may 2, 2000
Rex, 18, considers himself a nomadic train-hopper. He contributed this article to the Freedom Manual, a project of the Pacific News Network.
As the sun goes down and the dark creeps in, I sit in a bush just the right size. The train yard in Kansas City is where I am, heading south to Dalhart, Texas. It's a little cold out but not bad.
By midnight, there's still nothing but the soft sound of a yard dog at the far end of the yard. I get sick of waiting and reach into my pocket for my pint of cheap whiskey. Just then old Uncle Pete blows a long slow whistle that fills the midnight air. I can feel the butterflies begin in my stomach as I see the three bright lights fill the yard. She's not going that slow, so I'm a little worried. For some reason things don't seem right. Just then a Jeep Grand Cherokee comes rolling down the road between the tracks.
Sometimes you don't make it on a train because the "bull" catches you and kicks you off, or sometimes he'll throw you in jail. Sometimes you get to cross over from one still train to another and run and hide. One time I got on the train and had to run, and I got past three still trains, but the bull busted me on the other side. But he only gave me a ticket for trespassing on railroad property!
Sure as rain, it's the bull coming up, so I get as low to the ground as I can. My heart is racing. The bull is now right in front of me, going real slow, as if he knows I'm there. Bang - the knuckles crash together for the train to come to a full stop. I can smell the old familiar smell as the units go "clak, clak, clak, psssss," the air brakes on the train. Now the butterflies are real bad, I can almost taste the train, but I can't see the bull anymore.
I take a double look to make sure it's clear and spot a grainer about 10 feet ahead. I grab my gear and enter the tracks, sweating bad, making a break for the grainer and asking myself, should I quit smoking? As I get to the ladder I feel the cold steel scratch my hands. I get myself together on the train. Then it's the wait, where every minute seems like an hour as you keep looking down both sides of the train, hoping she's moving soon.
Then you hear "tick, tick" of the air coming back on, then boom, as the train gives a good jerk and the whistle fills the night air once again. She's off, and all I hear is the sound of the wheels rolling down the tracks. As the train picks up speed, I lean back and smile and take another pull off my drink. See ya bull - I got one more ride.
At a good speed, I feel myself getting more and more in deep with myself because I am now free, free of all troubles and worry. What I left in the last town is now in the past. I started to think about this one guy, Cobra, what I call hum-bum, a troubled man but with a heart of gold. We were sitting around his campfire and he was telling me he had never rode a train. But you could tell he knew that I had seen lots.
Just when the train was slowing down, my mind jumps back to reality. We're at a two mile, where one train stops for a more important train to go by.