I woke up early that morning on a bed of mulch with limbs of pine drooping overhead and thick dew in the air. The clanking commotion from heavy equipment jostling stone boulders around bellowed over the sound of freight working in the train yard. For the most part, the yard looked pretty empty compared to the old Roseville I knew, once bustling with steady freight traffic, but now less trains “seemed” to run through there with the adoption of precision railroading, and most likely due to the pandemic as well. The only string I saw in the departure yard sat latent waiting for power.
Over the sound of excavators, the high-pitched screech and clicking squeal of the hump yard pierced my ears with a loud ringing, annoying yet satisfying at the same time, but only to watch the runaway cars. For anyone who’s gotten humped, there’s nothing pleasant about it, getting smacked up against the wall of a grainer like a ragdoll from the sudden jolt of a gravity fed car slamming into a string of freight; it’s pretty frightening. And then, wandering up and over a maze of strings trying to get to safety whilst finding a way out of the yard; it’s not fun at all. But, it’s certainly enjoyable to look at while waiting on a northbound train.
I stood up. I stretched and before I focused on the sunrise my eyes shifted to the ramshackle trailer parked in the field by the hop out, smack dab in front of the fence UP installed several years ago to deter riders from entering the yard. I hadn’t recalled seeing the dilapidated, tow-behind camper the night prior nor all the trash scattered about the grass from a grill, used tires, and piles of dirty laundry to a broken fridge, tarps and an array of shiny, tweaker treasure. Where did all of this shit come from? I had no idea, but someone moved in overnight and from the looks of it, they were here to stay the long haul.
I packed up my gear and watched a palette of colors paint the sky in a carpet of pinks and oranges and reds and yellows like watching the vibrant flowers of spring blossom in a timelapse.
I needed to reup my water, but first I wanted to call in the string sitting peacefully on the 5th track. I walked the fenceline peeping between the panels of metal diamonds to trace the equipment numbers, but everything I called in just said, “industry.” Of course, this was of no use to me, I needed Oakland or Dunsmuir or something useful. I didn’t ride in and outta Roseville enough to remember or know consists. So I figured it wasn’t going where I wanted it to.
I sat down along the fence by the building materials facility and as soon as I look up a skinny woman in her mid thirties infringes on my space and strikes up a conversation. She’s wearing a jacket two sizes too big and her hair is all cattywampus like Mrs. Frizzle from the Magic Schoolbus. I acknowledge her. Not really wanting to, but I didn’t wanna be rude.
“I saw you—saw you down by the fence ova there. That was you wahn’t it?”
“Uhhh…yeah. I was callin’ in a train. Why?”
“Well—just saw you over by the fence, walkin’ back-and-forth. You wahn’t tryin’ to steal nothin’ were you. Cuz this is all I got. I ain’t got much.”
“I don’t steal. If that’s you in the trailer down there you do realize people have been catchin’ trains outta here for many, many years. Probably not the greatest spot to setup camp if you don’t wanna see your shit go missing.”
“You think railroad’s gonna kick us out? Hope not. We hadda find a place to move again…town kicked us outta last spot. Truck dropped our trailer here last night. Gonna see how long we can ride it out before we gotta move again.”
“Railroad probably doesn’t care it isn’t their property. I’m talking about other home bums in the woods over by the jungle or riders comin’ through who think it’s abandoned and free reign. It might get destroyed is all I’m sayin’.”
“I rode trains once outta here. A long time ago. Been stuck here a year now since I lost my job. Got in an accident drivin’ the company vehicle fore Covid hit. Lost everything. Been here ever since. Boyfriend’s in jail. This is all I have. You sure you didn’t take nothin’ on the ground?”
“Yes…I am sure. I have everything I need.”
“Okay…whew…that’s a relief…you wanna coffee or somethin’.”
“Actually yeah. That’d be cool. Do you need any food or anything? I just grabbed a bunch of shit from Walmart.”
“You sure. Got glazed donuts. Tuna. Cheese. Sommer sausage. I can whip up some cooked food too if you gimme a little.”
“Donuts!” Her face lit up and the tired crags under her eyes seemed to disappear for a moment. I don’t know what it is about women and pastries and dessert. So I reached in my grocery bag and gave her my last donut.
The walk to her camper took me through a minefield of trash scattered everywhere even more so than the garbage blowing with the wind in the field by the big hole-in-the-fence where riders catch out. It looked as if she was having a yard sale with every imaginable knickknack sprawled out across the lawn in front of her home, but she wasn’t. I don’t know exactly what she was doing.
I heard the train air and curiosity made me call in one last car, a boxcar. The robotic voice on the phone chattered and spit out an actual destination, “Oakland.”
“Shit. Gotta go…that’s my train.”
I flung my pack up over my shoulders and twisted the grocery bag of food up and over my wrist. It all weighed me down too heavily, but still I sprinted down through the gully of thick grass, stray barbed wire and fencing. I tripped. I hit the ground down by a tiny hole in the fence, one of many, and decided to just roll with it. I chucked my pack and food through the hole and then crawled through it snagging the cuff of my jacket on the metal teeth.
I jerked and lunged forward, ripping a tiny hole in my coat and quickly situated all of my gear, sprinting across the multiple tracks while trying to find a ride as she increased speed. A rideable grainer felt within my reach just four cars ahead of me, but my body felt of stone with this extra weight, held down from the additional food and cold gear stashed in my bag. I ran as fast as I could. My sprint felt like a measly jog despite using every last breath and bit of strength in my legs and lungs. The hyperventilation, the coughing, the wheezing, the sweat dripping down my brow and soaking into my shirts as I stood there in the yard with my hands on my knees, wiping my face and eyes, bent over, trying to regain what little composure I could muster up. She sauntered off down that glinting silver path without me and I listened to the thrumming of her wheels as the tail end of autoracks creaked by, the fred slowly disappearing in the distance. I felt defeated.
I walked over the steel and the ties and on the ballast rumbling down the embankment in a stampede of footsteps. I lowered my head, ducking and crouching through the huge, open mouth, avoiding the jagged box of teeth from snagging my bag and coat this time, slipping through the fence unscathed and wandered off through the field. I stepped on knotty knolls of grass and traversed puddles and culverts of squishy mud and saw another rider yonder, waving and smiling as he walked off behind the hill towards the camper. I saw a group of them, three kids and three dogs.
I rambled over the bridge of broken doors, past Vulcan Materials and towards the cul-de-sac when a plump hobbit of a man hobbled over towards me, stopping me briefly. His body hid in baggy jeans and his hoody swallowed his hands as he stood in front of me trembling from the cold air or from needing a fix, I couldn’t quite tell until I studied him further. I saw his gnarled teeth when he spoke and the gray patchy stubbles of hair over his face and balding head and the loose skin jiggling under his throat as he talked in a raspy whiskey voice.
“Hey, you need weed or anythin’? I’m holdin’. Sellin’ what I got fer cheap.”
I shook my head. “Nah man. I’m good.”
By now the lanky kid I saw from the group of train kids and dogs had joined the discussion, not because he wanted drugs, but because he wanted to go to Roseville Market just like myself.
“Whadda ’bout you. You need any weed, kid?”
The kid snickered and by God he reminded me so much of a young Rooster just with shorter brown hair. The resemblance was uncanny.
“Nope, all set here too.”
“Ya sure? I got weed. I got methadone. You need any methadone? If you knows of anyone give me a holler I’ll be around.”
And just like that, he turned around and hobbled off, disappearing in the wasteland.
I introduced myself to the lanky kid as we hoofed it to the market. He wore a newsboy cap with two railroad date nails in its brim both pointed to the sky like liberty spikes. Coveralls, a carhartt, black boots, the whole shebang, I could tell without even asking he rode freight. The black grime in the pores of his hands, between the cuticles of his fingernails and wedged in the tiny crevices and ridges of his knuckles gave it away more than anything. We looked the same in that regard. Same attire. Same smile. Same dirty complexion. Same mission.
“I’m Brian…you wouldn’t happen to be Andrew by chance, would you?”
“Heh…yeah. Think I talked to you on IG. Told you we were in Roseville.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Cool man. Small world. Thought you’da caught out by now.”
“Yeah…we’ve been here too long, goin’ on five days. Tryin’ to get to Oakland, but we keep missin’ our train cuz of the dogs and all.”
“Understand…I wouldn’t have the patience for riding with a dog…like the freedom of catching on the fly too much and being more mobile in the yard. But that’s me.”
When we arrived I grabbed my morning dose of caffeine, my only crux since I ixnayed booze and drugs over a year ago now, and used the spigot outside to fill my water bottles for the upcoming days of sitting, bumming and lounging around watching and waiting on freight. Andrew grabbed a hot coffee.
We talked about the mysterious camper that had arrived the night prior in the early hours of the morning and all the trash that accumulated like a blanket covering the field and pieces of the roadway leading up to the cul-de-sac. He said it just appeared overnight out of nowhere. I also enlightened him to the Roseville jungle and how much of a nuisance getting to the hop out caused me in the night with the new development near the woods there.
When we reached their hop spot I met the rest of the crew, Nick and Pineapple, and the three doggies. Nick lay in his sleeping bag still trying to wake up and gain the energy to move, cracking open a Natty Ice, smiling, content with lounging and watching trains with his mean little Taco, a black weiner dog roaming around nearby. Pineapple sat there reading the pages of 1984 and marveling in Orwell’s words.
We talked of books and trains and scenic lines and society and the spread of homelessness to the gray areas of private property, the vans and RVs and cars parked beside tents and crammed beneath overpasses. We talked of the lack of human empathy and propaganda and of trimming weed and the freedom that came with roaming around.
I shared some of my stories and recommended scenic lines while they passed around a spliff and we all sat and waited, waited for what seemed like nothing at all because their train already left and I saw zero northbounds. Not that I would catch out if I saw one. I waited for Ben and Andrew to make it to Roseville so we could all catch out, but still, I saw nothing that led me to believe northbound trains departed on this side of the yard anymore.
Pineapple strummed his banjo and sang from the heart uplifting songs while Andrew played more somber tunes, both lonely and poetic depicting life of the wanderer. I never quite immersed myself in playing music personally, not because I couldn’t learn, I probably could, but I just didn’t have the heart and soul to play, to learn, or the confidence to sing. Somewhere in that moment, sitting in the dirt, sober, and seeing the smiles plastered on everyone’s face I felt this inner connectedness, this shared emotion that normally I never experienced on the road unless I stumbled upon a tramp’s path in Roseville and only Roseville it would seem and today it was three.
Even with Taco’s weak attempt at biting my ankle with his little Napoleon Syndrome, I caught on well with that bunch of tramps.
Night trickled in and for the first time on my trip the sky filled with pregnant clouds looking to burst at any moment. I disbanded from the tramps headed to Oakland and moseyed on over to the other side of the yard to see any northbounds working in the yard, if at all. It looked empty even more dead than the usual hop spot. But, I hung out in the shadows by the bridge and finally saw a northbound train to Eugene. Its consist of empty lumber and boxcars and two slaves made for at least a few rides, but Ben and Andrew still weren’t here yet so it didn’t really matter, maybe we’d catch out, maybe we wouldn’t.