Readers! You are nice. Did you know that in my twenties I was very fond of riding freight trains? In February of last year I published a novella of my train stories on Amazon. People read it and that was awesome but I had neglected to hire an editor and the book was glaringly unfinished, so in October I took it down in order to work on the full-length version, which will take me a couple of years (at least) to complete. But! Here is a chunk of the book for you, from the novella, in honor of this fantastic springtime day. Reading my train stories makes me feel nostalgic for so many things- youth, naivety, the kind of constitution that can deal with 45 minute tunnels choked with diesel exhaust. Oh, and bread. I used to eat bread.
Note: I’ll apologize here for my overuse of the semicolon.
Months passed, the season with all its whirlwinds, the manic summer of youth. The light weakened and September came; Lark arrived in Portland, to make good on her promise to teach me to ride the highline.
Lark lived in a tree outside of Eugene, and was my best friend. She had wild black hair and crooked teeth and her skirt was made from a roadkill deer. She smelled acidic, like coffee, and talked quickly and when she listened you could see her brain working, building kaleidoscopes of information inside her head.
Lark was really good at riding freight trains. She was brilliant with mileage and direction and maps and data and she never fell asleep, like I did, when she was supposed to be watching for a crew change. She required very little food and water and she carried a monocular with her everywhere. And she managed to pack all her gear into a little backpack that made her look just like a regular person, instead of a homeless scumbag.
The highline was the train route that went from Seattle east through Idaho and Montana and North Dakota, all the way to Chicago. It was fast and beautiful and cold, and there was nothing like it anywhere. I tore down a cardboard box and spread in on the porch in the sun and Lark made a hitchhiking sign, using the giant, smelly black marker she kept with her for the purpose. Seattle, said the sign. It served us well and we got dropped off right at dusk, a few miles from the trainyard.
We were in a sea of industry- in the distance we could see the lighted tower of the Starbucks headquarters, which was to be our beacon as we searched for the yard. We had empty water jugs and we found a spigot on a darkened building and filled them; after a time we passed the krispy kreme, and we ripped open the heavy plastic bags that were mounded in the dumpster, collecting the glimmering donuts that spilled out. Next was the filsons dumpster, where Lark unearthed a swath of waxed canvas, which she folded carefully, wrapped with a bit of cord, and wedged inside her backpack. At last we were at the edge of the train yard, where the back end of our train would be. We crouched in the shadows against a low stone wall and ate donuts as the moon rose. I ate too many donuts and became ill; I threw the remaining donuts at the train, watching them break against the grimy steel.
We climbed into a car on the end of our train and slept a little, leaning against our packs; the train opposite us began to move, so we jumped down onto the ballast and got on that one instead. The train lumbered east out of Seattle, picked up speed, and dawn began to break. We spread out our bedrolls, stuffed in our earplugs, and slept.
Glacier National Park was cold- the forest dark and empty, the Flathead River milky with silt. We huddled in our sleeping bags as the train thundered east through Montana, watching the wind-blown stars rotate in the sky above us. We peered out of our car in Whitefish, the little storefronts warm and yellow, an inch of sparkling snow across the ground. And then the mountains were behind us and the plains were warm and golden- our train stopped in Havre for inspection for a number of hours and we sprawled, languid, in the tetrahedron of sun that reached into our car. I stuck my nose over the side of the car and saw two little work trucks driving up and down the train and across the street, there was a little store. Lark and I really, really wanted hot dogs so when the trucks were out of sight I hopped off and then, behind the little store, was a really big supermarket, so I bought beans and grapefruit and cheese and an US weekly. I walked back to the train and Lark was waving wildly at me; I ran and climbed into the car just as the breaks released, our car jerking a little as the slack in the string was pulled taught. Then we were out of Havre; Lark and I read about the tragic lives of celebrities and ate garlic pesto cheese in our underwear. Our train moved ponderously through an inland sea of cornfields.
We played cards and hot dice, keeping score on the chipped paint of the car with a pen. I dared Lark to try my chewing tobacco; she didn’t like it much, but then neither did I. Lark fell asleep on the floor of the car, her dirty hands clasped over her stomach, a blue Lake Tahoe visor over her eyes. I sat on the porch of the car in my boxers and watched the corn turn to North Dakota, the breeze almost as good as water on my skin. The sun set and the ocean was papery grass with hills for waves and the moon rose, and our train sided across from a field where a man stood next to his tractor, watching the last of the red bleed from the sky. I didn’t know if he saw me watching him watch the west; he stood there until it was completely dark; the air turned crisp and I moved, crept into my sleeping bag, and went to sleep.
In the morning we were in an Andrew Wyeth painting. The land was beautiful and iridescent the way brown can be when it catches the light and waves. The trees were low like they waited for thunder; boat-shaped yellow leaves fell to the ground. I took a shit on a piece of cardboard in the car behind ours as the train rattled through Fargo. The train picked up speed, I flung the cardboard over the side; it collided with the other track.
The ceiling dropped in Minnesota; the sky was clotted with clouds. Vegetation crowded the stream banks; wetlands appeared. Our train hurtled towards Minneapolis. Lark had a bottle of habanero hot sauce, and to entertain ourselves we tried to see how much we could pour on the cans of refried beans that we were eating. Lark and I were tired of eating beans, thick masses of salty refried pinto beans- we’d dubbed it “cat food for vegetarians”.
The train slowed as evening fell; we were entering a thunderstorm. The train rolled for ten minutes and stopped, rolled for ten minutes and stopped. Lightning sheared the sky; currents of water began to pour into our car. Lark crawled into her bivy sac; I put all of my things inside the giant plastic bag I had swiped from behind the home depot in Seattle. I put on my rain gear and sat on the porch, watching the storm. The north side of our train was clear sky and stars; the south side was a mass of clouds and lightning, illuminating the landscape in eerie flashes. The rain let up but the lightning kept on for hours. The train crept through crossings and I was pinned in the headlights of waiting cars: sitting on the porch in my dark rain gear, my hood over my head, as lightning split the sky.
In the morning we woke in the yard in Minneapolis. The air was humid and warm and flocks of Canada Geese passed over us. A worker appeared above the edge of our car and stared down at us; we collected our things and climbed off the train, crossing the empty road next to the tracks, stumbling a little on our sea-legs. We hitch-hiked to Chicago, arrived exhausted, and mounted a commuter train, which would take us to the outskirts of the city. At one a.m. we left the commuter train and found ourselves in a grand old cemetery, with freight trains rattling by in the dark. We walked through the hulking tombstones and the fog along the ground until we found a hole in the fence and crossed over the tracks to a flat forested area, where we fell asleep in the drizzle against a huge fallen log. In the morning there were Italian men gathering mushrooms into plastic grocery sacks. We hiked out on a trail back to the Metra stop and there was a woman with a collie; she looked at us and said- Tell me you didn’t sleep in those woods last night! So we said OK, we won’t.
At the kinkos in town we bought an exacto knife and some color copies; we made fake greyhound passes and laminated them. Lark was going all the way to North Carolina; the greyhound would take me home. On the greyhound I slept or didn’t sleep; the air was stale and close. I stared out the window at the dull highway, ate French fries at layovers, and dreamed of North Dakota: the wild place that was everywhere and nowhere all at once, the way the wind would beat you so hard you could barely catch your breath.
Crouching in the alley with my pack against my legs, I looked at the string of railcars. The string sat motionless on the tracks, perfectly still and cold, but I knew that they were bluffing. In a moment, when the engines fixed themselves to the front of the string, the trainyard would burst into life.
Everything that was still would become noisy; everything quiet would begin to lurch.
I only had a few minutes to make my move.
I hoisted my pack, heavy with cans of beans and several days’ worth of water, and jogged clumsily into the yard. The overhead spotlights hacked up reality into impossible brightness and shadow, and I crossed over to the dark side of the train. The train was a string of UPS truck trailers on flatcars- piggybacks. Mail trains are the second fastest thing to Amtrak, and this one would cover the distance from Portland to Chicago in just three days.
There is no graceful way to ride a piggyback. I found a likely car at the back of the string and heaved myself up onto the filthy steel, shoving my pack under the axle of the truck trailer that sat on the flatcar and then wriggling on my belly after it. Once under the axle I could crouch on my heels with my back hunched over; hoses and metal contraptions, thick with road grime, hung around my face. There was not enough space, under the axle of the truck, to lie down or stretch out completely, but once I was north of the city I could move out onto the flatcar and spread my bedroll in the open. For now I touched the hoses around me- it was a curious sort of intimacy with the underside of a truck trailer that I imagined few people would experience. I pressed the little light on my watch- it was three-thirty in the morning. Beyond my car, the yard was yet unmoving; blinking lights distant and slow, tracks gleaming in the spotlights.
I closed my eyes, aching for sleep. It was mid-September and the nights were getting colder; I wanted to pull out my sleeping bag and crawl inside of it, but my sleeping bag was florescent orange and besides, there wasn’t any room. I thought about the cabin in the mountains where I’d spent my summer, cooking lasagnas for college students and making next to nothing. I’d lived in the attic room above the kitchen; I’d had a hard futon that smelled of dust. At night my futon was enveloped in the impenetrable silence of the forest.
Now I was going to North Carolina, on the train, by myself. I was running from the rain, from Portland, from something that it could no longer give me and that I wasn’t sure it ever had. Something I had dreamed of, something I’d shown up for, but which had never materialized. Now most of the people I’d known had drifted away, nothing to tie us together. And I had a loneliness in me that bordered on anemia; I could feel it in my bone marrow, a constant ache. North Carolina was where Lark was, and sunshine, and something small enough that I could maybe hold it in my hand; something tangible and solid; although I wasn’t sure, yet, what that thing would be. And so I was going there.
At four a.m. the train jerked and I startled; I hadn’t even noticed the engines approaching the string. There were usually three or four of them, more if you were going over mountains; they hissed and clicked and made a thundering sound. I must be at the back of the train, I thought, they must have added more cars to make the train even longer; that would make the engines far enough away that I would not hear them. Blood pounding, I swallowed some of the water in my gallon jug. And then, my car began to move.
I curled myself up small and willed myself to be invisible, hunched behind the tires of the truck trailer, as my train pulled deep into the heart of the yard. Then there were dozens of tracks stretching away on either side; there were strings of cars piled up everywhere; there were engines, crouched and spitting. There were workers in bright vests standing on both sides of the tracks; my train passed in front of them but they did not look at me. I heard the SHHHT of their radios, the crunch of their boots on the ballast. White worker pickups kept pace with my train, but not, thankfully, with my car, and overhead a million burning spotlights reached their fingers into the precious shadows. And there, at a crossing, was the railcop; parked behind the red and white striped arm in his unmarked SUV, inspecting each car as it passed. I held my breath as my car slid through the crossing, the DING DING DING of the crossing arm overwhelming the air around me and then fading, and at last the heart of the yard was behind us.
And then we were crossing the Columbia River, water growing lighter, reflecting the sunrise. And turning in a great arc along the north side of the river, headed east. Dropping onto my belly, I wriggled out from under the axle, and pulled my pack out after me. Out on the flatcar I unrolled my foam sleeping pad and sat, looking out at the great sparkling river. The wind was thrashing my hair and face, but I didn’t care. Piggybacks are windy; you are on a flatcar, there is no protection from the wind. But the view is incredible; you are on a flatcar, being pulled across the continent. It cannot be surpassed.
After a moment I pulled out my sleeping bag and dark-colored sleeping bag cover and spread out my nest. I scrunched down into it, and felt the warmth envelope me. I was only half hidden by the short lip of the flatcar and yet I was one hundred percent invisible- especially, I knew, by some mysterious law of train riding, when I was asleep. I wedged earplugs into my ears, felt the gentle rocking of the train, and let my weariness claim me at last.
In the morning I woke, acknowledged the need to pee, and then remembered that I was on a flatcar headed east at sixty miles an hour, being pummeled by the wind. I languished for a while in my sleeping bag, sucking air through the small opening in the hood, and then finally I uncinched it, and wiggled my way out. Lifting my pack, I placed it carefully on my sleeping bag, so that it would not fly away. My boots were tied to a metal rod that ran along the underside of the trailer, and I hoped that they, too, would stay where they were. Crawling on my hands and knees, I reached the opposite end of the flatcar. I dropped my pants, clutched the underside of the trailer, and peed. The flatcar was long enough that even if the wind had been going the other way, my pee would never have reached my sleeping space. I drew up my pants and crawled across the flatcar to my sleeping pad, the wind so strong in my face that it was difficult to breathe. Sitting with my back to the wind, I pulled the food out of my pack and spread it in on the steel floor front of me. Almond butter, brown rice bread, a package of nori. Organic celery. I worked my little can opener into a can of beans, and pulled the spoon out of my pocket. Out beyond the train the dun-colored gorge rose up, and the bright river shone like metal.
My plan was to ride the mail train all the way to Chicago, fastest freight train on the highline, but by eastern Washington I had had enough. The wind was too much; I would take a train with more cover, even if it meant that the ride would be longer. To do this, I knew, I only had to get off at a likely siding, where trains would often stop, and nap until another eastern-bound intermodal arrived. At some point in the afternoon my train sided; I did not know where I was. I got off. I felt dizzy and disoriented from the wind; I stumbled away from the train. A moment later it left, and I watched it until its rear end disappeared completely. I looked around me at where I’d ended up; a big open sky, brown dirt, the smell of sagebrush. Ahead a little ways there was a highway overpass. And to my right, in a wedge of land between the tracks and a road, there was some pasture and a few tumbled-down buildings, the land bordered in a falling-down fence. I heard the crying of chickens. In an enclosure a young Latino man was roping a calf. There were even a couple of ponies, standing motionless in the shade. And directly in front of me was a tree, its branches bending down, touching the grass. I dropped to my knees and looked under the tree. There was a space under there, cool and shaded. I crawled into this space. There was the burbling sound of water. It was a sort of spring, then, behind that tree. In all this desert. The ground around the tree was thick with green things and invasive blackberries climbed the fence and dropped down, over the hidden water. I parted the branches. The water ran under the fence and through the pony enclosure, painting a long swatch of life.
I was happy with my secret place. I rolled out my sleeping pad and propped myself onto it, to wait for another train. Dappled shade fell over me.
I was asleep, I was awake, I was asleep, I was awake; I felt sick to my stomach. The sun moved and my shade disappeared; I covered my face with my hat and fidgeted in the dust. I heard a train in the distance; I sat up; the train did not stop. A time later there was another train, going the other way. I shook my water jug; it was nearly empty. What the fuck was I doing? My morale fell as the sun trolled the empty sky. I’ll die here, I thought. I’ll die here or reach enlightenment. I opened a dirty paperback copy of Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”, the book I’d brought along for entertainment. I’d been introduced to her by a lover I’d once had who didn’t rest or eat, only listen to Patti Smith, drink beer, and ride her bicycle hundreds of miles. This lover was brilliant and devilishly goodlooking but unpredictable- prone to losing jobs, disappearing for days, and falling asleep in uncomfortable places without even a pillow. We once rode the train together to Dunsmuir for the soda spring; the cops had stopped us, thinking we were runaway twelve-year-old boys.
Now, in the desert, I opened the book and followed Annie to the swollen creek; the creek was a metaphor for all sorts of things. Soon the desert receded, I was in the Virginia forest; beetles were dissolving the insides of frogs and the air was the negative shape of the pines. I felt like weeping. I suddenly felt as though Annie was my best, and only friend.
A few early crickets went off behind me, like tiny car alarms. I put down my book. The sun was getting low; the blue sky was deepening; I could see a few stars. I reached out and fingered the soft leaves of the tree, which looked like tiny boats from underneath. Behind me, the chickens brayed. A door opened and closed; I felt the heat coming off of the earth. I stumbled upright, clutching my empty water jug.
I climbed up to the overpass and followed the road. After a while there was a city park. The park was crowded with white people and empty soda bottles; they were having a barbeque in the gathering dusk, playing some basketball in the cool of the evening. Children, their faces smeared with barbeque sauce, watched me pass. Their parents called them away, squinting at my tattoos in the half-light. I found a spigot beneath the drinking fountain and stooped to fill my jug.
Back at my nest beneath the tree, the crickets were out in full orchestra, screeching from the banks of the spring. A porchlight glowed yellow on the farm. There were sounds of dinner and visiting. I had just gotten settled again when a grainer thundered up, headed east. The train slowed and then stilled. It was a long train, stretching both directions farther than I could see. I quickly packed my things and ran along the side of the train, looking for a rideable car. The sand was soft and I stumbled; the smell of sagebrush was everywhere. The stars were coming out, one by one, like gaslights. I reached the end of the train and then caught myself, looking at the blinking red light affixed to the last car. I turned, and stumbled through the sand again towards the front of the train. When I was nearly abreast of my tree-nest the train began to move; I had missed my opportunity or the train had no rideable cars. I had been slow or it had been the wrong train; parallel possibilities stretching out into the empty night.
I sat down in the sand and drank some of my water. I crawled into my nest and rolled out my sleeping pad, curling up on my side. The crickets were deafening; I stuffed earplugs into my ears. I am going to die here, I thought.
I woke in the night to another train. A grainer, again, sitting like a monolith in the moonlight. I reluctantly rose and walked along the train, finding no rideable cars. And then, at the rear, the hissing and spitting of engines- there were two engines, or slave units, as they’re called in this case, affixed to the end of the string. For extra power, like battery packs. For Montana, I thought. For the mountains. And they were empty.
Cautiously, I approached the units. They were rumbling and ticking, lit as if alive. I climbed up the steep steel steps of the rearmost engine, and tried the door at the nose. Locked. I circled the unit, and tried another little door at the side. Open. The moon had clouded over, and at that moment a little rain began to fall. I ducked through the short door and pulled my through after me. And then I stood, and marveled at what I had found.
Dark leather seats looked out the narrow windshield, blue-lit controls stretched across the dash. All around me were switches and dials, panels and doors. The CB radio squawked, and my heart lept. Was I safe back here? At least for a little while. I was a good mile from the front of the train. No way was anyone coming back here, at some random siding in the rain. Not now.
I dropped my pack onto the floor and checked the mini-fridge. Cold water in bottles. I took a shit in the little bathroom. I paced the small room, anxious for the train to leave. At last it lurched forward, and I watched the desert slide away through the rainy windowglass. I crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep on the dark floor, safe in womb of the beast.
When I woke, the train had stopped. I jumped up, stuffed my things away and crammed myself into the tiny engine bathroom. I pulled out my railmaps and looked at my watch. It was morning; we were most likely in Hauser, Idaho, so the train could change crew. The crewchange. Would they check the unit now? Was I safe? Could I ride this unit all the way to Chicago? After a few moments my train began to creep forward, and I opened the door to the bathroom, peeking out. The engine was in a sort of bunker, a huge metal building, probably for refueling. Shit. I shut the bathroom door. I heard feet thudding on the catwalk outside, the door at the nose swing open. The door to my bathroom popped open, I glimpsed a white hardhat, and the door shut again. shit. A moment later it opened again, daylight spilled in, and again it was closed. A third time it was opened.
“You have to leave,” said a man in a hardhat. Two other workers stood behind him, looking down at the floor. I mumbled something about staying on the train, and they mumbled something about how they were sorry that I couldn’t.
I pulled myself out of the bathroom. “How do I get out of this place?” I asked.
“I’ll show you,” said the first worker. I followed him off of the train, out of the bunker, and he pointed me in the direction of the road. “Highway 53. Right over there.” I set off across the yard, lifting myself over strings of cars, feeling disoriented in the bright daylight. When I got to the road, I turned and waved.
I put a string of cars between myself and the workers; I walked up the road a ways. There was no traffic. I turned back towards the yard and climbed back over the strings of cars; I was south of the bunker now, abreast of a sandstone bluff that overlooked the mainline, the track where the important trains would be. I circled the bluff. It was shining in the sunlight; handsome pine trees populated its backside. I found a small spot of shade and dropped my pack in the soft pine needles. I ate a triumphant can of beans, and then lay on my stomach, watching the yard below.
By and by an east-bound intermodal pulled up and stopped, headed to Chicago. I gathered my things and sprinted down the bluff. There were no rideable cars and the train hissed, preparing for departure. And then there was an unfamiliar car, a car that I had never ridden. There was a yellow-painted platform, about four feet wide, on the rear of the car. Up against the freight containers.
I climbed up onto it and poked around. There was just enough space for my foam sleeping pad, and for me. And there was a mess of machinery there which I did not understand, but which partially hid me. It would have to do. I laid back on the platform and looked at the sky, willing myself to breathe. I was free again. I was headed east. I would get someplace.
Montana. I slept through Glacier National Park. North Dakota, and the skies became highways of wind. Clouds raced over. The single traintrack snaked through empty, rippling grasslands; there were hills that rolled like cresting waves. I passed old wooden house after old wooden house, standing empty on the horizon. I’ll move here, I thought. I’ll follow a broth-colored creek; build my shack up around an old stone wall. Watch the train blow through without stopping, no highways anywhere. I slept some more, ate some more, and started to feel a little better. I sat out in the open.
Outside of Fargo, the train sided. I was low on water. The train sat and I tried to read its stillness. Beyond the train, under the hot sun, I could see a fast food restaurant. I hopped off the train and jogged to the restaurant, filled my water, and ran back to the train. The train left, rolled a bit through town, and pulled into the Fargo yard, where it halted again.
I thought we were due for a crew change, which can take a matter of minutes, but after two hours the train still had not moved. Night came, and suddenly there were workers in golf carts, speeding to and fro along the train, little engines whining, bright spotlights filling each car. Shit. I lay, frozen, hidden just-so behind the machinery on my grimy metal ledge. I stretched out my legs next to a metal pipe. My legs are a pipe. I lay my head on my foam pad, alongside a steel cylinder. My head is a steel cylinder. My feet pointed skyward, against a square shelf. My feet are a shelf. The spotlights swept into my car and away, into my car and away. The golf carts paused, and moved on. Paused, and moved on.
As I lay there, stiff, aching, invisible, the dark sky opened up, and rain began to fall. I knew what I needed to do. I needed to pull my crackling, shiny tarp from the side of my pack, and spread it over the top of my body. I needed to cover myself and my pack. But the golfcarts continued to zoom, back and forth, up my train and down the next. So I lay, shivering, as rain soaked my pants, dampened my flannel, and gathered on my eyelashes. Then the golfcarts passed a final time, and I heard them receding in the distance. Once again, the trainyard settled in to its essential stillness. The rain stopped; the sky became visible, the wind-battered stars. I pulled off my stiff, wet jeans and crawled into my sleeping bag in just my long underwear. I cinched the hood around my face, and peeked out at the world. I fell asleep. And as dawn weakened the sky my train pulled away, towards Minneapolis.
Trainyards in big cities are complex, impenetrable labyrinths of steel, concrete and concertina wire; their roads lead into each other or dead-end in tangles of blackberry brambles; their bangings and screechings and stadium spotlights will drive you mad; they stretch for miles across the surface of the earth.
Trainyards in small towns are nicer; they have just a few tracks, no workers, and often a small stand of trees. On occasion you can find interesting things as you walk along the tracks there- sodden reading material, bottles of water, flattened bits of metal. Handfuls of grain, spilled from grainers, sprout between the railroad ties.
It is preferable to get on and off of a train in a small-town yard, or, if you are going into a big city, at a random siding in its outskirts; a darkened field somewhere, miles from the yard. But sometimes you have no choice where you end up- which is what happened to me when I woke in the incomprehensible hours of the night, sat up in my sleeping bag, and realized that my train had stopped deep in the belly of the Minneapolis yard. I knew this was true because the trees were gone, the rolling pastures were gone, the moon was gone, the night was gone, the wind was gone- instead there was the screeching of steel-on-steel, the crunch of gravel beneath the tires of the workers’ trucks, the hiss of CB radios, and the dizzying patchwork of the stadium lights. And in the distance, the beeping of cranes.
Also, it smelled like oatmeal. The yard in Minneapolis always smells like oatmeal.
East-bound intermodals sometimes go to Chicago, but sometimes they also terminate in Minneapolis, mysteriously. I figured I had ended up on one of those trains, and so I pulled myself stiffly from my sleeping bag, took a long drink of my water, and packed my things away. I then poked my head around the side of the train, and looked down the dirt track that ran alongside it. There was a white pickup driving towards me, the yellow lights on top of the cab flashing.
I lay back down. The pickup pulled up flush with my car and then sped away. The yellow lights washed over the wall of my car and then disappeared. I sat back up again, and peeked around the other side of the car. There was a smaller worker vehicle, with a bright white spotlight, making its way along the train. I lay down again, and closed my eyes. I heard the crunch of gravel as this smaller vehicle approached; I opened my eyes a slit and saw that the shadows in my hiding place were gone; the grimy yellow steel, the twisted machinery, the lower half of my body- all of this was washed in blinding light. And then the light ran from the car like water, up the back end of the car behind mine, and away.
I forced out the breath I’d been holding. I shouldered my pack and, without looking, hopped to the ballast from the side of the train where I’d seen the pickup. The narrow dirt road was, mercifully, cloaked in shadow, and I ran along it, watching for a hole in the high fence that bordered it. Up ahead, I saw a gate, and I sprinted for it; the gate was open and I turned and saw that the dirt track disappeared among truck-sized puddles of dark water and mounds of gravel. There was a tower of concrete blocks and I ducked around the back of it, where its trapezoid of shadow would protect me from the spotlights. A moment later a pair of headlights cut across the puddle to my right, made an arc across the piles of gravel, and disappeared.
I sat on the mud ground and rested my back against the concrete blocks. I pulled the railmaps from my pack and studied them, along with the notes I’d taken when questioning train-riding friends about this route. I had some conflicting information, but it seemed that my train was either terminating here or it was only working, which could mean so many things, and then it was continuing on to Chicago.
I closed my eyes. The humid oatmeal smell of the air pulled at my empty stomach. And yet, I knew what I would do; I would get back on my train. I had a feeling that this train was continuing on. I only had to find my car again, hide myself as best I could, and wait.
Somehow I made it down the shadowy dirt track back to my car without being seen; somehow I flung myself up onto my narrow metal shelf and down behind the twisted machinery before the next beeping worker truck passed by. Stretching out, I willed myself to disappear into the shadows. Carefully I unrolled my sleeping pad, scooched inside my sleeping bag, and went to sleep.
Two hours later the train began to move, and I woke up. The train was moving backwards. I knew that this was not a good sign, and I lay in my sleeping bag, wondering what to do, as my car was pulled beneath the rows of stadium lights. All around me was the beeping and clangings of industry, and it was difficult to ascertain, from my position, just what was happening to my train, exactly. I thought about sitting up, but then my car came to a stop directly beneath one of the giant spotlights, and all the shadows in my hiding place were banished. And worker vehicles crunched past on the gravel run alongside the train, and CB radios hissed and crackled. It wasn’t so much that I feared a possible trespassing ticket as I feared the humiliation of climbing down off the train, at this point, in the very heart of the yard. Suddenly appearing in front of a whole audience of unsuspecting yard workers, who would turn away, who would not be able to look; for I was an idiot, I was doing the unthinkable; I was breaking the golden rule of train riding that binds worker to rider in a timeless, symbiotic relationship- be invisible. So I stayed in my sleeping bag, peering out into the washed-out night sky, listening to the sound of truck tires on gravel, and then, silhouetted against the blinding stadium light above me, there appeared the wide, rectangular arm of a crane, and the arm descended onto the car that was attached to mine, and the massive freight container was lifted effortlessly into the air above my face.
I have never moved so fast in my entire life. One moment I was on the train, in my sleeping bag, staring up at the red-lit fingers of the crane as they swung above my car, and the next moment my shoes were on, my sleeping bag was stuffed away, my foam pad was strapped to my pack and I was on the ground, pinned beneath the blinding spotlights, surrounded by the workers.
The spell had been broken. The spell that had been so strong that I had slept for hours, unnoticed, in a busy yard, so strong that I had almost been crushed. Be invisible.
There was a little white cart idling next to me. The window came down. “Just where do you think you’re headed?” asked the man inside.
“I’m trying to find my way out of here.” I said.
“How’d you get in here in the first place?” asked the worker.
“I came in on the train.”
“You were trespassing on the train? Where did you get on?”
I lied and named a crewchange in Montana.
“You’ve been trespassing since Montana?”
Oh come on, I thought. Of course I was trespassing. “Look, are you going to give me a ticket? You don’t have to lecture me. It’s late.” A little light rain was falling. I didn’t give a fuck. I had just cheated death.
“Wait here,” said the worker. “I’ve got to call the railcop. He can decide what he wants to do with you.”
I knew that if I had been more stealthy, and if he had been the only witness, he would’ve just shooed me away from the yard. But since I’d flaunted the laws of invisibility and made a spectacle of myself in front of the entire yard, then he would have to make a show of following the rules, which means calling the railcop, if there is one.
It took a while for the railcop to arrive, and meanwhile I stood, waiting, in the busy lot with my hands in my pockets, feeling like a fool. At last the railcop’s unmarked SUV crunched over to me, and he stepped out under the bright spotlights, and I saw that he looked just like the man on the pringles can.
I handed him my ID and he turned it over in his hands, and looked at it thoughtfully. I studied his weepy red eyes and his carefully combed mustache, his tidy wool sweater. At last he looked up at me.
“I’ll take your information,” he said, “and then I’ll let you go. This time. Next time I’ll give you a citation. For theft of services.”
“Theft of services? Really?”
He nodded. “Just like if you stole a ride on Amtrak.” As if I had shipped myself across the country in a freight container, without paying. Which I guess I pretty much had.
“And one more thing,” he added, peering down at me with bleary, grandfatherly eyes- “Did you know, I wonder, that people have been riding freight trains since before you and I were born?” He nodded again, and looked out across the shadowed strings of trains, and rocked a little on his heels. “And they’ll still be riding trains, long after you and I are gone.”
This was not the kind of railcop with paramilitary aspirations, the sort of railcop who cut his hair close to the scalp and treated you like a terrorist. This was the kind of railcop who had a wood-paneled office in a trailer somewhere, where he sat drinking tumblers of whiskey and reading railfan magazines and out-of-print books on the history of freight trains, in between rounds of half-heartedly combing the yard with his spotlight.
The man handed me back my ID and pointed me towards the dark road out of the lot. Thank you, I said. Workers looked away as I passed, lest they be turned into pillars of salt. Beyond the gates of the yard stretched shadowed, sleeping industrial buildings, and a narrow bit of forest. I made my way into these woods, pushing aside the tangled branches, until I found a clearing, strewn with fallen leaves. I spread out my bedroll, propped my pack beside me, and pulled my tarp over everything. And then for a while I lay still, heart racing, and when I closed my eyes I saw the crane again, swinging over me with its red-tipped fingers, and I thought I have been traumatized,I will never be able to sleep again. After which I immediately fell asleep, to the gentle tap of rain on tarpaulin.
For two days, in Minneapolis, I waited for another train. The first day it misted, it rained in fits, and then it rained solid, a heavy sheet of rain that blackened the sky and sent torrents of water running down the streets. The sky was no longer a warm roof but a body of water that swept over the city, into every small place that had once been bright and dry.
I may as well have jumped in the river with my pack on my back.
I trudged, senselessly, water dripping from my eyelashes, looking for a Laundromat, some dignity, a meaningful life. But the outskirts of Minneapolis would not give me what I needed. In the evening the rain stopped, and a long bus ride took me to a Laundromat, where I watched cable television and dried everything I owned. Then I walked back through the night to the trainyard, where the sky had turned clear stars. On a bluff above the yard there was a trampled-down place among the thistles, carpeted in flattened beer cartons, and it was here that I spread out my bedroll and lay on my stomach to watch the tracks. There was a train sitting there, but it was sitting where my train had sat, and so I knew that it was destined for the hungry maw of the great train-eating crane. Other trains came and went, but my Minneapolis trainyard spirit had been broken. I’ll just sleep here, I thought, looking up at the glittering stars. And in the morning I will hitch-hike.
The second day it didn’t rain. I found a food co-op and ate dolmas, and then spent the day on the bus, going this way and that, trying to find the highway. The bus filled up and emptied, filled up and emptied, but nothing was where the map said that it would be. And then the day began to wane, and I knew that I had missed my opportunity, because no-one picks up hitchhikers after sunset.
I found a payphone at a corner store and called Lark, in North Carolina.
“I’m trying to get there,” I said, “I’m so exhausted.”
“If you make it back onto the train, you can ride it five hours east to Winona.” said Lark. “I’ve got a friend there you can stay with.”
I hung up the phone and stared at the way the streetlights made patterns on the concrete lot. A train, then. A train it would be after all. And I hiked the three miles through winding industry back to the trainyard, and climbed atop my thistle-covered bluff. The trainyard was noisy below me, full of hustling workers and clanging steel, but I’d watched it enough at this point to know that the early morning would be still, the yard would be empty, my train would come, and I would go.
My trip east had begun with the mail train, Chicago bound, fastest intermodal on the highline, and now I caught that train again- at six a.m. when the sky was growing pale and the whole trainyard was asleep. A piggy back, that windy beast of a car. I hauled myself up and under the axle just moments before the sun rose, the engines attached, and the whole yard came awake. As my train thundered east along the Mississippi river I lay back and drew my hoodie over my face. I had a heat in my throat as though I was getting sick, and the weariness that comes after days of travel; a hunger for vinegar and bitter greens, an aversion to the wind.
I got off the train in a tangle of green beneath an overpass. I pushed my way onto the road. At a gas station I called Lark’s friend, whose name was Florence, and bought a banana and some gas station chili. I hadn’t eaten since the day before and I was starving. I was sitting outside on my pack, eating the banana, when Florence arrived.
Florence was driving a battered red pickup, and she wrenched down the tailgate so I could throw my pack in back. She wore a floppy, wide-brimmed hat, dirty jean shorts, and her skin was tanned the color of hazelnuts. I thanked her for her hospitality, and she took off her sunglasses and peered at me. I saw that her face was a constellation of freckles.
Florence’s farm was a ten minute drive outside of town, and we passed rolling green pastures and flame-colored oak trees and then pulled up alongside a little red house. Inside the house was one tall room, with a woodstove and high windows and sunbeams puddled on the floor. Upstairs was a loft for sleeping, said Florence, and she pointed me to the laundry room so that I could wash my grimy things.
I sorted my laundry and then discovered Florence’s good-smelling peppermint soap, which I used to scrub the diesel exhaust from my face. When I emerged Florence had made us a salad of kale and tomatoes from her garden, some turnips and black pepper. We ate it sitting at the little table looking out at the garden, which sprawled across the property, weedy and dry at the end of the season.
“Do you want to see the boathouse?” asked Florence.
I didn’t know what that was.
“Yes.” I said.
We drove into town and then over a bridge to a little island in the Mississippi, forested with ash trees and screeching with insects. There was a soft dirt path that led along the island, and we followed it to a sandy shore where a little house was rocking gently in the current. The house was painted bright candy colors and looked as though it had been built from oddly-shaped pieces of wood. It was dim inside the house, and Florence gathered up a handful of oil lamps and lit them, revealing surfaces that were cluttered with purple plums and taper candles stuffed into wine bottles. A row of theater seats had been bolted to the wall. Upstairs, said Florence, was a bedroom with a view out over the river, a little closet with a sawdust shitter.
“There’s a raftshack too.” Said Florence. And she led me outside and around the worn wooden deck, past the tomato garden of hewn plastic barrels, to where a little wooden shack sat bobbing in the water. The raftshack had its own tiny deck, to which a wooden park bench had been bolted. Florence hopped carefully from the houseboat to the raftshack, and I watched as its front end dipped down into the water. There was a plywood door and screen windows, and inside was a heavy dresser, a wooden bedframe with a futon, and some shelves.
“I just got it two days ago,” said Florence. “Some kids had built it; they floated it down from Minneapolis. But they didn’t want it anymore; they sold it to me for two hundred bucks.” Florence ran her hand along the doorframe. “I’ve got to take it apart and shorten it,” she said. “Make it less heavy. And I’ve got to get an engine.”
Some friends of Florence’s appeared on the path and they built a fire together in the trees. Florence had an old fiddle and someone had brought a case of beer. I made a pot of lentils in the kitchen of the houseboat and then stood on the deck, listening to the music, eating the lentils with a wooden spoon. After a while Florence wandered over and I told her I was tired, so she led me to the raftshack, flipped over a bucket and set an oil lamp on it. Her friend loaned me a sleeping bag and a book on train graffiti and I lay on the futon, feeling the pontoons rock beneath me. Later when I got up to pee everything was still; the sky was black above me, stretching out over the Mississippi, the stars like handfuls of broken glass. I went back to sleep and dreamt that Florence and I were playing in the water like muskrats, that we had bicycles we rode across its surface.