snapped out of his drunken snooze, he exploded into bits of rage, and finally shed some reason behind his erratic behavior.
“Do I look like I have a job bro? Mark Brendo ruined my life…he ruined it bro. Now I ain’t got a pot to piss in…tired of Florida.”
“Who is Mark Brendo,” I asked?
“My fuckin’ cawksuckin’ boss…I should kill em…kill em all…all 14 of the cawksuckers bro…ruined my life.”
We believed him. He definitely depicted the qualities of a potential serial killer. And after eight hours in a tiny Prius we all succumbed to his radical ideologies, and tomfoolery.
Teardrop cringed and scrunched his forehead, resting his hand on his head with perplexion.
“ALRIGHT…ALRIGHT ALREADY…shut the fuck up dude. You’re not tellin’ us everything…things don’t add up here…what the fuck are you runnin’ from? Did you kill someone? Did you steal this car? Why are we goin’ to Mobile?”
Tom gasped. “No, no, no…no bro. I didn’t do anything….I…I…swear…bro. My co-workers are just a bunch of cawksuckin’ losers…that Mark Brendo ruined my life bro.”
His loop of fixated babbling continued. The shadows of the night rippled along the bay as we crossed over the bridge into Pensacola. A one dollar toll sat in the distance at the second bridge and I stopped the vehicle.
“Alright Tom…do you have a dollar? We spent all our money on gas…we need a buck to cross the bridge.”
“I dunno bro…I have one here somewhere…but that Mark Brendo is a cawksuckin’ asshole bro. He needs to die…he ruined my life.”
“I don’t give a shit bout Mark Brendo dude. We need a buck or I’m blowing through this toll. Focus Tom. Focus…”
Rooster lay there snoring in the back seat, his legs sprawled out diagonally and steam expelled from Teardrops ears in frustration.
“TOM…TOM…we’ve helped you out this far. Do you have a fuckin’ dollar or not. We’re tired of listenin’ to your sorry selfish ass. Try to help someone out and all you get is a spew of bullshit.”
“I…I…swear I have money…I dunno where it is…”
Shaking my head in disbelief I pushed on the gas pedal slowly rolling towards the booth. When the booth attendant turned her back we blew through it and a camera flashed, taking a picture of his license plate. We crawled the streets of downtown Pensacola at the posted speed limit and stuck to back roads following the coast. After a few miles I stopped the car in an employee parking lot, with no gas and a potential serial killer gaining sobriety, what would we do?
We made it to Pensacola, hitchhiking Florida straight through, with that fuckin’ crazy Italian ass-hat…never again will I put myself through 10 hours of hate speech like I did that day. I feel so bad for that dude…
With the recent rainfall, and playing hide and seek from workers and the bull, I threw up my white flag. Never again will I waste two days trying to infiltrate BNSF Memphis Yard to catch a southbound train. With the elevated track in the middle of the yard the only logical access point is the drainage culvert of Johns Creek. Ankle deep swamp water and soggy boots did not appeal to me in the slightest. I packed up my bag and tramped it down Lamar Ave. towards the NS Yard off of Southern Avenue. When I reached Lamar Ave. and Get Well St. I snickered as my eyes witnessed a raunchy sign, a woman holding her bra straps with panties on, the Catwalk of Memphis. It looked empty with only one vehicle in the parking lot, a black, souped-up Escalade with chrome rims. Some gangster stepped out with saggy jeans, a crisp white t-shirt and a blunt in his hand, puffing it furiously as his chain dangled side-to-side.
“Haaaay buddy. Hayyyy…Hayyyy…you walkin’ come over hurr. Ya you…I wanna axe you somethin’.”
“What in the fuck,” I thought as I stood there with a deep expression of hatred molded on my face. “Whatttt? Whadda ya want? I’m not walkin’ back over there…headin’ this way.”
“Aight…aight…I’ll come to ya. Hold up.”
A tall, lean, transgender, black man walked over to me with a garbage bag in hand. He smiled and his mouth looked like a jack-o-lantern as half his teeth fell out from years of living on the streets. His hair slicked back into a little nub ponytail and he wore tight jeans, beat up sneaks, a torn t-shirt and a leopard scarf. He walked with a flamboyance about his step.
I stood there annoyed, eager to leave and unsure of what he wanted, but nonetheless I listened to him.
“Whadda ya want man? I’m tryin’ to get somewhere,” I yammered in a dickish tone from restlessness and aggravation.
“Juss tryin’ to help. I seen ya with ya backpack n all. Ya lookin’ for work boy? They pay cash cross the street. Cleanin’ rooms n all. Pay ya same day n even give ya a room. It’s better than the streets…”
“Thanks man, but I’m just tryin’ to get to Huntsville. Just a few more miles to the train yard.”
“Okkkaaay…juss tryin’ to help. They can get ya a bus ticket. But haayy now, have a nice day.”
He waddled away and in that moment of turning down work I knew I was a bum just wandering the streets, a train tramp, street kid, whatever you want to call it. And in that moment of self reflection, I did not care. I just wanted to see my wife. Work. No work. Bum. No bum. I’m still me, wandering aimlessly through life, reading and writing.
The last few miles always hurts my body the most. Maybe because of exhaustion, blisters or the fact that nine miles with 40 lbs. strapped to your back isn’t comfortable. My shoulders felt like compressed springs of pain, ready to explode. My bones ached with every pace, but I always kept at it, eager to hop the next eastbound train out of East Memphis.
I hated Tennessee. Between the rude people and urban blight I wanted to leave as quickly as possible to avoid any confrontation. My experiences of breaking out of Rossville IM Facility, getting clobbered by rain riding empty coal to Springfield, and the racism I experienced on my 12-mile walk through West Memphis all screamed get the fuck out of Tennessee.
In that instance of thought I snapped out of it to a raspy voice hollering from a stoop. A black man yelled over at me with permanent whisky face through his inebriation.
“Ayyyye there boyyyy…you…ya needa dollah…ya needa…needa…dollah…cuz I’ll give ya one. I’ll give ya a fuckin’ dollah.”
“No thank you,” I politely said with a slightly confused, downtrodden, expression.
“WHOOO boyyyy…he dodn’t wanna dollah…fuckin’ get outta here then. Ida give ya a dollah. Get ya non-workin’ ass outta here white boy. Keep walkin’.”
My brain flashbacked to West Memphis. I wondered if there was any relation between this man and Johnny homeboy sippin’ grape joose on the corner? I chuckled at the job comment as I continued pacing the streets. More than likely he had a few illegitimate children of his own and lived off welfare and EBT. Who was he to tell me how to live my life and patronize me with a “dollah.”
My temper cooled to its normal manner as I approached Forrest Yard near Haynes and Southern. I wandered east to check the front end of the train and noticed the white crew change van parked next to the locomotive. Quickly I changed direction and crossed the street not really worried about stealthiness. After all, I roamed through the ghetto and if there was one thing I knew at all about black people, they didn’t call the police. They handled matters without the 5-0 crawling around in their business.
As I waddled next to the train tracks the slopy ballast plateaued. People walked all around on the sidewalks, down the streets, shooting hoops, drinking beers from brown paper bags, and relaxing. I walked in plain sight. They knew. I knew. I did not care. An old black man approached in a wheelchair and looked over at me with a smile and twinkle in his eye.
“Maaaannn. I know what you doin’. Wish I could walk…take me wit you…want outta this town…somewhere new.”
I smiled as he rolled away and suddenly all my anger dissipated. I appreciated life much more at that moment as I looked down at my legs, taking my next few strides to freedom, relieved of previous unnecessary qualms.
Vehicles zoomed by in both directions, and once I heard a few seconds of silence, I lunged for a loaded coal car. As I hung onto the ladder I squeezed between the two coal cars, walking between a GM and unit coal train. Voices and engines drowned out my footsteps along the ballast. After ten coal cars I peered out towards the roadway looking directly at the middle of an industrial building. My grimy, black fingers clenched the ladder to sit atop another loaded coal car headed eastbound towards Springfield, MO.
After an hour, right before the sun left for bedtime, she aired up as cirrus clouds dawdled above me ready to sprinkle at any moment. As always I switched to unit coal at the next siding. This time I avoided wiggling through the window and instead gained entry through the unlocked nose. I loaded up on water in the fridge and lay on the floor most of the night ready to skip out to a loaded coal car at the next yard, Muscle Shoals. But, something about BNSF units always gave me unwanted trouble. Suddenly, the smooth ride with A/C and tunes turned to a game of hide and seek, a fight to stay out of jail, or get pulled off 80 miles outside of the next town. What happened?
Well, I do not know? As I stood in the bathroom, draining the main vein, my train slowly decelerated and a luminous light on the side track crept closer into view. I presumed another train stopped for us to pass, but instead we pulled right up next to its front engine and stopped. I hastily crawled up the steps across the floor and nabbed my bag, hiding behind the engineer’s chair closest to the side door. As soon as I heard a handle jiggle near the nose of the unit I darted through the side door and skedaddled down the plank. Unsure of where to hide I crawled out onto the ballast and touched my face up against the cold steel of the train. I heard the sound of my heart pounding through my chest, faster than ever. As I tried to remain calm, my mind flustered with thoughts of jail or worse, getting stuck 80 miles from town. A light shined brightly in the cab, erratically scanning the unit and then I heard the side door open. Footsteps thumped across the plank and a beam of light searched the perimeter, flashing the trees, and parts of the ballast, but the engineer never stepped down to check the side of the train. Suddenly, my anxiety, and fear subsided into a joyous relief of escape. I keeled there frozen, and still, anxious for him to leave while I walked away from it all without any consequences. He casually strolled along the plank, slowly towards the door and as he reached the handle of the side unit, my insides screamed victory! But he stopped. He stood there for a second and turned around, shining his light down towards the wheels near my direction. My back stiffened as I knelt there like a crimson statue covered in coal dust. The beams of light met my eyes and I tried not to sneeze. I tried not to blink. I tried not to move or do anything. Then suddenly it faded back to darkness. He walked away. Fearing he might look under the train for my silhouette I scattered to the bushes, scratching my hands and face in stickers, as I shimmeyed ass-backwards down a covered slope of forest.
Maybe he did not see me or could not find me. I did not know. But I do know that as soon as I heard her air up, I sprung back up and crawled in the shadows of unit coal, creeping behind her wheels. She started to pick up speed, and slowly chug along so I sprinted alongside her, grabbing the last coal car as I sailed away back on loaded coal. Still, this guy searched the tree line diligently like his job depended on it as I chuckled under my breath, but a new fear arose. How would I get past Muscle Shoals Yard? With that thought dwelling through my adrenalin-drenched brain I fell asleep. Fuck it…
Train Hopping Amarillo
I walked for hours that night towards the next yard off of Buchanan Street. My legs felt like concrete blocks as they swung along the pavement, a hobbling Neanderthal. Riding hard with limited sleep made long walks less desirable than normal, but the coal industry put me several miles away from my ideal location, to hop out the following day. Night soothed me shedding a freedom of solitude as I limped down the backstreets through Amarillo. Stray Chihuahuas roamed the streets yapping and growling at me as I passed the BNSF yard office and tower.
“Get back fuckers! I’m in no mood right now. Get the fuck back before I punt ya like Baxter…all of ya…”
With a sudden pause of silence I heard a wisp of wind whirling through the thick air. I looked straight in the leader’s wide, dark, eyes as the others shadowed behind him. His lips curled around his little teeth. His tail drooped. His weight shifted out of an attack stance as he surrendered to my evil eye.
I kept tramping onwards down the dark, vacant roads, and between the run-down, boarded homes I saw souped up rice-burners, tint, rims and busted out windows. Keeping my head low I lengthened my stride. Pitbulls howled ferociously behind chain-linked fencing, slobber dripping off their lips in clumps, ponding on the ground in bubbled pools. I hustled, fearing to wake the neighbors and then a familiar sound pierced my ears. The sound of a beast hitting the steel. I peered out behind a series of industrial complexes and locked eyes on a loaded unit coal train clacking across the tracks, thumping and bumping, as it rolled through the yard. I stood too far away, as it picked up speed, disappearing into the night. My pace slowed to a whimpering halt as I stood inches from a water tower, fatigued and sleepy. Two buildings stood between me and the tracks as I tiptoed between a trashed alleyway, the hop out. My eyes flickered and I peeled them open just to stay awake, reading the first sign that came into view, “No Weapons, BNSF Railroad Property” then I noticed the dinky “No Trespassing” sign. I scampered behind the building rustling through fallen down branches and weeds, ready to lay it down anywhere. A dirt access road crawled to the tracks with a patch of woods between. I pulled out my bedroll and despite the handful of stopped eastbound trains, I shutdown in complete exhaustion.
Light peeked in taunting my eyes and I awoke that afternoon to the sound of tires scrunching over loose gravel. BNSF workers parked in front of the adjacent building, a semi-circle roof of corrugated metal. I watched through the tree-line as I stuffed away my gear and I sat patiently.
Over the next several hours, I waited; sinking my eyes into a mystery novel. Workers came and left sporadically as I dove deeper into fiction waiting for my train. Horns bellowed and trains crawled along, hitting the steel, but not my train.
Time slowly passed as if frozen in a peaceful bliss, the words came to life as I consumed each page, until completion. The naked sky wilted like a flower losing its vibrant radiance to darkness as I geared up to go. This yard kept me cautious and on edge, because the tower peeked over the mainline for geographic northbound trains making it harder to catch out. I did not want to end up in jail for a week. So, I kept my vigilance about me, sweeping into the yard only for a stopped Intermodal train (geo nbd), scanning its consist for rideable wells with each passing 53′ and 48′ freight car.
Junk rolled in and stopped. Its screeching sounds enticed me to board an open boxcar, but I refrained, waiting patiently for my ride. I sat there against the cool ground in a blank stare, ready to roam. With a little more patience the Train Gods answered my prayers as double stacks rolled in and stopped on the main line.
I pounced up and buckled my hip strap, securing my pack. I hated searching freight cars for floors. I was so horrendous when it came to identifying a rideable Intermodal freight car. For me, it involved too much huffing and puffing as I flashed my light under the wheels, drenching in sweat and fear. I knew a better way existed, I just lacked the riding time, and the experience. I searched dubiously, car after car, suicide, not a deep enough well, only a porch. I trotted faster as she flirted with me, toying with my patience, until finally she let me inside…inside a mini well that is. I squeezed underneath the grate, laying against the cold steel, my pack squished as far into the corner as possible.
That sweet release of air hissed into the hoses linked between freight cars, and with a sudden jerk, we slowly squealed through the yard. My eyes widened as we crawled past the eye in the sky near the tower. But our pace gradually increased with distance from the soft purr of a lioness to the roar of a lion until we blazed out of there.
The constant vibrations bouncing along the tracks soothed me like a lullaby. Before long I fell into a slumber only known to riders, in and out of sleep like a dream, waking up in another state. We stopped in Carrier early morning about 3 AM. To my surprise I awoke nine hours later in Carrier, Oklahoma. We never moved.
Siding out for 12 hours in Carrier, OK after train hopping Amarillo the night prior…wtf
Tick…tock…tick…tock…the time passed at a snails pace. With nothing to read, or eat, I lay there saving my last drops of water, waiting for the sound of air or a white van to appear. Trains, right? Yeah, trains, unpredictable. Siding out 11 miles from the nearest service for 12 hours on an Intermodal train, I never expected it. It perplexed me as I looked out at the flat terrain drowning in infinite greenery. I saw only one tiny barn, a small patch of trees and plumes of dust sputtering in the distance with a vehicle driving by seldomly once an hour.
Train Hopping Amarillo, TX to Tulsa, OK and the pretty views along the way…
My lips cracked with a dry yearning for liquid, anything to quench my thirst. I moistened them with a few drops as I reached the last quarter of my 1.5 liter bottle. When would it move? I did not know, but I needed to save my fluids in case I needed to hoof it into town.
Train Hopping Amarillo, TX – More of Oklahoma…not much to see…the ride into Amarillo was pretty awesome though about 20 miles outside of the city.
Faintly I heard the noise of a horn from behind my train. Its presence became more distinct like the sound of an approaching storm. I hid along the ballast waiting for it to fly by us, hoping my train might move by sunset. But then my ears focused on the noise of the steel. The loud wrenching dulled as the front engines rolled by me and the thunderous roars became tender squeals as the engineer hit the air brakes, slowing her down. She slowed just enough to catch on the fly. I stood on the porch of the stopped train looking down at each passing car for a rideable well. She slowly crawled along the tracks and after forty or so cars, I noticed a mini well approaching. I carefully hopped off between the two trains and ran along the ballast, clasping the rung tightly. As I boarded we picked up substantial speed headed toward the next town.
Train Hopping Amarillo to Oklahoma
With a quick side out we plowed through the small country towns and I looked out at nothing. Nothing I remember anyway. Oklahoma looked as flat and barren as southern Delaware. Vivid green countryside, cattle and Cottonwood trees lined the tracks until approaching the cities.
The Mooooo Cows
Somewhere through all of that I began to miss home, wherever home was, I didn’t know. But, then I realized home was where my wife lived and worked. Home was temporarily in Huntsville, Alabama. Even if it meant homebummin it off Bob Wallace Highway, I needed to see her again. No sooner did my train pull into Tulsa did I scarf down Wendy’s and hop on the next one for a long fuckin’ day of riding. Next stop…Springfield, MO.