I was 19 when I went on my first freight hopping trip. I was sick of hearing about what it was like from my friends, and I just wanted to leave town and see what it was like for myself. I knew before I got on any train that I would love it, and I was dying to go.
The first time I did it I was in Vancouver, Canada. My friends E and K were with me and after camping out in train yards and parks for three days, we were ecstatic to finally catch something. The original plan was to ride straight across the country, to Montreal, before going down to New York and Philly to visit friends. I had stayed up the night before sewing a big backpack to carry all the food, water, and clothing I'd need for the next month and we were all so excited. But we had a hard time crossing the border, and when we got caught riding the train we were threatened with deportation. So we hitchhiked back to Vancouver and went back to Seattle. (This is the short-story version - I still have problems visiting Canada and generally try to avoid it now.)
At the time I was dating a rather crusty longshoreman and we would stay out late, making out and watching trains together. He showed me which cars were ridable and how you could catch the Highline, a very old train route, all the way to Chicago. E, K, and I talked about it and decided we would do this instead. It's kind of funny but for such a long first ride we didn't have any problems and the whole trip went really smoothly.
I wrote this story about our trip a really long time ago (so no hating). It's funny to re-read this... train riding is much less romantic to me now, although just as fun. And I am much less afraid of the dark.
On a cool August night I headed down to the Burlington Northern yard off Spokane Street in Seattle to catch a freight train. I had taken the bus down to 1st Avenue, and had gotten off in front of the Home Depot, where I was supposed to meet up with my friends K and E. They were late so I began to walk around the yard to see if there was anything getting ready to go. Walking alone in the dark began to get kind of scary as I started noticing more homeless men hanging out, drinking by the tracks. I had lost my favorite hat in the train yards in Vancouver, and it was obvious with my long hair that I was a girl. I didn't want to get messed with so I started to walk back to the main street, smoking to help pass the time.
Around 10pm K and E got off their bus and we met up and started again toward the yard, pulling our hats and hoods over our eyes so we weren't so conspicuous. My friend J had shown us his waiting spot the night before, where we would be able to watch the engines roll by and see which cars were rideable, while staying perfectly hidden. The train I had heard switching a few minutes before had unfortunately just left the yard, but we hoped that another one would leave soon. We pushed back some bushes, found a comfy log to sit on, and began a long wait. Minutes turned into hours and we kept chain-smoking as we struggled to keep warm. For some weird reason we all had small bladders that night, and every half hour we'd walk down the tracks to pee, looking ahead to see if there was any action.
We were on the look-out for at least three or four engines to pass by on the mainline, since our train would need the extra power to go though the Cascade mountain range. There were four tracks in front of us, with the mainline being the furthest away. Every couple hours a junk train would roll by and stop in front of us, obscuring our view. Finally, twelve hours of waiting paid off as we saw four engines roll by, pulling a string of doublestacks. We grabbed our bags as the train pulled to a stop.
Excitedly we began scrambling over the junk train that had stopped on the track in front of us. Time was precious and we still had to find a ridable car. Luck was on our side though; directly in front of us was a beautiful 48' container car the fit all the criteria for us to be able to ride in it safely. Unfortunately it was the first car on the train, right behind the fourth engine, but beggars can't be choosers. Just as we were about the climb down the ladder to make a mad dash for our car, I had the presence of mind to look down the access road. In our twelve hours of waiting in the bushes, we hadn't seen a single person drive by on this road, but a mere twenty feet away to my right there was a bull, parked but facing the other direction. I quickly stepped back and hid behind the container and all of us began cursing our luck. There was no way we'd be able to make it. We waited a few seconds and peeked out again - the bull was gone. Within seconds we were on our train, gasping and ecstatic. A few more seconds passed and we were moving.
We rolled through Seattle suburbs with our heads low, cautious about being seen after our thwarted Canada experince the week before. I had ridden Amtrak on this line before and knew that after Everett the tracks went along the coast and through the woods, out-of-sight from the general population. We poked our heads up and for the first time saw the Pacific Ocean from a freight train, a beautiful sight. Around the curves we could look back and see that our train was gigantic, over a mile long with doublestacks the whole way through. Soon our train broke off that line and started headed east for Wenatchee, our first crew change point. On our way there we were to go through the Cascade Tunnel, one of the longest and steepest tunnels in North America. I had heard varying accounts of how long it would take to ride through it, and how awful the diesel fumes were. I had brought along a stylish red bandana in preparation, and although I wasn't exactly looking forward to struggling to breathe for an hour in darkness, the mystery of tunnels excited me.
Somewhere between here and there
Lush green evergreens soon surrounded us on both sides, a welcome change from familiar Seattle suburbia. The air was thick and damp as we chugged up the foothills of the Cascades. Moss seemed to cover everything, and we stood up and watched the scenery in awe as we followed alongside a river. Every so often we would spy a lone wooden shack perched high above the river, the only trace that someone had set foot in this place. Whenever I am tempted to leave the Northwest I remember riding this train through the Cascades, and how lucky I am to be living in a part of the country that isn't surrounded by a 200 mile radius of strip malls and bulldozed fields. The Northwest is my home; I can travel all I want and even move everything I own to a foreign country, but my heart will always be here. It's just too beautiful and it smells too good.
K, E, and I were watching the scenery, entranced, when we saw the engines enter the tunnel. Seconds later we were in total darkness, with the engines roaring deafeningly in our ears. All three of us quickly wetted our bandannas and tied them around our ears. Every so often a we would pass a dim yellow light, illuminating a small section of the craggly tunnel wall. Tunnels are impressive. They are such an amazing feat of human engineering, and it blows my mind when I think about how they were built, who built them, who died in them. How many hoboes had ridden through this tunnel before me? Whenever I am on a freight train I think about this kind of stuff, and I feel honored to be a part of it, albeit in small way.
Forty-five minutes later and we were gratefully taking deep breaths of clean air again. I blew my nose and all my snot was black. Yum. From there on out we just leaned back and enjoyed the scenery. The Cascade Mountains gradually shrank into foothills again, and soon we were surrounded by the drier, arid climate of Eastern Washington. Cypress trees and mysterious black silhouettes peppered the bare, dry landscape, and every inch of the sky seemed to have a hundred stars. Spokane was a hot yard according to our crew change guide, but we slept right through it without incident. It seems like the best and worst sleep I've had in my life has been on a freight train. There's nothing quite as miserable like trying to fall asleep on cold metal, waiting for your train to air up in a yard, all the while struggling to keep quiet so the workers nearby won't detect you. Adversely, cozied up in my sleeping bag with K and E by my side (they were nice and gave me the middle), we were very happy sardines and I slept like a baby, with the hum and vibration of the train underneath my body, lulling me to sleep.
We woke up early to Idaho, and for breakfast I made avocado and brie sandwiches while K and E made tea, using K's homemade pop can stove. Earlier on we had talked about getting off in Montana. I had always wanted to visit, and K had had a memorable experience with a cowboy there a few weeks back, on her way to Seattle. Whitefish was a crew-change stop, and conveniently right outside the entrance of Glacier National Park. We decided to try to get off the train there and be regular tourists for a couple days, if we could.
Using the maps that E had brought along, we figured that we were pretty close to Whitefish, but there was a chance that we had already stopped there, and just not realized it. Before we could dwell on it too long we were slowing down for another crew change. Trying to be stealth, we poked our heads up and tried to find a road sign, or any type of sign that might tell us where we were. "Well, this looks like Montana... " But we weren't sure, so we sat on our hands through the crew change, not wanting to take a chance. Soon we aired up again, and then slowly began to leave the yard. E and K were sitting down, but I kept my head up just to see if we would pass by any more signs. Right after we passed the yard office, I saw the train station, with a huge wood sign above the door proclaiming "WHITEFISH" in big block letters. Fuck. We all started packing up our stuff franticly, since the train was going slow and we still had a chance to get off. Just as we lifted our bags up, the train whined to a stop. We couldn't believe our luck and de-trained. Standing on the ballast we realized that another hotshot train was coming through in the opposite direction, and our train was waiting for it to pass before it went back on the mainline.
After locating a diner to satisfy our mutual pancake craving, we decided to check out the other part of the yard that we had passed. Train yards are fascinating but the small trails that hoboes have formed around yards are really fun to explore. After meandering through some residential cul-de-sacs we found the start of a trail, conveniently located next to a huge apple tree. After stashing our bags in some bushes we picked some apples and began walking. Taking us up and down small foothills, the trail led us alongside a small creek, and then to an old train trestle. Underneath the trestle there was hobo graffiti from the past twenty years. Later on, before we caught our next train, we got out our oil markers out and left our tags there too.
Exploring was fun but we were hungry for more apples, and it was hot and we wanted to investigate a lake we had seen earlier. After retrieving our bags we discovered that Whitefish Lake was right on the other side of the tracks, and as soon as we found it E promptly got out her sleeping bag so she could take a midday nap in the grass, while K and I stripped down to our skivvies to take a refreshing swim. While we floated happily in the sun, we could hear the train whistle blow and watch the eastbound trains coming toward us. Luckily no hotshots went by, since it would have been hard for us to leave. E eventually woke up, and we made sandwiches and contemplated moving permanently to Montana, settling down with a nice cowboy (a la Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise), and riding horses in fashionable western shirts and tight jeans. But time was passing quickly, so we packed up reluctantly and walked back to bustling downtown Whitefish to find some nightlife and potential places to sleep.
The Great Northern Bar beckoned us with their sign, the giant emblem of the now defunct railroad of the same name. Dirty and tired, apparently we were still a sight, since all heads turned when we walked in and threw our heavy backpacks down on the floor. Inside there was a jukebox and a ping-pong table, and that was all we needed. After we fed quarters and started to challenge each other's ping-pong prowess to a steady stream of Bruce Springsteen, many of the local men came up to us to chat.
Invariably the conversation started out with, "So, you gals take the train here?" To which we we would smile and nod, "Uh yeah, we took Amtrak..." And then with a wink they would reply, "Boxcar?" We couldn't have fooled anyone. Soon a man came up to us and introduced himself as a genuine BNSF engineer. He was a really sweet guy, albeit a little trashed, but he gave us the lowdown on all the trains running from Spokane to Havre. Although most of the information he gave us was contradictory, it was really fun talking to him and by the end of our conversation he gave us his home address and phone number, in case we ever came through Whitefish again. At some point while we were talking to him I was serenaded by an older man, who sang me Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" (complete with growls) and then proposed marriage to, and while walking to the jukebox another random man came up to me and gave me his phone number, telling me that I should really consider staying with him in his cabin instead of camping out. Before I could really consider it the bartender came to our table and demanded to see our IDs. After discovering that I was underage we sadly got kicked out of the Great Northern Bar.
Somehow on our way out K managed to meet a nice young boy that was traveling alone and camping in Glacier that night. He was lonely, so we convinced him to take us with him. We drove out to the park in his Jeep and found a little clearing on the side of the road to camp in. After we made a huge fire we shared a couple cans of beans and said our goodnights. Our sleeping bags were all arranged in a circle around the embers and we slept warmly underneath the stars. He was a true gentleman and drove us back into town the next morning, so we could catch a eastbound train and continue on with our journey.
After making a stop at the grocery store to re-stock we headed back out to the path by the train tracks. On the way there we passed a little thrift store, and I bought a little black cocktail dress to wear once I got to New York. It was still early, so once again we explored the brambles while keeping our ears open to hear any approaching train whistles. While we were exploring we came across a beautiful tree house, with four or five separate, enclosed floors, connected by ladders and ropes. The front door was covered in graffiti and u-locked shut, but if you walked around to the other side there was an opening that you could crawl through. All three of us shimmied in, careful not to snag our clothes or break anything. Up we went, climbing to the very top, where there was an open platform that looked over Whitefish. It was beautiful. The platform swayed back and forth in the wind and we weren't sure if it would support the weight of all three of us, so we started climbing down. The treehouse was cool but it was also kind of creepy - previous trespassers had left beer cans, small dirty mattresses, and molding coffee mugs scattered around, and it had a haunted house vibe that I wouldn't want to be around after dark.
We settled back into the brush and got cozy with the books we had brought to read in anticipation of long waits. But by the time I finished my book (Orwell's Animal Farm) the sun was setting and we still hadn't seen a train. K and I thought that doing a 'train dance' (distant relative to a rain dance) might speed things up, so we boogied a little, but still nothing. I put on some extra layers since it was starting to get cold, and then as an afterthought applied my lucky lipstick (MAC Vivaglam). Then the train came! It worked.
Running, breathing hard, tripping on ballast, we made it to another ridable car and climbed on before the train jerked forward and took off with us giggling and panting on the floor. Six hours later and we were in Havre, Montana, where every highline train does a 1000-mile inspection, and where train riders are given mandatory jail time if caught. So we laid low, careful to duck our heads when we peeked at our surroundings, and played hot dice while the sun beat down on us. It was maddening being confined to a closet-sized space, whispering to each other while we listened to workers zip by in their little golf carts, or the sound of their boots crunching on ballast. After a long five hour wait our train finally left and then we were onward to Chicago.
Our newly acquired train took us through the plains of North Dakota to Minnesota. Finally Minneapolis was our next crew change, and we decided to pack up our stuff and be tourists again in a new city. Minneapolis/St.Paul has several different freight yards, and the only thing I remember about the one we pulled into was that it was huge. Instead of jumping off the train while it was slowing down, before it entered the yard, we waited till it came to a complete stop and then took our time leaving. We had no idea where we were and there were so many tracks that we had to cross out in the open, in the middle of the afternoon, that it seemed kind of pointless to run and hide. We made it the other side of the yard, where there was an opening in the fence, and encountered our first worker. He drove past us in his crew truck, window down, slack-jawed as he slowly checked all three of us out, and then proceeded to ignore us. After we crossed the last track we started a long walk down a side street in hopes of finding a bus stop.
The area was very residential and we walked past a suburban housewife that was watering her lawn and had stopped to stare at us. After a few seconds hesitation she said simply, in a monotone twang of a voice, "You girls look hot. You wanna pop?" We hadn't spoken to anyone besides each other in a couple days and it took us awhile to respond. "Um...sure?" She quickly walked into her house and then emerged with three ice cold sodas. We sipped them slowly and kept walking.
Finally we found a gas station, and we went inside to take turns scrubbing ourselves in the bathroom, ask directions, and steal salt packets. E went outside to wait for us and when she was doing handstands in the grass she found a photo someone had lost - a snapshot of some black girl's ass, doggy style on some dingy comforter. Score! After we left the gas station we figured out that there was a bus stop a few blocks away, so we headed there with the goal of eventually reaching the Hard Times Cafe, an old crusty punk haunt in the West Bank. Through old friends and ex-boyfriend connections there we figured we could find a floor to crash on for the night.
Within a couple hours we were eating tofu scrambles and riding homemade chopper bikes on our way to some punk house. We unrolled our sleeping bags on a dirty mattress and tried to avoid most of the house's inhabitants. Although we had been invited there by one of them, everyone else made it clear that they didn't like us. Honestly I wasn't that impressed either - I've never been a big fan of punk houses, with their filth and pee jugs and posturing. I enjoy showering at least once a day and it took me three trips to the bathroom to realize why exactly they had towering stacks of phone books next to all the toilets.
Despite all of that we ended up staying there for another night before returning to the city's train yards. I made some phone calls to the longshoreman and got implicit directions on how to catch 'The Commuter' - a train to Chicago that was so punctual that you could pretty much count on being able to catch it every day around 6pm from a certain spot. After stopping by a Middle Eastern grocery store for some delicious falafel we trekked through some bushes in a golf course and quickly found a ridable well car. The train aired up and started rolling within a few minutes, happily leaving Minneapolis.
It was a beautiful night time ride, chugging alongside the Mississippi River and through Milwaukee and La Crosse. I had never been further east of Ohio before this trip, and for this last hop I laid down and looked up at the sky in my sleeping bag, blissed out and staring at the stars for hours. In our exictement we had gotten on the front side of the car instead of the rear, so all the wind hit us hard and cold. But it felt good. K and E sat on the ledge above the wheels, chainsmoking and drinking whiskey, watching the lights from small towns approach and then fade away. I fell asleep easily, happily, and when I woke up we were just outside of Chicago. After leaving some parting tags on the side of the train we bid it a final farewell before walking out to the highway. We would end up continuing our journey together to Philly and New York but our train trip was effectively complete.