It was the middle of my rudderless freshman year at the University of Maryland. I had just jumped off the subway at College Park and was readying for a mile and a half walk back to my dorm. Life was moving along at a vapid pace; that indescribable special quality just wasn't there. Easy women, hard drugs, rebellious music, a thought-provoking book, or maybe just a good kick in the ass - anything could have filled that void. Then the sight of a stopped Tropicana train along the CSX mainline appeared like a deus ex machina, a moment that would forever change the course of my life. I quickly became enamored with the stretch of tracks between College Park and Riverdale. Quiet and lonely, those tree-lined, trackside grounds would become my holy refuge during my stay at the U of MD. When I wasn't sleeping, partying, eating, or lifting, I was there. Being around trains became my paramour in an otherwise traditional marriage between myself and the All American College Life of a kid in a big state school.
Freshman year disappeared quickly and with a big BANG: the University wanted me to shape up or ship out. The pedants one encounters as their freshman year instructors are reason enough not to attend class. Toss in a little motivational stagnancy and you've got a recipe for academic unsuccess. I hadn't experienced an engaging teacher since my senior year in high school when I had the luck of taking a class by Colman McCarthy, celebrated pacifist and Washington Post columnist. So, I shunned class aside and spent my time running a dorm-based business, hanging around the tracks, and engaging in the festive social side of the college experience.
It was the summer break after my first year of school; I missed my trackside paradise; I wanted to go back. I boarded the subway in Montgomery County and returned to my hangout along CSX's Capitol Subdivision near campus. Trains frequently pause at College Park to let other trains pass. I often thought about hopping aboard one of those stopped trains; I wondered where they'd take me. Now, pack and jug in hand, I'd find out. Around three in the afternoon a mixed freight slowly rolled through. It was adorned with colorful stock and gloriously packed with an endless selection of rideable cars. Unlike its predecessors, this one had orders from Jacksonville to stop at Riverdale, leaving the ass end in College Park. The stopping of a bulky junk train is no particular moment in time. Even when it appears to have entered a motionless state, there still exists a spirit of movement: clinging handles, idling engines, hissing air. Selecting a car was no challenge. I jumped aboard an empty boxcar with both doors open and sat there, relishing in anticipation. Soon we were moving and my dreams materialized into a harmonious reality of motion, emotion, and physical beauty where it would otherwise never be found. Here I became a member of an ever-dwindling community of adventurers, loners, and runaways seeing the country by freight.
We forcefully accelerated and I watched as the antiquity of Riverdale gave way to the peril of Hyattsville. Maryland became the District of Columbia and as dangerous and downtrodden as the Anacostia area of DC truly is, I found it strangely picturesque as we calmly passed Conrail's Benning Road Yard. The train stopped midway through DC's single-track railroad tunnel. In absolute darkness I nervously lay on the metal boxcar floor, pondering the sudden cessation of travel and the eerie, foul smell of the depths. Meanwhile, the hustle and bustle of the DC bureaucrats above continued unaffected. I peered out the cinematic frame of the boxcar door as we eventually exited the gloomy tunnel and entered bright, scenic downtown. Seeing the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol Building from a boxcar door is a sight to behold. We meandered along at a modest 20 mph throughout the remainder of DC, culminating in a Jefferson Memorial pass-by and a beautiful passage over the Potomac river railroad bridge. Roaring through Northern Virginia at upwards of 65 mph, I realized there was no hope to alight anywhere within the reach of DC's public transit system. We rocketed through the old Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac with such power and speed that any worry was alleviated by sheer euphoria. From the west, passengers onboard an elevated subway train greeted me with wide smiles and instinctive waves. From the east, the damp smell of dense summer flora entered the car with the smashing wind. We breezed through Quantico Marine Base, home of the President's helicopter squadron, where the mainline curiously bisects the military installation. The sun was slowly setting, the scenery becoming an unvarying blur, when I began to ponder how I'd return home. This was only intended to be a day's excursion, though other, cross-country odysseys would surely follow.
We continued our rapid pace through the Virginia countryside for another hour or so. Eventually, the locomotion slowly withered and I found myself beneath the beautiful lustrous dusk of nightfall - on a stopped train. I crawled to the boxcar door, threw my pack out, swung my legs over, and dropped onto the waiting ballast of the real world. It was time to go home, and as much as I would have loved to ride to the Carolinas and points past, I couldn't. I trudged forward toward a grade crossing in the distance. After a few minutes, my train began moving again; I knew it wouldn't be stopped for long on the mainline. Not wanting to say goodbye just yet, I rode a grainer's ladder about a quarter of a mile to the road crossing as my train pushed along at the speed of a fast walk. We neared the crossing. Reluctantly, I released my grip on the grabiron, along with my first ride - a memory I'll forever cherish.