I zigzagged through the green maze, pushing my way through the thick vegetation, limbs and thorns clawing my bare arms and snagging my pants, as I hit walls of impenetrable forest. The faint trail left by other riders over the year had faded to muddy banks with a creek snaking through it. My feet sank into soupy earth as I hopped across the brook traversing the last stretch of woods to reach the hop out by the train tracks.
Selkirk has a lot of freight traffic heading westbound to Buffalo, Cleveland, Grand Rapids and beyond with Intermodal traffic terminating in Chicago. I knew I would see a freight crawling by me shortly. So I waited for the next junk train, sitting patiently on my pack in a thicket of bushes, weeds brushing my back, sweat trickling down my face and menacing my eyes. I listened to the blaring horns and creaking wheels as freight crunched the earth with voracious squeals while eastbounds rolled on into the yard.
Mosquitoes fluttered rapidly about my eyes and face and bare arms. They danced through the air effortlessly, whining with their high-pitched wings, and when the buzzing ceased, I let out a quick twhap of my hand, squashing them into a red oblivion that I wiped off with the end of my sweaty t-shirt. If I hated anything more than the rats that came packaged with big cities, their waste and congestion and railyards, it was the nuisance and aggravation of blood-sucking mosquitoes and how I wished they would just leave me the fuck alone.
Many tramps enjoy traveling this time of year, riding freight on a warm summer’s day, putting their knees in the breeze as they ride dirty face on a porch, the wind in their hair and a smile on their face. As romantic and appealing as this sounds, I hate the sweaty and humid assault of night drenching me in my own filth as I try desperately to sleep inside of a nylon oven. I hate those pesky, little, persistent vampires and their obnoxious fuckin’ squeals as they flutter about my head searching for an opening in my bag, just enough of a hole to find my bare skin, to pierce and nibble and feast on my blood. But most of all, I hate deet. I hate the smell of it. I hate the oily presence of it on my skin, and the nauseating feeling of it absorbing through my pores and into my body. But, in the summer, I must pick my poison, deet or swollen knobs of flesh, tender and itchy and pink, enough of them to make me feel sick. I choose deet everytime. Though in all honesty, I choose winter riding over it all, no bugs, no heat, and comfortable sleep in my bivy.
Now in this particular instance, I wasn’t riding trains just for fun as a freightbum, a hobbyist with his mind set on the views and the landscapes. I was riding trains for work or I should say, “to work” to wander in my old footsteps at my old summer job where I had packed tandem parachutes every season until work fizzled out. I hadn’t worked there in over three years and that was the summer I quit to ride trains out to Oregon for a new job, meeting up with Rooster in Cheektowaga at the CSX Frontier Yard.
The nostalgia ran deep into my bones and I sat there twiddling my thumbs reminiscing my summers in Akron and Albion, NY. I missed skydivin’ and packin’ chutes and the gang of strangers who slowly befriended me throughout the seasons of working there, livin’ in a small 6’x10’ closet in the airport hangar, drinkin’ booze, smokin’ weed, savin’ up just enough money to wander the whole year from just a few months of work. This is the job that really helped me set my roots into travelin’. I spent three and a half years without an address wanderin’ on and off between this job. Some trains. Some hitchhikin’. Some wanderin’ aimlessly with no destination at all. Some random adventures with my wife in Hawaii, livin’ and campin’ on an oceanfront property across from the drop zone, wanderin’ the islands for four months, workin’ and travelin’ in New Zealand for eight months, not to mention all the trips where we car camped in the states.
This job started it all and made me realize my own self-worth, my ability to work any paying job just to travel regardless of the wage, and this was during a time of deep mental struggle and emotional hardships, fighting my demons and trying to become a better person, which is why I left this job to begin with shortly after I got married. I have always made it work for me, for us, and I have no plans of stopping and succumbing to the slavery of a career and its lack of freedom.
I smiled. I may not have the most prestigious title to boast about from working at an engineering firm anymore or make a lot of money each year because of my gaps in employment, but when I think of Western New York, the skydiving drop zone, and that time in my life, I no longer think of the constant struggles I dealt with on a daily basis and the race against myself, trying to dodge depression and pull out of that lonely, bitter existence from the demons rattling around inside my head. I think of it as a stepping stone towards emotional freedom. Where I first started facing my demons and insecurities, sculpting myself to become a better person, which happened over several years, and will continue to happen now.
Slow rolling, shrieking wheels rumbled along the tracks as a junk train left the yard heading westbound, full of rides. I crouched down in the boscage, peeping through the skinny fingers of branches, and their verdant leaves quaking with the subtle cry of the wind. Engines grumbled. Steel squealed under tons of creeping cargo. After the front engines crawled by on the curve, I repositioned myself, shuffling through gnarled hands and working my way closer towards the tracks as I watched the long train sail away, inch-by-inch.
Grainers crept. Tankers crawled. Gondolas creaked. When she reached mid-train, I stared down a haggard, short gondo full of dirt, and planted my feet on the ballast, ready to catch it on the fly. It wasn’t fast, maybe six or seven miles per hour, if I had to guess. I ran along her wheels, skittering along the ballast, and grabbed onto the ladder, pulling myself up as I crouched into a cannonball, kneeing a lower rung. I always did this for fear of my foot clipping a wheel, better to have a bruise than lose a foot or leg.
I climbed up and into the gondola and lay down in the vivarium of moving dirt, my home for the next eight hours, all the way to the birthplace of the chicken wing, Buffalo, NY. I’ve ridden this line countless times and not much has changed, but looking out at the Mohawk glisten and shine under blue sky, the dams erected along the river, the blaze of greenery and nothing but time on my hands, it’s pleasant and meditative. I kneel there chiseling away at the dirt, cupping my hands to sculpt a depression for my bedroll and pack, so I can sleep for a night under the stars on a mountain of damp soil and bits of rock and shards of wood debris. Dirt soiled my hands and face and neck, but it didn’t take away that feeling of runnin’ wild and free, it didn’t soil my smile or my anticipation or morale. If anything it brought me back to lying on the airport runway under the crowd of stars watching the sky inch by in a timelapse of vibrancy and the nostalgia that struck me every time I lay out basking in silence and purity on that pavement and its path to the moon.
This is what I miss most about Western New York, not skydiving or packing chutes, or the drunken shenanigans and throbbing hangovers, or hitchhiking and trains, but the quiet nights under an endless field of bright eyes looking down on me as I decompressed and thought about life. No matter how depressed and worthless, belligerently drunk or sky high, it always helped ebb the nihilist, empty thoughts swimming around in my mind.
That night though, the stars hid behind the clouds and a brief mist intoxicated the air for but a moment, just long enough for me to wiggle in my nylon bag, before it ceased and I shimmied out to pack up. Her wheels came to a halt at the throat of the Frontier Yard where I hopped off and found refuge behind a headstone in the corner of the adjacent cemetery.
Over the next five days, I’d walk 54 miles to Albion, NY without hitching one ride, without a bicycle or a car or a bus, just my own two feet, walking down memory lane through my old stomping grounds in the small, little, rural towns and through the reservation, places I held close to my heart, sleeping in cornfields and bushes and woods and by the side of the road.
When I arrived at the airport, the fluid, methodical motion of packing chutes quickly came back to me after a few pack jobs, and I briefly felt at home again, but like everywhere this feeling quickly faded, and after ten days of work, hugging nylon, smooshing my face up against the sticky, hot material, folding it, stuffing it into the deployment bag and stowing the lines, it got old fast. I wanted to leave, to roam around, to explore, to wander. When the boogie ended, that’s just what I did. I set off for the Upper Peninsula in Michigan with an old buddy, an old pal, in his camper van.