Bippin’ – Bum In Public – Day ? – Excerpt
Panting and slobber filled the air early morning. As Pam stretched her hind legs and limbered up, the rest of the crew tried to squeeze out a few last minutes of sleep, before giving into the blistering heat. I lay there half-zonked pulling my sleeping bag over my head to savor my last minutes of comfort while the others started to pack up. Todd pulled his tent stakes out of the ground, and broke down his tent poles, while Doug knelt on the ground cocooning his bedroll. His grunting forced his bottom lip to curl out as he wrestled to quickly bungee it to his pack. I shook my head holding back laughter, squinting into the sinister sky, rubbing my eyes one last time. I did not know who looked goofier, him working over an inanimate object like an oaf or his dog drooling with her red, fruit roll-up tongue that dangled between her toothless canal.
“How’d you hold up last night Todd,” I muttered tilting my head back towards him.
“Meh…not too shabby…was fuckin’ cold last night though bro, but thanks for the tent. It helped a lot since I only got this one blanket…still pissed those fuckers stranded me and took everythin’,” ranted Todd in a heated voice.
“Eh…don’t thank me bud…Doug gave me the tent yesterday outside the Love’s. Figured I could use it, but you needed it more…so it’s all good.”
“Well, thanks bro…preciate it.”
Then, there sat Doug by the far end of the store. He huddled up by the only trashcan in walking distance to the front entrance, hoping to stir up a quick conversation with any passerby. He hunched over with his back curved against the wall in a scoliosis-manner, smiling through jagged pits of decayed teeth. His glasses gave him a googly-eyed look making him rather unapproachable and scary-looking, but his dog always eased him into conversation with his typical ice-breaker. Pam lay there sprawled out along the cool concrete sidewalk, her tongue slung out of her mouth like a red carpet, drooling profusely. Doug leaned his sign against the wall which simply read, “EAST” and just waited to interact with any person within eye-contact. He twiddled his thumbs and at the soonest glance he always stuttered, “Hiii…” Sometimes people sped by with a slight head-nod and muttered nothing. Other times they stopped, completely exasperated by the dog and her sunglasses and as soon as a word rolled off their tongue of any vernacular, English, Spanish, it did not matter. Off Doug yammered onto his story.
“Ohhh how cute…she has glasses,” they’d say with a slight sparkle in their faces.
And there went Doug again runnin’ his mouth with his usual antics, a real raconteur.
“Well ya see…she has the glasses for a reason…see when she was young she was kicked in the face by a moose…almost lost her…I made em myself from supplies at the Home Depot. See we’re from North Pole, Alaska,” he’d mumble, fixing the bridge of his glasses with his index finger as he spoke in a grungy voice.
Last, there was I, who sat Indian-style between Todd and Doug with my sign stuck to the window of the store. It read, “EAST,” in as big of letters as I could fit on my piece of cardboard. I did not crack spange as Todd started to do, harassing the customers for spare change to buy food. I also did not embark on fairy-tales of magical moose stories where little dogs survived the thrust of their hooves. Instead I sat there making eye-contact with the customers I thought might extend their sympathies to my situation. Often I kept strong posture, maintaining a bit of sadness in my eyes to look desperate, but not too desperate, and with a slight head-nod I sounded off a, “Hello there sir or ma’am,” in a friendly voice. People remained courteous, but rarely extended any offers for rides, except a few select hippies, but they all drove westbound for a festival.
“Man…dooooood…no waaaayyyy…all you guys are hitchin’ outta here? Doooood…you guys know where we can get any buds at maaaaan? We’re goin’ to this festival in Cali and all eight of us ran outta ganja bro. We’re fuckin’ desperate…how am I gonna make the drive there sober maaannn? Shit dooood…if we were headin’ east, we’d grab all of ya…sorry doood.”
“Uhhh…there’s a border patrol checkpoint like 20ish miles down the road dude. Probably don’t wanna be drivin’ with any type of fuckin’ drugs on you unless ya wanna end up in jail. So, I’d say hold off on the weed til you pass it,” I pontificated in a gruff tone.
“Thaaanks dooood…kinda forgot how close we were to the border ya know…bein stoned and all. Safe travels brothers.”
Our heads all shifted back-and-forth blinking furiously at each other in stupefaction.
We cheered our malt beverages and passed around the box, biting into the freshly cooked pizza, gulping it down as it singed the tips of our tongues with melted cheese. Each morsel tasted stupendous, like the best pie ever made, but only because of our hunger. Living on gas station food for multiple days did not really give us fuel, not that pizza was any more nutritious, but it sure felt filling, piling into our empty stomachs. Every last crumb, piece of crust, bits of cheese and pepperoni crunched in our mouths leaving the box empty with a circle of only pizza grease left behind.
I finished my steelie, and even with a plump gut, I felt a little woozy from the alcohol, but I stopped at the last drop. Overindulgence in a new group of people never appealed to me. Besides I overheard Doug rambling on about catchin’ out on a train.
“Train stopped just long enough last night few signals back…just long enough to hop onto…think me and Pam gonna check er out tonight boys. I wanna get outta here…if I gotta spend another day here tomorrow I’m hitchin’ back west to go east…this gas station just ain’t cuttin’ it…not makin’ any money or gettin’ no rides too,” mumbled Doug with a pouty face.
“Where did it stop man? I’ve heard trains fly through here all day, but I never saw one stop on the main line by a signal…not really any reason to…” I questioned him.
“Well…I’m tellin’ you it stopped richboy…You can do with that what ya want…my ears heard her…Pam’s ears heard her…and we’re gonna check er out.”
“Whatever dude, I just asked a fuckin’ question…no need to be a dick. Todd and Brian, you guys comin’ then? It looks like we’re gonna go full-out Dirty Kid status, try an hop out 4-deep with a dog on a train along the sunset line…you in?”
Brian staggered out of the store slamming down his third steelie, completely inebriated and slurring his words with a big grin shining through his red beard.
“Fuucck yeaah dude…I always..hiccup…wanted to ride…hiccup…a traaain. I gotta…hiccup…call my cousin…hiccup…he never…hiccup…believe me…”
“And you Todd,” I asked?
“I mean…well…we ain’t get no rides outta this shithole today…what makes me think we’re gonna get a fuckin’ ride out tomorrow? It’s like I said…people don’t fuckin’ pick you up in Texas, but they’ll give ya food…Yeah, I’m in…longs as I feel safe,” he groaned.
The mounds of ballast crunched beneath our footsteps, as we scampered along, following the shiny steel beams towards the next signal, drifting a few miles from the gas station. Doug seemed unconfident and lost, questioning his whereabouts on where the signal stood, or if even one existed. I questioned myself and why I followed this buffoon, but here I stood wandering along the train tracks with two guys and a dog. I only hoped that Border Patrol did not monitor these areas because if they did I put myself back in the same situation as my first day in Sierra Blanca, TX.
As I squinted, I witnessed the slight presence of red shone a few feet off the ground among a post. Doug confirmed it; so we ventured off to the side of the tracks, hiding behind barren brush as the tumble weeds bounced by with the whirring wind. We waited for hours. Would I ever get the fuck outta dodge? Who knew?
Dosin’ on Doug
Another lugubrious day squished my spirits right from the moment I awakened. I slept by the side of the road the night prior, bivy in the desert sand, between brittle bushes free of leaves, with dead tumbleweeds bouncing around through the gusts of her fury. That slight chill, cooling my sunburn, erasing the touch of fire against my skin quickly vanished with the clear blue sky. That good old Texas sun snarled down at me and with each mile I tired to a plodding pace seeking refuge under any lone tree or viaduct by the I-10.
I squinted; my eyes witnessed a pull-off a few hundred feet ahead, with pavilions, a bathroom, and limited traffic. I stopped. My feet cramped from constant walking on the rough endless pavement as I cooled off in the shade, massaging my calloused feet, one toe at a time.
“Hey buddy…thought ya be further down the road by now. Doug’s still back there hustlin’ his moose story,” snickered Todd.
I guffawed, exposing my yellow teeth, as I took a drag of a cigarette I found from a nearby ashtray, offering the last few drags to Todd.
“Where’d ya come from anyway?”
“Got some miles in last night and crashed by the side of the road…figured I’d get some in while it was cool…no way was I gonna listen to fuckin’ Doug and his moose story at the Love’s for another day,” I said in a disgruntled voice.
“Yeah he’s still back there…he didn’t wanna walk this far.”
“I think we’re like 15 miles away from the next truck stop…not sure which side of the road it’s on, but anything is better than where we we’re at…there’s too many people there anyway tryin’ to all hitch the same direction.”
“Yeah I agree…you wanna get to walkin’…got a long fuckin’ day ahead of us with this sun…least we got smokes with all these butts on the side of the road. Won’t get no rides though in this fuckin’ state.”
And just when I thought it could not get any worse I heard a dilapidated Honda pull up emitting plumes of smoke. A chain jingled and a four-legged canine jumped out, her tongue drooped out of her mouth flopping side-to-side. My eyes widened as I stared at her ridiculous sunglasses and behind her frame stood the old hobo from the Love’s. Doug stood there with his bottom lip pronounced as if in deep thought. He looked like Bubba from Forrest Gump, waddling back-and-forth closer to us, fiddling into his pocket pulling out a wad of 20’s.
“Didn’t get a ride outta there, but crossed the street…held my sign that said, “East” and people kept handin’ me 20’s…even the cops gave me money before they tore up my sign…easily made 200 bucks…think it was my Veteran’s cap that did it or Pam layin’ down in the heat…Pam and I started walkin’ down the road and got picked up from a guy who got a speedin’ ticket…said he was goin’ further, but he’d give me a ride to the next truck stop…”
Todd and I looked at each other befuddled and perplexed. I sat there exasperated tilting my head towards the man whom woke up against the wall. He rubbed his bloodshot eyes and sat up from his slumber, initiating conversation while twirling tendrils of his beard between his index finger. This allowed me to break free of Doug’s ersatz behavior as he continued to babble on with his far-fetched stories. Todd and I looked blankly off into space as the fourth hitchhiker introduced himself.
“The name’s Brian…I been stuck here for a day already…walked from the Love’s the other day after Border Patrol stopped me back on the 10, at the checkpoint.”
“So you drove to Van Horn? Why’d they stop you,” I said confusedly?
“Hahaha…well…funny story…I was bangin’ this broad back in Vegas…and well shit was goin’ south…so I kinda “borrowed” her car without tellin’ her and started drivin’ it across the country…but ya see…I kinda forgot about Border Patrol. They nabbed me back at the checkpoint for drivin’ a stolen vehicle, but they couldn’ hold me cuz I knew the bitch, her numba, and all her information…so I just started walkin’…ended up here.”
Stuck Hitchhiking Van Horn, Texas
When I first stepped out of the police vehicle my wrists pained from the cuffs jamming into my bones. A red groove appeared under each cuff as the officer twisted the key, removing them as he pointed down the road.
“County line is here kid…this is as far as we can take ya…got a good walk ahead of ya to Van Horn, but shouldn’t be too bad.”
He paused and hocked up a wad, tobacco residue dribbled down his stubbly chin staining it brown. Ptui! His spit ricocheted off the ground just missing my leg as I held back scorn and disgust.
“Four miles down there there’s a gas station kid.”
He pointed, wiping the pool of saliva off his chin with his shirt cuff and proceeded to crack out his tin of dip, packing another horseshoe in his lip. I hoisted myself up in the back of the pickup and grabbed my pack, shucking it over the tailgate.
“Thanks for the lift sir,” I whispered as I nodded my head in an unenthusiastic manner.
Once cooled, I drifted outside to check out the lot, hoping to fly a sign for a ride out to Pecos. An old crusty hobo came into view crouched in the corner with his pack and dog. His back lay against the brick wall hiding in the only small shadow as the sun slowly stole more shade. His Veteran’s cap held back his greasy gray hair, as he poked the frame of his glasses to keep them from sliding down his face. Then the man broke out a smile of rotten, smashed in front teeth. Where I saw not a grueling yellow, but pitted black amongst the roots. He hunched over, reaching out with his proletarian hand, the crevices smeared with black grease and dirt crammed under his nails. He looked like an older version of me as I shook his hand.
“Name’s Douglass Brown, but ya can call me Doug…this hur is mah dog…her name’s Pam…she was kicked in the face by a Moose. We’re from North Pole, Alaska…lived there mah whole life.”
The morbid desert heat tackled my brain, delaying my thoughts, ever so slightly as I looked over at his dog, registering just how ridiculous she looked. Her fur gleaned a goldish-brown with slobber dripping out of her mouth as if she swallowed a tennis shoe with the laces dangling side-to-side. As my eyes scanned upwards they latched onto her black safety glasses held onto her head by an elastic band guided behind her ears.
I held back laughter at the sight of her shades.
“What’s with her glasses, Doug,” I snickered?
“I told YOU…she was kicked in the face by ah MOOSE…happened when she was just three years old…ever since…she’s been extra sensitive to light. You like them glasses? I made em myself.”
“Haha yeah I guess…they look interesting.”
I squinted; holding back sarcasm and giggles at his ludicrous story.
“Got this hur handy book o truck stops…from my understandin’ looks to be 19 miles north of hur. If it’s still there…this hur book is old…done me well though.”
“Aight, well I’m too tired to truck it up there in this heat…maybe tomorrow if we don’t get outta here. So what brings you to Van Horn, TX anyway?”
“We got stuck here comin’ from North Pole, Alaska…been hitchin’ our way down and across the country to get to the Carolinas to see my mah…she’s not doin’ too well…haven’t seen her in 10 years. Figured me an Pam would go see her before she’s gone…”
“Yeah I done that an last year Pam and I rode across the country from Massachusetts to Alaska raisin’ awareness for Veterans. I did 12 years in the air force as a helicopter pilot.”
“You served in Nam then?”
“Nah, not old enough to serve in Nam…only 55.”
“Oh, well your cap says Vietnam War Veteran…so I just assumed you served there.”
“Nah, I just do that when I’m flyin’ signs or spangin’ to get money. Been fightin’ with the government for years now tryin’ to get back the money they owe me from my medical discharge…that’s why muh teeth er all fucked up.”
“Shit man…that sucks…so you live in Alaska?”
He pulled out a thick wallet stashed with all kinds of ID’s and business cards and flashed me his Alaskan identification card.
“See there…NORTH POLE, AK…that’s where I’m from…born and raised…my dad built a six bedroom cabin thinkin’ he’d have other kids, but I’m the only one…I was also on Deadliest Catch Season 3…”
His extravagant line of stories continued as I listened to some truth mixed with utter bullshit echo from his foul-smelling mouth. The bike tour held true, so maybe he premiered on Deadliest Catch. I had no idea, but his dog gettin’ kicked in the face by a moose? Come on, no fuckin’ way I believed that.
He staggered onto the sidewalk drenched in perspiration holding a tiny backpack with only water, and a change of clothes. He stretched out along the ground, his holey jeans exposing his sun-burnt skin to the brisk whirs of wind. His eyes drooped from lack-of-sleep and persistent walking as sweat dribbled down his face meandering through the gray stubbles of hair sprouting out of his worn exhausted face. He looked rough even compared to Doug.
His heavy breathing dissipated after several minutes and he finally spoke.
“Fuck…I just walked from fuckin’ El Paso, TX to here…without one fuckin’ ride,” roared Todd with a disdain about his voice for Texans.
“Damn dude, why didn’t you try to hitchhike,” I exclaimed?
“I figured someone would just pick me up if they seen me walkin’ down the I-10…ya know? Seems like the decent thing to do, especially considerin’ my shit got jacked in El Paso. Went in to use the john and my ride drove off with all my clothes n’ shit. Paid em 300 dollahs to take me to Corpus Christi bro. 300 fuckin’ dollahs…the last of my money. I been livin’ off ketchup packets and sugar packets for days. Fuckin’ pricks…So how long you’s guys been here?”
“Two days for him, a day for me…doesn’t look like we’re gonna get outta here from this spot especially with three people now tryin’ to hitch all the same direction…I’m hittin’ up the next truck stop tomorrow to spread out a bit.”
I rolled and fidgeted in my sleeping bag for hours, aggravated from the noise spewing from Todd’s mouth, the idling of trucks and the loud conversation from the state troopers parked in front of us as we slept on the ground. I felt restless, and stuck. In no way could I withstand another day of Doug’s bullshit stories and compulsive lies, every word that poured out of his mouth made me irritated. I wanted to mute my ears, but instead I rolled up my gear, strapped it to my pack and started my early morning tramp down the I-10 for the next truck stop 19 miles away.
At 2 AM my chance of a ride was slim, but the moonlit sky made the presence of light much more bearable than that of the Texas sun, which stalked me each day, suffocating me of fluids, sanity and causing me to burn in my own skin. So I walked alone in the night. I walked away from Doug, and Pam, away from Todd, stepping further north towards Pecos. How many more days did Van Horn set aside for me until I met up with my train again?
Train Hopping Amarillo
I walked for hours that night towards the next yard off of Buchanan Street. My legs felt like concrete blocks as they swung along the pavement, a hobbling Neanderthal. Riding hard with limited sleep made long walks less desirable than normal, but the coal industry put me several miles away from my ideal location, to hop out the following day. Night soothed me shedding a freedom of solitude as I limped down the backstreets through Amarillo. Stray Chihuahuas roamed the streets yapping and growling at me as I passed the BNSF yard office and tower.
“Get back fuckers! I’m in no mood right now. Get the fuck back before I punt ya like Baxter…all of ya…”
With a sudden pause of silence I heard a wisp of wind whirling through the thick air. I looked straight in the leader’s wide, dark, eyes as the others shadowed behind him. His lips curled around his little teeth. His tail drooped. His weight shifted out of an attack stance as he surrendered to my evil eye.
I kept tramping onwards down the dark, vacant roads, and between the run-down, boarded homes I saw souped up rice-burners, tint, rims and busted out windows. Keeping my head low I lengthened my stride. Pitbulls howled ferociously behind chain-linked fencing, slobber dripping off their lips in clumps, ponding on the ground in bubbled pools. I hustled, fearing to wake the neighbors and then a familiar sound pierced my ears. The sound of a beast hitting the steel. I peered out behind a series of industrial complexes and locked eyes on a loaded unit coal train clacking across the tracks, thumping and bumping, as it rolled through the yard. I stood too far away, as it picked up speed, disappearing into the night. My pace slowed to a whimpering halt as I stood inches from a water tower, fatigued and sleepy. Two buildings stood between me and the tracks as I tiptoed between a trashed alleyway, the hop out. My eyes flickered and I peeled them open just to stay awake, reading the first sign that came into view, “No Weapons, BNSF Railroad Property” then I noticed the dinky “No Trespassing” sign. I scampered behind the building rustling through fallen down branches and weeds, ready to lay it down anywhere. A dirt access road crawled to the tracks with a patch of woods between. I pulled out my bedroll and despite the handful of stopped eastbound trains, I shutdown in complete exhaustion.
Light peeked in taunting my eyes and I awoke that afternoon to the sound of tires scrunching over loose gravel. BNSF workers parked in front of the adjacent building, a semi-circle roof of corrugated metal. I watched through the tree-line as I stuffed away my gear and I sat patiently.
Over the next several hours, I waited; sinking my eyes into a mystery novel. Workers came and left sporadically as I dove deeper into fiction waiting for my train. Horns bellowed and trains crawled along, hitting the steel, but not my train.
Time slowly passed as if frozen in a peaceful bliss, the words came to life as I consumed each page, until completion. The naked sky wilted like a flower losing its vibrant radiance to darkness as I geared up to go. This yard kept me cautious and on edge, because the tower peeked over the mainline for geographic northbound trains making it harder to catch out. I did not want to end up in jail for a week. So, I kept my vigilance about me, sweeping into the yard only for a stopped Intermodal train (geo nbd), scanning its consist for rideable wells with each passing 53′ and 48′ freight car.
Junk rolled in and stopped. Its screeching sounds enticed me to board an open boxcar, but I refrained, waiting patiently for my ride. I sat there against the cool ground in a blank stare, ready to roam. With a little more patience the Train Gods answered my prayers as double stacks rolled in and stopped on the main line.
I pounced up and buckled my hip strap, securing my pack. I hated searching freight cars for floors. I was so horrendous when it came to identifying a rideable Intermodal freight car. For me, it involved too much huffing and puffing as I flashed my light under the wheels, drenching in sweat and fear. I knew a better way existed, I just lacked the riding time, and the experience. I searched dubiously, car after car, suicide, not a deep enough well, only a porch. I trotted faster as she flirted with me, toying with my patience, until finally she let me inside…inside a mini well that is. I squeezed underneath the grate, laying against the cold steel, my pack squished as far into the corner as possible.
That sweet release of air hissed into the hoses linked between freight cars, and with a sudden jerk, we slowly squealed through the yard. My eyes widened as we crawled past the eye in the sky near the tower. But our pace gradually increased with distance from the soft purr of a lioness to the roar of a lion until we blazed out of there.
The constant vibrations bouncing along the tracks soothed me like a lullaby. Before long I fell into a slumber only known to riders, in and out of sleep like a dream, waking up in another state. We stopped in Carrier early morning about 3 AM. To my surprise I awoke nine hours later in Carrier, Oklahoma. We never moved.
Siding out for 12 hours in Carrier, OK after train hopping Amarillo the night prior…wtf
Tick…tock…tick…tock…the time passed at a snails pace. With nothing to read, or eat, I lay there saving my last drops of water, waiting for the sound of air or a white van to appear. Trains, right? Yeah, trains, unpredictable. Siding out 11 miles from the nearest service for 12 hours on an Intermodal train, I never expected it. It perplexed me as I looked out at the flat terrain drowning in infinite greenery. I saw only one tiny barn, a small patch of trees and plumes of dust sputtering in the distance with a vehicle driving by seldomly once an hour.
Train Hopping Amarillo, TX to Tulsa, OK and the pretty views along the way…
My lips cracked with a dry yearning for liquid, anything to quench my thirst. I moistened them with a few drops as I reached the last quarter of my 1.5 liter bottle. When would it move? I did not know, but I needed to save my fluids in case I needed to hoof it into town.
Train Hopping Amarillo, TX – More of Oklahoma…not much to see…the ride into Amarillo was pretty awesome though about 20 miles outside of the city.
Faintly I heard the noise of a horn from behind my train. Its presence became more distinct like the sound of an approaching storm. I hid along the ballast waiting for it to fly by us, hoping my train might move by sunset. But then my ears focused on the noise of the steel. The loud wrenching dulled as the front engines rolled by me and the thunderous roars became tender squeals as the engineer hit the air brakes, slowing her down. She slowed just enough to catch on the fly. I stood on the porch of the stopped train looking down at each passing car for a rideable well. She slowly crawled along the tracks and after forty or so cars, I noticed a mini well approaching. I carefully hopped off between the two trains and ran along the ballast, clasping the rung tightly. As I boarded we picked up substantial speed headed toward the next town.
Train Hopping Amarillo to Oklahoma
With a quick side out we plowed through the small country towns and I looked out at nothing. Nothing I remember anyway. Oklahoma looked as flat and barren as southern Delaware. Vivid green countryside, cattle and Cottonwood trees lined the tracks until approaching the cities.
The Mooooo Cows
Somewhere through all of that I began to miss home, wherever home was, I didn’t know. But, then I realized home was where my wife lived and worked. Home was temporarily in Huntsville, Alabama. Even if it meant homebummin it off Bob Wallace Highway, I needed to see her again. No sooner did my train pull into Tulsa did I scarf down Wendy’s and hop on the next one for a long fuckin’ day of riding. Next stop…Springfield, MO.
After kickin’ it for a week in a townhouse off of Martin Luther King Blvd., gettin’ high off edibles, and free climbing the Flatirons in Boulder, I felt eager to hit the road again. Meeting up with my old college partner-in-crime made me reminisce the past. Honestly, my life has not changed much since college. I just want to fuck around, live hard, and free, with a little work in between and provide for my wife. Whether I have a roof over my head or not, she does and always will. Everyone around me is growing up, adulting so-to-speak, and I’m just stuck in a transience, trying to see as much as I can, recently, by train.
That night, with the warm mountain air touching my skin tenderly with a lust, I packed up my gear and began my long tramp to 31st street. The RTD public transportation service resided in downtown Denver, but my intentions were not public transit. I sought to catch the next freight train to, well, nowhere in particular. See, once I got that gypsy blood flowing, that urge deep down in my gut, to just get up and go, it did not matter where I ended up. That wholeheartedly defined adventure, freedom, the foot-loose beauty of the steel beneath me as I sailed away across the country. Most people in society see a man with no job, a backpack and coal dust on his face as a detriment to society, a waste, a bum. But, we picture it differently and with those thoughts ringing my brain like a wet towel I just moseyed along, inching closer to the ballast, steel, and my ride outta town.
I always left for the yard right before sunset. The best time to creep around the yard for recon, hiding in the shadows of freight cars, trotting along the ballast, in search of a departing train. Denver yard antagonized me, partly because the activity amongst the city. People in Colorado walked. They ran, jogged, put themselves in the outdoors, which as a train tramp felt unknown to me. I wallowed in the darkness, not because of its inherent dangers filling the shadows of the street lights, with booze, drugs and prostitutes, but because I walked alone in the night. Night camouflaged me from security, citations and potential jail time. I knew its risk and wandered anyway.
Those eight miles strolled by in a yawn. As I roamed 31st Street to enter the yard behind Denver’s industrial complexes and closed-off construction areas, in the midst of gentrification, I stumbled upon a closed road. The perfect entrance. I tiptoed reaching the ballast, scanning the yard for cameras and without hesitation I ran. The first three empty tracks sprawled out across the ground, vacant of trains, with only steel, spikes and wood separating me from hiding for my next ride out of town. I hopped up on a stopped train, planting my ass and pack inside the fox hole of a grainer. The clock ticked and my body waited patiently, ready for the next train no matter the direction. The ground rumbled in an uproar as I felt the vibrations of an oncoming locomotive and my spirits rose in an elated manner. Her wheels purred against the steel in a tender squeal as the engineer worked the air brakes, ten, twenty, thirty empty coal cars rolled by, but she ceased to halt. I sat up and pounced on my feet, jogging along the train, waiting for my ride, the back unit. Clenching the ladder I pulled myself up as I skedaddled to the side door. I jiggled the handle and tried to open her up, but my attempts remained nil.
“Shit another locked unit.”
I hopped off and watched her sail away, heading north to the unknown, as an oncoming train squeaked by on the 1st main line. I looked ahead and my eyes met with a worker’s flashlight, as he checked the air hoses on an adjacent train, oblivious to my existence. Immediately I changed my course, hopping onto the ladder of a southbound loaded coal car. She rolled slowly through the yard. Slow enough for me to switch sides of the train putting me out of sight of the yard. Again the unit rolled by and I took a second attempt at the side door with futility striking my efforts.
I jogged along up to the next loaded coal car, climbing up the ladder, in plain view, throwing my body and pack against the grime and dust of the steel box. I lay across the jagged rubble, coal poking my back and legs as plumes of dust crept into every crevice of my body, assaulting my nostrils and caruncles. I scratched my eyes a teary red and sniffled, my eyes set on Big Brother from above, watching me from the masts of the yard. I escaped unseen on the slowest, dirtiest ride ever heading south to industry.
Where? It did not matter. We chugged along at 15 mph through the frosty night sky. The clouds smiled with a twinkle of the myriad stars shining over the silhouette of mountaintops. An effervescence flowed freely through the air with pine and cheer. I stood up plowing through the small, dark, rural towns, the wind whistling, as we crawled along the tracks.
“Man, what a slow fucking ride…”
After 4 hours we meandered through the valleys to Colorado Springs, where I came up with an ingenious plan to ride the unit. How? The nose and side door stood there locked and dauntless, but the side window now, hmmm…
I left my pack on loaded coal fragments and moseyed along towards the unit. Using the hand railings and gripping the side of the unit I clung on like life depended on it because it did. I reached out as far as my small wingspan could reach, crimping the top cuff of the metal with one arm and prying the window open with the other. With a few jiggles she opened effortlessly leaving a small space to crawl into. I shifted my fingers to the top of the unit, slowly edging across the cuff like a rock climber crimping his next move. Then I reached down into the open space pulling my body upward as my feet dangled freely a story above the ballast. I wiggled for a second and threw myself in on the engineer’s chair, walked over to the side door and unlocked it. Grabbing my pack, I set my gear on the floor and raided the fridge for water. With a pisser, electrical outlet and speedometer I sat in my throne, the Cadillac of rides, a multi-million dollar unit. Naturally I checked the inspection log. I still had hours to spare before the next inspection. So I adjusted the thermostat, sprawled out along the rubberized floor, and drifted off to sleep.
When I awoke we arrived in La Junta, CO prior to sunrise. We sat there for hours right past the mouth of the yard, at a siding. I fidgeted inside, antsy to leave not anticipating inspection. But that’s what fell into my lap.
As the sun poked up across the horizon it winked at me and my mind finally snapped out of my morning daze. “Shit a crew change, inspection. I need to get out of the DPU.” I stared out the back window as a white dot slowly materialized into a van. The van stopped alongside the train where I planned my escape, the side door. With the nose locked I could crawl out of the window, but my pack would not fit. All these thoughts rambled my brain until I heard the jingling of the masterlock outside, a flannel shirt came into view and I surrendered fearing arrest. I did not have time to hide in the shitter. I stood there with my hands up. The engineer let out a small yelp as he stumbled backwards.
“Is there anyone else in there I should know about?”
“No, sir. Sorry.”
“Well step out on this side. Don’t want ya to get hit…”
“You know where you’re at?”
“Yes, sir. La Junta.”
He stood there motionless for a second as I wondered how many days I’d sit in La Junta Jail.
“Go on now…have a nice day.”
And just like that all that fear, anguish and uncertainty subsided. I walked away casually unsure of my next move. The van rolled along towards the front engine, as I heard the ballast rumble beneath rubber. I lingered in the desert behind the only dead tree near the yard pondering what to do. What if I hopped back on the same train? The yard looked dead. Nothing worked, I saw no activity, security or bulls. I did not want to get stuck in a dead yard in a small town so I sat on the idea.
Sure enough after an hour the units powered up and air hissed filling the hoses for departure. Slowly she began to glide along the smooth steel beneath her feet. I ran quickly, scampering to a loaded coal car, scaling the ladder, for yet another tussle with coal. A battle I surely lost as every orifice, and pore of skin covered in a black dust like a walking Grim Reaper.
We cruised along for 20 miles and stopped again next to the Arkansas River at a signal. I wondered if he locked the window to the unit? Surely my curiosity made me check, but first I tried the side door. Locked, as I thought. After a few moments, I found myself sitting back in my 5-star ride, gaining access through the very same window as the previous night. I smiled and laughed as I rode the same train I got pulled off of, in the same unit, of all else.
I peeked out the window watching the riparian vegetation outline the riverbed cascading alongside the train. Shortgrass prairie scattered between vibrant green willow shrubs contrasting the countryside engulfed around me. I felt freedom and at peace just watching the diverse scenery slowly change around me. Without any exertion on my part other than twisting off a cap to my next water, it felt legendary. A generation of culture just out there to see it all, no matter what or where it was, by train, and I found myself slowly becoming apart of it. Not because I had to, but because I chose to, while temporarily out of work waiting for my next job to pick up.
Shortly, we entered Oklahoma, growling through open, desolate plains, with tractors and silos more commonplace the further we ventured. Farmers tilled soil in their fields, highways drowned in the freedom of emptiness and suddenly after the next crew change I found myself in another state.
The next big approaching city, Amarillo, stood within a few hundred miles of my location after leaving the tip of Oklahoma for the Texas Panhandle. The train snoozed along the tracks slowly putting along the steel at unbearably slow speeds. High and rolling plains snarled at me with mounds of redbed clays and coarse sand in the distance. Among the prairies I witnessed mesquite woodlands as I basked from my swivel chair, peering out the window.
After 30 long hours of riding, and several crew changes I planned my hop out closer to town, scrutinizing the speedometer carefully to find the appropriate time to hop off. As we rolled past Route 66 towards the coal industry I watched the sun sink below the horizon emitting bright shades of pink and blue sky beyond the dashboard of the unit. 15…10…8…6 mph flashed across the screen and I walked the plank with my gear strapped to my back, hopping off to figure out my next plans. Where to sleep?