“This story is from the winter of 2017 after I gave Kelly most of my money to pay off her credit card debt, and traveled America on little to no money as spring hit the air and the upcoming season of skydiving was about to start in WNY. I had nothing to do and nowhere to go so I rode freight, waiting for work to start back up, as she worked in Alabama at the Space and Rocket Center.”
The inclement weather followed me as it always does on the road. Getting wet is a part of travel, but the key is staying dry. Although I never encountered Sergeant Flood in Roseville, I certainly dealt with my fair share of rain. I felt too lazy to walk, to setup camp in the woods, and honestly, too damn sick to step another inch. I plopped my ass under a bridge by the tracks. Rail cops, Union Pacific service trucks and police drove by sporadically throughout the night. They saw me most definitely, but with the fierce howling moans and torrential splattering, they left me alone. The weather worked to my advantage in that sense. To them, I looked like an ordinary home bum shootin’ up under a bridge.
I rolled my bedroll out among empty 40’s, dirty clothes, and wrappers as I burrowed for warmth. With my knife clenched in my hand, I fell asleep, slightly afraid of it all. My body ached from a cold and my bones squirmed at the touch of the roaring winds. I shivered, curled into the fetal position, and my fever subsided after much rest.
I woke up late, much later than normal that morning. The sky still laughed through its ominous clouds as I packed up my gear. My boot soles squeaked with each damp step and I no longer felt my toes. I loitered in town, and bummed it, waiting for night. Somewhere between the turmoil, a window of sunlight shined through, illuminating my reflection in the ripples of each puddle, which I unsuccessfully avoided. It no longer mattered much.
Walking south past the train yard and Roseville Market, I tramped towards a vacant industrial field, the usual catch out. Tags marked a lone tree, and the stone wall near a drainage culvert, depicting graffiti from the subculture of freight train riders. I explored the area with vigilance afraid of Sergeant Flood, a man I did not want to meet. He did not fuck around when it came to riders as I heard many stories about trespassing citations. I maintained a low profile, setting up a lean-to on the retaining wall past the oaks. My fever lashed back with unrelenting force, so instead of fighting it, I napped away the daylight.
I heard sprinkles gently thumping against my lean-to, which shortly progressed to thunderous booms. I lay there in all my clothes, free from the demon above, as Hell pounded its sins down upon me. The blocks of ice attached to my ankles felt but a numb existence, detached and void of feeling, despite the foot warmers lodged in my socks.
I woke hours later to a dark misty sky, and peered out at vehicles patrolling the yard beyond the mesh fencing. I scrutinized the yard for hours to catch out, but nothing looked promising with all the activity and spotlights. Prowling along down the road for three miles, I tramped further south through pitch-black desolate roadway searching for another catch out. I took “Rob Nothing’s” suggestion and hid by the Walmart overpass in the shadows of perpetual gloom.
That night it mellowed out to a calm, cloudless sky, breeze-less and stunning through twinkles. Encumbered by sickness, I instantly fell asleep shielding myself from Mother Nature’s spontaneous, unpredictable outbursts, resting peacefully under yet another bridge.
I awoke on separate occasions to silhouettes scampering down the trashed, adjacent road. Garbage cans, pallets, trash bags and a speedboat lay scattered across the ground like a wasteland. I eavesdropped on two kids walking the tracks, and in the distance, I saw a lone man. He looked like a blurred shadow of a train rider as he tiptoed through the east side of the yard, hopping the fence, as he disappeared into a boxcar on an arriving train. Perplexed, I wondered what he was doing. He moved across two stopped trains and vanished like a cloud of smoke. A train rolling through on the mainline crawled slowly along two bands of steel at a turtle’s pace. “Maybe he caught on the fly. It would have been much easier to do so on the west side,” I thought as I fell back asleep.
I awoke to radiant rays seeping through my sleeping bag, scorching my eyes. It finally looked promising out, a great day to catch out. One train sat on the mainline while another entered the classification yard. I quickly packed up my gear and moved west of the tracks, hiding in the tall brush, by a lone shrub on a slanted grassy hill. Beneath the hill, I saw a tent propped up out in the open, blowing up my spot. Out hobbled a black man, reaching for his zipper to take a morning piss. He aimed straight towards the tracks as I shook my head, “What the fuck was he doin’?”
I studied the train on the mainline to figure out if it headed southbound. All the tracks pointed geographical southbound, but I knew trains headed either east, north or south, so with a 66.6% chance of going the direction I wanted to, why not, right? Then I looked more closely. Loaded lumber mixed with boxcars meant a lower priority train compared to an intermodal, but I remembered seeing similar trains head south from Eugene. So my deductive reasoning told me, if that train headed southbound through Roseville with a similar load, then maybe this train went south too. I looked back over at the home bum and he waved at me after putting his unit away.
“Can’t stay there dawg, workers gon report you if they see you, they ain’t here tho. Where you goin’?”
“South dude…tryin’ to kick the cold.”
“Well hop on…think it’s goin’ Fresno.”
With his confirmation, I made up my mind and ran from under the bridge to the first open boxcar. Ssssssssiiisssssisss…the sound of the air released from the brakes. I flung my pack in first, clinging my leg up onto the floor, pulling the other up and off the ballast. She started rolling along the steel picking up speed fast. I rushed, squabbling in the car to push the door further open afraid of it locking me inside and suffocating on my last breaths as a young man.
“Shit I never grabbed a loose railroad spike,” I thought.
I held the door tightly, clenching the cold metal between my fingers and sweaty palms. “Fuck…I needed something to jam the door, but what?” I thought quickly and reached for my spoon jamming it into the groove under the door tract, but it shimmied loose. I looked around the rusty boxcar floor, scanning it for anything. At first glance, it looked empty, but, “ahah, a few stray pieces of lumber.” I sprinted over to two pieces grabbing them like batons and ran back to the door prying them into the tract. I gave it some extra oomff whilst kicking it with the heel of my boot. The door wiggled back and forth, but she stayed jammed, completely open to the scenery as I rode that one-eyed bandit (one open boxcar door) towards Bakersfield.
She bellowed from the inside, yelling, squeaking, screeching, and moaning at every turn along every WYE (a curved triangle of railroad track) and change of track. She sounded like chalk scrawling against a blackboard, a harmonious cacophony to my ears. I lay there on the frigid floor of the rattling metal box, shaking back and forth, watching the distorted shadows and landscape blaze past me. She jiggled and gyrated ferociously making me nauseous, and sure enough, I vomited yet again, like my very first boxcar ride all over again. She wiggled, bounced and threw my body around that empty box like a rag doll. I did not care.
She blazed through Stockton and Fresno. With only one door open, I never saw the yards, but the bright orange and yellow vests marked the workers from miles away. I stood close to the corner walls of the boxcar to avoid police pulling me off the train. As she cruised along, the smooth steel guided her along the tracks like a “pas de deux.”
My eyes glued to the green pastures of cattle grazing, and the orchards blurred together between each plot of open land. Grapes, almonds, pistachios, citrus and other natural resources skittered by, reflecting the huge agriculture industry near the railroad, a multi-billion dollar industry per year.
Purple dusk touched the fluffy clouds, sending the sun off behind the curtains of night, and in the distance, I saw silhouettes of palm trees. I used the big green highway sign to determine my location, Bakersfield 24 miles, since my phone died. “Ahhh,” I sat back and waited unsure of what to do next? “Get off in Bakersfield or head to Los Angeles?” I thought. She slowly screeched into the yard. I hopped off with my feet running, tripping over a large piece of ballast, as I smashed into the ground rolling head first towards the fence. “Damn that hurt.” Then she stopped suddenly and I looked up at her, just laughing, bleeding and wondering; where would I sleep?