Martin dropped us off at the Love’s in Pecos. But, by then the black dawn shimmered under loose stars vaguely seen through the stormy clouds, so we refrained from night hitchhiking. My nose flushed to a blushy red and I sniffled on the sidewalk by the sandy loams of desert. Sand particles stuck to the crevices of my eyes and the insides of my nostrils with each violent gust of wind. I tried to scratch away the itchiness with my dirty fingers, but it worsened. My eyes looked as red as my nose and I felt miserable, but kept high spirits. After all, no more Doug, no more Van Horn, no more, “kicked in the face by a moose” stories. I licked my chapped lips and tasted snow in the air.
Brian slumped near the entrance, haggardly holding his cardboard sign, trying to panhandle spare change off customers exiting. He looked exhausted, almost drunk from sleep deprivation. His disheveled red beard curled around his index finger as he stroked it, flickering his eyes, nearly falling asleep.
I stood there, wide-eyed, awake, alert and ready to move on to the next city, waiting on my road dog. The door swung open and out waddled a fat little Mexican man, an employee at the register. He wiggled over to Brian, slow as a sloth, but like a penguin.
“Scuse me sir, you cannot do that at this store…the customer complainin’…you must leave or I call policia.”
Without a word, and a slightly scandalous smirk, he moved on over to me in sluggish mocking strides. I tried not to laugh, but could not help myself.
“Dude we weren’t even here five minutes and you already got us kicked out…hahaha.”
“Oh well…I’m fuckin’ tired anyway, least I made a few bucks for food morrow mornin’,” mumbled Brian.
“Well, we’re headin’ to the rails man. Get some rest trackside and if a train stops or changes crews then we’ll pop your train cherry,” I said jokingly.
“Yeah dude…I didn’t come to Pecos cuz I love Texas…it’s the next stop gettin’ me closer to Alabama to see Kelly.”
“I mean…okay…you think I’m ready for it?”
“Well…you’re not drunk as hell like you were the other night pukin’ up grape Steelies. So if somethin’ stops on the main line I’ll run along and check to find a rideable well…you just follow my lead…I’m still new to this shit too ya know…we’ll be fine dude.”
“Aiiight…shit…can’t believe we’re really gonna do this…”
“You’ll love it dude…there’s nothin’ quite like it.”
We plodded onward veering off the highway through random back roads and low-income neighborhoods, a typical night quest to find a jungle. I felt an eery feeling wandering around the city. Bulbs flickered, limiting light, while we walked through the dead town nearing midnight. Dust swirled with the whirlwind gusts, tumbleweeds bounced, crooked wooden fences creaked and we crept slowly inching towards the steel, into the projects. Dogs howled like thunder, viciously foaming at the mouth, held back by fences and rickety doors. They acted as alarm systems making our presence even more known to the outside world.
The adjacent field near the tracks fed life to countless sticker bushes, dead logs, and loose trash. I pricked my arms and legs weaving in and out until we found a flat open piece of sandy ground. Brian groaned behind me in excitement, breathing heavily, infused with adrenaline from the unknown. We spread out on a few loose sections of cardboard and lay there still, silent, in the brisk night.
“Do you really think a train will stop here?”
“Yes…they’re suppose to CC here…not sure exactly where, but there’s a signal right there…we should prob be a bit further back, but I don’t feel like walkin’ much more…”
“Man…can’t believe I’m actually gonna do this…been somethin’ I’ve always wanted to do…”
“Well, try to get some rest bro…we’re in a comfy spot…what’s that noise,” I said abruptly.
“What? That bangin’ sound…clank…clank…sounds like a dumpster over there.”
“Nah…not that sound…focus and listen harder…sounds like an oncoming train dude…we haven’t even been here an hour…told ya shit always rolls through at night…get ready…”
“Whadda I do…whadda I do?”
“Just hold up…I dohn even know if it’s a train yet.”
Chug…chug…chug..chug…chug…chug…chug…chug…wheels gently rolled along the steel. I cast my eyes westbound to see a blinding light from the front engine of an oncoming locomotive….chug…….chug…….chug….it slowly approached the signal until I heard a sudden screech followed by the string of cars thumping together like dominoes.
“What…what’s wrong,” wondered Brian.
“We’re at the crew change spot dude…we gotta roam down further, but the crew change van’s in the way…”
“No time for semantics…I’ll tell ya later.”
We shimmied through the dense bushes slicing our jackets like razor blades until we scampered along the access road parallel the tracks.
“They definitely see us,” I said casually as Brian huffed and puffed behind me gasping for breath.
I ran, hopped and hurdled along the flimsy metal fence, drifting further down the tracks until we separated ourselves about 20-cars lengths away.
“Can they see us?”
“I doubt it unless they already did, who cares? I gotta look for somethin’ rideable…we may not have much time…keep up with me.”
I sprinted along the ballast, slipping and regaining my balance, as I stooped along the wells of the train. Rock after rock, I tossed, falling completely through to the tracks below.
I stumbled and coughed, pooling in sweat, tired, my heart pounding in my throat from exhaustion.
“Damn I’m outta shape…where you at man? Keep up…it’s airing up bout to leave…shit…”
I clasped a ladder, my hands drowning in sweat, slippery and slick, as I climbed up the last freight car, praying for a rideable.
“Alright…it’s not great…it’ll do for night time though…we got ourselves a porch.”
“Where do I go?”
“Climb the ladder to the car in front of me…hurry…she’s aired…could leave any second. Put yer shit on the porch…”
She clanked together with a bit of slack action and started humming softly, picking up speed, until she highballed it out of there on the main line.
I looked over at the mirage of a man with a scruffy beard, laying flat on the porch of a freight car. I rode dirty face, the wind crushing my body with it’s malevolent screams, while he rode clean face, hidden behind a double stack taking the brunt of the wind. At each sudden flash of light beaming down from the lamp posts I saw the wide smile of a man who hopped his first freight train. It felt invigorating.