Denver. Thursday October 9th, 2003
My work visa has expired and I say goodbye to my job, my apartment and any routine I had in my life and move to a skid row motel on Broadway.
Looking at the plus side, with two weeks before I legally have to leave the United States and go back home I finally have some time and freedom on my hands. It had been in my mind all summer (as I worked long hours) to hop a freight train. It had been in my mind a lot longer than that but during my previous time in the US I had been too busy, and not in a part of America that inspires one to explore like the wide-open West does.
Denver doesn't look like a good place to start hopping freight trains; the freight yard is too big and well policed for lone beginners. So instead I look on the map for a close-by city big enough to have a busy freight yard without too much security.
Cheyenne: Noon. Friday.
First thing I see as I roll into town is railroad tracks. So far so good. A little way before downtown I find a motel and for thirty bucks I get a room which looks out onto the tracks. I call a friend who works at the Cheyenne agency of the company I worked for in Denver. Can I park my car there for the next few days? Thanks. Do I want to go out for lunch? No, I'm tired. Maybe next week. (I avoid lunch as I don't want to be talked out of the upcoming adventure - I'd heard "You're doing what?" too many times over the past few days).
I hang up then try and get some sleep (I'd been driving all the previous night) with the alarm set for 9:30pm. Before I drift away, I decide that 4am is a safe time to catch out. There won't be any people around the city so hopefully no cops (I hadn't seen any so far in the daytime).
I get up at 9:30pm and get dressed; dark blue jeans over track pants and a black hooded top over two T-shirts and a long sleeve Thermal. I pack my rucksack next. I have to pack and re-pack, as even with minimum stuff the bag seems to be too damn heavy. I have no way of safely carrying my sleeping bag so it has to stay behind. I figure I have enough spare clothes to keep me warm (well, enough to survive) if I have to sleep out in the open.
A greasy Hardies meal leaves me not feeling like doing anything physical so I sink a few beers, watch TV and enjoy my last hours in the womb of safety and civilization.
I drive my car a short distance up the road and park it behind the building owned by the company I worked for in Denver (as instructed by my friend who works there). I have two choices; walk back to the motel by the road or along the railroad tracks. To get into the mood of the adventure ahead I figure I should sneak into the yard and check things out.
I walk under the bridge that marks the entrance to the yard, listening to the low thunder of yard activity deeper on in. My only consoling thought is that trespassing will not be met the way it was in the past. Around 70 years ago the notorious railroad detective Jeff Carr stalked around this freight yard. Depending on who you believe he cut hobos down on sight with his gun, threw them in front of moving trains or just beat them senseless. What is clear is that any hobo who escaped or survived thought twice about trying to hop through Cheyenne.
Freight trains are big and slow, right? Somehow I still manage to get caught in the headlights of an outbound freight that is approaching. I scramble out of view and hide in some tall witch grass. The freight passes by noisily, and deeper into the yard the headlights of a cruising car cast searching arcs through the darkness. After the freight passes I leave the yard and walk to the motel via the road instead.
Back in the room I drink more beers and watch the clock. TV's lame efforts to entertain just make the adventure lying ahead seem even more exiting. When the clock reads 4am, I slip on my pack and step out into the pre-dawn darkness.
I put my room key through the mail slot of the motel office and begin walking up the sidewalk of West Lincolnway under the numb glow of streetlights. It is a cool morning but the strain of lugging my backpack warms me up.
After passing the motel and a couple of buildings that adjoin it, I reach the vacant land which leads away from the sidewalk, through the darkness and up to the railroad tracks. I stop to make sure the coast is clear before starting my run across to the catch out point. On the exact second when I stand on tensed toes about to run I hear the sound of an approaching car.
I carry on walking up the sidewalk and a white car drives by, heading downtown. As it passes under a streetlight I make out a bubble light on its roof and Cheyenne Sheriff on the door. I watch the cop car as it slowly diminishes on the long, straight road until it disappears.
To check the street is now empty again I turn around, only to face the headlights of a second police car. This one turns off into a side street shortly after passing me and I feel the doom of all my carefully made plans collapsing. I am a lone figure on the streets wearing dark coloured clothes and lugging a backpack. No easier pickings for a bored cop at this hour.
I sit on a nearby bench, light a smoke and try to think up a good story fast. Morning, officer! What am I doing out here at this hour? I'm a train buff, in Cheyenne to take some pictures of the freight yard at sunrise. I don't see the cop reappear, and that is lucky considering the strength of my story. I toss the cigarette and take off running toward the railroad. When I am safely away from the road I sit down about twenty feet away from the tracks, just beyond reach of the trackside floodlights.
Every experienced freight hopper will tell you not to go your first time alone. In retrospect I think this is to give you the confidence to go through with it. As I lie there waiting with my pack in the trash-strewn grass, it occurs to me that I'm not sure whether I have the guts/balls/stupidity to actually pull this thing off.
My better judgement works on me and my inner voice of common sense tries to make me turn my back on this trip. A rumble of diesel engines beginning to rise from the darkness silences my thoughts. Headlights cut a clear white path in front of three Union Pacific units that emerge out of the morning dusk. They roll past with a deep, powerful whine that I feel in the pit of my stomach. Wagon by wagon the train rumbles by and with a squeal of brakes it slows down and eventually comes to a halt.
According to my cheap compass the tracks run East/West. I guess somewhere in either or both directions is a North/South switch off line. Without a schedule of times and routes this trip will have to be a gamble. I don't have to hop this train, but under the circumstances it's as good any.
Off to the right toward the units are mostly stacked container wagons. To the left the freight is more mixed; closed boxcars and tankers. And a gondola! Now is the time to move but every instinct in my body tells me to stay put. Stay safe. But I've been dreaming about this for too long and my body starts moving before my brain has time to react.
I climb the side of the gondola but find the top is covered with a well-secured tarp. I stand there on the side of the wagon for a moment, not expecting a problem this close to success. I get back down and notice the sides of the wagon are plastered with hazardous load warnings. This definitely isn't my ride.
I spy a grain hopper a few wagons further down. The porch of the grainer facing the front of the train is filled with braking equipment, but the rear porch is empty and inviting. I throw my pack on, pull myself up on a side ladder and crawl across the cold steel floor into the shadows.
Before I can catch my breath a loud hissing of airbrakes comes from beneath the train. This is it! Here we go! Where are we going? Who knows! There is a chorus of echoing groans and creaks then a loud crash and lurch as the slack in the couplings pulls tight. My grainer starts rolling slowly out of the yard, passing stationary freights. At the edge of the yard we speed up and I fumble the earplugs out of my pack as the thunder of wheels on rails gains volume.
Leaving the city behind us, we pass under the I-25 bridge and roll out into open grassland frosted with moonlight. I get relaxed into the ride as I watch Cheyenne fading to a cluster of orange sparks on the horizon. After ten minutes of consistent speed the train starts slowing down. I look out and see we are approaching a floodlit area, a lonely siding out in the plains. We enter the siding and pull alongside a stationary train. After slowing down my grainer coasts to a halt, a final squeal of its brakes fades across the plains.
Thunder suddenly turns to silence, leaving only the sound of autumn wind whispering through the motionless freight wagons. I spark a cigarette to calm my nerves, hoping that this siding is not the end of the line for this train. After a few moments I am startled by the sound of footsteps on the carpet of loose stone lining the tracks. The sound seems to be getting closer so I make myself as invisible as I can, preparing to explain myself. Ten minutes turns to fifteen, fifteen turns to twenty.
Part of the initial thrill was having no idea where I was headed, but right now it's the worst feeling of all. I get ready to climb out and ask who ever it is walking around what the status of this train is. If they are disconnecting wagons, I can at least hide in the shadows and make sure I don't get left behind. Whether the engineer turns out to be hopper-friendly or not, anything beats the suspense of waiting.
I climb off the grainer, hook my backpack on my shoulder and start walking toward the lead units, stopping every now and then to listen for the footsteps. Ten wagons ahead of my grainer I discover the source of the 'footsteps'; it is some loose tarp on a lumber wagon rustling gently in the wind.
I look back and notice the rag-tag array of battered wagons my train is pulling. So much for catching a hotshot. But at this point the speed of the train is less of a concern than whether it will move at all.
Should I head toward the lead units and ask the driver, or should I stay put? Thinking about it, I don't figure the engineers will be too friendly toward a stranger approaching them out of the darkness.
Time goes by and I start accepting that I am stranded in this spooky railroad siding. The walk back to Cheyenne is going to be long and sorrowful. I look at the sky, wondering what to do next. The full moon gleaming through a curtain of thin cloud offers no answers and only makes me feel more alone and lost. Suddenly, from far up ahead comes two short blasts of the engine's horn.
As a rookie rider I stand there for a few seconds thinking what does that mean? Then I realize and start to run. I'm ten wagons away from my grainer which is the only ride-able wagon on this train I know about. Running through loose stone is like those nightmares where you are running for your life but it still feels like you're crawling. The backpack slamming up and down on my spine reminds me this is no dream.
I reach the grainer, climb aboard and not a moment later the train moves off. I lay breathless on the porch floor with the floodlit siding falling away behind us. When I am recovered I look out and see that by slight degrees the moonlit landscape is transforming into the monochrome world of dawn.
A field comes into view with a bunch of black cows lying near the tracks, casting their dreary eyes over the landscape. With no one else to brag my adventure I hang out the side of the grainer and yell a mighty "Yahoo!" The cows turn and look at the train with calm interest.
Further on the passing view starts rippling with rises and dips and the clear complexion of the land darkens with fir trees. A solitary house or ranch occasionally appears embedded in the surroundings. The sky out of the other side of the grainer hosts a fine sunrise; the clouds above the red fire of the rising sun glow orange and bright pink. The increase in light reveals mountain contours silhouetted on the horizon and a shitty breakfast of beef jerky, apples and water can't spoil the mood.
A while later the sun peeks over the mountaintops sweeping the last gloomy pockets of night from the landscape. Despite claims that compasses don't work on trains, mine shows we are headed West and I believe it; so the gamble has paid off after all.
On an open stretch of track an eastbound freight passes by us. Over the next few miles the surrounding hillsides crowd in around the railroad tracks then everything gets plunged into sudden darkness as we enter a tunnel. A few minutes are spent in the dark worrying about diesel fumes amid the hollow thunder of the train then we emerge on the other side into sudden sunshine and fresh air.
A while after the tunnel the outskirts of a big town come into sight. I zip up my bag and get ready to hop off in case this turns out to be the final destination. We ball right through the town and it's freight yard (it turns out to be Laramie) and no one has a chance to see me.
Past Laramie we roll past rickety brown windbreaks, small abandoned ranches surrounded by dead cars and an occasional lake shining blue in the sunlight. I-80 occasionally comes into view filled with massive recreational vehicles lumbering along always with an SUV in tow. I don't miss the road.
Wyoming is derived from an Indian word meaning "at the big plains". If we weren't there before, we are definitely there now. A shining yellow ocean of thick grass ripples in the autumn wind, stretching out from the tracks for miles until it reaches the horizon where distant mountains rise up into a clear blue sky that is wide, tall and total.
We pull to a stop here and I see a sign on the two-lane road running parallel to the tracks that claims we are 67 miles past Cheyenne. I lie flat on my back on the floor of the grainer to get some sleep. It is still and quiet, the sun is warm and the breeze is cool. I start to drift off, reaching that blissful state where consciousness has almost faded away. Suddenly a hot shot comes howling out of the plains past the edge of the grainer where my head lies.
I get blasted out of sleep into a few seconds terror by the high pitched scream of wind turbulence. We wait for an hour and a half as more hotshots scream by. When we get rolling again my junker finally hauls along at a respectable speed. Sometime during my half-sleep the blue sky disappeared behind a sweeping mass of grey cloud. Feeling beat up after eighteen hours awake (half that time spent on the train) I can't say that I'm looking forward to getting soaked in a rainstorm.
In the eleventh hour of the ride we approach a town which is Rawlins according to my map. Seeing cheap looking motels clustered near the tracks and the storm brewing in the sky, I decide Rawlins is going to be the end of the line for me today. When the train stops I jump off, heading across the tracks to a dirt road that leads away from the yard toward the motels.
At the edge of the yard I notice a UP pick-up truck driving towards me, but I am too tired to run or care. The engineers in the truck spare me bemused looks and drive on. I struggle down the dusty road toward the nearest motel with the brutal wind shoving me around and hurling dust in my eyes. The dark sky above is preparing to drop its payload.
Like Cheyenne, Rawlins is a town that sprang up with the 1868 westward advance of the UP railroad. The two ladies in the motel office look like they may have been around to celebrate the town's birth. They are hooked up by wires and pipes to whirring machines which keep them more or less alive as they offer me subdued welcomes.
Autumn rain starts smashing hard against the windows. The ancient ladies accept an ATM card to pay for the room without a hint of suspicion from a man covered in grain dust. I sign the slip, feeling thankful for not being stuck in a cold, wet freight yard with no sleeping bag. After dropping my pack in the room I hit the diner next door and get a steak with apple pie for afters.
Then I go on a search for booze amid the storm. I have to put all my weight and force into walking in a straight line against the wind. People in cars watch me intensely, as if in a second I might be carried off into the night like a leaf. It amazes me how strong storms can whip up out of nowhere in this part of the country. I find a liquor store but realize I have left my ID back in the motel room. I settle for a pack of Marlboro Lights from a gas station then struggle back to the room.
Rawlins. Saturday. 11am
After possibly the best nights sleep in my life I awake to the rumble of a train outside the window. I get up and open the curtains to see a westbound making its way into the yard under a clear blue sky. It is approaching checkout time. I am 150 miles from Cheyenne without a car in a town that probably doesn't have a bus station. I consider my initial plan of hitching back along the highway. Looking again at the railroad tracks a stone's throw from my window I don't consider it for long. This is a rare situation where hopping a freight is likely to be easier than going by any other form of transport.
I get dressed and take stock of my supplies. I toss away the large block of cheese brought for the trip. On a rattling freight train ride warm cheese is never going be appealing no matter how hungry you are.
I drop my key off at the main desk and step out into the light of day, cutting around the back of the motel and following the dirt track up to the freight yard. I had seen a warm-looking sunny from the motel window but that was deceptive; outside there is an icy cold wind that cuts back and forth like a blade.
When I reach the top of the bank next to the tracks I lie low and wait. A couple of eastbound trains roll past, going too fast to catch a ride. After a while I notice that the lead units of all the trains stop parallel to the main office further on down. I am in a prime place to hop a west bound, but to find a stationary eastbound train means finding a way to get past the main office to the other side.
I walk across the tracks to the opposite side of the yard then follow a dirt road that forks left away from the yard and passes by rows of trailer homes. The dirt track is intersected by a blacktop road which I cross over after a cop car drives past.
At the official entrance to the yard I am greeted for the first time by "No Trespassing" signs. My luck has been good so far and I don't want to push it by walking straight through an official entrance in broad daylight. I keep walking alongside the yard until I meet a path which meanders between a row of houses on the left and the railroad tracks on the right. The path finally comes right up to the tracks past the main office and I cross to the other side without being seen.
Next to a couple of vacant buildings is a flatbed wagon in a siding with a Caterpillar earthmover on top. The Caterpillar tracks offer a good windbreak so I sit leaning against one of them. The siding is at the base of a series of rocky hills. On the left behind a chain-link fence stands a small heating oil business where two rotten 70's Cadillac Eldorados sit in the sun. Once in while a strong breath of wind whips up and brings tumble weed bouncing past.
An eastbound eventually pulls up beside me, but the freight consists only of sealed car carriers. Several more westbound trains thunder past. At around 3pm an eastbound finally pulls up, but it's made up of container wagons, loaded and stacked two high leaving nowhere to safely or discreetly ride. Minutes later another train also heading eastbound rolls up on the other side of it. I climb over the first train and try to find a place to ride on the newly arrived freight.
Four wagons from the back of the train I find a piggyback with a full floor and a semi trailer on top of it. Pacing back and forth, I try to decide whether to ride this train or wait for another with safer wagons to ride. A rider would be visible on a piggyback, especially in the middle of the day.
Is it suicide to be under the axle of a semi-trailer sitting on a moving train? The past four lazy hours spent waiting were pleasant enough, but I am getting impatient. If I don't hop this train, how long will I have to wait for another?
After ten minutes of indecision the last minute countdown begins with a loud hiss of air, the brakes slowly releasing their grip on the wheels. Fuck it... I have to get out of this town. I push my backpack on then pull myself up onto the rusty floor beneath the semi trailer. The train starts creeping forward as I drag myself along on my belly toward the space underneath the axle, where I can curl up and be hidden between the wheels.
I just manage to crawl under the axle then KA-chang! In a second the piggyback is hammered back and tugged forward with a massive jolt. The wagon settles and crawls along as I curse and watch the yard pass by through the gap between the trailer tyres, bunching up tight so I can't be seen from the outside.
Freight trains gain speed slowly and there is no sense of acceleration (except for that initial bite of slack). One minute my train is rolling calmly through the yard to the edge of Rawlins, the next thing I know we are running full bore into the plains. Every time I think we must be at maximum speed the train just keeps going faster.
To make things more interesting the train hits a rough section of track. My wagon gets thrown around constantly left and right making the semi trailer which I lie under bounce and rock. The passing landscape is a yellow blur. It is hard to see much with the wagon hurling me around. Must be going close to 80mph now?
From my position I watch the semi-trailer on the same wagon as mine swaying left to right. Fearing one of the trailers will roll off the side or slip off it's linkage and crush me like a roach, I try to keep the phrase 'if it wasn't safe to put semi-trailers on freight wagons they wouldn't do it' in mind.
The tailgate in front of me shakes violently with a noise like massive steel chains smashing against each other. The trailer tyres each side of me sway and bounce. I try to stay in the middle, as far away from them as possible. Finally though never slowing down the hell ride starts to smooth out as we leave the bad tracks behind us.
Wind protection is not good riding piggybacks and it gets cold in the shade underneath the trailer. All things considered, cold is not much to suffer after how the ride had started. A two lane road runs parallel to the railroad tracks so I stay put to avoid being spotted.
We pass the same sights I had seen the day before, but this time there is the thrill of hauling along at high speed. Eventually the road leaves the company of the railroad tracks and I sit out in the open under warm sunshine. We rumble past a couple of cowboys mending a fence near the tracks with their horses tied up nearby contently grazing.
On some stretches of track out here the landscape shows no sign of human interference. The explorer John Smith in 1612 described seeing "a plain wilderness as God first made it." The same sight greets me 391 years later, only further west from where Smith travelled. For all the risks involved hopping freights, this is the payoff.
A jewel of yellow sunlight kisses the calm surface of a wide creek. A herd of antelope wander and graze in the grass nearby. There are occasional pieces of discarded junk but these are sealed in years long past; the bulging lines of a 1940's Buick rusted and forgotten in the grass, the skeleton of a Model T Ford abandoned in the centre of an infinite landscape.
I wipe the dust off my face with my hand and notice that my fingers have turned orange. After doing this my nose starts to burn and weep. I blink my eyes into the rushing wind. Shit. I think I must have came into contact with some chemicals spilt off this train's cargo. Now there is a happy thought to ride along with.
I look out again and notice one-room huts on the hilltops of the sunlit plains, dilapidated relics made out of thick, dark timber beams. Though my map shows this railroad runs south of the Overland Trail for most of the journey, the huts are likely part of the original westbound emigration story.
We rumble on through the afternoon, the shadows cast by the rail wagons growing taller on the plains. As Laramie approaches I crawl back underneath the trailer axle. As I lie on my belly between the wheels looking ahead I see a lone man coming into view, standing behind a fence separating the town from the train tracks. He is watching the freight go by, wagon by wagon. When my piggyback passes we look into each other's eyes for a moment. What the hell did he think about this? Amusement turns to paranoia as I realize he could easily report me to the UP or the cops.
Past Laramie we roll alongside the setting sun, a radiant purple and orange haze in the sky above the mountains. The wide open plains fall behind us and we head back into the badlands. I watch the impressive rock formations that characterize this part of the country pass by in the last of the afternoon light.
As the sun disappears the temperature drops rapidly. I put on all my extra layers, finally glad for all that extra weight I have been lugging around. I pull on a ski mask and extra jacket, but even with this and a pair of gloves I am still cold enough to want to curl up and not move.
Darkness on yesterdays ride was not a problem because there was the anticipation of daylight. Tonight after running out of cigarettes all I can do is lie on my belly and hope we are bound for Cheyenne.
The adrenaline flows again as I realize that my trip is far from over. The most important part lies ahead; getting out of the yard without getting caught. If I screw up and get caught it's going to cast a nasty shadow over the whole trip.
We thunder through the night and begin to pass another speeding eastbound on the tracks to the right of us. The other freight is only going a little slower than we are (around 75 mph), so we roll side by side for a while. After we pass about ten wagons, the other train starts to accelerate, pulling away from us. Up ahead Cheyenne's twinkling lights stretch out on the horizon under a full red moon. My train speeds up, starting to pass again.
To the foreground of the city lights two freight trains charge through black plains night toward Cheyenne. Either my train is going faster or the other slower because we manage to pull away. My piggyback is the fourth wagon from the back of the train. As we pass the front unit of the other freight I hide behind the trailer tires to avoid the powerful headlights. The other train drops further and further behind us as our hotshot runs full bore toward the city.
I hope my train slows down drastically and soon so I can jump out where a little road crosses the tracks close to the yard entrance (my car is just down the street from here). As the crossing flies by I move to the edge of the piggyback and realise jumping off the train at this speed would bust an arm or a leg. We pass under the bridge that marks the entrance to the freight yard and the train's brakes come on with a squeal.
When the train stops I swing off the left hand side and run to the edge of the yard where the land drops off sharply. I slide down a steep slope of loose gravel, reaching the bottom to find freedom close as a spit but on the other side of a swamp. Through the swamp a small, muddy river flows going off to the right. It then makes a 90-degree turn, runs adjacent to a small road and then both river and road disappear under the bridge that the railroad tracks run over.
The easiest way out is to go back up to the top of the embankment and follow the tracks over the bridge, then drop down the steep bank on the other side and onto the sidewalk next to the road.
I scramble up the slippery bank on my hands and knees. I stand up at the top and hear the roar of an approaching vehicle. As headlights start to pan over where I am standing I drop to my belly. I snatch a look over the top of the embankment and see a railroad cop car racing up the other side of the piggyback I just jumped off. The car slows down, reaching the back of the train. Slowly it turns around, then roars off the way it came toward the main part of the yard. After it's lights disappear, I waste no time and run to the bridge.
I take a look across and see the headlights of an outbound freight burning further down the track. It isn't moving toward the bridge yet so I start running across between the rails. There is a busy road underneath the bridge and people in cars approaching have a clear view of me so I run fast, but I also have to concentrate on not tripping on the railroad sleepers. I reach the other side, then slip and slide down the steep bank down to the road. I reach the bottom and hop off a concrete pillar and the soles of my boots meet the sweet sidewalk (which I want to bend down and kiss).
I wait for the road to clear to cross over, taking curious looks from people in passing cars who just saw my slide and jump back into society. When the road clears I cut across into a dark side street that runs beside a bar. The tension of potentially getting injured or arrested that shadowed me throughout the trip suddenly evaporates and is replaced by triumphant joy.
I stop at a store to buy some cigarettes and a cold brew to toast the journey's end and this is where my wave of relief and happiness crash lands. I brought pepper spray with me in case I ran into any serial killers. I discover as I bring a six-pack to the counter that sometime during my journey back from Rawlins the safety catch slipped off and the canister leaked in my pocket. This is why my fingers were orange and why my face burned after I rubbed it with my hand (not due to spilled chemicals from the train's cargo, thank God).
The pepper spray was in the same pocket as my ATM card, and the chemicals leaked from the spray combined with keeping the friction of keeping the card loose in my pocket scratched off part of the data strip. I have no gas, no cigarettes and without an ATM card I have one dollar to my name. Considering my appearance, the young cowboy type behind the store counter doesn't seem concerned or surprised.
After a ten-minute walk I get my car and take it to the nearest gas station. I ask the old store clerk to run the numbers from my card so I can get some gas but he refuses. As I walk back out onto the forecourt I notice that I am attracting stares coming from people pumping gas.
It suddenly dawns on me that I'm walking around looking like a tramp, which is true I guess. You can shun society whenever you want but that appears to work both ways. I drive to a nearby truck stop and change into some clean clothes I have in the trunk of my car. After splashing some water on my face and re-sculpting my wind styled hair, the people at the next gas station are willing to run my card numbers and give me service with a smile.
"Don't sound like you're from around here, what you doing in Cheyenne?"
"See what you wanted to see?"
"Yeah, all that and more."