The time was near 1:18 and my (No Doubt's) last final was finished. I said goodbye to a few of my friends who were in the same class and I left Hitchcock Hall at OSU on my bike and sped the mile and a half back home where my fully packed rucksack awaited me.
I was on the road to pick up Vineet (he didn't have a road name yet) by around 1:45. He lived only a mile from me and was kinda surprised that it took me so long to arrive at his place. I told him that as soon as my final was over I would be on his doorstep. My final had been over for twenty minutes. We hit the road for Tennessee with half a twelve pack of orange sprite and some fresh produce from Vineet's father. Both of our packs were in my trunk along with Vineet's guitar (aka the Curse) and my side-bag with maps, books and my new chromatic harp.
The trip to Tennessee wasn't bad, we switched drivers once with a break at a Dairy Queen brazier in Louisville. It was probably near 8:30 when we arrived at 456 Roberts at the home of SOCX. He greeted us both with a hug and we spent the next few hours shooting the shit with his cool roommates and him in various settings including his living/bed room, Fazoli's, and his friend's wrought iron muscle car with non-functioning seat-belts.
I had originally planned on catching out that night, but it seems that SOCX was unaware of this and still needed to pack and print out his new schedule book. We decided to catch out the next morning. So we slept.
Around 8:00 the next morning, we awoke to the bad news that the last city bus to downtown Nashville (our catch-out area) had left fifteen minutes ago. (Public transportation in that town was a joke) so we were forced to wait until SOMEONE... A N Y O N E could give us the 40 minute ride downtown. Since it was a finals day at the University, everyone was busy and we spent the day doing some last minute shopping and schedule printing.
Finally around 4:30 our chance came and one of SOCX's roommates DAYUHL gave us a ride in his TEENY TINY Accura coupe. It wasn't long before Vineet was flagging him down as he drove away from dropping us off downtown, frantically remembering the guitar in his trunk. We retrieved it, he drove away, and the journey began.
The first leg of our trip was a train to Birmingham, basically the exact same route we took last year. After trying our luck for a while at the very south end of the Kayne Avenue yard, we decided to move to an area further into the yard. The trains at the south end were moving by at a decent clip. Not unmountable, but since we were traveling with Vineet who hadn't ever caught a moving train with a pack on, strongly suggested that we try to catch where the trains were stopped.
After a bit of a walk and a brief stop at a nearby McDonalds, we found ourselves under the same bridge that we waited under last year. It was inside the yard and rather hidden from anyone in or out of the yard. Dusk fell around 5:15 and the trains passing through this crew change point passed one at a time. Still neither of the two intermodal trains nor one of the many mixed freights to Birmingham presented themselves. As the night grew thicker and the rain dropped here and there we traveled dead lines of cars, tagging away and giving V lessons on proper mounting techniques. Finally we heard it, "Kayne Avenue yard to the 674" 674 [check the schedules] that's us! We discovered that our engineer was DEBBIE and that she had a bit of a wait before she could pull through the yard to change crews. Our train was here.
After an hour, she slugged through and stopped for about one minute... just enough time for us to find one of the few open boxes at the end and pile the shit in. We played the "become a wall" game through most of the yard until we were through both Kayne Avenue and Radnor yards (a few miles apart). I rolled out and quickly went to sleep against the wall of the car as we picked up speed towards B-ham.
I awoke first, as I normally do, to the light of day and the shaking of the car. I popped our of my bag to the door, peed past a bunch of cows and watched scenery for a while until I recognized the route, and our closeness to our destination. We went through two rock tunnels and I recalled that I have pictures of them from the same trip last year. Ten minutes later, SOCX woke up and we passed the blinding lights and cameras indicating the approach of B-ham Boyles yard. We went through New Castle at 30 mph and the tracks began multiplying as we entered the yard. By the luck of God, we pulled into the East-most arrival track and blew up, forcing us to only climb over our own string to get out of the "bowl" and onto the CSX yard road where passing employees waved at us pack-mongers as we trudged out of the yard.
At one point we saw some sort of CSX vehicle in front of us stop and turn around towards us on the road... we were conveniently near a break in the bordering woods, so we stepped temporarily off of the property and up a KILLER incline which we thought might have been an alternate exit to the yard. The other boys stopped about halfway up while I finished the climb without my pack to see if there was a way out.
Nope. I found myself between two radio towers overlooking the city of Tarrant which was about 1.5 miles out and 1,000 feet down. I bounded down the hill (recalling Jack Kerouac's revelation that "you can't FALL off a mountain") and we decided to push back down the yard and travel the CSX road to the exit.
We gritted our teeth and walked straight passed the feared vehicle, sighing in realization that it was just some sort of yard transportation, and walked on to the main road which took us the distance to the Waffle House in Tarrant. I looked to the West and saw, in the distance, the two towers on a hill and realized just how far we had walked.
A good meal and washing up and the Waffle House was all we needed. That and a ride to Irondale to get to the NS yard. We entertained the standard barrage of questions from local folks, and got the envious look from the generational extremists. The kids: If only I was a bit older, I could see the world too. The Elders: If only I was a bit younger, I could see the world too. The middle aged: They're wasting their lives!
We had no luck at negotiating a ride in the Waffle House... but we did have a great waitress "Angel" who filled our water and gave us advice. We also saw the waitress we had last year at the same time. I only recognized her when she called a customer "Rag Doll." For the past year, I had been relaying the southern usage of this phrase, and there before me was the one and only. I think her name was Charley, or Ed... who knows, can't remember, she was really more of a rag-dawg herself.
Vineet scored us some cardboard from the Burger King cardboard dumpster and we made two signs. One said "IRONDALE" and the other said "I-20 East". If the potential car was annoyed by our ride-begging, we would flash the back of the first sign which had a cloud, a lightning bolt and the words "HEAT STROKE" (those of you who know the origin are smiling). In the 50 degree rainy weather, that usually brought a laugh. If the potential car dug our hitchhiking attempts and gave us a wave of approval, I would unfold the rest of the "I-20" sign, superpositioning marker-drawn breasts over my chest. That usually drew one of many reactions. Heh heh.
While SOCX and V were busy begging rides, I walked over to a trailer which remained from a recently finished X-mas parade and asked one of the city's fireman (who was selling hot chocolate) about possible public transportation. He also mentioned that he was pretty sure hitchhiking wasn't illegal in Tarrant. We found out there was none, but my sad story scored us some hot chocolate and marshmallows.
At one point, a car full of teenage assholes stopped for the light we were waiting by. The window unrolled.
ASSHOLE: You know the police station is right there and if
they catch you [hitchhiking] they're gonna throw your ass in jail.
NO DOUBT: Okay.
ASSHOLE: [roll window up... pause... roll window down] How much will you pay us if we take you to Irondale?
NO DOUBT: [not wanting to explain the concept of hitchhiking] Does it look like we want to spend any money?
ASSHOLE: [roll window up just far enough to fit mouth out of] Get a job!! [giggle giggle]
Dave pointed out that if we asked them if they'd share some pot with us then they would probably give us a ride.
Well about 1.5 hours of hitchhiking left us high and dry. We were, after all, in this semi-suburban semi-hell. So there we were, high and dry until it started raining, leaving us now rideless, high and wet. A local cop drove up to me (one of the many who were driving by us constantly for 1.5 hours) and pointed out that hitchhiking was indeed illegal and that we'd have to walk down the road to do it.
Fuck it... There were three of us and a cab for 10 minutes couldn't cost us more than 5 bucks each.
We were right and 20 minutes later, we were pulling into a different Waffle House in Irondale. Unfortunately, this place was even MORE of a suburban hell. As we trudged down the street in the direction of the NS yard, a local county mounty stopped in the middle of the road when he saw us.
MOUNTY: Where you boys from?
NO DOUBT: Cleveland.
MOUNTY: And were you think you're headed?
NO DOUBT: Jacksonville.
MOUNTY: Well y'all better turn around, head back down that road, and stick yer thumb out on that thar highway.
NO DOUBT: Okay. [Still walking in same direction]
MOUNTY: No NO! TURN AROUND and start walking in the other direction!
I guess the luxury of public sidewalks don't exist in Alabama. Well we walked backwards for about fifty feet then hightailed around a building and back in the same direction as soon as the cop was outta sight. Following the CCG, we found the yard rather easily, but were unaware that it was bordered by the Irondale Police Station! So we had to cling tight to one end of the yard so as not to be noticed by our friend.
We decided that we didn't want to venture through the front door of this yard until night-fall, so we found a nearby city pavilion area and sat down to play cards after ditching our stuff under a tarp and against a building that bordered the yard (it was raining pretty steadily). BTW SOCX decorated this area with the inbound and outbound freqs for any future scanner-tramps. We walked through the "One Stop Whistle Shop" and found NO train related paraphernalia to speak of, but we found out that SOCX's mom would go crazy in there.
Night fell and the rain didn't stop. We decided that I would find a worker while Vineet and SOCX searched for a place to stay. We wanted to head straight to New Orleans from here, but it wasn't quite that simple because southbounds made a split further down the line that would go either towards Mobile or New Orleans. We needed a specific train. The only workers I could find drove a white utility vehicle that was ALWAYS backing up. I harumphed frantically until they saw me, then gave 'em the standard lines. No help. As I walked away, they began backing again, and I noticed that an extra headlight was installed just above the center brakelight. These guys PLANNED on backing up all the time! I walked away to the sound of BEEP BEEP BEEP.
SOCX and Vineet found a switchman's shack just a bit into the yard with a STEAMROOM right next to it (Well, it was just overly heated). We threw our stuff in the hot room to dry off and sat in the shanty for a while. Ever now and then, we would hear BEEP BEEP BEEP right behind the shack and other vehicles driving by. It was a good thing that the front side faced the tracks and nothing else.
Hours went by, I talked to a switch engine (The "Roundstabout") and SOCX talked to a few workers. The only good info we got was from an inbound conductor who walked up to the shack for a sit-down. This guy was about our age and told us everything we wanted to know about how the yard worked. He pointed to a couple tracks way behind us that snaked around further into the yard and pointed out that THERE was the southbound departure yard, we were sitting at the receiving end.
He talked on and on, meanwhile, a southbound train was coming out of the recently mentioned departure yard. But he wouldn't stop talking! We smiled and gathered up our stuff and nodded every now and then and said a bunch of good-byes and thank your and then sprinted off towards the now passing train.
No good rides... too fast.
But then we noticed NO FRED either. So we sat happy as pigs waiting for it to double back and catch the back half. And waited, and walked further in, and waited. And... shit.
Well we admitted defeat and walked into some weeds to dodge a car coming. The car stopped right in front of us. It had a spotlight. The spotlight swept around a bit, swinging by our hiding area in the woods. I crept a bit closer to get a better look at the vehicle: A yellow pickup with a bunch of FREDs in the back... just an airman. Well I had a few words with him and he was extremely helpful giving us two train numbers and an approximate time of departure. Perfect.
Well seeing the airman attach a FRED to the string in front of us indicated that we needed to walk further down to find the southbounds. It rained, we walked, and I noticed that my head was beginning to hurt.
We walked and walked, diving occasionally to hide from passing vehicles (we discovered that Irondale has 24 hour bulls who drive white Chevy Caprices). We passed the engine facility and the rain got worse, as did my headache.
The southbound trains appeared, the rain was becoming unbearable, and so was my head. We decided to get in the first open box we saw, then decide further from there. By the time we made it inside... I couldn't physically function as I was truly suffering from the first migraine headache I've ever had. I couldn't see, I couldn't stand up, and I wanted to throw up because the pain was so bad. I remember leaning against the wall and moaning, praying that it would go away.
Somewhere in my agony, SOCX decided that we were going to stay on this southbound, and if we went to Mobile, so be it. That was all I needed. I took an aspirin, rolled out my bed, and climbed in, the last thing I remembered before falling asleep was hearing a shrill whine from the breaks charging and which basically made me pass out with pain. I said, "Turn that off..." and can't remember any more.
Who knows how long later, I awoke to slack. Well I kinda awoke, I was in the "where am I... oh on a train... go back to sleep" phase. So I did, and awoke soon after to more bad slack and erratic movement. After probably ten minutes of awaking and drifting back to sleep... my mind began to turn. Bad slack and erratic movement, bad slack and erratic movement. Wait... we're going forwards, AND backwards... what makes you do that... hmmm... forwards and backwards and bad slack and erratic movement...
I sprung up... "WAKE UP GUYS WE'RE BEING KICKED!" We definitely weren't in Mobile or New Orleans yet, just some shit yard in the middle of nowhere. Although being in a kicked car would be fun (if you covered your ears) we weren't about to be set off in the middle of nowhere. Plus it upset us that this train was actually doing work other than just setting off.
We gathered our stuff and I jumped out to talk to the kicking
conductor who was walking dangerously close to our car. I jumped out
and tried to talk with him against the slamming of cars. All I could
get was... "We're gonna be leaving soon." I turned and looked at my
train and noticed that it was pulling away rather quickly with me not
on it. Now I knew that it would be coming back to at least get a FRED
or pick up a string... but I didn't think, I reacted.
"Thanks, sir." And I grabbed onto my train right in front of him.
I made my way back to the car after the train stopped and noticed that we did not back up again, and that about 2 minutes later, we left. I could have been SOL if I didn't grab on. Well we were happy that we weren't set off. Until about five miles later, when we were.
I talked to the same guy again as we dynamited. He told us that this train was going to (let me spell this phonetically) "Tseh-oh-ba" and that we were not headed towards New Orleans. Again I confirmed the trains destination:
NO DOUBT: And where did you say this one's headed?
CONDUCTOR: Weh go'n tuh Tseh-oh-bah.
I went back to our set off string and sadly informed everyone that we were really of course and that somehow that train is heading to Tseh-oh-bah. I scanned my maps... no Tseh-oh-bah. Well, it was either we go to Tseh-oh-bah or we wait for the next train back to Irondale (the man mentioned that there were a few strings to be picked up for trains in either direction).
It wasn't until his train left that we gathered he was headed to SELMA which was on the way to Mobile.
So then we were in Wilton. South of Irondale, north of Tseh-oh-bah. Luckily in only an hour we heard a whistle from the south and a train stopped and cut off the front half and pulled into the yird. Grab stuff. Cross street. Find BEAUTIFUL red welled grainers with windows. Run into conductor.
SOCX: You don't mind do you?
CONDUCTOR: Naw I never saw you guys.
NO DOUBT: Any stops on the way to Irondale?
CONDUCTOR: Naw, should take under an hour.
SOCX: Yeah, we just got set off by that last southbound.
CONDUCTOR: Yeah, he's headed where we just came from.
NO DOUBT: Where's that?
NO DOUBT: Yeah, I figured.