I left my wet footprints behind as sawdust caked to the bottom of my feet, catching a viking ship on the Q160 out of Chicago. An emulsion of grays furrowed the sky. The pitter-patter of raindrops followed joining the disharmony beneath her wheels as she left the yard.
She rolled. She creaked. She stopped along the curve as the guzzling of slow rollin’ engines snooped by my car for a roll-by inspection. I curled into the corner on the blood-red porch, hugging my backpack while the train passed, before slipping into my bivy sack.
The sky started to fall harder in torrents and through the gleaming prows of scratched steel, I watched two rail cops guard a nearby crossing, pointed in each direction. My train gently squeaked by after waiting for clearance before thrashing eastbound through the mass panic affecting every city across the nation (I just missed the shelter-in-place law set in Chicago the following day).
I poked my head out of my waterproof cocoon, watching the gloomy blaze of urban blight and trackside squalor drift by, switching to an endless blur of wide open spaces, as far as the eyes could see. She ripped. She roared. Her grace deafened the land with each pounding thud, each stomp, and wailing shriek.
And soon, a blanket of darkness encroached on the landscape when my train came to a halt in North Baltimore, OH. Beside my freight car, I watched the misty sky graze the surface of stagnant puddles beneath an illuminated light mast, waiting for the sound of air.
Workers hoarded the IM facility, zippin’ up and down the tracks, as trucks loaded containers. Blinking lights filled the cold, thick, air and the taste of pungent diesel touched my lips with each roaring engine flying by me. Its thick dark plumes dissipated into the night sky followed by a long, rattling hotshot. Whose surging waves of vicious wind ripped on the mainline in a chain of noise. I watched the flashing red light at the end disappear and the cycle continued, time-and-time again.
I shut my eyes softly, tucking my head away into a pillow of nylon, and fell asleep to her thrumming motion, fading in and out of dreams. This state of forgotten imagination, where I was goin’ and what I was doin’, became a blur of mindless adventure.
When I woke early that morning, at the skirt of dawn, she had only just rolled past Cleveland by the fuel pumps, spending much of the night latent on the steel for higher priority traffic. But her mood quickly changed. That lollygagging and humdrum melody shifted to thunderous squeals raging along the steel.
She stormed the banks of a cold Lake Erie, through the skeletons of trees, the endless wisp of vineyards, past the bluest of horizons and cloudless sky, through a graveyard of engines and Pullman cars. The wind pummeled on by me at her whim, tearing up my face, my hair dancing in the sky. I watched all the small towns disappear to tiny specks, becoming distant memories in the back of my mind, as she danced beside Highway 5 nearing the city of Buffalo, which held a special place in my heart over the years.
She squealed past the decaying Buffalo Central Terminal building with its jack-o-lantern windows and crumbling facade covered in trackside graffiti. A large clock hung from the center building, an intricate bullet of concrete soaring to the heavens like an old skyscraper, giving me a glimpse of history into the city’s past.
My train smoothly sailed onward while I watched the earth eat away at rusted, abandoned tracks, spitting out shards of deep-red brick from old, vacant factories beside heaps of garbage and trackside rubble. But, sandwiched between all of this, sprawled active industry, a post office, suburban neighborhoods, endless steel, and then, quickly surfacing, the CSX Frontier Yard came into view.
I swiftly packed up all of my gear ready to disembark at any moment, in order to switch to another IM that wasn’t terming in Syracuse, but instead in Selkirk.
This last ride would complete my trip. After that, I’d join the masses on my next ride, the Q-uarantine, confining myself to four walls, mobile games, writing, and other mindless self indulgence while I searched everywhere for work and tried to maintain my sanity. Something I always lost over and over again in my life putting me back on the rails through choice, desire and a certain necessity.
But, my trip didn’t quite come to an end just yet. With trains you’re never certain. With trains, you’re never sure, where they’ll stop for clearance or for just how long; time stands still. You’re just along for the free ride, for that scenery blazin’ on by. And just like that, she zipped right on through the yard, never slowin’ to a roll, or a creak, but gallopin’ onward, wrenching that steel, crunchin’, clankin’, and rattlin’ the inside of my ears, all the way towards Syracuse just before the onset of dusk. Something I’d never seen before in the countless times I’ve ridden freight through here over the years…that mystery of wheels flowing along the steel.
When my train finally reached Syracuse, I hopped off at the signal by the west end of the yard. I had been on trains for the past few days since I had ridden outta Denver on Z-DENCHI and needed to resupply. So, I moseyed on over to the Walmart to join in on the chaos of hoarders, the paranoid shoppers wielding face masks and latex gloves, a byproduct of mass exodus and panic from this pandemic.
It scared me. Not just the virus itself, but the lack of food and supplies at the grocery stores, no toilet paper, hand sanitizer, isopropyl alcohol. The closure of businesses, loss of jobs in all too familiar industries leaving people without work, without income, still having to pay bills, support families and survive, with no relief from our government.
The closure of fast food restaurants to foot traffic left me without many places to loiter, charge my electronics, read, and exist. Avoiding shelter-in-place laws and martial law definitely affected my travel. I just wanted to keep runnin’, goin’ on little to no sleep, with little to no food, to head back home and solidify work for my next run. But, I needed to join the public at some point and here I stood looking around for my go-to staples, few and far between.
I made the run for supplies, short, sweet, and exited quickly, pounding liquid caffeine to stay awake while I walked across the highway, dippin’ through empty parking lots of closed industry suffering because of COVID-19. My eyes darted towards every wall of every building as I moved closer to the yard, searching for outlets to plug in my dead phone until I reached a tractor trailer facility.
Lights blinded my eyes bouncing off the metal panels from the corners of the building. They fed life to the otherwise useless security cameras, which I sat directly beneath on the cool ground, watching the yard between strings of lifeless trailers as I charged my phone for my homeward bound freight train.
Several trains stopped for clearance before terming in the yard or they plowed on through like a stampede on wheels. I moved eventually to the overpass. Then switched again, walking the line towards the lifeless strings of well cars lined up at the east end of the yard. I wandered through the shadows, marking cars, lookin’ for FRED’s, but coming up short until hanging out by the throat. I hated catching outta Syracuse for nothing more than my impatience festering, watching multiple uncatchable freights wail on past me.
So I pried my eyes open. I didn’t sleep. I waited for an IM to stop, to find a nice ride, to dip into a comfy well for a short nap through the night, but I quickly found out I picked the wrong train. I didn’t grab one swapping blocks. No, no, no…I grabbed an originating train, which to my surprise blew right on past Selkirk, no stoppin’, no rollin’ just squealin’ on through. I just watched the dot get further and further away on my phone, separating me from my home as she zipped on southbound.
When I finally arrived in North Bergen, NJ I only wanted to manifest one request. I just didn’t want to end up in South Kearny, with electrified fences, spotlighting and security, anywhere but there.
Shortly, the train gods granted my wish. She stopped just miles south of the train yard in North Bergen where I hopped off by a curve, sleeping in a cool ditch laden in dead twigs and debris, just feet from the tracks.
When I woke after a few hours of rest, I watched a GM creep by me, but hesitated and missed my chance of going north. Flustered, I walked the line hobbling over ballast, stuck between a fence to my left and a gruesome, murky culvert, to my right.
Further down, I found a walkway off the rails, stepping onto a pallet, which I utilized as a pedestrian bridge to get over the water. I turned to my left, walking through the vacant lot, looking out at the cracked asphalt towards the bright sun. Suddenly, my eyes locked onto a police cruiser parked in the distance by a graveyard of transit buses. My heart jumped, but I just kept trudging along towards the highway, staring at a jersey barrier separating me from a Shell. My eyes turned to the nonexistent shoulder as cars zoomed by me. Then I searched for a sidewalk, only to find a small, narrow, foot path of dirt. Yep, I was in Jersey. So I walked it.
I used the turning lane to cross the four lanes of traffic once the light switched to green (what they use as a substitute for U-turns in Jersey). I looked completely destitute from runnin’ wild over two thousand miles in five days. A black, grainy, film of filth lined my cheeks, neck, and splotches speckled my ears. Coal had clogged my pores for days after riding coal despite washing my face multiple times in random water spigots across America.
But as such, I needed more caffeine to keep me rollin’ and sustenance to kill my lethargy. So I peeled outta there and grabbed a sandwich at Subway before cleaning up with a bar of soap by a roadside spigot.
At that moment, the tracks piqued my curiosity for some reason. I didn’t quite know why, but I followed my instinct and wandered back to the steel, the way I originally came. To my surprise, I saw the tail end of a freight train with a FRED, sitting just half a mile north of me, by the overpass of a busy interstate. I ran wild in broad daylight, stomping across railroad ties like a prancing kindergartener at recess, nearly tripping and eating shit, but I didn’t die (I didn’t have fries, a burger and a shake yet…dude rips).
But man, was I completely out of shape and winded. I felt like a smoker wheezing with a dry cough after chain smoking a pack of cigarettes. It was only a short sprint with my bulky pack. I could walk miles and miles for days, but I hated running, always have, always will.
When I reached the train, of course, I couldn’t find a suitable ride. I hobbled on the slanted ballast, catching my balance every so many feet to avoid falling in a dirty culvert of runoff water, past tankers, past locked boxcars, past an endless line of suicide grainers, and empty lumber racks, until I stared at the rusty porch of a cadillac grainer. It sat right beneath the bustling overpass where wooden planks, netting, and ladders hung from the rafters while construction took place. I didn’t care.
I hopped up on the rusty porch of oxidized metal and read the black scribble left near the foxhole, “Luxery Awaits” and crawled into my musty hole of filth awaiting the departure of my chariot at any moment.
She aired up. My face perked into a huge smile with imminent departure near because I’d get a day ride along the Hudson, even if it took an eternity on junk. I’d be awake. I wouldn’t fall asleep through Selkirk this time.
No sooner she crept past the yard in North Bergen, the one in Little Ferry, and rolled beyond, she parked on the steel, siding for hours. Then she moved a little further down the track and stopped again. By this point, we had finally reached the outskirts of the city, just past the yachts, the superfluous housing along the river, the condos and civilization or so I thought anyway.
I looked out at an old, abandoned, wooden boat, perched in the deep blue river, ripples splashing up against its base as it rocked side-to-side. It looked like a hybrid of a sunken sailboat and a Viking ship. I wondered its history as I sat there waiting to rip along the Hudson. Train after train zipped by, Amtrak, Intermodal, junk, everything and anything had higher priority than the train I was on heading to Massena. So naturally, I walked the line to find a better ride, switching to a double barrel shotgun.
Then finally! All traffic passed! She moved and switched back to single track! She screamed, whistling along the banks of the Hudson. I saw blurs of pedestrians climbing rocks along the water, fishing in lawn chairs, drinking beers, watching my train fly by, more people than I’d ever seen outside trespassing on the tracks. It looked weird, people coming together at a time they should be apart.
But, I wasn’t out there riding to hole up inside a foxhole, looking through the eye of a grainer for a muddled view. I was out there for the scenery, that wanderlust flowing through my blood, the views, chiseled landscapes sitting there like statues of art.
So I broke the rules and switched to the roof. The wind roared, tossing my hair, chilling my ears, tearing my eyes and I watched the scenery fly by looking out at the calm deep blue ripples, the multi-span suspension bridges and trusses. I lay down for crossings to remain somewhat incognito.
Eventually the rampant rush of wind, from riding the roof for miles and miles, chilled my bones enough to climb down (I had lost another hat in Syracuse otherwise I’d have stayed up there). So I holed back up into the foxhole waiting for the sun to set and part the blue sky from the calm Hudson listening to the juddering of dissonance between the beauty cast out endlessly.
Cherries blossomed across the skyline staining the mountains a deep burgundy as the sun escaped through the clouds; its colors bursting into the landscape, dwelling in each shimmering ripple of the Hudson River. Beyond the yelling of her wheels, the thunderous stampede curving along the tracks, I looked out through the rusted circular steel, all I could feel was the splendid silence of nature beyond this cool grip of cacophony. I just smiled. Now I know why I overshot Selkirk and ended up in North Bergen, NJ.