The hardest moments for me are goodbyes. Always. Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoy my solitude, but the goodbyes always tear me down like watchin’ a building of emotions collapse as you push that tiny red button. Sometimes I’d rather just hit fast forward on life and skip ahead a day without havin’ to say goodbye or cya later at all.
I do love the freedom of rippin’ lines whenever and wherever I want to, that quiet voice of wind quakin’ leaves and debris and loose earth by the tracks, and the silent undertone of the city’s heartbeat, its industry, a peaceful white noise latent in the background of deep thought, just sittin’ and thinkin’ for no particular reason other than waitin’ on a train. Sittin’ there waitin’ for that “sisssss” or the slow rollin’ rumble of her wheels to move on to the next place; and it’s easier ridin’ solo, it really is, but like Karso very much expressed, especially now in moments of crisis, as humans we crave connection with others and their companionship, and with such a high energy over these past few days dissipating to silence in the matter of seconds, the thoughts rattlin’ around in my brain as I walk alone down the sidewalk, it’s just always made travelin’ with people harder for me. Not the travel itself. The goodbyes. The connections. The memories, the nostalgia, always take me from a high to that empty space in my mind where my “friends for a day” wander off to, lost, but not forgotten, in a sea of happy memories. Memories worthy of a story.
I had spent the past few days bippin’ it in North Bergen to meet up with Aurora and Karso, of whom I’d personally met neither. Like any city, the industrial waste and the byproduct of capitalism leaching into the earth, by the tracks, behind industry, inundated on sidewalks and caked to fences made me sequester to spaces I would normally avoid in order to get sleep. No matter how much I tried, there’s no avoiding the rats, trash, and other vultures of the night unless I wanted to put in the miles; and I really didn’t feel like it.
I felt tired and a little miserable resting in filth, getting woken up by the yard possum and skunk, a skunk that had followed me around the yard just a year prior when I had first rode the UPS train to Jacksonville in a misty rain. So needless to say, I barely slept at all these past few days.
I had no expectations on how meeting up would all go down or if any of us would get the chance to meet up at all, and I probably walked a good 12 to 15 miles down the tracks, along the sidewalks, behind industry and to the grocery store just because of itchy feet, wanting to move, to get outta there, to stay sane. I hated cities, but I liked new experiences and meeting new people. As much as I hate Instagram I also love it for meeting new people, people who have similar interests, trains, graffiti, urban exploring, hiking, and just living life how they want to. My kinda people. When I’m home in our small town I just don’t get those experiences.
Wednesday came and I watched a train stop for clearance early that afternoon as I waited for them to meet me under a bridge near a deadend road leading to a junkyard of cars. I lay there on the high rise plateau of concrete near tossed pallets and cardboard and garbage bags and filthy mattresses and stray pieces of trash, all disposed of beneath the overpass.
A small statured man, much like myself, strolled around the bend in the road about an hour later, his jacket and pants covered in a rainbow of paint splatters while he lugged around the smallest Quecha pack I’ve ever seen, way less than 35 liters. He traveled everywhere with it, at least I think, a minimalist. It was Karso, decorated in ink, wearing a newsboy cap with gauged ears and looking distinguished with a big presence about him. He walked with a purpose.
Over the years I had seen heartfelt scribblings by Track Cat Karso with his little bicycle moniker and an anecdote written on the wall of unfiltered thought for all to read. In my years of lurking the tracks I had always remembered his marks, maybe not every story or piece, but the name stuck with me and I always wondered if we’d ever meet. And when I shook his hand, that all changed, because now we had.
What started off as a quiet and reserved conversation between two strangers quickly became more and more engaged swapping roles as raconteurs about our travels. Bouts of laughter and intrigue followed, the ingredients and kindling to the start of a new friendship was in progress. I could tell from the vibes, the atmosphere, and the upcoming adventure with a soon to be trio.
He talked of his walkabouts abroad through small towns and villages in Europe, wandering in the Balkans and along abandoned railroad tracks for miles and miles, getting lost and found, ending up in precarious situations, hitchhiking, and the difficulties of traveling with the language barrier, it all felt very familiar and nostalgic, bringing back my wanderings in Southeast Asia. Time melted away as we talked and slowly drifted closer towards the tracks, sitting on a guardrail in front of a latent beast, aired, and ready to leave at any moment. We could have very easily gotten on our train then and left Aurora behind, to meet some other time down the road, but we didn’t.
I highly doubted we would catch this train as we waited for here to slowly find her way from the Tonelle Light Rail station because she got a little lost, ending up on the wrong side of the highway, but after about a half hour I saw a slender blonde appear from behind a string of box trucks parked along the side of the road, full of life, vibrant with a radiant smile from ear-to-ear swinging a huge grocery bag full of food that dangled in one arm with a small pack slung over her back. I smiled and we didn’t even really get a chance to introduce ourselves or talk.
“Come on,” we said, chuckling. We just hustled down the tracks to find a ride on the train, a train that could leave imminently so I made sure we stayed as safe as possible and didn’t take any unnecessary risks. If she started moving at all, it was the next train, a stopped train.
I remembered seeing three gondolas creep past me a ways up the train a few hours prior, but I didn’t know how far up. I didn’t know if we’d have time to make it all the way there, closer towards the frontend, and I didn’t wanna take any chances. Boxcar. Empty Lumber. Empty Lumber. Empty Lumber. Tankerssss. Then one grainer came into view as we jogged along from the FRED. It wasn’t even a great ride. The mechanical side was clean face so our only option was riding dirty face, three deep on the porch with little cover. Of course we didn’t do that at first. I hid in the foxhole on the mechanical side and they hugged the other side of the grainer. Aurora in the foxhole. Karso as best hidden in the flying V, crouched down as best as the old man could (lol kidding).
We all stayed hidden until the Hudson appeared, through the bare blur of trees, before we all ended up on the same porch gazing out at the deep blue magic rippling under a full sunny sky with milky clouds and a thrashing breeze. The kind of breeze that started off gentle and refreshing, but with time and speed quickly rallied its fists, punch after punch, into bone-chilling wind that would not let up, the discomfort slowly creeping into our skin.
The train surged along the river like a snake for miles and miles and faces smiled under masks (at least mine did anyway). Bodies sat against the steel bundled head to toe, layered like onions, the downfall of riding dirty face, that vicious knife of cold air, relentless and pouring in around every corner and curve and straight away.
She started slowing down on the double track briefly soaring over a train bridge and as we turned our heads to look out at the Hudson we saw two young kids with shit-eating grins, walking the line with spray paint in their hands, blues emanating in streaks down the line of cars blazing past them. Then just seconds later we heard the loud blast of a horn, an oncoming train on the other track. I looked down the line for the kids on the bridge, but they had vanished. It was all too surreal. Maybe a figment of my imagination, a dream, they never existed at all, but then again, maybe they did. We all saw them though, crouched, smiling along the train; but who knows.
We sat back on the porch watching the scenery blaze by and Karso pulled out a can of grape leaves. The three of us began feasting on them with just two spindles from a broken fork, laughing, smiling, the oil dripping off each tiny eggroll-like creation onto my pants and hands and camera lens. The cheer and chatter of loud whispers and smiles and laughter quickly shifted to quiet gazing as the sky fell and with its mellow darkness brought even more chills and silence, all but the wind and noise of the train.
We sat on bags or sleeping pads and Aurora wrapped her sleeping bag around her legs. She looked cold, but denied it. She was tough.
City lights and the blinking red bursts and dings from each crossing replaced our front seat view of the river and the chasm of rocks and skeletons of trees with silhouettes of naked forest and artificial lights from remote industry and the shadows of decayed buildings. Nature slept as each small town and city twinkled under dark sky. My eyes watered, tearing up from the wind and as we jammed along the outskirts of Selkirk zippers to my pack zinged open, flaps unraveled and gear became tidy, ready for us to go and get off the train.
We approached the yard in a smooth roll, a roll that riding solo I’d have hopped off on, but not with three people. The train sailed over the flyover bridge and crept deeper and deeper into the yard before coming to a rolling stop. We all hopped off and started a trek into the woods dipping and stomping and barging through branches and vines nagging at my limbs and pointy thorns pulling at my coat. I thought I had remembered seeing a worker access road that led to a farm, but the further we walked through mush and leaves and snow, up and down congested banks through brittle golden stalks and woodland I realized nothing was there, this was a futile effort, tedious and not worth pursuing any further. I was mistaken.
So we turned around and followed the tracks, jumping back and forth between the ballast and the slanted embankment until reaching a sloppy field of pudding off an access road. The saturated clay swallowed our shoes encasing them with muddy soles. Much happened that night, almost too much to write about, too much to share; pizza, a raging fire, new friends, deep conversation on life and sobriety and riding trains and travel. I found Nirvana as we slept under the stars with the drips of November and words of February looming over us; and as the orange torch died to embers and ashes and my tarp became a Jack-o-lantern of tiny burn holes, we drifted off to sleep, one-by-one.
We dodged the rain the following morning and I lurked in the shadows as Karso painted and wrote touching words on the rusty surface of an old silo. While Aurora slept, I gathered wood for another fire with Karso and eventually sleeping beauty joined in, stockpiling logs and twigs for the fire.
Time felt relative like it stopped over these days because so much had happened. So much happened that I can’t express it all in words as it would cover pages.
But soon we caught the next train back to the city, thanks to a new friend, riding a pretty empty gondola, wood debris mixed with chunks of concrete, open to the wind and the murky night sky, the tarp of holes shielding us from a short bout of rain, bringing us closer together until it all cleared to an endless field of bright twinkling eyes looking down on us.
When we finally arrived in Bergen, stopping before the yard by the northbound IM that they were building, Karso muttered, “guys did you hear that…those footsteps on the ballast…I just saw two shadows.” I ignored him at first, thinking delirium, insisting we just get off the train and find a spot to camp for the night. I didn’t really care who it was, frankly, I just wanted to sleep. He then convinced himself I was right. So we moseyed along looking for a camp, wandering the slopey banks and the steel.
We found the perfect spot not much later and splayed out in the high weeds on a flat piece of ground between the lower tracks. I sat up in my sleeping bag and as the IM on the hill two-backed, I saw two beams of light zinging around in the sky, two men dressed in all black standing on the front of a piggyback, shining two flashlights. Suddenly the door opened and the men stepped inside, a train robbery in progress, the first I’d ever personally seen, but it was the city. Karso spoke of trucks driving up on the tracks in Oak Point Yard stealing whole boxcars full of beer, so it didn’t surprise me.
I smiled and turned to Karso, “Guess you were right dude. Thought you were just hearin’ shit.”
“I know haha. You convinced me I was hearin’ shit too.”
The train slowly departed northbound for Chicago and we never saw the men dressed in black again after that.
That summed up a few days with new friends, friends who I hope to see again down the road. When that is, is a mystery, and where we’ll all end up, who knows.
I just know this “culture of mystery” is not the face behind the mask nor the mark itself, but the words written on the wall, words easily seen if glancin’ at a freight rollin’ past or lurkin’ in the yard or or readin’ monikers under a bridge, studyin’ each of the quotes, but only a few will share the nostalgia, those few will smile, shake their heads and remember, “damn, that was a good ass time.” And this, this was one of those times.