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Brian Cray - Hitchhikin', Trainhoppin', and Wanderin'

Wanderin' the world, at will, by any means

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Hitchhiking kauai

Hitchhiking Kauai…Garden Island Style

Hitchhiking Kauai

Hitchhiking Kauai really surprised me with its diverse scenery from tropical jungle flora to arid desert canyons similar to the Grand Canyon. The Garden Island lived up to its name. Originally we started this neck of the trip with no expectations or destinations, wandering wherever our thumbs and feet took us. That’s what we did until the end. We hitched the whole island from the Kalalau Trailhead to the Kalalau Lookout in Waimea Canyon. We cast our footprints on Hideaways Beach, Kealia Beach, and Glass Beach among others which remain unnamed solely because we never knew their names.

Hitchhiking Kauai

Hitchhiking Kauai, the random cemetery we stumbled upon…

We wandered in the sun and rain. I found hitchhiking Kauai on the North Shore far easier than the west side, but we managed either way. The last night of hitchhiking in Kauai really came as a surprise.

We awoke early morning in our camping spot cuddling one another in our bivy sacks. Fire ants marched around in a frenzy of rage as they devoured any crumbs leftover on the loose dirt beneath us. They attacked with ruthlessness leaving us with itchy bite marks on our backs and chest. The fire still glowed with an orange hue from remnants of embers from the night before. We made breakfast. Oatmeal and Ramen sufficed.

Then I fell back asleep feeling the sickness of the past few days crucify me to the ground. My nose dripped. My head throbbed. I felt less than ideal for wild camping, but rest was rest.

Kelly woke me up as the soft pitter-patter of raindrops plummeted from the sky. We rushed to cram our shit together as we scampered along the glass beach full of coral, and slippery rock to our nearest safe haven, a pavilion. Salt Pond Park had a ton of them along the coastline.

Another dismal day of rain, and angry clouds shadowed us above bringing back daunting memories of our time along the Na Pali Coast. Frankly, I did not want to relive it. The mud puddles, wet boots, and miserable chilling feeling of Mother Nature’s fury made me want to leave the island.

Thumbin’ It…Garden Island Style

So that’s what we did. We left or at least we tried to leave. From the Salt Ponds we started our trek down Route 56 towards Lihue. We walked and walked some more hoping a kind soul might pick us up by the side of the road. The rain sprinkled gingerly goading us to keep walking closer to the airport for our next adventure, Maui. The scenic overlooks along the road gave us the perfect eye candy to keep us moving forward. We flashed our thumbs, with no luck. But, kept trucking forward. Slowly 21 miles became 16 miles and 16 miles became 12 miles, taking us through small villages to nowhere.

The sun crept away taking daylight hostage with a brief glimpse of its blood scattered across the night sky in a Starburst red. It felt like Arizona, a home away from home. Still we walked into the night with less than ideal spots to camp and shield us from the cries of the sky.

I held hope. I held a feeling of optimism deep in my gut. We would find a spot to camp. As we inched closer to Lihue Airport it felt light years away without wheels.

Our flashlight emitted a faint ray of light striking the ground beneath us. We hobbled with achy feet and damp socks, almost losing any hope we once held onto. It sucked. I felt a numbness drown my feet and walking became less than pleasurable almost deplorable. I capitulated and decided to lay it down anywhere off the road way, like a true homebum.

But then it happened and our situation changed entirely. A car stopped on the opposite side of the road like any other parking on the shoulder. The beams flashed briefly. The window rolled down and out yelled a Hawaiian man. His voice full of joy, merrier than Santa Claus himself. I never caught a glimpse of his face or of the passenger’s, but they gave us a lift.

In that moment, we hitched a ride from the middle of nowhere right past Koloa all the way to Lihue Airport. My jaw dropped and spirit lifted. The gift of hitchhiking comes with its price, but somewhere, somehow, the universe finds a way to help you out. And that’s how we spent our last day hitchhiking Kauai, hitchhiking to the airport with the kindest locals, on a night to remember.

Kalalau Trail Hawaii’s Most Dangerous Hike

Hiking Kalalau Trail Hawaii’s Most Dangerous Hike

We landed in Kauai rather late after hitching a ride to the airport with Kalei’s ex-boyfriend. As we walked out of the airport I sensed a more laid back environment than Oahu. Maybe the rural, scenic highway walking down Route 56 skewed my judgement, or maybe walking straight for Kalalau Trail from the airport without a shuttle, taxi, or bus did it. I did not know.

But, that first night walking past the WalMart, wild camping off in the jungle with Kelly felt more memorable than ever. We slept at the top of an embankment off the highway with vines, palm leaves and roots all cattywampus around our bivy sacks.

Despite the drastic temperature change from Oahu, I slept well. Our only plan for Kauai involved hiking the Kalalau Trail off the Na Pali Coast. I heard about its beauty from a few buddies at Pacific Skydiving and it felt like the hike of a lifetime from all the stories they reminisced.

We walked down the coast, planning on taking the bus or hitchhiking, with no definite timeframe in mind. The weather held up nicely as we trucked our packs along on our first backpacking adventure together as a couple.

Kelly did not backpack. She did not really hike or hitchhike, but she joined and surprisingly did quite well for her first time.

After a few food stops and a gas station, we quickly learned the only way to Kalalau Trail without a rental car was by hitchhiking as the bus took people as far as Princeville. We thought about taking the bus, but shortly after leaving the gas station, strapping on our packs for the road, two hippies pulled off the road and gave us a lift. They noticed the sign I rigged up earlier in red marker, “Na Pali Coast Trail” in bold capital lettering. They just completed the trail recently and agreed to take us to Princeville. The driver told us tales of the valley. His wavy, brown long hair, and scruffy five o’clock shadow resembled that of a Senator Morra lookalike from Limitless. We felt the love in the air, the spirit of travel, the wanderlust, as he told us of the people whom lived in the valley at the end of Kalalau Trail.

Kalalau Trail Hawaii's Most Dangerous Hike

Pickin’ Guava along the hike with Kelly

Before the annexation of Hawaii a small community of locals lived off in the jungle of the Kalalau along the Na Pali Coast. They lived off the luscious, soil-enriched land, with dense tropical vegetation from native guavas, nuna, java plum, and limes to non-native species planted by man. The terraces stretched for miles into the end of the valley of Kalalau with mango trees, jackfruit, bananas, etc. So much fruit you could taste its essence in the air by sticking out your tongue, like a mist of sugar in a chocolate factory.

But after getting pushed off their land, the terraces and goats became an abandoned relic of the past, a hidden gem in the valley. Hippies from all over the world took this opportunity to grow fruits and help fix the terraces, living in the valley off the land. The past 50 to 60 years all different types of travelers got lost in the valley, finding themselves in an oasis of epic proportions with godly views of the Na Pali Coast. With that tale you can bet we held on for an adventure.

The passion and love flowing in the conversation took us further than Princeville. It took us to the start of the Kalalau Trail. With five hours of daylight left we set up camp off the coast underneath palm trees overlooking the thrashing ocean.

We just missed the rain, but not for very long. What no one told us about the Kalalau Trail, we completely overlooked the obvious, jungle climate. The first six miles we trudged along the coast on a six-inch wide path of muddy, slippery rocks and sludge overlooking cliff-face after cliff-face. I did not fear heights or the squishy, slick, narrow pathways, but Kelly looked terrified, with a fake smile plastered over her ghostly grin.

It felt like eternity hiking up and down and around these mountains along the Kalalau. It took much patience on my part to accept Kelly’s less than thrilled enthusiasm for this hike. But, it was not the hike itself she disliked. She just hated the steep, chilling fear of getting vertical close to the edge of a devastating dangerous ledge, which felt endless. Probably because it was…

For the first six miles we completed them in just under seven hours. I lost much of my patience watching her lollygag behind me, but I truly did not know she feared for her life. She pushed her limits to the max and it made me appreciate how much she loves me.

I sat on that thought for the rest of the night while I set up camp under a lemon tree by the restroom. We stayed pretty dry with the tarp shelter I rigged up. Although, the massive rainfall left our campsite in a ponding mess of puddles like mud-pie craters sprawled across the ground, somehow we managed.

The whole hike felt damp, misty and wet with mud brushed across my legs and wrinkled, moist feet. My boots felt like five pound weights that got heavier with each daunting step through the harsh jungle mud. Kelly endured my pain equally, but she stood firm with her decision to end her hike at the six-mile mark. Crawlers Ledge, the more open cliff-faces, excessive erosion and limited food supply solidified her decision to stay behind.

So I kept on hiking and to my surprise she made the safe choice. The hike intensified as I crossed rivers thigh deep in fast flowing water in flash flood hazard areas. I maintained my footing, bracing myself with my walking stick as much as possible. I tried not to look down at the huge drop-offs overlooking the swell crashing against the rocky walls of the ledge I scrambled past, but that’s where the view lay. So I looked. My heart thumped slowly, but as I kept a steady pace any fear subsided as I gained confidence along the way.

Kalalau Trail Hawaii's Most Dangerous Hike

Kalalau Trail approaching the end of Hawaii’s Most Dangerous Hike off the Na Pali Coast…

Surprisingly, after the 8-mile mark the rain subsided for the first time on the hike. I hiked free. I hiked alone. I hiked at my own pace. It felt relaxing and heart-breaking at the same time. Since all I thought about was my wife’s well-being and how she held up at the 6-mile shelter. The path finally dried up and for the first time I walked on solid, stable, ground, free of potential landslides and rockslides or any slippery escapades to my demise.

I squabbled along the ridge looking out at the erosion sheared next to me, with open root structures freely dangling in the wind. One step might trigger a landslide, or not, but I made it this far so I kept going as the sun winked its rays in approval.

The mountains felt infinite in both directions as I circled in a panoramic view of the coastline from a few hundred feet in the air. Their silhouettes stacked in the distance enduring an eternity of crashing breaks from the heartaches of Mother Nature. It’s no wonder the park service closed the trail whilst we hiked it. Erosion, landslides, fallen down trees, and rock slides occurred frequently in damp, rainy weather. I lucked out as I stood there overlooking Kalalau Beach without a tear in the sky.

Kalalau Trail Hawaii's Most Dangerous Hike

Approaching the 11-mile beach on the Kalalau Trail

Although, my presence on the 11-mile beach felt short-lived this hike goes into the memory bank as not only my most dangerous hike, but my most cherished because of the moments I shared with my Kelly. She stuck it out, in the cold, in the rain, wild camping, hitchhiking, hiking and walking like a champion. I am very proud of her and the many more random adventures we will share throughout our travels around the world.

Train Hopping Binghamton

Train Hopping Binghamton with the Noodle

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.

Dansville: Castle on the Hill

Dansville: Castle on the Hill

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.

Dansville: Castle on the Hill

Marien looking down at the rubble from Castle on the Hill

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.

WNY Skydiving

Marien making his first skydive at WNY Skydiving

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.

Dansville: Castle on the Hill

An iron stairwell…

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.

Dansville: Castle on the Hill

Exploring the roof and trying not to fall through…

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.

Train Hopping Binghamton

Train Hopping Binghamton without realizing it…

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.

Train Hopping Binghamton

Train Hopping Binghamton

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.

Palmdale

Goin’ Bakersfield to Catch a Train

Hitchhiking Bakersfield

I chased the rain, or it chased me, I was not sure at this point. I thought traveling through a state in a drought promised dry weather, but I spent the majority of my time seeking shelter. As I stood on the on-ramp for 215 North, I held out my thumb in desperation with a sign that read, “Palmdale.” This felt like the only corner free of homebums and junkies and promised a ride out of town to a less abandoned shit-hole. I stood there hopefully wishing each passing car to pull off and stop on the shoulder giving me a lift into the next town. Like Arizona, the heat in Southern California killed my spirits, and I almost succumbed to the shade, but just as the thought of surrendering loomed over me a Subaru pulled off on the shoulder and a window rolled down. Sweat dripped down my face splashing on the ground as I squinted looking in at the driver. I laid eyes upon a 50 year old surf bum decked out in shades and a baseball cap headed for the rural mountains of San Bernardino National Forest about 10 miles from Palmdale. I hopped in eager to get out of there and as we cruised he drove out of his way to drop me off at the nearest McDonald’s in Palmdale. I relaxed beneath a palm tree in a vacant lot by the highway, which was not uncommon for the area as I indulged in more sweet pastries from the morning. As much as I wanted to head north I loathed the heat and standing around hoping for a ride so I searched for a place to sleep and waited for nightfall. Vacant fields, and buildings existed all throughout the city between mall complexes, schools, and housing developments so finding refuge took little effort, but finding a decent ramp to hitch out of town took more walking, time and sweat, which I left for tomorrow.

Hitchhiking Bakersfield

A payphone in Palmdale…didn’t know they still had this shit. Pretty soon I’ll be hitchhiking Bakersfield and hopping trains.

I managed to dodge the rain and peacefully slept in a field of tumbleweeds on the arid desert floor. It lightly sprinkled as I faded away in the breezy darkness preparing for another adventurous day as my thoughts dissipated with the muffled sound of the wind. Morning presented itself with more walking as the temperature slightly increased with each passing minute. I sought out the next ramp, which made an unfavorable spot for hitchhiking. The ramp curved around to the highway with little space for vehicles to pull off or slow down making my efforts to catch a lift futile. A train kid who spanged near the intersection walked by with his Pitbull advising me to take a cheap Greyhound out of town. I quickly considered his suggestion as the police warned me for hitchhiking, politely asking me to leave. My feet fumbled beneath me as I staggered towards the Greyhound fighting to avoid potential rainfall. The rumble from above resonated distant thunder as a collective of darkness marched in as an army of clouds. I raced against the rain hiding out in the Greyhound terminal watching raindrops sputter against the ground in a violent downpour, which thankfully I managed to avoid. The clock ticked as I sprawled out along the floor waiting for my bus to arrive to take me to my next destination, Bakersfield. I knew Bakersfield sat north of Palmdale as the next big city along my journey to Northern California. That and it was a cheap fare that saved me from the vicious tears of mother nature.

Hitchhiking Bakersfield

In Palmdale hitchhiking Bakersfield along the horizon…

Many of my first days in California involved hide and seek, from both the bull and the rain, but they also presented me with the tranquility and beauty from long periods of freethinking and daydreaming. As I looked out the many windows of buses, passenger vehicles and boxcar doors, I felt ecstatic wandering between jobs. I always romanticized about riding trains in America like the hobos of the early 1900’s and as soon as I stepped off the bus in Bakersfield I tramped along towards the yard.

Hitchhiking Bakersfield

Hanging out in Bakersfield trying to avoid the rain.

The Greyhound always left me in the run-down part of town, near the low-income housing, which made for a clear-cut, short walk to the train yard. I continued my game with the weather watching a collage of grays and blacks shift in from the south spreading gloom above the train yard as it waited to strike with force. Little cover existed by the yard as I tiptoed in the shadows of ballast by the west, crawling my way through the hole in the fence, as a GM arrived, slowly screeching to a halt. It headed northbound to Fresno or Stockton, which marked my next destination. I sprinted to the east side of the yard, grabbing onto the only rideable unit, a gondola. As I climbed the ladder I peered into the unit and my nostalgic expression slowly evaporated seeing it half-full of metal debris, making it unsafe to ride. I hopped off the unit, grimacing, knowing the likelihood of catching out that quickly only happens once, and it already happened for me in Flagstaff on my ride to San Bernardino. My heavy eyes fluttered in exhaustion and with little cover near the yard, other than the adjacent bridge, I decided to roam east to find refuge. I slowly trotted through the city, passing homebums on sidewalks nestled in blankets and in front of businesses, watching bicycles pass, and shopping carts rattle as blank stares looked me over in confusion. I avoided confrontation, briefly saying, “hello” and disregarding obvious drug deals proceed in front of me. The only people up this early in the AM were either homeless, crazy or a combination of both. I was no different, so I blended in, melding with the misfit night-owls as I walked, searching for temporary shelter.

Hitchhiking Bakersfield

Where I slept the one night in Bakersfield…

When I walked by the library I noticed an overpass with a drainage ditch by the highway on a sloped hill. I searched the area for trash and setup shelter in the tall brush behind a few trees making me incognito from the road and adjacent homes.

Mount Raya Radio Tower

Whirring Winds Atop Mount Raya Lattice Tower 

Mount Raya Radio Tower Climbing

My legs trembled from lack of potassium and all of my limbs drooped like Jello. I slouched for a few hours before I refilled my 1.5 liter bottle with tap water and stomped along the shoulders of the windy roads, getting closer to Mount Raya. My feet, stiff as boards, finally calloused over in the holey orifices of my socks, along my toes and heels, as I continued hiking. Few vehicles drove these desolate roads and the 2-inch shoulder made hitchhiking nearly impossible, but that did not stop me from finding a ride. A young Malay man pulled off, parking his bike on the white line, signaling me to hop on with his hand. We cruised on the road spiraling around Mount Raya as the view of Langkawi below became a city model with the slow increase in elevation due to the steep grades. Smoke muddled the ozone clouding the air with a misty overlay of grey clouds from burning rubbish. He hugged each bend as we topped out at 20 KPH veering into the opposing lane. As we climbed the mountain the engine puttered like a weed wacker on the verge of an empty tank, but miraculously we made it. I waved as he coasted down Mount Raya in neutral, his smile exposing the pits in his mouth, but his scintillating character following behind him. I approached the hotel reading the small, wooden sign, “Look out tower highest point in Langkawi 900 m (ASL),” as my head tilted towards the sky, intrigued by all the radio towers within close proximity to me at MEASAT Satellite Control Center. A Chinese man scampered down the road as he exited the hotel looking at the construction progress on the abandoned building sitting next to the overpass adjacent D’Coconut Hill Resort. My bladder felt like a balloon waiting to explode as this man, the hotel owner, tried to sell me on purchasing a ticket to view the island from the dinky watchtower in the hotel. But I set my mind on a different tower as I waited for the perfect opportunity and time-frame to come to fruition. I scurried off up the hill trying to gain access to a public restroom, but hotel staff did not let me enter without paying the 10 RMB fee for the watchtower, which I refused. I pissed behind a maintenance building instead.

Four hours passed, as I lay down slumped out along a giant, granite formation, scoping the forested overgrowth below for hornbills, white-bellied sea eagles and monkeys, which I learned inhabited the tropical jungle of Mount Raya. I never saw any of these exotic beasts, but I enjoyed the splendor of Mother Nature and its panoramic view of the Andaman Sea. Young kids smoked joints, jamming out on guitars, outside of the barbed wire fence protecting the government building adjacent D’Coconut Hill Resort. The building looked abandoned from its peeled paint and empty vibe despite the abundant amount of security cameras mounted along the premises. A swarm of young teenagers pulled up in a beater, smoking cigarettes, and posing for the camera with the backdrop of Langkawi Island behind them. I bummed a cigarette off one of the kids, shooting the shit with him about Langkawi. Mount Raya attracted the high school crowd due to its 40 minute ride from local law enforcement making mischievous acts easier to get away with, like smoking weed and other drugs. He sat down, scuffing his worn Converse against the granite rock, taking intermittent drags of his cigarette while going off on a drug tangent. In fall, after a brief monsoon, he claimed the island became a bountiful land of magic mushrooms. He picked mushrooms along the side of the road, tripping on top of Mount Raya, listening to music with friends as the yawning-tingling sensation behind his ears triggered the start of the hallucination. I listened to his stories about routinely tripping on mushrooms until his friends pestered him about heading out. The car rolled off down the spiraling road after it back-fired a few times.

I squinted at one of the radio towers as a small black figure caught my eye. A man hung from the top as a belayer lowered him down the side of the lattice tower. At first I thought a kid climbed the tower, but as I walked over I later realized it was a worker dressed in casual attire. We struck up conversation and I learned about their work on the towers surrounding the MEASAT Satellite Control Center over the course of the next few days. They skedaddled as soon as his feet touched the ground, heading off to their homes, allowing me to plot my climb for tomorrow.

As I pondered, I found refuge under the overpass adjacent D’Coconut Hill Resort rolling out my sleeping bag between the run-off downspouts. I wiggled into my neon green, mummy bag, my face exposed to the element as the wind briskly scratched my nose, lolling off to the quaint sound of raindrops drizzling.
I hoped to catch the sunrise from the apex of a lattice tower, but I awoke too late, missing my opportunity. But, the deserted peak of Mount Raya still lacked hotel guests and workers as I scanned the perimeter of the MEASAT Satellite Control Center in the early morning, making tower climbing a possibility. I searched the base of each lattice tower looking for the one with the easiest entry. The barbed wire fence made climbing a little more difficult so I entered through a breach instead. First, I pushed my gear through the tiny opening hiding it behind the maintenance shed to keep it out of sight. Then I crawled on my hands and knees squeezing my body through the chain-link fence as the adrenaline started to pump through my veins, making my palms sweaty, and legs shaky, but setting my mind free. Looking over both shoulders, I proceeded to stalk the ladder at the base of the lattice radio tower until clinching my hands firmly over the first bar. The cold metal stuck to my skin as I gradually scaled the tower, wiping the perspiration off my hands as needed, so not to slip to my death. My flushed hands succumbed to the fierce wind so I took a break after reaching the first steel platform. I looked down below while maintaining two points of attachment, and through the scintillating rays of the sun, noticed two motorbikes parked inside the MEASAT Satellite Control Center. My gut told me to keep going upward for the view. At this point, if caught, I would end up with the same trespassing charges regardless, so I continued the climb to freedom. Fear engulfed my demeanor as seen in my obscure facial expressions as if I walked around as a social pariah with an “A” plastered across my chest. With each new platform, I estimated a gain in elevation of 10 meters, trumping any view seen anywhere on the island including the watchtower below. Through the humming sounds of the wind, the faint vibrations of each foot searching for the next step on the ladder and the tingling in my forearms, I heard my heartbeat pounding. My whole body pulsated in unison with my heart as I cracked out a smile from the majestic view of the Andaman Sea, Langkawi and Thailand. After four steel platforms I reached the final platform at the top of the lattice tower. I felt like a leaf blowing in the wind as it shook me side-to-side while I enjoyed the greatest 12 seconds of my life, better than sex, better than drugs, better than anything I ever experienced in life. Just immersing myself in the panoramic view of the island, absorbing its beauty, felt indescribable and I wanted to savor that moment for the rest of my life.

I scaled down the tower in about half the time it took to climb it, dreading reaching the bottom. I figured security in the control center reported me to local police and they stood down at the bottom waiting to arrest me. Lethargy spread through my forearms as I hastily climbed down the ladder, skipping up to three steps at a time, to reach the base of the tower. As I reached the first level I looked at the control center. The bikes leaned parallel to one another, held up by their kick stands. They did not appear to move nor did I notice any workers. I let out a sigh of relief, covertly sneaking over to my bag, shimmying through the fence like an earthworm wiggling on pavement.

Mount Raya Radio Tower

The view from above on Mount Raya Radio Tower!  A much better view than climbing the radio tower in Labis

The hotel owner yammered on about walking up 4000 steps the previous day to reach the top of Mount Raya, so I searched the roadway for an access point to take a different path down. After a futile effort of searching I stomped down the hill, smacking my feet against the ground, thudding with every step from the steep grade. It felt like a race against myself because at times I needed to focus my energy on slowing down to relieve the pressure in my knee joints, which seemed counterproductive. The harsh, spiraling, narrow roads drained my spirit as I poured the last drop of water into my mouth. I stood there, completely parched, as I walked in the shadows of the jungle. Restaurants fell right outside the base of the mountain, but this did not help my predicament. My muscles contracted while I perched on a rock several kilometers from civilization, my thumb on my chin, nodding off, and then it hit me. I remembered a stream corkscrewing around the mountain with a drainage pipe at the halfway point. When I reached the pipe a film of green algae spread over the opening like wildfire as my mouth watered in exasperation. My pack did not have water purification tablets, and it looked questionable, but I made the choice to fill my supply from the fast-flowing waterfall behind it. Water splashed against the rocks, spraying my sweaty shirt, sending a chilly sensation across my breasts, as I leaned inward to fill my bottle. I puckered my lips, fearing harmful bacteria, as I drank just enough to quench my thirst for the rest of the trek down. It tasted pure like spring water, but I sipped on it sparingly, to avoid dehydration and any painful stomach issues.

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