I hopped off my first Viking Ship around 9 PM, wandering the dark, dusty, dirt roads of Fort Madison, IA. The crisp air calmed me and as I listened to the deafening bellows of bullfrogs croak among the crickets of night, I smiled. The silhouette of open fields quivered with the wind and I remember staring off towards the Mississippi, listening to the whistling of trains, and shivering chatter of steel in the distance. My sight launched upwards to the fireflies of sky. The innocence of beauty twinkling felt infinite and pure.
Barks sounded off as I roamed closer towards downtown. By the time I reached the next set of train tracks, by the bend in the meandering roadway, every canine in the neighborhood joined the choir and curiosity of new smells. Their yammering echoed through the silence, and then I heard an irritated man screaming obscenities muffled under the chaos I had caused, all by the soft pitter of my footsteps. I laughed. What was I to do? This was the only road into town and I needed to resupply at the 24-hour Hyvee.
The walk into town felt like any other as my hunger surpassed my desire for sleep; so much that each thought encompassed food dancing around in my brain while my mouth salivated with each lunge forward. As soon as my beady eyes surrendered to the bright letters of the storefront, the “OPEN” sign felt like I hit blackjack. I marched in there, dirt ingrained in every pore of my hands and splotched over my cheeks, searching for any hot food down to my barbaric roots.
I looked crazy. I always looked unkempt and disheveled after every ride, as if I just stepped out of a coal mine, so I understood why the store clerk eyed me up-and-down. But her soft-spoken, friendly voice, hit my ears like a whisper as she pointed to the hot food.
I grabbed a slice of pizza, tuna wrap and Arizona tea, devouring it all quickly outside the Casey’s General Store as my ass sat on the cold curb.
I belched; pulled up my britches, sucking my gut in to button my pants before slinging my pack over my shoulders. Then I hoofed it the extra mile to the Hyvee where I grabbed the staples, tuna packets, sardines, and canned corn. Music from a cover band resonated in the distance while I rolled a cigarette and charged my phone out front. I jammed to the live music, tapping my boots on the sidewalk, while plumes of smoke expired from my lungs.
My eyes drooped as the buzz of nicotine faded away and not even the cold wisps of wind silenced my sleep depravity. I stood up. I threw my arms up to the sky and my spine cracked like brittle papier-mâché. That stiff numbness in my thighs loosened to a tolerable pain as my feet scuffed along the asphalt parking lot venturing towards the train yard.
Midnight struck and I roamed the desolate streets of small town Iowa, lurking in the shadows of quiet homes, getting closer to the BNSF yard office down the end of 27th street. Headlights beamed from the tracks as a white SUV idled near the main line, slowly scanning each train before their imminent departure. With one bull on the west end, I walked east down a private road until cutting into saturated clumps of grass, swallowing my feet like quick sand with each squishy step. Water rushed into the only hole on my right foot and that tingling chill struck me like ice-fueled adrenaline. It gave me a little pep in my step.
As I moved silently towards the ballast, I soon realized the discomfort of catching out on a day ride along the Mississippi, with jungles sopping in stagnant puddles from the month-long flooded river basin. The flooding raised the water table along the shoreline by several feet, consuming homes, roadways, full neighborhoods, and ruined my opportunity of finding a dry place to sleep by the tracks that night.
So I tiptoed between the scattered depressions of slick ballast, careful not to plunge into any deep puddles, and I walked the line of towering freight in search of my train. I pulled out my phone and began tracing containers as I slipped between well cars to camouflage myself from the bull.
“Columbus…nope…Cincinnati…nope…St. Paul…nope…Louisville…nope…Logistics Park…getting warmer, but nope…Chicago…FINALLY.”
After moseying through departure strings, playing hide-and-seek with the bull and tracing multiple shipping containers, I finally stumbled upon my freight train on the track closest to the Mississippi River. Ballast skittered under foot and beams of light pierced the night sky in both directions as trains frequently entered and left the yard. Their whistling and thunderous shrieks cried out along the steel, echoing between citadels of metal, patiently waiting for clearance.
I hid quickly, hopping up on the spine of a piggyback and stashed my pack between the wheel well of a trailer. Her snow-piercing touch slowly drained me of any warmth as I curled up with my back perched along the rubber wheels of the trailer. I looked out at the clear sky, beyond the smokestack and then beyond the bridge on 35th street, and the slumber of night’s breath nearly made me fade away. The crags of my tiresome, blood-red eyes drooped, and I wanted nothing more than to drown in the comfort of my cozy cocoon. I waited patiently for departure as giants stomped along the steel and the metal beneath my ass shook like an earthquake. Then that sweet sound struck my ears like pure silence as air surged the hoses of my train. I smiled. She didn’t hesitate. She took off; blazing out of there like greased lightning.
Buildings, parking lots and neighborhoods succumbed to the black lagoon slowly creeping, higher and higher, engulfing more of the shoreline during that month. The river glistened calmly from the radiance of moon slowly tucked away in the clouds as I slowly tucked myself inside my sleeping bag, vigilant to wake at the coming dawn before ending up in Chicago.