Wednesday evening, Minneapolis
Taylor and I didn't catch out last night. We waited inside the container lot for a few hours until the trains came, the two that come a night, and missed both of them. They aren't stopping where they used to. Last year they would pull right up in front of us, crew change and then leave. This year they are stopping way further down the tracks and blowing through by the time they get to us. We missed all the trains last year too. Nothing rideable, two bulls spotlighting the trains, bad vibes. And here we are a year later, repeating last year's failure. The mosquitos were still as thick as thieves while we waited. They ate us alive. Finally, after missing two IM trains, all pigs, we walked to a wooded hillside where we slept last year. We woke up to the sounds of young kids playing tennis on a court barely visible through the surrounding brush. We spent today sitting around "dinkytown", the miniature college-land located to serve those who inhabit the nearby frat and sorority houses lining the blocks. Made a little bit of money busking and then began our long walk towards the yard again as the sun was beginning to set. The trains don't come until after dark and that's good for us. By then the suffocating humidity has dissipated and the cool dark night has arrived - enabling us to sneak around much easier. Along the walk down "university" we came across our good friend Pilote. She was walking on the other side of the street, headed in the same direction, pack on her back and several water jugs and plastic bags in her hand - obviously headed to the same place. It's a two to three day ride from Minneapolis to Portland and we all have bags and bags of food. The jugs of water are the worst to carry around, especially during the long walk to the yard, but I keep reminding myself how important how much water really means to me on a train. I'm more than willing to carry the jugs of water around, despite my griping...
We've decided we are going to try again tonight one final time. If we don't catch the train by early tomorrow morning, we're hitching west. I think Pilote is good luck.
Thursday, morning - somewhere in North Dakota
We are on the train! I feel like I'm just now accepting the fact that we actually caught it, we're on it, and we're in for a very long but very beautiful ride. After sitting around a small grassy hillside under a tree and waiting for "blue time" as Pilote called it - the time when the sun has just gone down and the darkness of night hasn't quite set in, we walked the last few blocks to the yard, anxiously. At the entrance to the container lot we cast nervous glances to confirm nobody was around to see us enter the fenced off container lot, then we walked the length of the flimsy chain-link fence until we found the familiar collapsed section. One by one, we took turns sliding through, passing gear, bags of food and water jugs.
Inside, a familiar scene: an industrial wasteland. A vast lot of mud, ridden with drying tracks of cranes and bulldozers, massive stacks of shipping containers - a virtual "Lego land". Silence, save the mosquitos constantly buzzing in our ears or the sound of a hand slapping skin, murdering the tiny parasites. We waited in the same spot, hoping for a stopped train impatiently, as I occasionally ran up the small dirt hill up to the mainlines to check for lights of an arriving high-line pig train.
At 11 o'clock on the dot, the first of two nightly trains arrived. I could see the headlights stopped far down the tracks under the highway overpass. It was crew-changing in the "new" spot again and I groaned in discontent. A few more minutes and the train was cruising past us. We were too weighed down with gear and multiple bags of food to try and catch this one on the fly. We watched in horror as our train rolled right past us, taunting us, reminding us we'd only have one more chance to get a ride after it left.
We stared at it until the entire length was gone. Sadly, I watched the final car sail past, watched the freddie blinking away until it was nearly a small red blip in the distance. We three walked back to the other side of the large steel dumpster we were waiting behind. We debated what to do - should we walk further down and try waiting where the trains had SOMETIME been stopping, or stay put and hope the next (and final) train stopped in front of us? Nervously I walked up to the mains again and looked towards the bridge. More lights - the next train had already arrived...
I slid down the hill in a small cloud of dust and gravel, barking out "train!" - followed by a frenzy of people rising, slinging hefty packs onto backs, food bags being hoisted into "go" position and anxious pacing. What are we gonna do we asked each other - should we run - what are we gonna do? We have to do it now whatever we're gonna do! Pilote voiced her opinion - we should run through the container lot and get on that train now, while we could.
And we were running, single file, shuffling sounds echoing throughout the empty container lot, multi-colored stacks towering all around us, plastic bags crinkling, the sound of foot steps, breath.
At the far end of the lot we hid behind the wheels of a trailer. The train was now directly across from us with only a barren dirt lot separating us from a rideable pig-in-a-well. The bulls were going crazy. An unmarked white SUV drove towards the front of the train while a white unmarked cargo van drove towards the end, both spotlighting the piggyback cars. My throat was dry, burning from thirst and adrenaline. The air-brakes from the train hissed, signaling the train was ready to depart. We had only minutes, if that.
The white van was now out of sight, but the SUV was taking its time, slowly driving up the front of the train, spotlighting each car. We looked at each other. It was now, or never. Hefting our gear back onto our backs and into our hands, we took a leap of faith - running through the empty dirt lot, completely exposing ourselves, runnin' for our only chance at a free ride west.
At the train, I paused and stood in disbelief. The train was now right in front of me. I reached out my hand slowly and TOUCHED it. I looked towards the front and then the rear of the train. I could only see the small taillights of the bull as he drove further away from us, towards the front of the train.
The train car itself was a bin with two short semi-trailers loaded inside. I pulled myself up over the wall of the container, between the two trailers, and started maneuvering underneath the axles, weaving my body through the holes in the center of the well. I slid my pack up against the side, the only safe space to ride. I turned back in the direction I had come to catch Taylor's pack and bags, and then to oversee her pulling herself underneath the axles, weaving through the hole, and up onto the rideable platform. I could feel my heart beating in my throat. Sweat was running down my face. Pilote came last, quickly, bags and then herself - and just as she slid up from underneath the axles and up onto the platform, the train SLAMMED into slow but steady motion. We were leaving the yard.
Adjusting our bags and settling in, we stopped to look at each other and one by one found big smiles upon each others faces. Cheering and hugs...
We stayed low as we exited the Union yard and soon came into a larger yard, what appeared to be a CP yard - huge, busy and well lit. Soon we were rolling at full speed, the cool night air soothing our tired bodies as we stared out at the passing landscape. The sky was clear and everything felt good. Everything was flat, occasionally dotted by small patches of woods, broken with the backs of shopping centers or gas stations, car dealerships and grade crossings. Tired, I unrolled my sleeping bag and drifted to sleep content.
I just woke up. Pilote and Taylor are still asleep. The sky is completely clear and blue, not a single cloud in sight. The landscape surrounding us is green, flat, and monotonous. This is my first time in North Dakota...