Carrot Quinn, under the axle
I took a train trip this week. It’s a blur- hot heat, dried mangoes and diesel exhaust. Lots of wind and an elderly terrier. I went with my young train-riding apprentice and co-cook, Sarah Moniously. We took along a friend’s dog, Wishbone Georges, aka Wibshone, aka Wish Stick, the ketchup-scented terrier with cataracts and a silver mowhawk. As our train pulled out of the SE portland golfcourse, we waved goodbye to the golfers in their bright pink lipstick and I remembered a fact that I had forgotten- dogs do not actually like to ride trains. The train was screaming and banging around, and wishbone was rigid and limp all at once, her head buried under my elbow. I laughed and smiled at Sarah, safe in The Land Of Earplugs, a nice dull place where sounds are wrapped in cotton and no amount of metal on metal is too loud.
It was the golden hour. Shadows were long and the diesel wind helped cut the heat. Sarah was freaking out with happiness, which is to be expected on your first train ride. She couldn’t believe that we were actually on a train, and that the train was moving. We crammed ourselves under the axle of the truck trailer that rode the flatcar we were on, folding ourselves gingerly between massive truck tires, grimy bits of metal and dusty hoses twining around our heads. I couldn’t sit up all the way, the floor of the truck was just a little too low. I felt like I was Alice and had just eaten the mushroom that made me Too Big. I felt claustrophobic. We could worm out of our hiding place as soon as we entered open country, and enjoy the spacious open flatcar that is the good and bad of riding pigs. For now the train picked up speed and pounded out of portland, blackberry jungle flying by next to the tracks. Wishbone squeezed shut her eyes shut and tried to go to A Happy Place.
Night fell and we rolled out our sleeping bags, weighting them with gallons of water so they wouldn’t be swept away in the hot wind. Sarah’s was new and glowed a sort of silver-green, like the inside of a clamshell. It was bright against the new moon. Why are all the sleeping bags such bright colors these days? I asked myself, as I pulled a discreetly-colored liner over my safety-orange mummy bag. It was getting harder and harder to find gear in neutral colors, the sort of colors that wouldn’t scream your presence when the unit (engine) pulled past where you lay sleeping, waiting in the blackberries outside of the yard for your train. The best colors for riding trains are the colors that look like the night, that look like dirt, that look like scrap metal. The colors that look like stripped bolts and rusted spikes and dusty hoses, like gravel and chipped paint, like a plastic bag blowing in the wind. Those are the colors that give you Powers of Invisibility. Not safety orange and shimmering white. Those colors are for snowboarders trapped in avalanches. Or maybe traffic cones are for no-one, an offense to nature. Safety Orange Is An Obscenity. Toxic neons, a product of the eighties.
I know, we all love neons again. Maybe they’ll start making neon trains, and blowing dirt will be neon too. They’ll be so much neon in the world you’ll have to wear neon to blend in, and big sunglasses to cut the glare.
(Speaking of neon, I really get a kick out of the fact that Lindsay Lohan is gay. Like, really gay. Dating a haggard butch lesbian, a female Kid Rock. Her and her coked-out girlfriend, buying sushi and wishing the tabloids would Just Leave Them Alone.)
Anyway, we barreled through the open country towards Eugene, where we would cut east into the cascades. I lay in my sleeping bag on the open steel floor of the car, Wishbone a warm sausage against my leg. We’d sat up for a while and watched the country go by; Canby and Oregon City, the Willamette mossy and slow in the July heat. Old store-fronts and little league baseball, kids riding their bikes in a cul-de-sac. All of it came on the warm wind and ruffled our hair, rumbled beneath us as we were pulled through the secret parts of town on our rushing steel platform.
We sided in Salem for a while and again in Eugene, it was late and I fell asleep. I remember only the shine of spotlight on bare tracks, everything sitting like nothing ever came here, like nothing ever would again.
Dawn comes early these days. The sunrise burned like fire. We were summiting the cascades, and steep wooded slopes fell away from the train on one side, on the other was a wall of rock. In the distance forested ridges broke through the morning haze, one after another, as far as you could see. The sunlight was smoky pink and long. There were forest fires in southern Oregon and northern California, and it gave the air a post-apocalyptic feel.
There was no road, just the train on its little track. There were columns of concrete and short smoky tunnels, dark, verdant forest and white rushing waterfalls. We were being taken on a tour of absolutely the most magical place ever- through secret forests all the way to the very top of the cascades, and then down the other side.
The other side of the cascades is dry. By the time we got there it was midmorning, and the sun here was a Hot Sun, at home in the dry meadows and big open sky. Pine trees grew in the dirt. Sagebrush and cattle fences ran over the gentle hills. We passed a lake, circumscribed its wide edge. Lush grasses blew in the shallows and herons sat on rocks.
And then the road again, and I couldn’t figure out where we were. Some trains are higher priority and faster than others, so you can never go by how long the last train took to get to this-and-that town when you’re trying to figure out where the heck you are.
We were pulling into some sort of town, and sided for a moment on an overpass. Cars paralleled us on the highway, glinting in the light. The concrete seemed dull.
We squinted to read the print on a building next to the tracks. Klamath Falls Stadium, it said.
“Shit!” I said, “We’re in Klamath Falls!”
And it was back under the axle for us, writhing on our stomachs over the filthy metal, pulling our packs in after us, wishbone cradled in Sarah’s lap in my puffy vest, which had become her sleeping bag, her little head sticking out the arm-hole. We cursed all the places we had banged against this-and-that jagged bolt or low-hanging bar on the way in- our knees, our backs, the tops of our heads.
“Look at this!” I said, pointing to a blade-shaped plastic do-hicky that protruded inches from my face, underneath the floor of the truck trailer. “It’s like a knife!”
On the other side of Klamath Falls we wormed our way out again and reclaimed our position in Plain View on the deck of the open car, stretching our legs and waving casually to cars at signals. Wishbone went back to sleep in her sleeping bag, screwing her eyes shut and burying her nose under a little fold of fabric so it wouldn’t dry out in the wind, trying to forget that she had to poop.
Our train sided mysteriously four miles outside of Dunsmiur, just past Mt. Shasta. We’d circled the mountain, rocky and almost bare of snow on this side. It had seemed dirty in the hazy air.
Now the train sat quietly, as if it had never moved. “Well,” I said, “we’d better get off. This might be the crew change right here. If it is and we stay on the train, we won’t get another chance to get off till Redding.”
It was high noon. We hopped onto the ballast and found a dirt track that ran parallel to the tracks, started walking south. The sand was too hot for Wishbone’s little feet, and she darted from patch of shade to patch of shade. On the other hand, she finally got to shit. The sun burnt our faces.
Ahead a little ways we heard the clanging of machinery, off in the woods to our right. Following it, we found a man splitting wood, feeding logs into a steel contraption that cut them and then moved them up a little conveyor belt, dropping them neatly in a pile. He was on the edge of a field of churned earth, on which there was a sprinkler that sprayed water to keep down the dust.
When the man saw us he waved, and turned off the contraption. His face was smeared with grime and sweat, and dark goggles were strapped around his head. He smiled, showing teeth stained with chewing tobacco.
“Where are we?” asked Sarah.
He laughed a little bit, and grinned wider at us.
“We just got off the train,” I said. “How many miles till Dunsmuir?”
“Oh, Dunsmuir, about three or four miles,” said the man. “You can walk next to the tracks, but that makes it longer. I’d cross the tracks and go to the road. That’s the quickest way.”
“Thanks,” we said, and left him to his work. The machine began again, and neatly split wood fell onto the churned-up earth.
It was much too hot to walk four miles in the bright sunlight. We decided to hitchhike, and we got a ride, after feeding wishbone some beans and eating an apple. I had a rice cake with sunflower butter on it on the side of the road. “I want to swim in the river, I want to swim in the river,” I repeated over and over as we waited, visualizing the clear water that runs through Dunsmuir. There is also, apparently, a soda spring a mile outside of town, though I have never gone to it. I have friends who have gone, and brought with them flavored syrups, and made a soda.
“Like Big Rock Candy Mountain,” I said to Sarah, but she had never heard of the song.
We got dropped off right in town. Dunsmuir is two streets wide. It seemed deserted. In the little grocery store I bought canned peas, and asked for a plastic bag. I would need one later for trash.
“Oh, we just use paper now,” said the clerk. “There are too many plastic bags. On the side of the highway, in the ocean.” How cute! I thought. A happy medium, that place where the loggers and liberals overlap. Liberals don’t want plastic bags, and loggers like to sell paper products. And here we were, straddling those two communities in the cascade mountains.
We walked to the river and took off all our smelly clothes and got in. It was cold but not so cold it made you panic, and that was all that mattered. Wishbone hopped out on the rocks and fell in a little, getting wet too. Afterwards we lay in the horsetail in our underwear and napped, the sun falling through the trees on us. Wishbone wouldn’t eat her kibble, so she got beans instead, some canned peas, a tin of sardines. A true Hobo Dinner. Afterwards she sprawled on her blanky, tiny paws in the air. The mosquitoes came out and stumbled through her fur, lost. The afternoon passed.
By and by we wandered back into town, where we found two train riders on a street corner. They looked young and one of them was wearing a neck brace. The other had blue tattoo dots for eyebrows, and was smeared with more train grease than seemed reasonable. We asked them if they knew how many intermodals came through each day going north, and they gave us several conflicting responses, trying to hide the fact that they didn’t really know the answer to our question. They also told us that the bull (railcop) had been following them, and that one should never catch a train here in the day.
“I’ve actually done that,” I said, “but thanks for the advice.”
Afterwards Sarah said that it was like in a video game, when you ask the townspeople questions and they speak in riddle. I tried to remember what the song from Zelda had been.
We walked past the amtrack station, looking for a nice place to wait. We didn’t see the bull, but we did see a dented white van that had a contractor’s name on the side. The men in the van waved merrily to us, and then turned into the train yard. We shrugged. If that was the bull, then this was indeed Big Rock Candy Mountain.
We sat by the river for a while, where it ran through that part of town. Wishbone slept and Sarah and I swapped fucked-up life stories, turning them over in our hands and remarking at the similarities, congratulating each other on making it out ok and shaking our heads at how close we had both been to everything that is fucked up in the world.
We slept next to the tracks, curled on our ridgerests, the night air damp and cool. Trains blew by going south, and a few came going north but did not stop, or were junk (boxcars and grainers). We didn’t want to ride junk. Boxcars are nice but junk goes slow and breaks up mysteriously.
The morning found us bleary-eyed and wasted.
“What time is it?” asked Sarah. I looked at my calculator watch.
“Five a.m.” The whole town was asleep. Sarah went off in search of coffee, and Wishbone and I found a new place to sit, on a little path that meandered through some woods. It was a sort of flat bowl that looked down on the tracks, and over a little stream that ran through the woods. I stretched out on my back on last year’s oak leaves and watched the sun sift through the trees. Sarah came back with some coffee and I fell asleep on my side, a little terrier spooned against my stomach.
YAM. YAM. YAMMMMMM Y A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A M M M . (that’s what a train whistle sounds like.)
I lifted my head. Four strong units came jangling past below. An intermodal headed north. I poked Sarah. The train was stopping! We stuffed our things and ran down the path, our boots throwing up dust. We hit the ballast and heard the hiss of air as the breaks released. Hearts pounding, we climbed on the first piggyback we could, and stuffed ourselves under the axle. Salvation! This axle was roomier than the last. The tires were bigger, the floor was higher. I fit! We both fit, with wishbone cradled between us.
The ride back was even better than the ride down. Since we caught the train earlier in the day, we got to see more of the trip in daylight. The cascades had never seemed so incredible, the forest so secret and vast. The air had never felt so fresh. It was the new moon. Suddenly we both had our periods. Nothing to do but sit and bleed, and hope you don’t get cramps. Apparently, most women used to get their periods on the new moon. I always start bleeding on the new moon when I live in the country. Too much city lights dilute the moonlight, and everything falls out of sync.
At dusk we pulled into Springfield. The world was setting off fireworks, making the sky even smokier than it already was. As a result, the sunset was a retina-burning pink, an angry neon eighties pink. The train sided and Wishbone got to poop. She seemed to be enjoying herself a little, wasn’t so afraid of the train anymore. Or maybe she was deaf already. Just kidding.
At four a.m. I opened my eyes to see the familiar tangles of blackberries go by just beyond our car. Things having to do with trains always happen at the most unfortunate of hours. We were in Portland! I sat up. I was fucking tired. I had been comfortable and warm in my bag, with Wishbone’s little head on my shoulder. I liked smelling her little dog breath while I slept. I liked sleeping. What the fuck.
We tried to take the bus but it was the fourth of July. Nicely dressed people sat at the bus stops, waiting for the first bus of the morning, but no buses came. We tried to make small talk with them, but they thought we were crazy. We were filthy and we smelled. Empty plastic water jugs dangled from our fingertips. From our packs came the odor of unwashed bean cans and dirty socks. Sarah smoked rolled cigarette after rolled cigarette, because she didn’t have any coffee. Wishbone was happy to be off the train and walking on concrete where she could cruise like a millipede, instead of having to hop from railroad tie to railroad tie on the tracks.
Wishbone Georges is the exact length of the space between two railroad ties.
At six a.m. we called Nicole. She met us in her pajamas, at the Jack in the box on 14th and Powell. I’d washed my hands in the restroom inside, the sink filling with blackish water. Then we’d sat on the damp grass and brushed our teeth with Sarah’s sugar-sweet conventional toothpaste. Nicole pulled up in her Volvo and ferried us north. For some reason she didn’t mind that I’d called her this early in the morning.
I took a bath at Nicole’s and afterward the water looked like I’d used it to mop the floor. I had to drain the tub and refill it again before I really felt clean. My forearm was like a pine-sol commercial, where you wipe the surface and there is a nice bright patch underneath. I crawled out of the tub, warm and sleepy, and Nicole fed me some carrot soup that she had made. I put beans in it just for fun.
Sarah set off to run errands. I took a nap while Nicole drew. When I woke up we went to New Season’s and it was like being at Gaycation. It’s hard to shop at the club. Two hours later we escaped, clutching a tub of miso and some kale, and went back to her house to cuddle.
I said goodbye to the nicest person in the world and swept Sarah up at her friend’s apartment, where they were drinking Hamm’s on the lawn and having epiphanies about Life. We were headed back to work in the woods, and it was already an hour later than we had planned. I am not the kind of person that does things on time.
On the way out of town we stopped at the Trader Joe’s on I-5 so Sarah could shop. They were closed for the holiday. “Sweet!” I shouted. This Trader Joe’s has a particularly fruitful dumpster, but they will kick you out faster than you can say Overripe Banana when they are open. But they were not open.
The fence was ten feet tall and topped in barbed wire. Sarah “I Used To Be A Gymnast” Moniously was up and over it in an instant. I took a bit longer, clutching the chainlink and gingerly easing myself over, trying to convince myself that I used to be a gymnast, too.
There was more food in that dumpster than even I could believe, and I had been there before. It was like they had taken cartloads of things off the shelves, and unceremoniously dumped them in the trash. There was no real trash in there. Just packages of food, thawing in the sun. Melted ice-cream dripped over everything, giving it that special Trader-Joe’s-Dumpster feel. We began filling boxes, laughing and taking bites of things now and then. Here is what we got, and we left just as much behind-
Six bags of apples
Four cartons of donut peaches
Package summer squash
Quarter box overripe bananas
Seven thawed pizzas
One package cilantro chicken sausage
Frozen turkey meatloaf in tomato sauce
Four boxes tempura vegetable sushi (what? Gross!)
Two bunches flowers
Almost took a potted orchid, decided orchids are too hard to keep alive
Package dried raviolis
Six bags organic cereal
Two cartons organic grapes
One tub chocolate cookies, one tub ginger snaps
Loaf quinoa bread
Bag of snap peas
Two perfectly good grapefruits
Block of swiss cheese
We stuffed everything into my 78 diesel Mercedes, making it smell more like trash than it already does. It was now even later. I filled up my gas tank. It cost $63.
We got to the gate and ended up driving in instead of hiking, using my packed car as an excuse. We pulled into camp right at eleven. No-one cared that we were late. They had had a parade. Now they were drunk. Sarah offered them some dumpstered grapes, and showed them pictures of our trip. I went to bed in an empty room in the lodge, falling asleep to the sound of the river running by, on the other side of the dark glass. It was good to be back.