Gusting winds, dismal skies and sporadic rainfall cut my seasonal work short in Western New York. With minimal work, and the itch of wanderlust, I hit the road towards the end of July for unknown adventures on the steel.
Pat dropped me off across from the CSX Frontier Yard early Monday morning. The cirrus clouds dwelled above in grayish swirls as I tramped amongst the clanging of steel freight cars. Horns bellowed at clearance signals from both the east and west end of the yard. For the first time since my wife left New York, I felt that quirky swagger resurface in my step and I smiled, strolling to the underpass to meet up with my road dog, Rooster.
A black lab rushed towards me, prancing about, hopping up on her hind legs, thrashing her arms about in a friendly manner, and showering me with a mass of slobbery kisses. I chuckled and laughed as she chased the other two mutts, both smaller and mixed breeds, playing about beneath the bridge. Rooster sat up, his tan forearms speckled with freckles of dirt, and train grease from the road.
Two Dirty Kids, a couple, lay sprawled out next to him on a tarp, their legs hidden in their sleeping bags. The one young, clean-shaven, man, Flow, looked like Tarzan with blondish-brown dreads dipping below his shoulders and train tracks tattooed on both sides between the bridge of his nose. His woman, a light-skinned black girl, wore a furry fox tail, clipped onto her butt. Her braided black hair flowed freely past her shoulders slightly covering her breasts. She lifted her arms adjusting the knot to her DIY cloth bikini, exposing her pits. Each looked like a French girl’s pits with thick, dark, bushy tendrils of hair under each arm. Both wore train punk clothes, Carhartt vests with patches, pins and studs, tight fitting pants and tactical boots. They looked fairly clean for Dirty Kids, spending four days beneath the bridge waiting for a stopped eastbound.
I didn’t talk to them much, but they seemed nice enough, offering me tea, and smokes, which I kindly declined.
Rooster stretched and yawned, finally freeing his ass from the dirt as he stood up. A goofy smile cracked across his face, exposing his pearly white teeth, between his haggard black beard.
“Damn dude….haven’t seen ya this clean in a whiles…fuck man yer clean…nice ta meet up with ya gain on the road,” boasted Rooster.
“No shit man…I had a shower at work ima use it. I try to stay as clean as I can on the road…ya know me…takin’ Vegas showers in BK bathrooms. I have no shame when it comes to stayin’ clean…unlike yer stinky ass….hahaha,” I chuckled.
“Ya know I don’t give a fuck…”
“Yeah I know man…nice ta see ya…I see ya got a dog…which ones yers?”
“Black lab and hound mix…name’s Nakita…the big one who tackled ya with kisses.”
“Shit dude…looks like no catchin’ on the fly anymore…she’s big as fuck…must be like a 60 pound pup.”
We hugged briefly and tramped to the BK to grab a few whoppers before heading back to the yard. Flow and his girl straggled behind us heading in the same direction. Rooster flipped him off inside, laughing obnoxiously with a nasally grunt. But, Flow fired back at him with googly eyes and licked the window, smearing it with bubbly saliva. Him, his girl and their two dogs continued onward to the corner, where they took turns flying a piece of cardboard for money.
Horns blasted, wheels hummed and thumped against the steel, cars clanked and off howled their 12 o’clock eastbound, a string of autoracks. We never saw them again after that, but I’m certain they did not ride an empty and spent more time playing the waiting game for the right train. We quickly crossed the tracks by the east end of the yard and I led the way down the sidewalk towards the clearance signal. Nakita pranced around, zigzagging between us, her wet snout brushed my leg, making me pause.
“STOP gettin’ in his way Nakita…walk straight…for he steps on ya…stupid dog,” cried Rooster.
She panted and slobbered tilting her head side-to-side excited to walk as her curious sniffer guided her on a zigzagging path. She was a young pup and that’s what pups do. Her charisma emphatically led us to the nearest shady patch of verdant grass, where we all plopped our sweaty asses on the lawn of an industrial business, resting beneath a small tree.
We missed the Intermodal stopped by the signal, waiting for clearance. Her wheels tiptoed slowly along the inkling of steel, making us falter in our tracks because of the new member in the crew, Nakita, his doggy. I plopped down to relax and moments later sprung to the jolting sound of another horn, her wheels jostling along the steel to a crying halt.
“Well…let’s go dude…here’s our chance…I’ll hoist Nakita up ta ya…looks like ten cars back there’s a few wells ta ride,” chanted Rooster.
“So ya wanna cross the street in broad daylight and hop on in all this traffic…and ride the front of the train…haha…you just don’t give a fuck,” I chuckled.
“Ya got a better idea Cray? Make it quick and lay low…she’ll be leavin’ in no time so fo-get-abou-dit,” he smirked.
After the next line of cars drove past us we bolted across the street, dancing up the slope of ballast along a string of Schneider freight cars. The dog fumbled about, confused, trembling and losing her footing. Rooster wrapped the leash around his hand pulling her away from her mammoth wheels.
“What the fuck was I doin’ again?”
I clenched the ladder and shimmied up onto the porch, quickly unbuckling and dropping my pack. Almost fluidly I turned around and yanked her up by her tummy. She shook in my arms, panting loudly, as Rooster tried calming her nerves. I switched to the other freight car, slipping down into the well. Sounds of panting surfaced between the idling of the front engine, all of us breathing heavily, waiting for the sound of air to hiss like a snake, signaling our soon departure. I lay there with anticipatory thoughts going haywire through my brain.
“Someone had to have seen us hop on…they called us in…the police are comin’…might go to jail…shoulda rode solo and been more ninja…fuck,” I mumbled to myself.
And moments later that golden noise shifted my thoughts to a happier place and as her hoses filled with air, her wheels riffled delicately over the steel. I looked at Rooster and he stared back at me through the small gap beneath the grate, sharing the same shit-eating grin.
Shredding along the steel we plowed through the industrial sprawl of Buffalo. Abandoned factories reclaimed by nature crumbled away. Plumes of thick smoke belched from refinery smokestacks blackening the empty space between the clouds. The air tasted thick and moist amidst the poignant smell of diesel fumes.
Shortly her tracks turned south, parallel to Route 5, into Erie trotting along the coast of the luminous baby blue lake and endless horizon, home to the most shipwrecks in the world, Lake Erie.
Two months prior I tramped along highway 5, hitching multiple short rides to make it back to work, but now I rode the iron snake westbound gaining a completely new perspective. That’s what I love about travel, the art of wandering always produces timeless results, never quite the same as the last.
Surging between the groves of woodland she soared smoothly along the tracks. As the sky finally whimpered, sprinkles of raindrops caressed my skin, quickly drying from the rushing wind. My tears froze among the trails of rain bursting across my cheeks while the wind blew my hair all haywire. I wrapped myself in my tarp like a burrito, preparing for the worst. But, then blue eyes opened above scattered between the gray and the rain ceased.
I sat up, snug in my blue cocoon, enjoying the lush verdant fields of the countryside fly by me, fast yet serene. I wondered what blooming grapes smelled like as vineyards decorated the landscape, this ephemeral period long past with the end of spring.
I loved the freedom of the road and the beauty it brought. If not the views, the interesting people. The kids at the hop out, the bums, the junkies, the random rides, and much like Kerouac, I wanted to know what everyone was doing. Trains alleviated my sorrows, as I ran away from them, always yearning for another place.
With those thoughts running rampant through my brain I pondered if I’d find work out west, if I’d ever skydive again and if I’d ever get out of this transience.
As clusters of industry came into view I hid below the grate, peeking through the tiny gaps of the well, at old, dilapidated, brick buildings. I remembered Erie all too well, the non-existent train yard, the street art sprucing up run-down buildings giving it that hipster artsy feeling, that tatted out, impulsive, Luciferian at the Greyhound station, and the lake frontage with Presque Isle State Park. I remembered smelling rotten eggs as bubbly waves crashed along the seawalls of algae. The baby bluish water from the countryside now looked like brackish, contaminated sea water.
Shortly after those thoughts, we entered Ohio hoping to bypass the state riding freight all the way to Chicago, but we didn’t. Instead we stopped at the south end of the yard in Cleveland by the fueling pads. With all my riding over the year this was a new sight for me on the rails, but we didn’t fuel either. Our IM pulled into the yard and WHOOOSH, we cut power.
Now we scrambled, grabbing our gear and guiding the pooch down off the well car. The sorting machine beeped monotonously a track in front of us, picking up containers with its crane-like arms and moving them to the IM facility for containerization.
That peculiar feeling of uncertainty passed as I tiptoed on the ballast, tramping past the abandoned yard tower, covered in boards and faded blue paint. My forlorning state of being no longer came to mind. I was back on the road again, just two train kids and a pooch, wandering aimlessly for Oregon.