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Hopping freights from St. Paul to Seattle

 

Montana? Idaho?
Montana? Idaho?

 

The idea of riding freight trains had been kicking around in my mind for a year or so. But I had been thinking about it a lot the last couple of months, and I mentioned the idea to a few people, my good friend Vy among them.

Vy told me that he had been in contact with a guy named Weston who we met last summer in Kodiak, AK; while he was there working on a tender boat for the summer. From what I understood, Weston was planning to ride freights to Seattle, from NY, and would be coming through Minneapolis sometime in mid-August.

I contacted Weston to see if he wanted company from Minneapolis to Seattle. It turns out that he did. And it worked out that I was able to take off the day he came through.

Weston is a very experienced train hopper. You can never really be sure where a train is going, so all you can do is make educated guesses based on the type of cars and freight the train is carrying.

Weston knew exactly where the best place to catch out of St. Paul to Seattle was. After a little bit of driving around the train yard looking for landmarks, we got dropped off at about 2:30 PM.

There was a hobo camp there. No hobos, but a place to wait, an old chair, a forty or fifty pound bag of moldy carrots, and many other scraps cast off by travelers who had been there in the past.

We waited in the camp for a bit, until I found a note from a hobo written on half an old pizza box that said, "Yard bulls walk through here!" Uh oh.

We looked for a better place to remain unseen, but we were spotted by some rail yard workers. Most of the railroad employees know people are riding the trains, and some of them don't mind. Hell, some railroad employees do some freight hopping themselves. But, train-hopping is illegal, and most, if not all yards have police patrolling them, known as Yard Bulls. They are employed by the railroads, but are licensed police who can arrest you just like any other cop.

After we were spotted, we thought it would be prudent to get lost for an hour or so. We didn't know if the yard workers would call us in to the rail cop, but if they did, and we stayed there we would be found for sure.

So we walked about a half mile out of the yard and found a place to lay low for an hour or so. When we went back, we found a much better place to hide out. In some thick underbrush that covered us like a canopy, just off the tracks.

Then we waited and waited, and Weston and I got to know each other a little better, as we had only met once or twice, briefly, in Kodiak. We got sprinkled on a bit, but the leafy canopy kept most of that off of us. Later in the night, several waves of thunderstorms rolled through, with very heavy rain. The leafy canopy couldn't help us. I got completely soaked. My shoes would squish out water when I walked, my pants got soaked, my fleece hoody got soaked, and most of the stuff in my backpack got wet. I was fucking drenched. I figured I'd dry out eventually.

As we were waiting, I heard a few other people talking nearby. I laid there hoping it wasn't the rail cops, but after a while it became clear that they were probably waiting to catch a train too.

Sometime during the night, I'm guessing around midnight, a westbound train rolled up and stopped. It was go time!

We peeked out of the bushes to see if the coast was clear and ran out, crossed the couplings of one or two trains that had been sitting for hours. We ran up the line to see if there were any rides. Running in the rain with packs that weighed in the neighborhood of forty or fifty pounds. All this while constantly checking our backs, fronts, sideways, and up and downs for yard workers or the rail cop, and trying to stay in the shadows. It was like some kind of Navy Seal training.

We walked and ran far down the line, but couldn't spot a ride. There are only a few kinds of cars that are OK to ride. Sometimes, even on a mile-long train, there might not be any rides. Most of the big intermodal trains we saw on this trip had a few acceptable rides, though. But it's a real fucking challenge to get to them. You might have to run and walk nearly a mile, with a full pack, while trying to remain unseen in a busy train yard. Every now and then we'd see a yard worker driving along, and have to jump the couplings to get on the other side of a train to avoid being spotted.

There were no rides for us on that train. So we went back to our hiding spot, to get rained on some more.

Very early in the morning, after nearly twelve hours of waiting, a big intermodal train rolled up fast and stopped. Go time again!

This time, as we ran out of the bushes, we weren't alone. There were about six others emerging from the soggy bushes running with their packs towards the train. The image of all of us emerging from our hiding spots and scrambling over the trains will never leave my mind. It was a rainy night and the humidity was so thick you could see it. Not quite fog, but almost. These other train hoppers emerged as silhouettes, moving from the cover of darkness to the bright lights of the yard. We were all playing a game of cat and mouse with the yard workers. We all scurried to find a place to hide.

Weston quickly spotted a potential ride, as did the others. We were all making eyes on one car. We hid in the shadows under some semi-trailers on the train next to it. We waited, my heart pounding from exertion and nervousness, checking for yard workers and the yard bull. We waited for some yard workers to move further down the line and then all of us made a mad dash to what we thought was going to be our ride.

Weston was first up to check it out, but it was no good! There was no floor on the car! Weston shouted in a whisper to the others, "No good! No Good!" And Weston and I headed off in a different direction from our compatriots to search for a ride.

We made our way up the line, quite a ways up, looking for another ride. But we couldn't spot anything. There were many cars carrying semi trailers. These can be ridden, but Weston was kind of shaking his head in disbelief. He said several times, "this is a rough ride man." Part of his hesitation, I'm sure, was out of concern for me. He knew that riding these cars was going to be hard on us, and especially me, for my first freight hopping trip. I didn't really know what he meant when he said, "this is a rough ride man." But I was about to find out. The options were limited to riding these cars, or staying in St. Paul. We had already waited 12 hours. I asked Weston what he wanted to do, even though I already knew the answer. Get on the fucking train.

There isn't enough room for two people to ride one of these cars. So I got on the third from the last car, and Weston got on the fourth from the end. Riding these cars makes you exposed to being seen, and exposed to the wind. And there is really no where to get comfortable. To remain unseen, you need to ride between the wheels of the trailer. And even there, it's easy to be spotted in a yard. In critical areas, where there are railroad workers, and possibly rail cops, we had to crawl up and wedge ourselves on top of the axles of the truck. There is just enough room for a pack and a person on top of the axles. But it's extremely uncomfortable. I supported my ass with the axle stuffed my feet up into the steel rails of the trailers, and rested my head on a small steal bar that had something to do with the brakes. I held onto the steel I-beams of the frame work of the trailer, to take as much weight off the pressure points that were digging into my hip and head. It was extremely uncomfortable. As soon as we left the yards we could come down from the axles. I guess wedging myself up on top of the axles had a positive side too: It made riding between the wheels and under the axles seem relatively comfortable even though it wasn't.

 

boots

 

We rolled out of St. Paul not too long after we found our rides, at about 3 AM. I'm going to guess we waited in our hiding spots for about ten minutes before we started rolling, but everything happened in such a blur, that I really have no idea if that estimate is accurate. Pretty much as soon as we left the yard, the train got up to some pretty serious speed. About 70 miles per hour. As my first time experience riding a freight, it was extremely exhilarating, and kind of surreal. The adrenaline of the cat and mouse game was still flowing. The glowing lights of the city whizzed past viewed through a lens of giddiness and sleep deprivation. It was sheer joy being on a fast moving freight train after many hours spent waiting broken up by bursts extreme exertion. The adrenaline of knowing you are breaking the law added to the kick. It was extremely exciting, and the joy quickly washed over me. The train stopped shortly thereafter in another yard in North Minneapolis. I had a fear of being discovered every time we stopped or entered a yard. I hid as best I could, but the train only stopped for a minute or so, and the yard looked pretty quiet. We were on our way again.

That first night it rained a lot. And I was pre-soaked from the rain we got hit with while waiting. I started to get cold pretty fast. Everything I was wearing was wet, and now I had a 50 to 70 mile per hour wind to deal with. A 70 degree temperature can be cold if you're soaked, in a 70 mph wind, and motionless (thus not making much body heat), for hours. It's hard for me to guess the actual temperature. Because of the factors involved, it felt to me like forty degrees, but could have been 65 as measured by a thermometer. One advantage to riding the cars we were riding was that they kept pretty much all of the rain off of us. A couple of times during prolonged heavy rain, the cars got wet enough that some of the sprayed collected on the floor and a bit of it made its way toward the back of the cars, where we were. But that was very minor compared to the exposure to the rain we would have had if we'd gotten on the original ride Weston had spotted, the one that turned out not to have a floor. Pick your poison. Exposure to the wind and no place to lay comfortably, or being soaking wet. Anyway, I needed to get into my sleeping bag to stay as warm as possible.

These cars we were riding made doing anything a relatively serious challenge. Getting in my sleeping bag was a big one. The only place to ride where I would be relatively hidden, and able to be in my sleeping bag was wedged between the tires of the trailer and a two foot wide piece of steel that was a kind of ridge between the wheels. It was never anywhere close to comfortable. I had to inflate my sleeping mat while holding on with both hands so the wind wouldn't rip it away and carry it to never land, then kneel on it while I pulled out my sleeping bag, also holding on with two hands. Then I had to get kind of in position, placing the mat where it needed to be, and keeping my body weight on it so it didn't blow away, then wrangle the sleeping bag into position with both hands as it was flapping and being pulled in every direction by the wind. Then worm my way into it, while soaking wet with hiking boots on, and trying to make sure my mat didn't blow away. All this while being wedged into a space that had no use for me; under the axles, between the wheels and a chunk of steel, and out of the way of some big, bouncing brake activators.

Taking a piss was another difficult prospect. There's no room to stand up. The floor of the car was almost solid. There were two slots that were about 3 inches wide and many feet long. Those were my target. I had to kneel, but crouching and kind of slumped over, otherwise my head would hit the bottom of the trailer. I'm being jostled around by the motion of the train, and pushed and pulled by the wind. I've got three layers of garments to get through before I'm ready. I aim for the slot. But the 70 mile per hour wind was rushing up through that slot, so invariably the stream would get blown back up, and all over the place. I ended up smelling like piss because there was no way I could get it out and off the car without the wind carrying it all over.

I packed a little heavy for this trip. If I had known how much running, scrambling, and climbing we were going to be doing, I would have packed lighter. I brought several things that never got used. Any of them alone wasn't a lot of weight, but when the useless stuff was added up, it amounted to something. Getting anything out of the pack on this train required a pretty serious effort. And I didn't want to take out anything that wasn't absolutely required. The wind was a relentless force. And it threatened to rip anything in my hands out of them, and I'd never see it again. This meant being extremely careful, because even though I brought some things I didn't need, anything I took out of my pack was essential to the trip, and losing it was out of the question. I wanted to get more pictures, but I only dared to get my phone out for them twice, holding on to it with both hands from inside the zippered pocket of my pack, until it was back in the pocket and it was zipped up.

I did lose my water bottle. My pack has a spot for it on the outside with a bungee cord to secure it. But I must not have secured the bungee tight enough, because when I opened my eyes the first morning when it got light out, it was gone. Oh well. I had two four liter water bladders I could drink out of. But if I had lost my water? That would have been bad news. And it was a real possibility when anything was dragged out of the pack into the wind.

I was cold nearly the whole time from St. Paul to Spokane. Rarely to the point of shivers, but uncomfortably cold. Some time mid-morning or early afternoon on Sunday the rail angels smiled upon us, and we found ourselves traveling across the great planes of North Dakota and Montana, away from roads, in the sun. Just a giant thundering monster rolling fast on a ribbon of steel through rolling hills and wheat fields, carrying (at least) two smiling hobos. When these moments came, when we could come out of our hiding spots and sit in the sun and just watch the country roll by, they were made sweeter that saccharin in contrast to the suffering endured to get to them. Small joys meant the world, and I soaked them up, along with the warming sunshine.

At some point on this trip, I started to understand the "railfan" train-nerd culture. If we weren't riding these beasts, we were watching them roll by in close proximity. Days spent dwarfed by millions of tons of thundering steel started to give me a real sense of these rolling dragons. These machines, and the entire rail system is simply amazing to behold in such an intimate manner.

It's a pretty mysterious system for the first time train-hopper. Years of observation probably add up to a pretty comprehensive knowledge base, but even with that experience, I'm sure it's frequently a guessing game. Sometimes the trains will stop, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The train we were on never stopped for very long, but it was a mystery as to what was going on. We weren't on a siding, or in a yard. Just stopped.

The train also stopped in just about every yard it went through. But usually just for a very short time. Anywhere from thirty seconds to a few minutes. We could never be sure why. It stopped in a few yards for longer periods of time. Probably Havre, Montana was the longest, excepting Spokane, where we got ditched. I'm not sure now long the train was sitting in Havre, because I slept through a portion of it. But they were doing something to the train, connecting or disconnecting cars, or something. Weston was awake and paying attention to it all. His years of experience and accumulated knowledge still only gave him clues, and he made educated guesses as to what was happening.

The amount of freight being moved by rail is mind boggling. And how the system operates is very interesting to experience first hand. It seems incredibly efficient. The train we caught out of St. Paul was a high priority intermodal train. It was about a mile long, frequently traveling 70 or 80 miles per hour making a beeline for Seattle. Intermodal trains are the workhorses of the freight rail system. Intermodal means essentially, integrated modes of transport. They carry many steel shipping containers that can be carried by freighter ships, semi-trucks and trains. They also carry the trailers of semi-trucks. Most of you have probably waited at a rail crossing for one of these trains, cursing its' length. Many of them approach or exceed a mile in length.

There are sections of single rail that carry two way traffic. These sections have occasional "sidings." A switch will route a train off the main line on a short section of parallel rail to wait for an oncoming train to pass. This intermodal train we were on never once pulled off for another freight train. All the other freights pulled onto the sidings to let us pass. We pulled on to sidings only twice, to let Amtrak trains pass. And we were only on the sidings for a few minutes. This train was a high priority freight train. We had a clue that it would be because many of the semi trailers it was carrying were FedEx and UPS.

There are also sections with two parallel tracks where oncoming trains will pass each other at full speed. The tracks are about eight feet apart. But when you're watching the blur of a train going by at an accumulated 140 miles per hour (70 + 70) it makes it feel more like two feet. I can't describe the sounds made when two mile long freight trains pass each other at 140 miles per hour. But they are some of the coolest sounds I have ever heard. It was probably the first time this happened when I had the realization that I was but a speck of dust to these things. An insignificant nothing. The sounds generated make it quite clear the sheer mass and inertia carried in these monsters.

Sometime after riding for twenty hours, the whole experience started to get surreal. Twenty four hours spent living inside the racket that is a rolling freight train, combined with the accumulated effects of sleep deprivation started to play tricks on my mind. The noise is relentless. You've all heard trains rolling, either close up or far away. But the noise passes and it's quiet again. Living inside this cacophony of noises is completely different experience. I had ear plugs, which helped to deaden the noise, but it's still like living inside a freight train. Wait, it is living inside a freight train.

I'm not sure why, or how this phenomenon happened. But after hours and hours spent listening to the racket, I started to hear what I thought were conversations. Really. I was hearing what sounded exactly like two people conversing over the racket of a freight train. I could never make out the words over the racket, but the phenomenon and experience was incredibly real. And it would come and go for reasons I'll never know. At some point, as I laid with my eyes closed, somewhere between the states of sleeping and being awake, hearing some conversation that I could never know emerging from the racket, I opened my eyes, and one of the round reflectors on the back of the trailer appeared to me to be a speaker. My brain was working to make sense of the orchestra of noises, and the strange phenomenon of a human conversation emerging out of the symphony of noises. For a few minutes, I was sure that the reflector was a speaker, and everything made sense. For some reason the crew in the engine were broadcasting their conversation on speakers rigged up to each and every car. Then I emerged from this semi-dream state, realized that a reflector was just a reflector, and the mysterious conversation went on.

There are so many noises. There are rhythmic noises, and random noises. After a while I started to make sense of a few of them. Sometimes the wheels would start screeching. At first I thought it was the brakes activating. But after a while I figured out that it was the sides of the wheels rubbing on the tracks when the train was rounding a curve. The brakes made a totally different noise, which I also learned after a while.

Another time I heard the train playing me music. There was the thundering rhythmic bass of a bad wheel, boom-booming every time the flat spot hit the rails. There was some high pitched rhythmic sounds that emulated a high-hat and there were random melodies thrown in to spice it up. I laid there with my eyes closed, enjoying the warm breeze and the music, occasionally opening my eyes to wonder at the starry sky, and the circumstance I found myself in; rolling southwest from Spokane on a junk train.

After traveling high speed for a stretch, if I felt a big clunk, I knew the trains was going to slow down. Sometimes for a yard, sometimes for a twisty section of tracks, and sometimes for an unknown reason. Maybe it had to slow for the timing required to let an oncoming train to get on a siding to let us pass. This big clunk, was the slack in the couplings being taken up, as the train compressed or decompressed. It happened when the train was taking off, and when it decelerated. It was a pretty cool thing to hear on trains that were rolling by as we were waiting to catch one. It's loud, and you can hear it rolling down the train in succession as the slack is taken up by each coupling.

Sometime during that first night out of St. Paul, as I was trying to stay warm against the wind, I heard what I thought was someone saying "What's up!?" I chalked it up to my mind playing tricks on me among the racket of being on a rolling freight train, thinking, "that can't be Weston." But I looked up and saw a shadowy lump further up the car I was riding. It wasWeston. He had climbed across the rigging that held the semi trailer on the train, wriggled his way across the spine of the front of the car. It was a precipitous thing to do. The cars were wet because we'd been traveling through a lot of rain, and he had to crawl across a spine of steel two feet wide with nothing but giant steel train wheels and earth moving by at 70 miles per hour. We visited for a bit, gave each other verbal high fives for getting out of St. Paul, and then he waited for a bit for the rain to subside, to crawl back to his own car where he could get in his bag and be warm.

Later, after the sun had come up, the train stopped, and Weston came back to pay me a visit again. It was then that he noticed the big warning signs on the cars around the steel couplings that hold the tractor trailers down. They said simply, "Danger! Do not Step!" And had a boot in a circle with a cross through it. He had been crawling all over that shit in the darkness, and said something like, "Oh shit, I don't like that. We should never do that again." I agreed.

Rolling through the plains took much longer than I expected. I was really anxious to get to the scenery of the Mountain West. I kept thinking it was just around the bend. I kept seeing foothills, and more dramatic geography that you see in the plains, but they'd roll by, and then we'd be rolling through more empty, flat fields again for hours. We got to the mountains of western Montana sometime just after the sun set on Sunday night. I got in my bag around sunset and tried to get some sleep. It was the first time I got actual sleep. Getting rest was a bigger priority for me than avoiding being caught, so I found a place that was comfortable enough to sleep, even though I was a little more exposed. But I felt pretty secure in the darkness of night.

Sometime in the very early morning darkness Weston shook me awake. We had rolled into a train yard, and they were doing something with the train. Weston was awake and aware of what was going on. He said he was pretty sure they had disconnected the cars we were on, and that a train had rolled up on the line next to us, and that we should try to get on that one. But he spotted the rail cop, and there were a bunch of yard workers around, so we had to climb up on the axles to hide, and 20 or 30 minutes after he woke me up, our train started to roll west again. We rolled out and I again climbed down off the axles and into my sleeping bag.

The sun woke me up early the next morning. We were rolling through some incredible terrain. We found ourselves in a deep gorge following the river that probably made it. I suspect that it was the Salmon River in Idaho, but there's no way I can be sure. We were somewhere in Western Montana, or Northern Idaho. The train was snaking along this gorge, right next to the river, going slow because of the curves. Man, what a ride that was. The sun was out, we were in the middle of no where, the train was slowly winding through this deep gorge, no chance of being spotted or busted. Many times I wished the train would stop, so I could get off and spend weeks in that place. Incredibly beautiful scenery. Steep, forested mountains rising immediately from the river. Arid western air, sunshine, and views of the rest of the train as it snaked it's way along this river. Fucking amazing. No doubt.

It was very cool on that ride to be able to see the rest of the train. Normally, when it's going in a straight line, you can only see ten cars up, then it becomes a blur. You really can't get a sense of the machine you're on until you can see it all. When it's on curves, we could look out and see the front of the train, and see just how long this fucker really was. It was amazing to spot the engines, a mile from where we were riding, and see the rest of the train snaking along the tracks. Beautiful, man.

It wasn't long after we left the amazing mountain terrain that we pulled into Spokane, WA. It was after we left the mountains of Northern Idaho, and entered the warm desert terrain of Western Washington that I finally warmed up and dried out for good. It was actually hot and dry. The train stopped briefly in a yard on the outskirts of town, then motored along quickly to another yard in Spokane. Here they started doing things to the train. It was clear they were doing something to the train, but we weren't sure what was happening until the cars we were riding got pulled into a loading/unloading area. We were both camped out on the axles of our rides, and I started seeing a bunch of shipping containers stacked next to the rails, and then we spotted some UPS Semi's. "Oh shit! They're going to unload this fucker!" I thought. And they did, about ten minutes after we got the fuck off and snuck out of the yard. We saw them unloading it just a few minutes after we snuck out of the yard.

When our cars initially pulled up and stopped, there were a lot of yard workers around. We were getting ready to bolt, and were out from our hiding spots getting ready to grab our packs and run when I saw Weston point behind me, and then motion to hide. I looked behind me and a yard worker was walking up the line, maybe 50 feet away, checking something on each car. I scrambled up onto the axles and held my breath as he walked right by, he passed within five feet of me, but for whatever reason, never bothered to look up. I heard him start a conversation with another worker right next to where I was hiding and after what seemed like 20 minutes, but was probably 20 seconds, they made their way further down the line. We waited for a couple of minutes until it sounded quiet, peaked out and saw those same workers 150 feet down, continuing to move away from us. This was our chance. We bolted across 5 or 6 sets of tracks and were out of the yard shortly thereafter, high from the adrenaline.

We laughed to each other as we discussed the situation we had just been in. We found a sprinkler to wash off in, then walked a bit to find some shade. As we sat in the shade of an overpass in the industrial part of town, just out of the train yard, a man approached us who clearly wasn't friendly. He said something like, "Do you guys ride the trains anymore? They arrest you now don't they?"

Weston replied, "No, we don't do that, it looks like a dangerous thing to do."

The man then asked us how we got around.

"Hitch-hiking mostly," Weston said, "How about you?"

"I use a car," The man said, with a tone that implied an air of superiority.

Then he pointed to a couple of buckets of some kind of industrial waste and advised us not to drink it. Thanks for looking out for us buddy. I was just about to guzzle those ten gallons of unknown toxic waste.

I talked later with Weston about that encounter. His take was that the man was trying to scare us off. If I recall correctly, the very same spot we were sitting was one spot to wait to catch out. If that's the case, there have been many travelers sitting in that spot, and that man was probably sick of it. Sick of dirty hobos. Maybe we represented a visage that was in direct conflict with his workaday world, some kind of threat to all that he held dear. Who knows. But I can speculate.

Interestingly enough, 10 minutes later, and only a couple hundred feet away, another man shouted to us as we were walking, "Hey, do you guys have everything you need?"

He took us both by surprise, and I started walking towards him, not really sure what he'd said initially, only that his vibes were good. He handed me a bag, and said "Take this. It's a sandwich, salami." The kindness and generosity of strangers amazed me several times on this trip. We thanked him and moved on, enjoying some real food for a change.

We made our way toward a street that seemed a little more populated than the industrial streets we had been on. There was a bar on the first main intersection. It was very hot and dry, and that Western sun was relentless. "Hey Weston, would you like a beer? I'll buy you one." We went into the bar across a main thoroughfare from the train yard. We had a couple of cold beers, I got a charge on my phone, and we asked the bar tender about getting a bus downtown. She gave us the information we needed, and we headed off to the hub of the city bus service to get on the bus we need to get to the catch-out spot.

When we were walking around, dirty as hell, faces black with dirt, and raccoon eyes peering out, and myself smelling like piss because of the ridiculous wind/urine interference, we got a lot of looks. To most people, we probably looked like vagrants, and homeless people. They might have assumed that we were not capable of having a home, not capable of making it in their world. I don't blame them, when I've seen people that looked like us, I have jumped to the same conclusions. We either got weird looks, or people asking if we needed anything. It was a very interesting experience for me to catch a glimpse of how the world views homeless people, from the homeless perspective. I'm not claiming I know the hardships of homelessness, only that I've caught a glimpse of how people react to the homeless, disguised as a homeless person.

We each bought a sandwich at a small coffee shop inside the bus terminal. The people behind the counter were curious about where we came from and where we were going. We talked to them a bit, I paid for my sandwich, then noticed some apples on the counter. I wanted an apple, man. So I said, "Shoot, you know what, I'm gonna get an apple, too." The guy behind the counter said, "I'll throw in a couple bananas, and here, take a few apples." Another moment of small generosity that meant more than the few cents worth of fruit he gave us.

We found our bus to the catch-out spot. It was on an elevated track over the city. We scrambled up an embankment, crossed two rail road bridges that went over roads, and waited out of sight behind the electrical box that Weston said would be there. We watched a couple trains roll in, and maybe one roll out west. We only waited a few hours before we caught a junk train going west. It was moving pretty slow so it was easy to catch, even for me.

I rode on the porch of a grain car, Weston made sure I got on, then caught his ride a few cars back. Man, oh man, what a difference having a decent ride makes. Those semi-trailer cars were brutal. This ride was awesome. I had a roomy, flat floor to spread out on. Not long after we caught out, Weston jumped four or five cars on the rolling train to pay me a visit. We climbed up and rode on the top for a bit, enjoying the view.

This train moved quite a bit slower, maybe 50 miles per hour tops. The sun was setting, the temperature was perfect, and I had a nice comfortable place to ride. Weston went back to his car, and I got out my sleeping bag to stay warm. I actually slept pretty well. I think we stopped a couple of times. Weston was looking for better rides. Mine was pretty good, but it was a little exposed in terms of being unable to stay out of view. Weston woke me up about at about 3 AM. We had stopped in a yard, and there was a better grain car to get on that had a porch, and small sidewalls so that we'd be hidden if we laid down. Neither of us knew where we were. After we got on the other grain car, I went back to sleep, hoping we'd start rolling again soon. But we woke up at about 8 or 9 in the morning in the same place.

It was a pretty big yard, and there were lots of trains sitting around that hadn't moved all night, including the one we were on. We scoped out the yard a bit, and then got out of there, to figure out where the Hell we were, and get a better idea of where to catch out, and the lay of the yard. We were both turned around, and because of the way the yard was laid out geographically (eastbound trains leave heading north, westbounds leave heading south) we spent the better part of the morning and early afternoon trying to catch a train in the wrong direction! I tried to get on an intermodal train that had slowed to move through the yard, but it was moving way to fast for me, there was no way I'd be able to catch it. Weston was sure that he could, and the usual thing he did, was to make sure I got on, and then would find a ride for himself. But it's a good thing I couldn't catch this train. It was eastbound, and who knows where we would have ended up, maybe back in Spokane, or worse, Chicago!

As we were walking around the industrial part of town, near the train yard (come to think of it, the whole town is pretty industrial and near the train yard) some guy ran out of an industrial building with two cold Gatorades in his hands. He shouted to us, "Hey, you guys want something cold to drink!? It's only going to get hotter!" Wow, thanks dude. Those cold drinks were quite a luxury in that dry air and hot Western sun.

We learned that westbounds leave heading south. There was a bridge at the south end of the yard that would be a good spot to wait to catch out. We walked a few miles through Pasco where we could have had our pick of at least seven taco trucks. And if we didn't want to eat Mexican food off a truck, well then we could have our pick of at least seven taco restaurants. Man, they must really love tacos in Pasco. In a one mile stretch there was 14 places to get tacos. The only other food establishment simply had a vague "Pub and Grub" sign out front. We stuck with the tacos.

We finally found a spot in Pasco that looked good for catching out on west bound trains. We had a couple of cold beers to drink, and a decent shaded spot under a clump of trees about 60 feet off the tracks. We waited and watched a couple of westbound trains roll out moving too fast to catch. For every westbound we saw, two or three eastbounds would roll in. The eastbounds were almost always big intermodal trains. They must have been coming from Seattle.

As night fell we got out our sleeping mats and tried to get some rest. After an hour or two, we heard a westbound train coming toward us. We hurried to roll up out sleeping mats and stuff them in our packs. Weston was ready in a flash, it took my a little longer. My body was dragging. All of it, but my feet had developed pretty big blisters, most of which had popped earlier in the day, and every step I took felt like needles jabbing into the ball of my foot.

It didn't help my enthusiasm for catching the next train that we were a half mile from the Amtrak/Greyhound terminal and I knew I could be in Seattle in a few hours by bus. But I got my shit together, got my pack on my back and started hiking to getting in position. That train was rolling to fast to catch. Every joint in my body was screaming at me after running with my pack, "What the fuck are you doing!!??" We went back to our spot to lay low and wait for another train. I got a little sleep. Weston may have done the same, I'm not sure. But he was clearly antsy, and wanted the fuck out of Pasco. I couldn't blame him. But I also knew it was a short bus ride to Seattle, and that if we caught a westbound out of Pasco, there was a 1 in 3 chance of ending up in Bend, OR. Which would have made it much more difficult to get to Seattle. The fact that all of the trains we had seen rolling westbound we moving way too fast for me to catch. Maybe Weston could have caught some of them, but most of them were probably pushing even his limits.

We heard a train rolling out of the yard heading westbound. By that time, I knew my body just couldn't take any more. My feet were fucked, every joint in my boding ached, my knees and ankles felt like they might give out when I walked with my pack. But I knew Weston could do it, and I also knew that he wouldn't leave me unless I gave him the OK to do it. He really looked out for me, during this whole trip. I was absolutely amazed at Weston's train hopping skills, and also his ability to make sure I was OK. I couldn't have done this without someone like him.

He had just enough time to pack up his sleeping mat after I told him that if he could catch this train he should do it. He packed up his mat in a hurry, and said, "John, it's been great, I'm going for it, and if I don't see you again, it's been great!" And he disappeared into the night, like the hobo ninja that he is.

I laid up, watching the train roll by. I'm pretty certain I saw him roll by, hanging on the ladder off the back of a car.

In the morning, after I hiked to the Greyhound station, I sent him a text message, asking him where he wound up. I heard back right away that he ended up in Vancouver, WA, and had just gotten off the train. Pretty much the best of the three possibilities of Bend, Ellensburg, WA, or Vancouver.

I sent him an email thanking him for his guidance, and keeping me out of trouble. And he sent one back describing his ride from Pasco to Vancouver. We had seen a bunch of trains roll out westbound with pusher engines on the back of the line. When he was catching out, he let most of the train roll past, counting on being able to ride one of the engines on the back end. But there weren't any. He said he ended up riding the ladders on the fronts and backs of cars, and the tops, before the train stopped along the Columbia river. He ran up to the last engine in the front (there must have been three or four), and rode it into Vancouver.

I know that he said that some of the trains out of Pasco would go to Seattle over some mountain pass, and I'm intuiting that the trains we saw go by with pusher engines were headed over this pass. It makes sense to my brain that if the trains are going over a steeper mountain pass, having pusher engines on the back is how they do it. It's extra power for the steeper ground, and if in the unlikely occurrence that a coupling broke loose, you wouldn't have a set of runaway cars hurling backward down a mountain pass. It's purely speculation on my part, but it's the only thing I can come up with that would explain why some trains passed with pushers, and other didn't.

I caught an early morning Greyhound to Seattle, to stay with my friends Liz and Eric, and their son, Sylvan.

It's Wednesday evening now, I'm flying back to Minneapolis Friday morning. And that's it. If I ever hop another freight again, and I hope I do, I'm going to do it a little lighter and smarter. I suspect that the state of the economy and my prospects for paying work will push me to do something else crazy. In the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."