Train hopping Binghamton
“Happy Birthday Marien! I hope exploring Castle on the Hill, your first skydive and train hopping Binghamton made your birthday one to remember buddy.”
After spending a few months backpacking around Europe with his girlfriend, my friend booked a ticket back to the USA and took a bus to Rochester, where we picked him up. Arriving Sunday with the intentions of making his first skydive, he waited patiently with anxious urges to jump only to get it pushed back by the sunset. I felt responsible in some way, but I held to my promise and tried to make this the best birthday of his life. Out of all my friends back home in Delaware he was the only one who took the plunge to visit me at WNY Skydiving and with that the story unfolds, a three day escapade filled with adventure, adrenaline, a little doggy and my wife.
With a small trek through the landing area on the drop zone, following the perimeter of the corn, we roamed through the brush. Thistles and corn stalks scratched our legs with the starry night sky illuminating our path as we walked deeper into the woods filled with dry pine needles, neatly stacked wood and dead fallen trees. We propped our tents staking them between the tall trees, their tops swaying from the faint whistle of the wind, as we set up our camps. With four logs positioned in a square I began to add tinder to the fire, kindling it with paper plates and toilet paper. Its flame lit the night sky with an orange blaze, sizzling, crackling and popping bits of charcoal. We scorched marshmallows over it for a midnight snack before dozing off to sleep, its heat fading away into the brisk night, as we drowned in peaceful bliss.
Morning, we awoke to a light drizzle and gloomy sky, with the work-day cancelled we set out for Castle on the Hill, in Dansville, NY. The drive took us through the rural countryside filled with green pastures, endless wheat hills and desolate small towns along back-country roadways. My friend never explored an abandoned building before so I felt excited for him and his first urban exploration experience. We parked the car at the local park and walked half a mile towards the castle on the hill. Decaying since 1971, it stood tall crumbling to the decadent force of nature, which took over a majority of the complex.
History takes us back to 1798 when Nathaniel Bingham stumbled upon a water source of rich minerals and opened a spa in Dansville called the Dansville Water Cure facility. He practiced Water Cure or hydrotherapy as he believed the water from “Breakout Creek” contained therapeutic properties bringing his theory to life in the year 1854. It flopped without much success and the property was sold.
Caleb Jackson purchased the complex in 1870 naming it Our Home on the Hillside. Both men believed in hydrotherapy, but with his discovery of Granola and his persistent efforts, Our Home on the Hillside became especially popular. It drew legendary icons including Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton among others such as, Frederick Douglass.
But the building took a turn for the worst with a fire and even after the Jackson Family fireproofed the building, bringing it to a larger scale and spending $200,000 on construction, modern treatments and advancements in medicine and pharmacology surpassed any popular efforts of the water cure philosophy causing the institute to go bankrupt in 1914.
The building continued exchanging hands without prospering until 1929 when Bernarr Mcfadden purchased the sanatorium. The witty yet eccentric business man renamed it the Physical Culture Hotel as his involvement in body building structured the ideal of the resort. The hotel took on roles of a hospital for the ill while maintaining a popular buzz among the wealthy. Celebrities who stayed at the thriving resort indulged in tennis, swimming and starlit views from the roof with dancing and sunbathing.
After McFadden’s death the building was reacquired but steadily dwindled to its death in 1971 and now stands there to this day, slowly decaying, brick-by-brick until it will eventually collapse, sliding down the hill spreading its debris across Route 256.
The iron staircase of this 5-story building told a tale of its heyday symbolizing the prestige and wealth of those occupying this hotel. We walked through the dust, and rubble, floor-by-floor peering out windows and creaky doors that dropped off into oblivion. Sections of flooring gave way to decay, and complete rooms crumbled to the ground leaving an empty space full of rusted piping, and brick rubble where parts of the roof fell to its demise. We walked cautiously through the main hallways, distraught about entering any rooms for fear of falling to our demise. Graffiti lined the walls with tags, and evidence of teenage love along with political banter scribbled on the roof, “Feel the Bern” and cryptic messages, “Did you bring the salt?” near the elevator shaft. I did not feel spirits here like I did in the JN Adam Memorial Hospital but our exploration was limited due to the sad state of structural support in the Castle on the Hill.
We stood in plain sight on the roof as we followed the main I-beam across what remained tiptoeing over concrete and brick avoiding any holes or soft spots with serious caution. The view of Dansville cast out below with its stormy sky, a pastel of gray clouds blended with the greenery below making it feel like a picturesque haunted film with us in the center of it. Droplets of tears shed from the clouds touching our skin faintly and we raced out of the building, exiting at a different location to avoid citations. The state of decay made our exploration limited, but we managed to escape the downpour by seconds following a long drive home in rain.
We camped that night like all the other nights, deep in the woods, behind the corn stalks, between the tall pine trees glistening from the fire. It took a bit more effort this time to start a fire, but we kept at it and persistence brought us warmth. The night ended with crackling embers and a cool breeze sending us off into a deep sleep, a sleep only felt in the outdoors.
With sleepy eyes and the sun poking its light through the pine trees we both woke from a deep slumber, taking several minutes to finally adjust to getting in motion. So what did we do after our trek back to the hangar? We made a skydive! My friend made his first jump and surprisingly did not shit his pants due to his strong fear of heights. My boss yelled, “Welcome to the Jungle Baby…You’re gonna DIE,” as I laughed, with my foot on the step of the Cessna 182. Marien looked shocked with an exasperated look on his face. He turned slightly pale, “Oh Fuck…I’m not gonna die?”
We all situated ourselves in the plane as we flew to altitude and to my surprise my buddy remained calm despite his dreadful fear of heights. My skydive felt like any other jump, but the true joy came from the fear, pure adrenaline and feeling of accomplishment when we hit 10,000 feet. I felt proud of him as I opened the door with a smirk on my face, the relative wind swaying my hair every which way as I pounced off the step into a front flip. I felt proud that he faced his fear and all the feelings he felt would go from fear to a happy sense of accomplish upon the chute opening, which it did from his loud remarks of joy. His freefall, like many others, including myself, involved opening his mouth and yelling profanity.
The experience is like none other. The pure adrenaline upon putting your foot out on the tiny metal step of the C-182 while the wind chills your body sending goosebumps up your legs and arms making your hair stand on its end is incomparable. But then you jump, plunging out into flips and shit, until you get stable in a belly-to-earth position, while the Tandem Instructor pulls the drogue out and the wind rushes all around you, flapping your cheeks at 120 mph. Your eyes tear up under the goggles; your throat dries out from the wind; your heart pounds from the adrenaline and you spend more time trying to look down as you fall to your death than enjoying the experience around you. Then, “POOFFFF,” the chute opens and you scream profane words of joy and excitement. But that’s not where the adventure ends. You still have a canopy ride down to earth and with swift toggle turns and 360’s you find yourself on the roller coaster ride, which you thought you would experience in freefall. Then you land and you cannot believe what you just did…You jumped out of a fucking plane and survived and your life will never be the same. It’s like chasing the feeling you get after your first bump of cocaine. You stand up on your two feet and kiss the earth. This is what it’s like to live. This is living, but there’s more to this adventure. It does not end here.
After our skydive, the work-day ended and we found ourselves on the road again with a short trip to Letchworth State Park to check out the immaculate views of the three waterfalls along with the old trestle bridge built in 1875 with hopes of train hopping lingering in the back of my mind. My wife and I grabbed the Empire Pass and drove down to the Upper Falls. Marien and I carried our backpacks with the intention of catching out on a train. I generally knew trains rolled through there on a daily basis later in the evening between 3 PM and 10 PM, but did not know specific times. So we enjoyed the view of the falls with the backdrop of the trestle bridge and active cranes moving about behind it. The mist of the waterfalls splashed against our faces as they continued working on the new bridge. Kelly read a book as we soaked in the precious views waiting for the work-day to end. We paced back and forth with our packs strapped over our shoulders, waiting and wondering when and if a train would slow down around the curve of the bridge. If it would slow down just enough to catch on the fly. Most of train hopping is safety, with knowing which units are rideable and at what speeds you should hop on when catching on the fly, but a lot of it is patience as we found out.
Kelly left us in the park as she hit the road for the drop zone around 5:30 PM. My original assumption of the train arriving around 5 to 6 PM was incorrect. Marien and I waited along the steep, muddy hill by the tracks. A group of construction workers roamed through the woods surveying the area for trees to trim back, scaring us, as we lay on the hill with an incognito presence. The patience killed us, but it came with every train hopping experience I could think of, so we waited. The workers eventually left as their 8-hour shift came to an end so we wandered around down the tracks, south of the Genesee River. We killed the time by starting a small campfire and eating some beans we packed for our train hopping adventure. Food eaten on the road tasted better, I do not know why, but it just did.
The clock dwindled onward as 6 PM turned into 7 PM and then we started wandering back to the bridge. I looked for monikers and marks of other train hoppers and found one scribbled under the trestle bridge by Tomato back in March of 2013. I knew this spot was hoppable, just when and where was the question. We plopped our asses on the concrete foundation underneath the trestle bridge as it creaked, whistled, and made faint noises, from what we did not know. I sat there perplexed and wary of the lack of daylight. I did not want to catch on the fly in the dark. With a completely bummed look on my face I threw in the towel after 5.5 hours of waiting without any results. We roamed back down the stairs we climbed initially to reach the tracks, and followed a footpath to the Genesee River. A look of disdain crossed both our faces, but a night of wild camping in one of the country’s best parks would not be so bad, so we made the best of it. We skedaddled down the slippery slopes of slate and walked along the banks of the river looking for a spot to camp, free from people and animals, particularly snakes.
9 PM approached and the last bit of sunlight peeked out over the horizon for one last final farewell. Then we heard it! We both looked at each other with a look of excitement as adrenaline pumped our blood. Jumping, jiving and hustling up the embankment by the river we saw a train putting over the trestle bridge with grainers, boxcars and gondolas attached to it. I huffed and puffed with my pack on my back and water jug in hand, running up the steep path towards the railroad tracks. The rustic stone stairwell meandered back and forth, zigzagging to the section of Park Drive which remained under construction as the new bridge was being built. A look of hopelessness pummeled both of us as we sat there huffing and puffing, with our hands on our knees, bent down, and sweaty. We kept at it, but when I looked up the train already passed. “Only 15 cars,” I thought? Normally the freight rolling through there is miles long. Sweat poured off my brow forming puddles beneath my feet. The night sky laughed at us for our futile efforts and now we needed to find a camping spot in the dark. But all hope was not lost, we continued to stake out the bridge, maybe luck was on our side or maybe it was not.
We camped out on the hill and I grabbed his flashlight as my vision adjusted to the darkness unfolding around us. We sat and waited, debating whether we would catch on the fly in the dark, or if we would just camp on the hill and suddenly our choice slowly came to fruition with the loud bellow of a train horn coming from the north of the Genesee River. A look of terror crowded Marien’s face, but he held firm to following my actions.
After a few minutes the train gradually chugged by with it’s bright light shimmering off the main unit. We scrambled down the hill, running towards the tracks and waited. I turned on the flashlight once the conductor approached the bend as to not giveaway our position. The bolts spun too fast on the wheels. So we stood there and waited as a mile of the train passed us by, waiting for that split second decision to hop on a safe, rideable unit. Would it come? We both stood their anxious, stupefied, mesmerized by the sheer size of the freight train slowly gliding by us, its wheels screeching around the bends of the tracks and suddenly our opportunity presented itself. I locked onto an Intermodal Doublestack 53′ T-Well unit traveling a few miles per hour and caught on the fly, climbing the ladder with ease as Marien followed. We set foot on a hotshot ride to freedom as we moseyed over the Genesee River on the old trestle bridge, headed south to the unknown.
That feeling of riding freight came back to me and nothing beat train hopping. I looked over at my friend and a huge smile cast out across his face. I knew he felt the same feeling in that moment. The feeling of adventure, the unknown, and riding into the night without a worry in the world, looking up at the starry sky, appreciating the finer aspects of life around us as we rode through nature on our freight train ride to freedom. I wished time did not matter in that moment, but I knew the adventure was short-lived with my work schedule limiting my adventures and his schedule limited as well. We enjoyed the night sky, the wind hitting our hair, swaying it every direction and the stars smiling down at us, their bright faces illuminating the countryside around us as we made a clear shot to Binghamton in just 4-hours.
The first chance we got we hopped off in Johnson City before entering the train yard in Binghamton. I hung off the ladder and steadily ran out over ballast as to not fall and fuck myself up, he did the same as I shined our only source of light, making sure no signage existed ahead. We walked through the night in a dead city, with no one on the streets and the only sign of life from hip-hop blaring out windows. The train yard always existed downtown in the ghetto, which meant two important pieces of information, walking at night became a bit more dangerous, but at least the Greyhound existed nearby. We huddled up that night by the tracks, shimmying into our bivysacks under a cozy, spacious bush by the abandoned part of town, soaking in a few hours of sleep before a bus-ride back to Rochester. That was how I sent my friend off to Boston on the epic birthday of a lifetime, exploring Dansville: Castle on the Hill, making his first skydive and train hopping Binghamton on his first experience ridin’ the rails.