Losing My Mind in the Sonoran Desert
I remember my correspondence with Northbank Fred from over a year ago via email like it was just yesterday. I thanked him for his contributions to hobohemia and the many adventure stories and monikers plastered throughout his blog. They are all truly inspiring and preserve so much of the train culture; it’s unfathomable, with dissertations, short stories, and photography the symbol of freedom resonates through the bindle of the early American Hobo. The words romanticize wanderlust of footloose adventure roving on the steel enough for any person with gypsy blood to “wonder”.
I ride recreationally and I’m not a hobo, but his words always resurface when I’m on the road. I strongly share his sentiment that, “once innocence is lost, there is nothing you can do to get it back.” The passion, the fear, the paranoia combined with naiveté of catching out on your first handful of trains or a new yard, is similar to bumping your first line of cocaine. Once you reach that high, you will never experience that feeling again no matter how much you chase it, no matter how far you run listening to steel shriek through the dusty plumes of desert or the chilling touch of mountains. It’s lost.
After riding freight for a few years it’s much more therapeutic and relaxing than a shot of adrenaline like it once was in my fledgling days of wandering. But these two days in particular changed all of that as I fed my emotions to the voids of the night sky, and the blazing scenery of desert through the chemicals of recreational drug use. A free ride is a free ride and I was just along for the journey.
With friends both new and old after multiple nights of free partying at the club and a local bar I awoke on the floor of a Phoenix apartment early that morning. My head pounded like a drum as I peeled back my eyelids from the blistering sunlight peaking in through the blinds. George snored softly on the floor next to me curled up in a drunken stupor still recovering from his blackout-traffic cone shenanigans. Menni lay limp across the couch with his arm and leg drooping off the cushions like spaghetti noodles. I looked around the room and heard pure silence from a night of too much fun. I walked outside for a morning smoke and soon Stewart followed behind me.
The night prior felt like a get-together with long lost friends whom I’d known forever in a previous life, but had only just met. Jaywalking, slamming Keystone Light as we prowled the sidewalk to the bar, listening to a local band perform downtown (a cross between Lotus and Animal Collective) along with drunken conversations amongst new friends and strangers, it’s those experiences that make traveling all the worthwhile. The memories of George stumbling around along the sidewalk like “the Wiz” with a bright orange construction cone plopped on his head before chucking it into a random lawn on our walk home, painted the finishing touches to a perfect masterpiece. We laughed. We cheered. Smiles spread contagiously, but that all shortly faded with the long goodbye hugs and waves as I bolstered my pack along my shoulders and wandered down the road to the Light Rail.
The expenditure of just $2.00 came with its pitfalls, but despite the several stops and eccentric characters, the Light Rail trumped walking fifteen miles in the smoldering sun, taking me on a tedious journey to Glendale.
Between watching a Mexican man hang upside down like a monkey from the overhead hand railing and listening to Black Jesus preach about the difference between a “gangsta and a tough guy”. My rides on the Light Rail felt like a Greyhound Bus out of Vegas.
“There a diffrence between a mo’fuckin’ gangsta and a tough guy…a gangsta got his skoolin’…you gots to go to school…you gots to be educated…ain’t no mo’fuckin’ tough guy gonna make it out there…you gotta be gangsta…It starts wit skool. That’s what I keep tellin’ ya…skool man…skool.”
Boy, could Black Jesus preach…he almost made me wanna be a mo’fuckin’ gangsta, but I’d rather lurk in the shadows as an invisible man living life my own way, and as I stepped off at the station at Dunlap and 19th Avenue, I embarked on a long walk to the train yard with a grin on my face.
The sun pierced my skin over the next five miles and soon my pores permeated of salt and body odor. With every little bit of shade I rested, under a tree, in the long casted shadows of street signs and posts; I wiped my brow of exhaustion and prayed for an army of clouds to march in shielding me from the fire. Instead I baked in the inferno of clear blue sky and dry heat and in that moment part of me wanted to wander back north to the cold, which inevitably is what happened.
When I reached the overpass stretching over the Glendale IM Facility, I hopped the handrail and skittered down the steep embankment of beige pebbles, finding refuge behind an Afro of spiky plants and scrub brush. Strings of well cars sat silently on the departure tracks in front of me, all headed west to Los Angeles, while I waited for the one train headed to Chicago via the PEAVINE.
It was 6 PM and I already missed the daily freight train that departed sometime earlier that morning. With hours to kill before departure and nothing to do other than stare off into the oncoming dusk of pink splattered sky while the brisk waves of air yawned beckoning night, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a bag of mushrooms, an eighth of weed and an orange pill shaped like Winnie the Pooh (XTC).
Weed would put me to sleep. Mushrooms seemed like a daunting journey through the endless depths of time and self-reflecting paranoia could wait until tomorrow. So I looked at the little pill of Winnie the Pooh and thought why not meet Christopher Robbins tonight?
I broke Pooh into two pieces and swallowed half of him while I watched the sky rain with the thousands of splendid sunsets across the horizon. Twenty minutes past, then forty and then an hour and nothing had happened. So I reached down into my pocket and swallowed the last of Pooh bear ready to make it to Hundred Acre Woods.
Those feelings of anticipation slowly transformed into sensations of explosive serotonin hitting me in waves of happiness like a thousand orgasms. Every gust of wind tickling my arm hair and face, every bend of my joints and blink of my eyes, wiped away any pain as my body filled with an endless stream of joyousness. I stumbled. I fell. I laughed. My eyes flickered around like a pinball machine bouncing around spastically in my head as I absorbed the vibrations of life around me.
I felt the trees flail with the wind. I felt the blast of colors evaporate across the horizon melting through the sky. I watched ants march across the desert floor, bopping their heads and I listened to the music of Mother Nature and her hymns. Poking my head out from behind a Yucca plant, I looked towards the concrete plant beneath the hill. My glazed eyes fluttered and beyond the droning noise of traffic I heard footsteps pittering along the sidewalk and a pixilated man came into view. I bobbed and weaved behind the pointy green leafs making myself a spectacle of attention as the homeless man carrying a plastic bag shot death stares my way. This sent me into a state of cyclic fear and paranoia. Should I run? Should I walk away? Should I wait for him to wander off down the sidewalk? All of these thoughts jumbled around in my brain like a spinning Dreidel. My jittery movements and spastic head twerking did not help my rapid heartbeat pounding from my chest like a stampede of bison.
The man stopped walking, paused, and stared off down the embankment. Those thirty seconds felt timeless and I panicked breaking into a cataclysm of sweat. Then he casually reached down into his pocket and pulled out…a cell phone. Moments later, his attention diverted elsewhere as he scuffed along down the sidewalk into oblivion behind the dying traffic and all that tension dissipated instantaneously as euphoria struck me again like lightning. Pooh brought me back to the rave and the Hundred Acre Woods slowly became a silhouette of freight cars under the twinkling eyes of distant stars.
I wandered through the black of night and for the first time in a while my mind felt as clear as glass. I understood everything, felt every molecule of being around me, every atom and as my feet took me through the pandemonium of darkness I existed in my own little fantasy world where everything made sense. The livewire of euphoria flowed through my veins like a static stream dancing to every earthly sound. I walked the line of freight cars and mesmerized in their colossus size really scrutinizing every inch of steel from their conical, glinting, wheels with oxidized bolts to their smooth, cold, metal box encasing the containers stacked one-atop-the-other.
Seconds felt like minutes and minutes felt like hours as I scuttled trackside zigzagging and scuffing my feet along the fine dirt. I wandered onto a concrete pad and noticed a square pit cut out of the center of the foundation, deep enough for a full size ladder to stand up in, it looked like a mini crawlspace in the construction stages. Beyond the pad, the empty building next to me lured me inside with an alcove of concrete bags stacked atop each other on pallets, cutting into the premises of a concrete plant. White dust floated angelically through the air with every wisp of wind or sudden movement on my part and the musty, stagnant smells associated with these heaps of powder smothered my nostrils. I felt safe here. I didn’t care so I plopped my pack on the floor, shooting dust up to the heavens, and sat on the cool concrete floor.
My palms, pants, and jacket splotched in white and it looked like I had rolled around in diatomaceous earth. I called my wife to express my feelings of certainty, joy, how much I loved her and missed her, but slowly the Thousand Acre Woods faded back to reality as bright orange, flashing lights pierced the corner of my eyes. I slipped my way through the shadows standing between two stacks of concrete pallets.
I whispered, “Kelly…I gotta call you back…I think security spotted me.” My body perspired like an ocean of sweat dripping out of my pores as the vehicle circled about directing its headlights into the alcove where I had fled. The skittering of pebbles gorgonized my ears, but the silence of the unknown and the piercing beams projecting light in my direction sent me into hopeless trepidation.
“I’m so fucked,” I thought. I contemplated stashing my drugs or at least eating the shrooms and ditching the weed (Schedule I substance in Arizona). More than likely I’d get arrested for trespassing, searched for drugs, and sent to jail as soon as law enforcement witnessed my dilated pupils with a Maglite. They would charge me with something. I knew they would.
I just stood there shivering in panic as the headlights gingerly brushed the tips of my boots between the small gap of sheet metal and concrete flooring. He saw me. He definitely saw my legs and white footprints scattered amongst the ground. I listened for the pittering of footsteps to approach me for what felt like an eternity, but then the muffled engine and soft crunch of pebbles altered the path of light beaming down at me. The vehicle turned back parallel to the tracks and its presence slowly dissipated wiping away my fear until I stood in dark silence.
I immediately grabbed my pack and slipped in through the stacks of pallets, sneaking through the narrow cracks, into the concrete facility. Crooked, red, “Exit” signs dangled on the walls as I roamed in the shadows of heavy machinery pushing on countless doors for a way out, but my efforts remained fruitless. So I followed the light trickling in from the outside, but ended up in a quiet parking lot full of vehicles, heavy operating equipment and blinding masts illuminating my presence. I panicked. I ran back the way I came and snuck back through the narrow pathway to the alcove by the tracks. The tense sensation in my chest felt like a stone weighing me down, but I pushed through it, exhaled deeply, and chugged a liter of water to cool myself down.
Freight still sat silently in front of me. As I jerked my head side-to-side, anticipating flashing blue and red lights from the overpass or flashlights scanning railroad property, I only witnessed the purple of night and its radiant stars. I took off my parka and sweat ran down my hot skin like a monsoon. Security by this point vanished out of range from my naked eye and so I quickly scuttled off railroad property, setting my bedroll up in the high weeds, next to a mound of concrete dust. Time reset itself in my mind as I regained sobriety and as my eyes adjusted to reality, I laughed; looking down at my boots, pants and parka, for I looked like the only snowman in the desert.
It was 3 AM now and my eyes drooped in a tired rage while my thoughts romanticized riding on the PEAVINE again, catching my early morning train to Winslow, Arizona. “Take it easy,”…and that I did, falling asleep to a dreamless night of unnecessary shenanigans.