“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.”
After working and bumming around Hawaii for the past four months with my wife—my world changed as I entered Seattle—as if leaving a dream. Going from a tropical–beach paradise—walking around in shorts and maybe a t-shirt while the cool ocean breeze tickled my chest—was long gone.
My buddy picked me up from the airport in Seattle and for the first time in months I slept peacefully in a comfortable bed. We caught up over the next few days, but wanderlust quickly pierced my skin again like heroin. On my last night, I hitched a ride with him to Kalama where he dropped me off on the I–5 along his truck route to Portland—so began my journey to nowhere.
With my pack strapped to my shoulders I felt ten pounds lighter because I wore every damn article of clothing in it. But, my morale diminished quickly as the brisk air of night struck my face turning my cheeks and nose a crimson red. I started sniffling and took a deep breath. I stood still—staring at the signal mast by the railroad siding—which looked unpromising. My feet numbed slowly from the cold as snow swallowed my frayed boots and I wiggled each toe in freezing water—thinking about my long journey south—shortly capitulating to the vengeance of winter.
So I tramped nowhere fast, sloshing about through the sprinkled fields of white along a slant of ballast. I walked, and walked some more until I reached a road where I ‘laid it down’ under a patch of pine. My feet were cold as stone as I escaped the night into my dreams.
Dawn surfaced through a thick layer of eerie fog as I woke. I trudged along the roadway searching for warmth—stomping the sledgehammers attached to my legs—to a convenience store. With a warm coffee in hand and my wet socks slapped to the tiled floor, my toes started to come back to life in warm, tingly, bursts of sensation. I gazed out the window and pondered, “Guess it’s time to start hitchhiking.” I dreaded leaving, going back out into that ravage beast, feeling the brutality of her breath drown my skin to a chilling, miserable state but, “to hell with the cold I was going south!” I flexed my thumb by the on–ramp. After five minutes, a shuttle bus stopped, giving me a ride all the way to Vancouver, OR.
I quickly learned de-icer and sand did not exist in Oregon. The hipster environmentalists boycotted its usage making tramping even more difficult for me—but I still managed. I slipped and slid, fell on my ass on more than one occasion and my feet fell into deep hibernation. Just when I thought the weather could not get any worse—it did. Dark clouds pregnant with frozen tears unleashed pellets that ricocheted in every direction. I scrambled for a bridge, but I was so far out meandering through back roads, following the interstate. When I finally reached one, I just stood there shivering, in a state of self-destruction. I changed into dry clothes, and lingered at a siding beneath the bridge. With tweakers and home bums plaguing the city, I decided to hit the road once it calmed, but instead the sky clobbered me again for round two.
I ditched the thumb. Instead I walked. I could not get any wetter or could I? With money saved up from work—packing parachutes in Hawaii—I decided to stay at a Motel 6.
Just a few miles over the bridge, it sat off the highway chanting my name. The bridge’s pedestrian walkway covered in a thick crust of black ice. I slid. I fell. I reached and grabbed onto the railings and slipped some more. It felt miserably depressing. My shoes squished with each step as my toes drowned further into decadent numbness. I felt sick and feverish, but a bed was within reach. As I reached the halfway point, the sky dumped more chilling drizzles— I lost it. I cursed, moaned, and pleaded, but it did nothing. It amplified to a torrential rainfall, but I reached the motel by this point. My face beamed with joy. The rain halted as I stood in freezing puddles. I looked up at the sign and big bold red letters flashed, “No Vacancy.”
“Wait…what in the flyin’ fuck…no vacancy?”
Infuriated, I bought fast food to get indoors, warming up for the long, dreadful night ahead of me. They closed shortly. I sought refuge in a bush; shaking and wiggling in my sleeping bag with my tarp hung overhead. It did nothing. I lay there cold. My teeth chattered like firecrackers and my body ached from the neglect I put it through over past few days. It showered intermittently throughout the night and when 5 AM rolled around, I bolted to McDonalds for warmth.
As I sat in a booth, I peeled back my wet socks and set my pale–white, pruned feet on the floor, nodding in–and–out of sleep for hours in a puddle of my own wet filth. I regained partial feeling in some of my extremities—not all. The ice storm wailed on behind the glass as I struggled to keep consciousness with an empty coffee cup in my hand. When I came to, I noticed the others scattered around, nestled in booths, also avoiding the plague of winter—or what they could of it anyway.
I glared outside at the dismal ocean of grays and watched a bus pull off across the street. Hustling at this opportunity, I freed myself of McDonalds and Portland’s flooded roadways as I scrambled through the ice rink of frosty swamp, swooping in through that narrow bus door at the end of the parking lot. My boots squished with every step as I scampered down the isle, plopping my ass in a window seat, and smooshing my face up against the cold, foggy, glass. I rode the same route multiple times over—missing my stop—before stepping off in front of the Greyhound Station.
Amass of homeless huddled outside, inside, and roamed around fleeing the cold to get whatever warmth they could. I never felt so happy to walk in through those doors of the bus station—until now. I walked up to that ticket counter and bought the latest departure to Eugene for later that evening, spending the next twelve hours out of that cold hell while I dried my gear, tendered my feet, and caught up on sleep on the warm floor.
The Greyhound is never an exact science and of course it did not go as planned—it never does. You know that sly “Dog” that always has WiFi, outlets, the classiest people, and is never late—yep—they cancelled my bus because of the snowstorm. That night I used a free food voucher, ate, and dozed off on the floor, falling asleep to soap operas on the television.
I awoke early that morning to the bitchiest, most racist, front desk clerk.
“Cuse me sirrr, ur bus left las night at 12:45 AM. Why u still here?”
“I was told my 11:30 PM bus was cancelled and I could go to sleep.”
“But I seen u all day yestaday. All day. Why were u here all day.”
“Because my bus didn’t leave until 11:30 PM and I’m travelin’…and you guys cancelled my bus…can I get a new ticket?”
“But why u didn’t get on an earlier bus?”
“My ride couldn’t pick me up until then, ok?”
“Damn that’s all u had to say boy!”
After what felt like a police interrogation, I boarded my bus to Eugene and shortly arrived there two hours later. I walked to Skinner Butte and followed a trail that ran along the river. Home bum paddies scattered along the banks with trash and human waste near the walking path. It reminded me of Portland, a place where public bathrooms did not exist, and locked dumpsters became more common. I wandered through the adjacent neighborhood parallel to NW Expressway where I heard the deafening sound of train horns and the thunderous jolts of freight cars humping together in the distance. A free little food pantry stood at the street corner and I grabbed a loaf of rye bread before I watched the trains arrive, depart, and change crews. With the sun gleaming through the scattered clouds, I just waited for the hours to drift slowly away to darkness—afraid of the yard—its bull and workers in broad daylight.
As the sky fell, the once busy roadway shifted to a faint purring of white noise. Even with my prior night’s rest indoors, I surrendered to sluggishness beneath my tarp, in the very bush from which I staked out the yard. The rain whimpered throughout the night like the pitter-patter of an infant, waking me from my dreams. Soon the whimpers faded to the yawning of sun. I sat up peeling my eyes open, watching the yard operations, dozing off to the distant memories of my last hop out. The pure innocence and freedom of my first handful of trains is something I will never forget. It happened almost four months prior as a 40-miler in Western New York, catching the same line by the trestle bridge in Letchworth State Park. The way the wind swayed my hair. That sweet surrender to a childish grin as tons of freight clanked against mere inches of steel, it felt indescribable. The colossus of distorted shapes, and shadows blurring by against the landscape, made me feel alive. I smirked in anticipation as I waited for the perfect moment to catch a lift to nowhere in particular, waiting for her sound of romance to strike my ears.
I left the bush by the roadside and roamed towards Maxwell Overpass. Human feces lay frozen between empty soup cans, cardboard, and plastic, among other festering debris. Needles showered the ground like a sequel to a new “Saw” movie. The overpass bred shelter to a lonely home bum. He told me he lived there for two years. We chatted while I waited for my train and I shared my loaf of bread with him. His soft unconfident voice, switched slowly to moody uncontrollable outbursts, as he fumbled for words, asking me to leave. I knew he needed to “Get Well” so I scurried away, carefully avoiding used needles. I set off through the adjacent field to a locked baseball dugout by a nearby church. I managed to finagle my way through a small gap in the doorway for two hours of secure sleep.
For the first time in nights I cast my eyes up at a few twinkling stars. Just as I started to walk to a local mart, I heard a faint familiar sound, a sound that came back to me almost instantly. Slowly inching forward as each bolt became visible in the moonlight an intermodal loaded with piggies (Piggies also known as Piggybacks are flatcars with trailers on them), 48’s and 53’s (48 and 53 foot well cars holding shipping containers on them) screeched to a stop. I sprinted to the roadside, and waited for passing traffic, eager to cross the expressway and jump on a freight car. My heart thumped loudly from the Adrenalin while my mind raced. “Where was the bull? Did someone see me?” These thoughts scrambled my brain, as I lay by the roadside. But screw it, I made a run for it. My dark silhouette camouflaged by the night sky as I scampered next to a blanket of massive freight headed southbound. I picked a 53’ to ride fearing the bull might catch me on a piggy. The first one I scrambled to did not have a porch, second one, suicide (floorless, no porch to lay on in the well car), third one, was not a T-Well “Shit…shit…shit…I’m wastin’ time…cars are passin’ in both directions now…I need to find somethin’ fast.” I gunned it for the next piggy, and used every bit of my energy, and breath, as my lungs gasped for air, wheezing from smoker’s cough and the cold stale air. I squeezed myself into the wheel well of a trailer, sitting silently, and waited.
I sat there soaked in droplets of cool sweat, still catching my breath, keeping my eyes peeled for the bull. “But I guess he just did not give a shit, after all, it was 30 degrees outside, who’s gonna be hoppin’ trains in this shit…me I guess.” Minutes passed; my stomach settled of Adrenalin and my heavy breathing subsided. I relaxed. Moments later, the sound of air hissed like a priceless jewel and I became wrenched in multiple emotions.
She crept along the steel picking up speed quite quickly. I sat there scrunched on my backpack as we rolled out of the Eugene Yard. “Holy shit,” suddenly wanderlust struck again and my once droopy eyes mesmerized by the blurry streetlights of the passing city. Railroad crossing after crossing dinged as everyone stopped to let the “King of the Road” through, the freight train of course, superior to all in its path.
I nestled into my sleeping bag, riding on the spine, drifting to sleep, with the whispers of wind touching my ears. We cruised. We cruised fast and when we stopped, I awoke to a film of snowflakes piling up on me. We traversed the Cascades just outside of Klamath Falls and the sky dumped inches of fresh POW, decorating the alpine in a blanket of glistening cream cheese. The train did not side (stop on a sidetrack so trains with higher priority can use the mainline) for long, but once she picked up speed, I fled back to my sleeping bag, throwing my tarp over myself to stay warm. The temperature dropped. It dropped well below freezing, and with the windchill, I thought how crazy I was to leave a tropical paradise for this, but I loved every damn minute of it, even if my toes developed frostnip.
Cruising along, I awoke early morning past sunrise, upset that I overslept, and missed seeing the frosty peak of Mount Shasta. Honestly, I focused more on warmth than engaging the scenery, which meant staying bundled in everything I owned, EVERYTHING. I moved back to the wheel well, as the cold made my fingers and toes squeal like little piggies, while I rode towards Roseville on a piggy.
Mini waterfalls roared along the passing cliff-sides into the turquoise river and she began to dart through a series of small, dark, tunnels after the Shasta train bridge. I covered my face from the carbon monoxide fumes of suffocating diesel. The snow ceased and as we declined in elevation, it turned to a freezing rain. I chuckled as I thought about riding on the porch of a 53’ not having a trailer shield me from the sky’s torment. Dunsmuir veered left in the distance and she meandered through the forest green mountainside along a turquoise flowing river, the Sacramento.
She swiftly approached Roseville as the brakes screeched around a sharp bend by a golf course plagued with camps. Tents, tarps and shopping karts perched by the fence-line between the scattered filth as she rolled into town. I jumped off her at a creeping speed, seeking refuge under a bridge, hoping the days ahead of me would not involve any conversations with Sergeant Flood.