I spent the hours before dusk curled up in the dirt beneath a bush, with empty bottles and cans of beer scattered around me, left by past train hoppers. Plastic bags of trash dangled from the limbs of holly trees lined up along the tracks while I lay there patiently waiting on a westbound train to NOLA. The series of bushes camouflaged me from the cameras by the railroad tracks, allowing me to lay there in the brisk shade, nap and contemplate, between looking out at the port watching a forklift zigzag across the pavement. Its droning beep added to the monotony of traffic, which despite my incognito presence, zrrrroomed loudly just feet behind me on the highway. I watched the legs of pedestrians walk by on the sidewalk wearing chic attire to gym outfits and everything in between. I felt safe and content in my bush just waiting on my train, but my proximity to the public eye was less than desirable.
Later that morning, I looked up through the twisted branches as the cool darkness grazed my face and out of the corner of my eye I saw dark shoes standing just inches away from me, only separated by thick, prickly holly leaves. I panicked, moving slightly, as my eyes scanned upward gingerly, scrutinizing this individual. He looked like an ANTIFA protester covered in black attire with a face mask and hood concealing his identity as he walked back-and-forth piercing the ground with a pick stick, jabbing at loose trash.
Did he see me? I didn’t know. My eyes shot from side-to-side like a cat following a mouse. I noticed he worked for a cleanup crew with the city having read it from his brightly colored badge. Chances were if he saw me he probably didn’t care, unless he was one of those anal-retentent, mall cop types, but I had no idea. I only hoped he wouldn’t venture through the sharp teeth of contorted branches, opening the jaws of limbs to see me curled there on my pack, waiting for the train; a sure way for him to call the police or simply walk away, ignoring it.
Moments later, the edge, the anxiety, it wore off as his footsteps dissipated wandering off down the sidewalk towards the city. I exhaled, sighing in relief. The grumbling and wrenching of steel pierced the air, drowning out the hustle and bustle of city life, as wagon wheels pounded westbound, rumbling the ground under my pack.
She tore outta the throat of the CSX yard with thunderous squeals. The bolts on each wheel spun in a blur of threes and I couldn’t distinguish them clearly. She rolled on too fast. It wasn’t safe enough for me to catch on the fly. So I watched her sail away toward NOLA, listening to the whistling and shrieking of cars, watching the shift from a fervent roll of grainers and tankers to a stampede on the steel as she disappeared through the distant tunnel. I moped back through the bushes, lying on the dead leaves where I had left an impression of my curled body imprinted in the earth from several hours of waiting, and shut my eyes.
Time passed oh so slowly. I dreamt peacefully. Late morning turned to noon; thick humidity swallowed the cool air and a most uncomfortable heat struck, but I remained somewhat comfortable in the alcove of overgrowth.
Suddenly, the moment I had spent hours staking out, waiting patiently for, finally came! A ginger creak of wheels resonated in my ears, her gentle vibrations sang up from the ground, and she rolled slowly westbound, inching past me, blocking the cameras above the tracks. I peeped my head out between the prickers and the sheen, bright rays of sun, poked my eyes between each passing freight car. But, just as I was about to pounce to my feet and run along a grainer to catch a free ride, I noticed tourists standing on a pavilion above the train tunnel, pointing, smiling and gazing down at the passing freight. I paused, watching car-after-car roll by me, gingerly picking up speed. Forty or so cars squeaked past and the end of the train was quickly approaching.
I needed to make a decision. I shot my head out one last time through the boscage and looked for any signs of life. The tourists had disappeared through the glass doorway of an adjacent building. I ran! My feet scampered along the ballast, between railroad ties and steel, until I stood between the two train tracks. Wind from the passing train tickled my face as I planted my feet, scanning the line for my freight car. My ride appeared. I darted alongside a grainer, reaching up on the cool rungs, pulling myself up and onto the porch, before tucking myself away in the corner of the grain car.
The ride was not ideal in the slightest. I lay there completely in the open, exposed to the world, but it was better than missing my chance at a ride altogether, because shortly thereafter, she began to pick up too much speed. And sure enough, just after I had boarded, she no longer rolled; she wailed along the steel, shrieking and crunching my ears with sharp cacophony. I looked out at the passing vehicles on the adjacent highway, between the blotches of rapid decay, the active industry, blurs of heavy machinery, the port, the parking lots of latent cars and trucks, and in the distance I watched the sheen reflection from skyscrapers slowly fade away.
I did not like being this visible to the naked eye, not one bit, but I would switch cars at the next siding to find a more suitable ride. I was just happy I no longer had to deal with Jason and the thought of riding around in his stolen van, I thought it was stolen anyway, running on fumes, and funding his trip to Arizona. The stress and emotions tangled in those two days of rubber tramping with him had already faded with the morning haze; now my train roared onward, reaching the outskirts of Mobile.
I never felt more free as when I drifted alone, no restrictions, no deadlines, nobody to hold me back and sway my decisions. I just wandered, wherever, whenever, at my own pace, making my own choices, relying on myself and my own code; and when I needed to, I fizzled back into society, back into work, back into bills, back into routine and order, until I no longer needed to participate. My nihilism towards greed would resurface while my desire to wander became insatiable. This was the cycle. This is the cycle.
After just two miles, the train stopped. I wondered if someone had spotted me lying there, sprawled out on the porch, and called me into the police, which has happened a time or two in the past. There was no way of me knowing. I didn’t have a scanner. I didn’t care much either way. Instead, I used this opportunity to switch freight cars, wandering towards the back-end of the train, and switched to a Cadillac grainer, stuffing myself and my gear inside of the foxhole.
After a few hours of siding out for higher priority autoracks, the latent serpent hissed, feeding air to the hoses below, and before long, off she slithered down the tracks. I felt more comfortable now on my new ride giving me the ability to stay hidden at my own discretion.
I cracked open a can of beans as droves of clouds clustered above in a sea of mottled grays and the train whistled through bright green, fertilized fields, by highways, near swampy culverts and wastelands of trees. I had ridden freight through Louisiana once before in 2017 from Fort Worth, TX to Shreveport, LA and beyond. The scenery had done nothing for me then. And now, despite the repetitive landscapes, the ghastly humidity choking my lungs, the infernal bugs hunting me down upon every stoppage, this ride piqued my interest, kept me rampant in thought and awake. It wasn’t so much the scenery for me, but the reminiscent path down memory lane, a vision quest into my past to the very first time I set foot in New Orleans; my first real adventure away from the shackles of my home as a teenager.
“The last time I landed in Nawlins I was only 16 years old, very short in stature, with a sling around my left arm and I’d never traveled west of Pennsylvania at this point in my life. I had broken my arm in a freestyle tournament a few weeks prior and couldn’t wrestle in Louisiana to represent Team Delaware. Instead, I was asked to come on as a score keeper. It sounded lame I’ll admit and I definitely heard my fair share of shit for it from other kids on the team who lived all over the state, but I had never traveled anywhere before. I had never left that small radius of comfort, a zone many of us never escape in our lives, and if I had escaped it, it was only briefly with friends or family, never alone with strangers whom I barely knew.
Delaware Wrestling Association covered the costs of my room and the roundtrip flight. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to go.
When I walked off that plane, lookin’ like a prepubescent, 12-year-old boy, starstruck, lost in a whole new world, I wandered the streets downtown immersin’ myself in new culture. I straggled behind following a young crew of wrestlers in my first real adventure away from home. It felt like a scene from Stand By Me an American classic.
I remember roamin’ around in fascination, watchin’ home bums shower in gutters, the punks lingerin’ in the French Quarter, stuck, holdin’ cardboard next to their endless cups of frothy booze, titties poppin’ outta shirts runnin’ wild and free at the hand of colorful beads; I remember a brave new world where the party never ended. It had only just begun…
It wasn’t even Mardi Gras this time of year. It was August about a week or two before Hurricane Katrina hit and destroyed the city circa 2005. Being a young and sheltered kid, my brain couldn’t even process this fast-lane atmosphere, the public drunkenness, homelessness, shops full of bongs, pipes, beads, pornography, bright flashing lights, spicy cajun food, and the endless bars occupying the heart of chaos, Bourbon Street.
I remember walking into a convenient store where the clerk stood behind thick, bullet-proof glass. They sold booze there, which I’d never seen before, at least not at a gas station. I remember an old, scruffy, black man pulling out a wad of yellow, counterfeit, hundreds and tried paying for a handle of vodka, arguing with the clerk while we stood in line smirking as a clash of words ensued.
I remember running countless laps because the coaches caught a group of kids sneaking out at night to prowl the streets and get drunk. There was also a young 18-year-old man, Chris Reynolds if I do recall, who looked like he was a 30-year-old lumberjack with a thick black beard. He was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning having snuck into one of several bars that day to drink Margaritas and Long Island Iced Teas. He had passed out on Bourbon Street, drooling, incoherent, lying on the sidewalk with his head pitted into his chest, mumbling to passersby before the cops came and called for an ambulance.
We were told to never tell our parents because police did not press charges. It was as if what happened on Bourbon Street stayed in New Orleans much like the Vegas motto. But, most of all, out of all the tomfoolery, wrestling, crude language and perversion shared amongst angsty highschoolers, I remember our coach doing donuts in a random field, the truck shooting up dirt clouds and skidding before he ripped down a rural backroad where white hoods hung from a tree. He turned around in bewilderment as all of our eyes shot through the windshield at the horrifying display. The harsh realization of racism in the south struck me as those hoods dangled from nooses, swaying in the wind. We never spoke of it again after that.
All of this happened in just a week and now I found myself slowly trickling back into this city again after nearly 14 years.”
My train sided again about eighty miles from NOLA. I sat there on the musty porch of my grainer listening to slaves idling a few cars down from me. My face twickered from the pungent smell of diesel as I faintly heard frogs croaking in a culvert of black swamp beside the embankment of ballast. I watched circular ripples dissipate in the stagnance of murky water as gnats and mosquitoes fluttered about, buzzing towards me, looking for naked flesh to feast on, attracted by my salty skin and stench. The seconds turned to minutes and minutes turned to hours. My chances of arriving in the city before nightfall looked meager so I hopped off of the train and freshened up, splashing water across my sweaty face and dousing my greasy scalp between the algae of swamp beside my train. I felt cleaner. I felt cooler, but the cracks in my lips and my dire thirst needed quenching and I did not have enough water to warrant more than a few gulps from my nearly-empty, gallon jug. I could see the yellow sign to a Dollar Store slightly poking through the wooded valley past the highway near my train. Naturally, my impatience coupled with curiosity, thirst and an uncanny desire for a caffeinated beverage goaded me to the store.
So, I stashed my gear behind a giant pine tree near the dry bed of the culvert. The jet black blended with the bronze pine needles spread throughout the ditch, but my concern wasn’t hiding my pack, no one was going to steal it all the way out here, in the middle of nowhere by a busy highway. I was more concerned with wandering over to the store, walking the 0.3 miles, grabbing a jug of water and a Monster only to hear the thunderous squeals of my freight train charging down the mainline without me on it.
This inkling feeling lurked behind me like a shadow and for good reason because any time in the past I had left my train to resupply it always disappeared before my return, leaving me there to wait for the next sided train. Sure enough, as I crossed the highway swinging my jug in one hand and sipping the strong, sweet, liquid fuel in the other, my ears quivered; not from the whirs of traffic, but the sibilant noise of air filling the hoses of my train.
I sprinted down the shoulder of the highway. My feet stomped, thudding on the hard asphalt as droplets from my beverage splashed against my forearm. Through the frantic rush and worry, I skidded down the grassy embankment nearly crashing into a pool of squishy muck, but I quickly regained my footing just before pouncing over a gap of swamp by a telephone pole. My feet briefly sank into the gooey sludge, but in that moment it unphased me and I powered through it. Sharp branches of brittle trees and thorns clamped onto my skin while I plowed through them to the clearing to retrieve my gear. Sweat poured off of my face. My heart galloped in my chest. The train started to creak and roll and I wobbled my way up the smooth embankment, slipping on loose ballast, huffing and puffing to regain my breath. She jarred forward a bit and stopped. I paused, found a Cadillac grainer and hopped back on, drenched in sweat, my arms stinging from the salt entering the tiny wounds from the slices of trees. I wiggled my toes and felt the dampness in the ends of each sock. Was it worth the trouble gallivanting to the store for more water and caffeine? Probably not, but I no longer had a headache and felt hydrated for the first time that evening.
Daylight started to fade through the clouds and the flame from the sun quickly shifted to the cool blanket of night. The abrupt change in temperature brought a deep fog. My train stormed through the thick clouds, skirting wetlands on either side, golden stalks of riparian vegetation danced with the heartbeat of wind and the thrumming of my train rumbled onward. This unique, majestic beauty, swallowed the landscape, contorting my perception of Bay Saint Louis and Lake Borgne as she squealed over the train bridge following the highway. I could barely see the 90 and through the plumes of fog I only recognized vehicles by their beams of light.
Droplets of rain plunged from the sky in a slight sprinkle and I ventured up to the roof for a cosmic view. I clung to the grate for just a moment looking out at the mottled shoreline and hazy industry as if my train roared through the clouds.
She rolled through town-after-town, slowly and quietly due to speed restrictions, and before long night engulfed the landscape. She clanked. She clunked. She shrieked along the gulf coast enveloped in a damp haze.
This white mask of thick air sank from the clouds swallowing night and its stars, suffocating the sky in a mist of fog. Her wheels zinged along that silver path, gliding through the bleached night of heaven’s gates; riding through the clouds never felt so free, so mystical, so surreal.
She ripped onward, whistling, and singing on the steel towards NOLA between the silhouettes of splotched grass. I saw a montage of homes in the distance standing tall like citadels as they rested on pile foundations, their stilts poking up through the receded deltas, a harbinger of Katrina.
I watched veins crawl out over the sheen charcoal ripples of the bayou and slowly the fog began to dissipate as the aroma of thick swamp filled my nose. Everything faded to black as the white haze completely vanished and when I poked my head out at the rushing wind, bugs splattered across my face like the windshield of a car. I wiped the few small gnats and pesky mosquitoes from my brow and the corners of my eyes, rescinding to my porch, listening to the thrumming gyrations and growling of wheels janking beneath me. She squealed through night parting Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne with that narrow strip of endless track and sloped ballast beside her. I looked out through the darkness at land formations spread out along the gulf coast, created from thousands of years of storms and erosion, forming the innumerable deltas along the tip of Louisiana, which I could only imagine with the absence of light.
Fresh pine permeated the air as she rolled into Gentilly and with each slowing turn of every wheel the vampires locked in on my bare flesh seeking blood. The train stopped again eight miles from NOLA. I couldn’t sit still and take the constant swatting, itchy stings and overall nuisance of adding layers. So I hopped off to walk through the shadows of trees and the distant street lights, wondering where the night would take me and where I would sleep?