I worked for free that day as a cemetery groundskeeper, sitting beneath a large oak tree, gazing out at the latent train tracks waiting for them to come alive. Thick air struck my lungs in cold droves as the temperature slowly dropped throughout the day. My head shifted to the sun lighting up the headstones as far as the eye could see with a scintillating sheen about the snow. I sat back looking to the sky, reminiscing how my wife always enjoys wandering cemeteries for hours, reading each epitaph as we gallivant around, her hand pulling me every which way. I smiled, shaking my head with a grin.
I’ve never really enjoyed roaming around cemeteries as much as her, other than using them as a safe space to sleep away from other travelers and homeless, but she loves them for their untold, often overlooked stories. Each time I rest my head, surrounded by these long-gone spirits, they send me to a state of deep, lucid, dreams. I always wake feeling well-rested for whatever reason, just as I did on this particular occasion.
That night, I woke just after midnight to the rumble of track, the distant creak of a southbound freight stomping its wheels through the quiet shadows of leafless forest. It startled me as I lay there debating to get up or not and abandon my cocoon of warmth or just fall back asleep.
I lay there listening as she started creeping gingerly towards me, slower and slower, along that silver path; so I poked my head out of my sleeping bag and the air struck my face, jolting me forward. A thick crust of condensation from my bivy tingled the hairs on my chin while I watched CN boxcars and loaded lumber racks stroll down the line, waiting for a suitable set of rides before I started to pack up and wedge my warm feet into my cold-hearted boots.
About mid-train, a series of grainers rolled by and I began the tedious and torturous routine of packing up in freezing weather. I started by rolling my bed up with stiff, numb, fingers stuffing it in its sack; squeezing each of my feet into frozen holes of hell so I could walk, folding up my sleeping pad, and slinging bungees around it to the iced notches on the front of my pack. And with a few clicks of straps to secure my bag, a quick scan of the area, I slung my gear up over a shoulder and set off down the line, crunching and sinking, sinking and crunching as I wandered on quicksand towards the red blinking light.
When I finally reached the end of the train, I clung to the cold rungs of the last car hopping up on a grainer. I had never ridden the EOT before; but after two full days of sitting in the forest between bouts of wandering back-and-forth to the Dollar General as a rugged tourist, running in there with only a camera having stashed my pack in the woods, I accepted this gift from the “Train Gods.” I decided not to gamble and took the free ticket, instead of runnin’ with the devil, hoping that next southbound would sideout, which may, or may not have happened.
Then and there, I had sacrificed a day ride along the lake and through the mountains by catching out past midnight. But what I gave up in daylight, I gained in a panoramic view of walking shadows etched into the moonlit landscape, all under a clear, twinkling, sky.
The train ran wild through the night galloping through Plattsburgh and beyond, giving me my first taste of Champlain for the evening, with many more to follow.
She roared through chasms of chiseled rock, strewn with boulders of icicles lodged deep into the cracks of descending, endless, stone facades. She sailed into nightfall on an infinite track, blinking red, cutting through mountainous tunnel-after-tunnel, dipping around bends of steel, whistling over train bridges, dancing with Champlain while the sparse trees waved with the wind.
The surge of artificial lights through each town, the lamppost, houses, power plants, train stations, railroad crossing signals, entered the eyes and no sooner they left them, burned small, bright dots floating to the horizon. Railway signals beamed with rays along the tracks like crimson flatlines that slowly dissipated to dark shadows as she stormed further south. I had never noticed these lights gleaming across the shiny steel before, blood-red and bright, at every siding. For I had never ridden the end of the train, it all felt new, adrenalizing, and highly invigorating, watching the red sheen hypnotize me like Jafar’s cobra-headed scepter in Aladdin. I just sat there staring off into the opaque landscape watching the dark contours guide the canvas between the flashing light and beeping FRED.
Night cast its shadow into the shoulders of the mountains slowly crawling its fingers along the frozen crater like scratched glass. I sat there perched on my pad hugging the walls of my scrunched sleeping bag for warmth as Champlain glistened in the moonlight under a thousand shining stars. No picture or words could capture this moment ingrained in my mind as the beast curled along a bend, skirting the lake, almost close enough for me to graze my hand along the thick ice, but not quite.
I stuck my head out into the raging wind, watching the beams of light off the front engine shooting through the darkness as she slithered along sinuous track, descending further down the Adirondacks, plateauing towards Whitehall, NY.
I started packing up my gear a bit too soon despite the arctic breath consuming blood flow of my extremities. I wanted a safe and quick departure from the rear of the train in case she stopped to add a block in the Whitehall Yard. But she didn’t. She ripped right on through parading towards Saratoga Springs and immediately I piled back into my bed roll, freeing my feet of its demons, curling into a ball and letting the warmth fill me with comfort.
When she reached Saratoga Springs, halting briefly before the yard, I threw on my untied boots like slippers, throwing off my sleeping bag, pad, and stuffing any other loose accoutrements in my pack before stepping off that iron horse with my gear.
I stayed awake for the whole ride that night; feeling so immersed in that dark, live, painting that I couldn’t sleep nor did I want to. After all, I rode for the views as a scenery tramp and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect night. This was it; a cold, white, night with a taste of Champlain.
I never peed on the VACIS during those days in Rouses Point, but there’s always next time…