SOOT AND GRIT
Finding a safe bed is a nightly dilemma for the tramp on the road. At a poorly chosen spot, the router is a mugger, cop or nosey citizen. Hobos evade them by sleeping in jungles, missions, "carry the banner" walking all night, or in a RR yard. The sunset after Wiz flies to San Francisco, Clown and I enter the SLC Roper yard on the east city edge to search for a bed.
We discover an empty boxcar in a string on a track near the main. This empty is clean, older with a wood floor, and offers in one corner the inevitable thousand-mile-paper or cardboard from previous riders. We climb through the door confident of a night's repose and unroll the bedding onto thick cardboard. No passers-by can see two stretched-out people on the inside wall. Fresh air and moonlight enter the wide open door, and with the shared dream that we shall hear a freight pause on the main during the night and awaken to board for the Pacific.
Instead, daybreak floods the door as couplers clang a few tracks over in the building yard. Clown yawns, stretches and purrs, "Railcars are the best beds in the world." She stuffs the crayon braids under the purple bandana and tops it with a white fisherman cap, then bounds out the door. "I'm going to reconnoiter... Radios on." She climbs our car's end bumper and munches across ballast on the boxcar blind side toward the building yard. I stow the packs except for a L'Amour western.
This old Roper Yard of the former Denver & Rio Grande RR is one of the prettiest and smallest of the big town yards. Two mainlines steadily shovel freights east and west. Crews change here on every through train. Freights also build on a bowl of twenty tracks just west of the mains. There is activity in the bowl this morn as "hogs", or yard engines, shove strings to build the hotshot the hobo sees in his mind's eye. Light towers peek over the many rows of cars but the old, tallest Yardmaster citadel has been flattened. Years ago, I sneaked up to it behind an uprooted 7' pine tree held in front of me and planted, closer and closer, until I reached the tower base to secure train info from a genial crew who thought the scene hilarious. As in the days of old, a stream bubbles through a hobo jungle under dwarf willows, and passes beneath the Roper mainlines.
Three chapters of my novel later, Clown belly flops into the boxcar grinning ear-to-ear. "They're building our Man in the west yard. A shack advised me to watch for lead unit #465 to back onto a set of mixed cars in about an hour. We're good to go, Doc!"
We jump to the gravel and hike with the packs to the building yard. On the way, I insist she practice getting on and off a stationary flatcar on the mock "fly", a dicey operation. "In fact," I advise, "Tramps take names like Fingers, Lefty and Stump and try to shake your hand or kick your butt to prove these monikers don't annoy them since their accidents."
Freights don't keep exact schedules like Amtrak or Greyhound. There may be a morning and evening freight built for each direction inside a big yard, but it varies depending on how the cars stack up on the holding tracks. Likewise, through trains on the high irons that change crews but neither cut nor add cars during their long hauls across the country can be hours early or late. This all amounts to the hobo's patience.
We wave down a young shack in orange coveralls to ask particulars and he trots over like the early morning rooster. "See those cameras? The bull is watching us talk. I can't give out information." We look skyward to the four-story light-cluster but pick out no camera.
"Rats," I inform the ill-tempered shack, "Comfortable in great numbers in most railroad yards, may aid the bull one day. Did you know scientists are controlling rat movements by remote control up to a quarter-mile away with brain electrode implants? They also talk of tacking small video cameras to rat collars, original conceived for ferreting live people out of rubble. Don't you see these could pose a threat to future hobos who smell like cheese in the first place?"
The shack stares with beady eyes and hisses, "Go ask the old guy at the west yard shed."
Deeper in the building yard we find the shed. Any sizeable yard in cold climes has a hut at either end for the workers - shacks and brakies - to warm, read and chat down time. Sometimes they invite you in for fresh coffee before your train departs. In summertime, the workers hang outside. "Good morning," booms a voice on the far side of the shanty. (He has sensitive ears or was radioed by the other.) We circle to find an ash-stubble gent in overalls on a cushion chair in the sunshine. He points a dirty boney finger to the near rail, and advises, "The Cali Man heads up here in thirty minutes. Lie low until then." Then he pulls a pinstripe RR cap over his eyes, leans back, and waves us away.
The noises, odors and circulation within a RR yard are clockwork to the old worker and hobo alike. Today, an engine set advances along a track pushing a string and shaking the ground to a twenty-yard radius. The cars slam into our building train. The engines back up and blast smoke high into the air. They whine and snort off to the building rails to fetch another string, and another, with reoccurring racket. Thirty minutes later, when our freight is complete - except the locos - the ballast crunches all alongside the headless string with workers' strides to check for hot journals and fizzing brake leaks. Now the engines, with lead #465, tap on and the crew van arrives, and the engineer and conductor step out and right up onto the units. They check the cab instruments and sit with bronzed arms on open window frames to await the Yardmaster order "Cannonball!"
At that word, Clown and I are aboard. We cram at mid-train into the cubbyhole of a hopper car eating each other's elbows. The whistle toots an adrenalin push. The units gulp diesel, roar and blow smoke. We hunker on pins-and-needles on the outside chance the insistent shack was correct that cameras spy the out-rolling stock. Sixty sets of couplers strain from the front car to ours... until the big tug. The freight clears Roper and SLC.
The track leaves the city and rounds the Great Salt Lake south shore, the largest saline lake in the Americas. The 2,500 square-mile water body has two arms, a north and south, created by the railroad causeway (that the outbound execs traversed ten days ago into Ogden). Because there is little water mix, this creates two separate ecosystems. The south is a half-foot higher, slighter fresher and provides more wildlife in the arid region. For miles on both sides of our rail, the shallows support a hundred bird species standing, fishing and sunning. The train pierces vast white fields of seagulls like Moses parting the sea with thousands winging away before our eyes.
The lake recedes and time rolls on and on, until the noon zenith over a great open sand, and the train trudges through. The hopper is low on the springs - with America's breadbasket grain bound for the Pacific - and it's possible sitting up front on the quaking porch to read (but not write) or to converse (via a cupped hand). We perch at mid-train of the ¾-mile string of ominously mixed cars and, instinctively, I caution Clown inside this Great Basin lest we get cut out in some isolated siding. This is called getting "ditched" and may lead to unspoken misery.
The train sides and sets off frequently. This is a "bird-dog freight" whose dirty job is to pick up and deliver loaded cars, and to fetch and return unloaded ones. It stops at every puny town, grain elevator, industrial park, and sides for every other train on the rail, and take four times as long to reach the next division point." "But it's progress," Clown sings.
When the freight deliberates at a desert silo with illusive reason, I instruct Clown to look up and down her side of the freight for another car to board. It's better to ride near the units or the FRED since both ends must continue when the train starts again. "I see nothing fore or aft," she reports. I spot on my side a few cars ahead on a curve an unsavory, beaten gondola, but before we can attempt it the train resumes.
While on the roll, Clown hails, "I have to poop," prompting the oldest hobo impasse. "Look, just hang it over the side and remember which way the wind blows," I warn. "I'll blow up before I try that!" she rebuts. I won't discuss it and point to the cubby portal - a two-foot opening - into a steel pup tent. She crawls inside the great bulwark and squeals with delight at sighting the six-inch drain hole in the floor above the racing ties. "You just got lucky," I shout and turn away from the lady's toilet. Two minutes later she emerges grinning like the first person to defecate in high cotton. "That's a fine potty!" she calls.
The life-quickening horn blares at desert crossings where unfailingly at each the driver of the lead auto blocked by the RR gate reaches and waves at us. "Look at us, riding the rails across the greatest nation on earth!" she fires back joyfully. Small towns generally detest the hourly blasts. However, Florida in a recent test banned train horns after dark and crossing accidents instantly doubled, so the cross-town toots were revived. Train sounds can be reckoned like animal grunts. The horn signal uses two characters like Morse code: Short and Long. Two Longs says the train releases brakes and proceeds from a standstill; three Shorts is back up; Long-Long-Short-Long signals the approach to a public crossing; and a succession of Shorts broadcasts an emergency on the rail.
Night falls over us sliding the Great Basin rail with the infrequent blink and clang of tiny town intersections. Each appears as an advancing soft light in the black that enlarges over miles to swallow the train for a fleeting moment, and then the freight erupts out the other side. The Doppler of the crossing fades too and - until the next town - peace reigns on the jiggling steel platform.
Later, with earplugs in a deaf sleep, I sense the wheels decelerate... and stop. I tap sleeping Clown on the shoulder and warn, "Be alert!" We peep around the car sides for clues. The train rests in a small desert yard only four tracks wide with no lights in view. Extraordinarily, the conductor strides back from the units with a lantern to uncouple the car right at our feet. He jumps on hearing Clown, "What's happening?" He gapes up at us specters but convalesces to retort, "Be quick! This and the next dozen cars are being cut. The nearest ride is the battered gondola ten cars forward. Be careful of leftover scrap on the floor." He stalks off clutching the "manifest" or list of cars before there's a chance to ask if any more will set off.
We trot to the gondola to discover inordinately high walls - ten feet - with a ladder at one outside corner. She scales eight rungs to pose on top for me to pass up our gear, then drops it like tossing stones into a deep well. Hearing the far-off thud but unable to see the floor, she returns to the roadbed to report. I scale to replace her on the six-inch gondola ledge even as the string jolts to life when the units rejoin far ahead. I eagle-claw the gondola lip and lower myself inch-by-inch until the boots dangle, let go, and drop a foot to the floor. She follows over the top, standing like a totem-pole on my shoulders, until I curtsy like a dutiful elephant and let her down. Instantly the train shakes into action.
The freight accelerates and in five minutes reaches a cruising speed of 50mph. The Great Basin, encompassing western Utah and all of Nevada, is called a "cool desert" due to the northern latitude and the night air whistling cold above the gondola blows off our hats where we stand. We retrieve them as the high-side box waddles the rail and rattles us silly with metallic echoes. I stick a penlight in my mouth to clear a few jangling scrap metals to the back corner where the wind pummels the walls making little tornados, and to look around with increasing horror.
We're in rolling cigar box as if a fire raged across the floor and left soot everywhere. Already our packs and hands are dusted charcoal. Her face gets blacker every time I look at her. She returns my look and grimaces, "Riding freights is still fun," and then drops bushed to the floor. She wraps up in a blanket like a burrito and bounces like dirty laundry.
I stand braced against the roll and rock, shivering in mid-car as the wind whips the cowboy hat off and catches my neck by the strap this time. I slap thighs and do jumping-jacks, and walk circles inside the 15-yard box to bring up the circulation. I warm to crawl inside the bag near my sleeping partner ten feet from the front wall, and lay on my back rhythmically popping an inch off the floor. Satisfied that we won't break our necks in an emergency stop, I finally sleep. We jiggle over the miles throughout the night and gradually to the middle of the car leaving worm tracks across the soot.
First light shows two tramps vibrated together in the center of a rolling box across Nevada. I look at her black face and the white eyes pop open with red gums and teeth. "I like black men," she says snuggling forward. It strikes us almost at once - the freight is stationary!
Our snooze must have deepened when the train decelerated, but absolutely nothing sleeps through the sharp WHOOSH of locos "dynamiting" the brakes that carries for miles through the countryside. "Jump! Our car is cut!" I scream... forgetting. We're trapped inside high walls. We listen helplessly to the engines detach and trail west never to be heard again. She whispers, "It's a new day, but where are we?"
We peek through a bullet hole in the gondola side The aperture shows a generic siding on a narrow asphalt strip that leads both ways into isolation. The Canadian peeps and mutters, "This is what Americans call "Nowhere, USA'.
We sit on the packs with chins held forlornly in hands looking about. Our world is a black floor, four ten-foot walls and a bright blue sky. "It's a metaphor of life," she avers. "Where are we? How do we get out? Where are we going into that blue?" I stare at the scorched floor, a diary of our night perambulations, and then up at the light.
"Did you ever see the Twilight Zone episode "In Search of an Exit?" I ask. "Yes!" she whoops rising. "A Hobo, Clown and three other characters, a collection of question marks, are stuck together in a dark pit with sides just above their reach. There's no reason or logic, just a prolonged nightmare of fear and the unexplainable. They stay there for what seems forever philosophizing until one day the Clown looks up and for the first time notices the blue sky. She points it out and..." "...The Hobo boosts the Clown out of the box!" I finish for her.
I bend like a camel at the corner and she stands on my shoulders. Rising, she touches the gondola lip and chins herself to the ledge. I toss up a rope coil from the packs, she ropes them to the top, and drops them over the wall. She fastens the end to the outside ladder and I skinny the rope. We perch on the wall edge surveying the countryside and she shouts, "I am not afraid!"
We leap down. The train has disappeared on a steel ribbon through a flat land. Two silos stick up like sore thumbs next to a hedge paralleling the track. The worst hobo scenario is to be sided in the middle of nowhere. Our families wouldn't recognize us by sight or smell. "I wish I had a mirror," she titters nervously. You scratch your head and gauge the possibilities.
We could walk the rail to the empty west or east, burn a silo as a signal that no one will see, or look no farther than the track hedge now at sunrise. So we lay out one blanket behind the thicket and with nap our boots on and laced. In a few hours, we awaken to a deafening mechanical storm. "It's a pig train!" she jigs on the blanket.
"Get down," I caution gently. "If it stops, some RR crews don't like to see dirty tramps board pigs because of their valuable cargos." We stuff the blanket and duck behind the hedgerow as the train decelerates and halts on the main. A "piggyback", or pig, is the semi-truck van mounted on a flatcar. Before us stands a mile-long unit train of pigs and containers. The engines break with twenty cars from the rest of the train and push them into the diminutive yard siding. "We want this train," I drool, "And there's five minutes to board before the units rejoin."
The best ride for us this morning, given the latest setbacks, is very near FRED on the last couple. The anthropomorphized FRED is one the unasked change by hobos to modern railroading. He is the F---ing Rear End Device, a little black box affixed like a taillight to the last car couple that replaces the caboose. FRED sends radio signals to the units to tell the engineer everything's hooked and running smoothly. Hobos may no longer beg rides in lousy weather from the conductor in a caboose. Yet by keeping close to FRED the rider ensures he will not be cut out because the device is required for transport.
While the units are away, we walk toward the end of the pig line and climb onto one and squirm between the trailer wheels as shields. The engines soon affix and the train sits long and lovely and nosed at the RR switch waiting for green. The light switches and whistle blows. "It's like a toy train set!" she explodes. Some engineers are expert and know, even at a distance, how couplers tenderly tighten during a smooth pullout. Other engineers, like this, are not.
Green tramps learn the hard way when the freight starts with jerks to brace and watch the soft head. Our car lurches as I fawn over Clown's safety, and I take a hit in the temple by a steel wedge. Dazed for thirty seconds, I slump... then things clear up. "No knowledge is better than one's own frame of mind," I tell her. "It won't happen again."
The freight barrels out the little yard. "Tie everything down the wind could take!" I bellow under the pig. It has 4-foot tires that shelter us as pillars on both sides, plus the roof. In next to no time we punch a stiff headwind at 60mph across the desert. "This is the best ride going!" she burbles with a mouthful of wind.
The many benefits of riding under a pig van include the roof shade, a nearly 360-degree view of the terrain, and speed. Piggybacks are being replaced in this century by containers and double-stacks (two-story containers) on flatcars that are harder to ride but just as fast. All, including ours today, are "hotshots" with priority cargo that will side for no one except Amtrak clear to the next division town, Reno, Nevada.
The mountains and playas - basin bottoms - sweep the rail and train up and down across the Great Basin. The desert is striped by 6000' north-south dividing ranges as the freight roller coasters them toward Reno at the foot of the great Sierra. The vegetation in the Great Basin, in contrast to the country's three other deserts, grows low and homogeneous for miles on both sides of the track before shifting to new species with the elevation and moisture. We see, for example, one region of dominant Sagebrush at one siding followed by one of Greasewood at the higher next. There are few cacti anywhere, and the wide geography over time sets a lazy rhythm.
The openness causes a quiet ride and the better sprung, loaded flatcar takes a cradle's rhythm and mother's hum along the rail. This hobo "Mozart effect" is easily felt if you accept the science precept that certain music enriches brain development in children. For growing hobos, the lullaby deposits at rail's end a smarter man and woman.
Later the Reno casino skyline cuts the desert harmony. I turn and speak softly to Clown about detraining on the fly.
A rider without a pack can step from the low rung of a 15mph ladder safely to the grit. The sensation is striding off an escalator. The deception is that the ground seems to move toward the feet, however the actual force vector is forward. So the proper thought is "I'll stride with the thrust" on touching. Johnny Cash in Man in Black describes his Arkansas home along the tracks where the freights daily slowed to 20mph and men, his father included, returning from work leaped from boxcars down the ditch and rolled into the front yard.
There are four swift considerations in getting off today's moving train: The Reno-Sparks Yard is bull-happy, we're too grimy to step into public, I just spotted a stream north of the main, and she has not yet known the elation of stepping from a moving freight. Hence, we study the wheels, survey the oncoming roadbed, and toss the gear overboard with a clatter on the grit.
She bobs to the ladder, descends and toes the bottom rung. "The first time is risky business," I yell over the top. She smiles sweetly, "I was a hockey player and gold trader..." and steps off.