Grays and blacks furrowed the sky in pregnant clouds as I stood there by the CSX yard waiting on my freight. I left shortly thereafter, leaving my wet footprints behind with sawdust caked to the bottom of my feet, catching a viking ship on the Q160 out of Chicago.
I looked up. The pitter-patter of raindrops imminently followed joining the disharmony beneath her wheels as she crawled out of the yard. She rolled. She creaked. She stopped along the curve as the guzzlin’ of slow-rollin’ engines snooped past my car for a roll-by inspection. I curled up into the corner on the blood-red porch, hugging my backpack while the inbound freight passed to avoid getting caught by the engineer.
Through the gleaming prows of scratched steel, I watched as two rail cops guarded a nearby crossing pointed in opposing directions, looking for riders. The sky fell harder in torrents and I slipped into my bivy to stay hidden and dry. My train gently squeaked by the squad cars after waiting for clearance, before thrashing eastbound fleeing the mass panic from coronavirus, affecting every city across the nation.
I poked my head out of my cocoon, absorbed in the decadent industry and trackside squalor drifting by me for miles and miles. Eventually she broke free of the city, its urban blight, switching to an endless blur of wide open spaces as far as the eyes could see.
She ripped! She roared! Her grace deafened the land with each pounding thud and wailing shriek. Rural countryside sprawled endlessly with dead cornhusks and stagnant puddles of mud under the gloomy sky. I curled back into my goretex and closed my eyes. Her soft-whistling thrums silenced thought, and as I listened to her heart beat along the steel, I dozed off.
Hours later my freight rolled into North Baltimore, OH and screeched to a halt on the mainline. I peeked out of my bivy staring at the blanket of darkness now enveloping the landscape. Behind me, light masts in the intermodal facility illuminated the steel tracks beside my car. I turned around and watched as the misty sky grazed the surface of puddles between halos of light, waiting for the sound of air to send me off into the night.
Blinking lights flickered through the thick haze as workers zipped up and down the tracks in their bright vests inside the intermodal facility. Trucks loaded containers onto their trailers or offloaded them to well cars for new trains to get built. These busy night operations came as a shock as I sat in the middle of nowhere.
The taste of pungent diesel touched my lips at each roaring engine flying by me as my train sat still, breathing, waiting to move onward. At each passing freight, its thick dark plumes dissipated into the night sky as the surge of vicious wind roared from the string of rattling cubes shooting off down the tracks. I watched as the flashing red light at the end of each train disappeared and the cycle continued, time-and-time again. I shut my eyes softly thereafter, tucking myself away into a pillow of gortex, and fell asleep.
Those states of forgotten imagination, where I was goin’ and what I was doin’, became a blur of mindless adventure in my dreams.
When I woke that morning at the skirt of dawn, she had only just rolled past Cleveland by the fuel pumps, not covering much distance. But now, she reveled towards Buffalo and the mood quickly changed. That lollygaggin’ and humdrum state shifted to thunderous squeals ragin’ along the steel again.
She stormed the banks of a cold Lake Erie, through the skeletons of trees, the endless wisps of vineyards, past the bluest of horizons and cloudless skies, through a graveyard of engines and old Pullman cars. As I poked my head out over the side of my car, the wind pummeled my face, sending tears down my cheeks, tossing my hair up to the sky. I watched as all the small towns disappeared to tiny specks becoming distant memories. Soon she finished dancing beside Highway 5 and entered the city of Buffalo. I couldn’t help but reminisce. Over the years, Buffalo has held a special place in my heart because I spent three summers skydiving and packing chutes there.
She squealed past the Central Terminal building with its jack-o-lantern windows and crumbling facade covered in trackside graffiti. Large clocks hung tall from the intricate bullet of concrete shooting up to the heavens like an old, checkered skyscraper, giving me a glimpse of history into the city’s past.
The train smoothly sailed onward while I watched the earth eat away at rusted, abandoned tracks spitting out shards of deep-red brick from dilapidated factories beside the heaps of garbage and trackside rubble. Sandwiched between all of this sprawled active industry, a post office, suburban neighborhoods, endless steel, and then, quickly surfacing, the CSX Frontier Yard came into view.
I swiftly packed up all of my gear ready to disembark at any moment, in order to switch to another intermodal train that wasn’t terming in Syracuse. I wanted a straight shot to Selkirk, but with trains you’re never certain, with trains you’re never sure, where they’ll stop, for how long; time stands still in that regard. You’re just along for the free ride, for that scenery blazin’ on by.
This last ride would complete another loop around America by freight train for me. It never got old. After, I’d join the masses on my next ride, the Q-uarantine, confining myself to four walls, mobile games, writing, foraging in the woods, and other mindless self-indulgence while I searched everywhere for work and tried to maintain my sanity. Something I always lost over and over again in my life pulling me back to the rails through choice, desire and a certain necessity.
And just like that, she zipped on through, never slowin’ to a roll, or a creak or halt, but gallopin’ onward, wrenchin’ that steel, crunchin’, clankin’, and rattlin’ the inside of my ears, all the way to Syracuse. This was something I’d never experienced in all the times I’ve ridden through Buffalo over the years, normally the train stops to change crews. This time she didn’t.
Such was the mystery of wheels gliding down that silver path. The unknown and desolate sidings in diverse landscapes drew the appeal. When would I get back to Vermont now? Only the train gods knew. I just hoped I made it back before shelter-in-place laws took effect.
My train finally reached Syracuse at dusk and I hopped off at the signal by the west end of the yard. I had been on trains for the past few days covering 2,000 miles since leaving Denver on Z-DENCHI.
Now I desperately needed to resupply canned foods. So, I moseyed over to the Walmart to join the chaos of hoarders, the paranoid shoppers wielding face masks and latex gloves, a byproduct of mass panic and for good reason.
The state of the world right now scared me, with that kind of fear that kept you in your bed at night as a child, trapped in your nightmare, wetting the sheets. Something so small and microscopic causing such global turmoil, drowning economies and slaughtering its people mercilessly; it felt hopeless, especially for my home country in America due to our incompetent leader being reactive instead proactive.
It wasn’t just Coronavirus itself that frightened me though, but the aftermath, the lack of food and basic necessities at the grocery stores: no toilet paper, hand sanitizer, isopropyl alcohol, masks. The closure of businesses, loss of jobs in all too familiar industries leaving people like myself without work, without income, still having to pay bills, support one’s family and survive, with little to no relief from our government. I thought about the even longer term repercussions that may lead us into a depression.
Not to mention all the people suffering who contracted this deadly contagion. Some would pull through. Some wouldn’t because of age, compromised health or immunity or simply the unknown. No one knew the severity and the long-term effects of COVID. This pandemic didn’t discriminate against one’s sex, color, or social status. When would it end and how many people would it slaughter on the way? Would my family, friends, and acquaintances become victims? What about myself? Had I already been exposed? I could only hope for the best, but this unsettling anxiety left a nauseating pit in my stomach. I just wanted to get back to Vermont.