Thursday, April 13, 2006

Train Hoppin (CSX style)

< >So I figured since Iv again temporarily settled into a life of stagnate monotony I would elaborate on some the highlights of my trip. For me, hopping freight trains for the first time tops the chart. Its kind of a long story, but a good one I hope.
< >I had spent just under 2 weeks in New Orleans and it was now early May. It was just starting to get to hot for comfort and for the first time I was getting a strange feeling of uneasiness that I later characterized as a sign to move along to another place. I was spending a lot of my time hanging out and going on missions with some fellow travelers, whom I became pretty close too. Ruthy, Joshy, Harry, and Wildthing were hitching west to cali within the week and Len & Trigger were hopping east in a few days, destination unknown.
I had always wanted to ride freights but a lack of knowledge, experience, and I admit, fear, and kept me from it in the past. Their desire more then their experience, which was negligible, convinced me to go with them.
< >My companions had previously procured very vague directions on where to start by some hobos, who had written it on a paper bag. In short, take the bus to the Chetmenteur Bridge, then walk to the Gentilly rail yard, sneak over to the north side and watch for a CSX Loco locking cars. The idea was to get to Jacksonville Florida and hope north from there. Everything went pretty smooth until we got near the rail yard where our lack of experience became painfuly evident. We hiked through dense thorny vegetation mixed with polluted wetland and came out on the completely opposite side from where we wanted to be. Thus began one of the longest nights of my life.
< >We started about going to the other side of the tracks, not an easy task. First is about 8 sets of tracks all with coupled cars on them, then a wide, well lit road, then another 6 sets or so. Climbing over the chest high couples with a full pack on your back and a gallon of water in your hand is harder then you would think. And if the train starts at the wrong time it could easily mean limb or life. Going under isn’t much more easy and definitely not more safe. Even worse was the fear of getting caught, because since 9/11 train hopping became a felony.
< >We constantly redirected our route to avoid rail personnel. With one close by, every step on the rail rocks sounds like a rock slide. We must have sat in the shadows eyeing that brightly lit road for at least 5 minutes. White pickups randomly drove by every few minutes or so. When we finally made the impuslive decistion to cross, a white pickup came speeding in our direction. Panic hit and we ran. We took refuge in a rail car with solid sides, and an open top, but the floor was 4 beams in a XX shape. There we hid for a few minutes, balancing our packs a bodies on those beams, only daring to peak over the top. We heard it about a second before it hit; when a locomotive couples cars it simply just rams into them, locking the couples. SLAM, I was violently thrown against the back side wall. We could see straight down to the ground and the rail road ties seemed to be moving at and incredible rate. Len shouted "bail!", and we threw our packs and jugs over the siding, then our bodies.
< >We eventually made our way to the other side of the tracks to discover it was not where we wanted to be. We were exhausted, our nerves shot; it was hot, humid, and mosquito infested; and to top it off we were starting to argue about our next moves. We smoked a few bowls, relaxed, and discussed our actions many times over the next hour or so.
< >We decided to head back to our starting point and hike to the other end of the yard where a train heading our direction would exit, but on our way there we were blocked by a group of rail personnel. We sat there in the shadows, stuck, with workers walking about no more then 20 feet in front of us. Now most rail workers will help you when approached but we were not about to risk it. We walked, as quietly as possible, between two trains, away from the workers. Soon the train they were working on was moving in the direction we wanted to go with only one train and some well lit empty space between us. Even though we were still in sight of the rail workers we made our move, ran along side it, and hopped on. As I was running I started to see little lights trace in front of my eyes. I thought the exhaustion and stress had got the best of me and I was about to faint; it had been a long time since I had seen fire flies. We got on a grainer and it slowly took us to the other end of the rail yard (at least 5 miles) and stopped for about 20 minutes. There we sat, wanting nothing more then for that train to take us absolutely anywhere, when Trigger said "Shhh, someone’s coming". A light flashed on us and a deep southern voice said,
"Woah, are you guys ok?"
"Umm, yeah." We respond.
"Where you tryin to go?"
"Well this train aint going anywhere for a few days. You want the train two tracks down from the road. Its leaving in 15 minutes so you better hurry"
< >His name was Curtis, a brakeman, and my personal savoir that night. We ran to said train and we were moving east bound within minutes. Our spot was a 6' x 10' platform that you see on either end of grainer cars. In this spot you are in plain view and exposed to the elements. My hair danced franticly in the wind. After a victory joint and some hollering, i promptly fell asleep. I woke up the next morning in broad daylight with a freeway on one side and a service road on the other. From the license plates we were somewhere in Alabama, and there was another train stopped ahead of ours. We hopped off and tried to hitch at the onramp for a wile before checking out the other train. Under the onramp was an obvious place were hobos camped out and waited to hop. There was also a large collection of good graffiti were we learned we were in Mobil. We found an open box car where we smoked a bowl, ate some food and waited for the train to start.
< >An hour of fanning ourselves in the extreme heat went by before the train started. The box car was definitely a step up from the grainer. The open door framed the beautiful countryside that you don’t get to see from a car. I spent many hours just sitting on the side of the car with my legs dangling over the fast moving tracks below. I reed, wrote (a lot), stretched, exercised, did cart wheels; tried to descern our direction by looking for signs, license plates, checkeing the compass and lookeing to the sun; and spent many hours sleeping. Different areas of the car would rock more others. In the front it was so intense that your body would be violently rolling back and forth when the train was at top speed. I rather liked only having a vague idea of where we were going. After 8 or 10 hours we were stopped in Montgomery at about midnight. We all had a big argument over whether we should get of there or not but before it was resolved the train decided for us and started again.
< >The next afternoon we were in Birmingham with very little water so it was decided to hop off there and restock. We passed by the security entrance as we left and got a stern look from the security guard. We headed straight to the truck stop which was not far away. The girl working at the subway gave all three of us meals after we told her our little story. We spent a few hours asking truckers for a ride, food, or money and more then one of thoes sick bastards asked us how much for some time with Trigger. After an hour we made about $60 and were stocked on food.
< >A CSX man getting off work told us that the yard we just left was the North / South line and the West / East was about 8 miles away. We got a ride from some painters to the area and hung out around the east bound exit until a white truck pulled up a ways way. I decided to talk with him without my pack in hopes of figuring out who he was. He turned out to be a train enthusiast who watches the trains go by. He had a scanner so he could hear when trains were leaving, where they were going, and what kind of cars it had. He also knew where they performed the crew changes (where trains stop to quickly switch the crews). He drove us to the spot, told us when the train would be there and left. All he had wanted from us was to hear some of our train stories. Soon a train stopped right there, we snuck onto a box car and it took off some minutes later.
< >This part of the trip was by far the most scenic because it followed a river instead of a road. It must have been a low priority freight because we always stopped for other trains and watched as they passed by. My favorite part was when an Amtrak went by. Everyone with a window, car by car, stared wide eyed and the dirty children waving to them from a box car. Other times when the train would stop we would cool off in the stream and run back to the box car before the train took off again.
< >The next morning we were in Columbus Georgia, in a thunder storm. We stayed there until mid-day when the rain had died down. The train had been stopped for at least 8 hours, we tried yelling to the conductors in the locomotive to get some info but no luck. Here we hopped off the train and continued to Savannah hitchhiking. But that is another story. This was one of my favorite adventures of my life, and to this day the sound of a locomotive whistle speeds my heart.