The Fresno Train Yard
The Fresno Train Yard

Train Hopping Fresno

It briskly showered the night before covering my bivy in a film of morning dew. My sleeping pad soaked up every droplet of water from the moist ground making it feel like a 5 pound weight strapped to the top of my pack. I retreated back to the road to avoid being seen near the top of the overpass, throwing my pack over the fence. It made a loud plop as it hit the ground splattering water every which way, leaving a wet imprint on the sidewalk as I lifted it back up, throwing it over my shoulders, immediately loathing the extra weight.

Knowing little cover existed near the train yard I decided to wander further east to check out Panorama Park, relaxing and allowing my gear to dry in the overcast weather. I wandered through suburbia, little quaint, run-down homes surrounded me. As I walked I heard vicious, disgruntled barks held back by chain link fencing, they slowly faded with distance as I separated myself from each property. Each park car I glanced at presented itself with a security sticker on the driver’s side door along with steering wheel anti-theft devices. I continued my walk through the rough neighborhoods, my body odor and backpack shielding me from crime.

When I reached the park, it attracted many locals, dog walkers, joggers, runners, teenagers, power walkers and squirrels, a myriad of California Ground Squirrels. They squabbled about in the dense vegetation chasing one another through the many Cottonwood and Sycamore trees as I sat on a bench overlooking the Kern River. The dark blue river meandered through the bluffs with the densest oil fields my eyes ever witnessed cascading endlessly in the distance. Thousands of rigs worked in unison monopolizing my eyes in amazement from the over-industrialization spread out beneath the steep slopes of the bluffs. I watched, and read, as the time passed by and the clouds caught up to me filling the sky with sadness. People fumbled for their keys, running for their vehicles to exit the rain, as I headed back towards downtown seeking refuge under Mill Creek Bridge in the park. The homebums slept on benches and gathered around tables near the restrooms with their shopping carts and other clutter festering in the park. It lightly sprinkled as I waited for night fall to catch out north towards Fresno or Stockton on a GM.

My eyes shifted to the Mallard ducks below, swimming in circles, chasing rain drops in Mill Creek lake as I threw bits of bread to each of them. Train hopping took patience, but the thrill of catching out was worth enduring every minute of the outdoors no matter how serene or despicable. I waited, and waited some more, sprawled out on the bridge deck with my head nestled on my pack.

I spaced out for a bit not realizing the rain halted. I walked down the north end of the tracks through a hole in the chain link fencing putting me within a mile of the train yard.

I found cover in tumbleweeds, placing the barricade in a circle around my body and gear, as I lay next to the tracks, waiting, praying, and hoping for a train. The sky groaned like a plague waiting to drown the city. A horn blasted signaling a departure. I peaked my eye through the thistles of tumbleweed preparing to catch on the fly as the train journeyed northbound. My body lay still, dressed in black, waiting for the front engines to pass in order to make my move out of the conductors’ vision. Shortly, the two front engines rolled by as I crouched in the brush, counting the bolts on each wheel to judge its speed. Coal trains, and loaded gondolas whizzed by in a depressing string of unrideable units. I set my eye on a grainer towards the back of the train, but the locomotive picked up too much speed and I did not bother catching on the fly. The train surpassed my running speed with 30 pounds of gear so I bailed, looking for a better spot to catch out closer towards the yard.

Drops splattered against my jacket, and their slow rhythmic beat shortly turned into a ferocious spatter of turmoil, drenching me within mere seconds. I found myself stuck in a downpour, with no cover, soaked and miserable from the wet, soggy feeling of damp gear and squishy boots. I walked casually headed towards the bridge next to the train yard, muttering obscenities under my breath. This completely destroyed my cover, but I just looked like a homeless man under a bridge, seeking shelter from the rain.

I staked out even longer than expected as the dismal sounds of the rain heightened my depression. By now I just wanted a warm place to sleep or a boxcar to hop into to get out from under this bridge, but nothing rolled or screeched into the yard from the south. Every train plowed through the train yard heading southbound. I nearly capitulated at the calm of the storm, loathing the long walk to where I slept the night before, but I stuck it out and waited longer, as I sat crouched against a pillar. Two days near the yard really was not that long of a wait and I knew something would come through, it was a matter of when that irked me.

My eyes quivered from exhaustion as I watched the bull drive back and forth in his white truck. Three shady people trespassed into the yard with bolt cutters and shortly after a homeless man wandered in, collecting cans and random trash, placing them into his shopping cart. The bull caught him and made him move along, knowing he was not a train hopper. I just wanted to get the fuck out of there as I watched bicycles and cars line up across the street buying drugs off the porch of a house. The area I ended up in was not ideal for standing, especially at night.

But then, I heard the faintest screeching sound of metal whistle through the downpour and I jumped up quickly, shocked by the noise. My ears heard the vibrations of the wheels resonating against the track. Sure enough, as I looked up, my foggy lenses witnessed a stopped train headed northbound through the blustery weather. I put my head on a swivel looking for the bull as I bolted through the tumultuous pellets shooting down from the sky looking for an open boxcar. My feet slid on the slippery ballast as I ran down the line of units searching for my ride. As I approached the back of the train, I put myself in plain view of the yard office, but as I fumbled for cover I noticed an open boxcar a unit south of me. Quickly I threw in my gear and hopped up inside, hiding in the back corner, forming a puddle beneath me.

A smirk formed across my face accentuating the crinkles around my lips and in that moment I felt happy. Happy to find shelter from the rain and fortunate to get further north through California. I curled up into the fetal position drowning my eyes out from the gloomy sky. The train crept and with its sudden jerks I found myself waking to its spurts of slack action.

My stomach grumbled as the train shook rapidly vibrating against the track as it wheeled along northward towards the unknown. I hoped it headed north for Stockton as it stopped sporadically over the course of the 8-hour period, shielding me from the chaos outside the unit. With every stop I looked down at my clock noticing the GM spent more time letting trains pass than actually moving. I remembered the mile markers and tried to decipher one of them as we wobbled past, in an empty state. The train felt completely free of any cargo and when I spotted a marker I knew I picked the worst possible train for distance, a work train. In an 8-hour period I moved only 100 miles, screeching to a halt in the Fresno train yard. I threw up a little on the ride from the harsh vibrations as we stopped. Feeling completely exhausted, scared and full of adrenaline, I hid in the corner trying to figure my way out of the yard…

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