I hopped on the 11R on one of the coldest nights since I started this trip, at 2 degrees Fahrenheit, catching out of East Deerfield under the moonlit sky. I spent that whole night and the following day wrapped up in all of my layers and sleeping bag, sprawled out on the porch of a grainer. My head propped up on my pack watching the luminous twinkles of night fade to overcast sky with the dimmest of light faltering through the clouds between my stupors of dreamful bliss.
My train only made it as far as Eagle Bridge through that long, cold night, as I woke to the dreadful breath of Shiva grazing my face, her shrills wrenching my bones in this frozen tundra called winter.
I peeked out from my bivy, stiff from frozen condensation, the hood of my parka danced in the wind like a lion’s mane covering my head. A slick ice rink lined the cold floor beneath my sleeping pad making me slide as she started rattlin’ on the steel. Her howling joined with the wind and I watched the scenery fly by in blurs of bare forest stripped of its flair. These naked trees shot up endlessly across the pearly, opaque landscape, but I never moved, too cold to care, too stiff and ornery to even attempt and try, my sight merely grazed the treetops and the gloomy sky.
She crept onward like molasses, a slow and steady pace, siding yet again in Mechanicville. The 11R is one of the slowest trains I’ve ever ridden. It’s so slow that she didn’t even make it to Mohawk Yard until after dusk as I lay there watching the rolling clouds in tendrils of grays float by above me.
At this time, I had made the hasty decision of packing up all of my gear. She moved far too slow and my feet felt far too numb like lodes of stone. So I hopped off, walking the line, my feet crunching and sinking into the pointy ballast below the thin crusty blankets of snow. I waddled in layers upon layers of clothing on my stilt-like legs towards the Stewart’s Shop just down the road.
With temperatures like this, I just walked straight out of the yard, past the office, down the little, icy access road to the highway, not caring about much other than hustling to get indoors. I felt warm aside from my little toes.
Over the years, I’ve learned the importance of taking care of one’s feet, washing them daily, tramping in good boots, keeping them warm and dry for I’ve dealt with jungle rot in Hawaii and frostbite in Oregon. A man with no feet will have a hard time wandering around, being on the tramp, but I’m sure it’s been done a time or two before by the hardcore.
My feet are precious and I treat them as such now that I’m no longer ignorant or oblivious and green. That’s why I got off that train because they’ll be another one rollin’ through soon enough and I can always just wait in the weeds. Not to mention all of my water completely froze to blocks of solid ice, so I needed to defrost it, get myself warm, and fill a small jug with hot water to stick in my sleeping bag for later that night.
I bummed it at Stewart’s for a few hours and to my surprise when I walked back into the yard the rumbling of three engines idled by the signal, the same units from my train. “No way,” I thought! No way is she still sitting here, I saw her leave; and that she did, but only to drop a block in the yard and wait for the next crew.
I always tried to catch most of my trains when they stopped in the yard, rather than on the fly, for the fear of seeing crimson snow felt unsettling in my mind. If a slick boot slipped and catapulted into a rolling wheel, her teeth would eat off a leg or two and not a soul would even hear. I was one to break the rules, time and time again, but when you have close calls you start to rethink the moves in your head.
So I walked the line in the long, dark shadows of freight, towering above me like sleeping steel giants, ready to wake at any moment. Her loud, rumbling snores would soon flower into billows of diesel exhaust sending me off into the night; but for now, she sat there as a dormant beast in hibernation.
My legs hobbled along in circular strides like Frankenstein through the patches of snow along the train tracks. Multiple layers kept me warm, but very inflexible; not that I minded the extra warmth, but the added weight felt like walking in a soggy diaper.
When I reached mid-train, I found a sheltered ride on the front of a Canadian Grainer. I hopped up inside and curled into my sleeping bag to rest my eyes for another long night ride, this time to Binghamton, waiting for the sibilant voice of air to send us off through dark, silent cities.
Binghamton is a town bludgeoned with poverty and urban blight like any suffering city, stifled by the coming of new age. Dilapidated industry and ramshackle houses linger by the tracks and despite this, I can’t help but smile every time I roll through, for nothing more than the memories.
The memories light up my mind, riding my first handful of trains out of Letchworth State Park, taking my college friend on his first ride, learning about moniker art and working seasonally at the skydiving dropzone; it all flashed in front of me like a time lapse of my past.
These marked some of the best and worst times of my life, dealing with bursts of rage, uncontrollable anxiety, isolation and drinking, lots of drinking alone; but I also enjoyed spending my summers packing chutes and jumping out of planes. I enjoyed the solo campfires back in the woods over a few beers and roaming around Western New York on a bicycle, exploring the Great Lakes, abandoned buildings and most of all I loved walking in the woods at Letchworth State Park.
I remember riding my bike the 60 miles down there on winding, country backroads, to check out the park four years ago. Chasms of sedimentary pillows clung to the canyon walls as the glimmering Genesee surged through the gorge with cataracts rushing between the verdant forests and cliffsides. There was this spot down by the Upper Falls where I’d roast potatoes by the fire and listen to the sweet sound of water spilling down the gorge, nature’s silence. It lulled me to sleep between the nocturnal chatter of the wild, time and time again.
In this park, I crossed paths with my first mountain lion. I found peace and a place I enjoyed coming back to instead of running away. I discovered my first train moniker here. I had walked up under the old trestle and saw a wax streak from New York Tomato from the early 2000’s. At that time, I didn’t know what it meant, but later throughout that summer I stopped by the park to watch the trains bottleneck over this old, rickety trestle bridge, going so slow, slow enough to catch a ride on the Southern Tier, to Buffalo or Binghamton.
So that I did. I’d take short trips on my days off of work. I rode that line several times that summer and even took a close friend with. I remember how bright the stars lit up the countryside as she rattled on the steel and being so afraid to enter the yard in Binghamton that we hopped off in Johnson City near the Wal-Mart.
So catching the 23K out of Binghamton this morning brought back quite the memories, but squealing over that new bridge right at the blue dusk brought pain to my eyes. NS had built the new bridge a few years after I left Western New York. They tore down the old trestle enriched with so much history and never preserved it into a pedestrian bridge to overlook the gorge. This new bridge eliminated the speed restriction which caused the bottlenecks.
Now all that remains is a swift glance of the canyon and the Genesee River as the train snakes through Portageville, zippin’ over the gorge. No more hop spot, no more ragin’ fires, just memories rattlin’ around in the back of my brain, bringin’ me back to the innocence and another lifestyle full of adrenalin and unguided misdirection, my past.
Much has changed in those four years for me mentally, but I’m very much still living the same way, maybe one day that’ll change. For now, I’m just enjoying the summer temperatures, compared to that of a few nights ago, as I sit here and wait for a WBD CSX train to give me a free lift outta Buffalo.