I woke in the middle of the night to yelps and squeals echoing from up in the hills. They weren’t from a dog and didn’t sound like a fox or a coyote, but I couldn’t distinguish the animal nor did I really want to know. I heard these screams over the surging rage of winds that ran wild through the naked trees scattered along the Hoosic River. My face felt numb as I looked up at the knolls through the dark blanket of forest; I decided to just lay back down, drifting off to sleep, drowning out the obnoxious noise.
I woke again on two separate occasions to the creaking squelch of conical wheels as giants inched up along the steel, stopping at the signal up the embankment from my camp. At separate times during the night, NS and PAS units worked briefly at the junction before cranking two trains westbound.
If I had wanted to go west I would have just stayed on my Canadian Grainer the day prior, which interchanged with NS at the junction early that afternoon before departing westbound; but I wanted to go east, to East Deerfield. So I fell back asleep.
Around 7 AM, my eastbound train rolled in to a squeaking halt right at the signal. I looked directly up the hill at the nose of the lead front engine and started quickly packing up my gear, as quickly as I could anyway, through the frozen shrills of dawn. My fingers felt like stiff popsicles. It was roughly 9 degrees not including windchill.
I hustled and fought through the bristles of the living dead as I gradually progressed up the steep, slippery embankment of ballast and ice, to the railroad. They chopped the train and dropped a block further up the track. The guzzling from the engines crept closer towards me as they backed a string of empty salt cars onto the siding next to me. My feet slid back down the grade pummeling through vines and loose forest that tried holding me back, piercing their sharp nails into my jacket. I pushed through, reaching level ground, following the same tracks left by deer and small game.
She cut power and switched back to the mainline. By this time I walked the line amongst the shadows of freight as splatters of orange sky broke out above the clouds. The ballast crunched beneath my feet slicing through the silence. Once I reached mid-train, I hopped up on a Cadillac grainer, just waiting, listening for the soft, golden hiss of air to feed life to my latent chariot. I flung out my bedroll, wiggling into warmth and as she gingerly started to pick up speed, chugging along the steel, I fell back asleep.
By the time I woke up, she had ripped clear over the countless train bridges dancing along the Hoosic River, cutting through the Hoosac Mountain Range and the 5-mile tunnel. I slept through all of it; through the loud shrieks of each curve, the janking of wheels, the chugging up steep grades and thrumming down hills, the loud echoes of the beast bellowing through an endless cave of diesel fumes, missing most of the cold morning ride.
I woke up and stretched my arms as she zipped through Shelburne. Had she gone slow enough I would have just hopped off there to explore the old train cars and depot near the tracks, as such, she plowed on through town. As she snaked her way along the track the thin crusts of snow slowly started to melt away with each passing minute of bright honey sun. This white blanket from the previous day’s storm now looked like splotches of snow speckled through bare forest with a river running through it all.
I rolled into Greenfield around 9 AM and hopped off at Energy Park. The same park where months prior I had met a riotous bunch of homebums under the gazebo. Most of them spent their whole day there between flying signs or going to Sally’s for a hot meal. As I rounded the corner, I saw a whole slew of them, all huddled in a circle, pounding Natty Daddy’s, smokin’ weed and hittin’ the pipe.
In the group, Freddy stood a few inches taller than me with a trim black beard and short hair, neither skinny nor fat, layered in sweatshirts and a dark coat wearing only a pair of JNCO jeans. Silver sparkled off each of his fingernails as he tipped his elbow letting a cataract of cold booze quickly rush down his throat before tossing his can to the ground for the recyclers.
Last time we met, his inebriation dipped into the teachings of Juggalo history. He considered himself a Juggalo. Despite his drunken stupor and constant giggles this label meant more than just painting one’s face like a clown, and embracing the dissonance of ICP. He spoke of camaraderie and principles, but his babbling lost me and I really couldn’t comprehend it all. To me this subculture sounded like an excuse to indulge in heavy drinking, drugs and hide oneself behind a mask of face paint, a form of escapism to break free of reality; but what did I know? I was out here doin’ the same thing, ridin’ trains, runnin’ away from responsibilities, briefly escapin’ the chains of capitalism, but not really.
Needless to say, Freddy’s eccentric behavior made him stand out from the bunch, as well as, his artistic creativity, having exceptional cartoonist abilities, creating characters which he had etched into walls of the gazebo with pen and pencil among creating a whole comic book of personalities. I saw him as the most interesting bum of the Greenfield bunch. He struggled with the bottle like the rest of them, but enjoyed the simple pleasures of drawing and took pride in his talent as a starving artist.
The comic focused on the Chronicles of Moist Boy, a superhero who always failed at saving the day. Salt shaker had recently attacked him with a surge of salt packets, withering him down to a futile existence. Now Moist Boy barely stood up, floundering about from the shackles of his belt as a fighting blob instead of a viscous puddle draining into the sewer.
He walked around with a rat stick fighting evil doers, but he never quite came out victorious. The dialogue of the comic lacked sensical logic and needed much work, but the humorous characters, based off some of the Greenfield homebums, made for a good laugh, making me forget about the cold briefly.
Freddy’s best friend, tentmate, whose name I can’t quite recall, stood there rocking back and forth as he shot deep breaths of hot air into his mittens trying to warm his hands. The brightest of blue eyes glared at me, glimmering from the sun as his pinpoint pupils glazed in euphoria while he slammed another beer.
Then there lingered old man John in the background, if I recall, who looked like an old fisherman with his stout frame and long, unkempt, gray beard. It dangled off his chin like a stiff, dirty mop, masking his crags of wrinkled skin. Craters of eyes sunk deep into his face from old age and years of homelessness, but I didn’t see a drink in his hand, only a cane propping him up. He paced back and forth in circles inside the gazebo, embracing the silence or dreading the cold, I couldn’t tell.
There was also a tall toothpick of a man standing in the background by the metal picket fence with a gray, prickly, neck beard, long nose, and glasses. He stood there in a quiet trance, between gulping his beer, standing next to Felix, a small, light skinned man with braids maybe ten years older than myself. He was in and out of homelessness as his girlfriend swapped lovers each week, yanking his strings like a puppet, but he loved her more than he loved himself. He crawled back to her each and every time in a loop of insanity, expecting a different outcome, all while knowing the vicious cycle he called life came back like a vice in his side.
I didn’t want to drink or smoke weed. I’ve been trying to embrace the idea of sobriety after years of experimenting and abusing too many drugs and drinking too many booze. So when Freddy offered me a beer, I declined, walking away from town down the frosty streets to the skeleton of forest down by the river. I walked to a place riders called “Boot Heaven.”
When I looked up to the sky through the silhouette of treetops I saw dark outlines of frayed boots swaying with the burps of wind. Miles of riding behind a mosaic of faces dangled from the heavens above, decorating each limb like ornaments on a Christmas tree, a canvas of history hanging in the clouds. I thought of all the bums, tramps and hobos who had ridden through here over the years and I smiled. The raging flames of the fire shot sparks up to the stars as all of their memories, every lace and sole, illuminated above me. Years of trespassing, years of riding, years of being free, some with a bindle, a backpack or a mobile phone, others in between…the spirit of the wanderer continues ridin’ even in 2020.
With that thought stewing in my brain, I fell asleep wrapped in my warm cocoon, unsure of what the next days would bring me or where I’d go…it didn’t matter.