Having "experienced" the Midwest once already on a trip to Britt, Iowa to see the National Hobo Convention, I allowed a year to go by before I committed myself to another ordeal of heat, humidity, and the American Way. Over-indulging in the planning stage the first time I went, there was still a taste of frustration left in my mouth over trains that didn't leave when they were supposed to leave, or trains that did leave, but I wasn't on 'em.
This time would be different — I would adopt the "grab my gear and go" approach, and if I made it to Britt, then fine... and if I didn't... well, that would be fine, too, as I would still be riding trains, just not necessarily the ones I wanted to ride. Another change I would make, and not without sacrifice, was not to take 20 pounds of wine along this time. The thought of having your own mobile liquor store along for the ride did have its merits, but I needed to remain fast and light, since there is a considerable amount of routefinding and just plain running around from train to train and yard to yard, all occurring in mind-numbing heat/humidity. And frustration wasn't the only taste left in my mouth after the first trip — I can still remember the crappy taste of 3.2% beer, so this time I had a "plan".
Last year I had befriended a woman who worked at the Chamber of Commerce in Britt, and she let me plug my railroad scanner in her office to charge overnight, so this year, hoping that she might remember me, I called and asked if I could send a package by Greyhound to the Chamber's office, and could she hold it for me until the Hobo Convention. It was to supposed to contain some ingredients for a traditional "hobo stew" (or something like that) so it would be best if it was stored in a cool place. She agreed, not knowing that the package would actually be a case of Rainier Ale in the green 16oz. cans — "Green Death" to its aficionados. Feeling a bit like Timothy Leary, I couldn't wait to introduce my corn-fed buddies to a "real" beer.
When one is on "normal time", as opposed to "train time", you're awake during daylight hours and asleep during darkness. You think about eating in the morning, possibly around mid-day, and again in the evening. On "train time", however, sleep may come at any time, night or day, and is often determined by no more than the condition of the track, if you're on a straight section or a curve, or the weather, or any number of other factors that have nothing to do with daylight or the lack thereof.
This time, with my pre-trip planning reduced to little more than bringing along lots of toilet paper, started off a few days earlier because I was catching out from Oakland, not Roseville. I took the transit bus to San Francisco, walked a block or so to the BART station, and emerged into the West Oakland 'hood as if escaping from the confines of a straight jacket — there would be no schedules and no hours. All I had to do was get on one train, ride it, get off, and get on another. There was no sense of urgency to "accomplish" something before the day was over, because now my "day" was two weeks long.
During the two or three block walk from the BART staion to the freightyard I had to do a sort of Clark Kent transformation, stripping off my nerdy glasses and business suit and donning the Superman cape, although I drew the line at the tights... Confident that my persona was now wearing a cape and not carrying a briefcase, I stopped at my favorite West Oakland café for a hearty plate of chili fries and coffee to start the day. I don't think I ever noticed what the real name of the establishment was — I just knew it as "Mama's", because that's what everyone seemed to call the formidable-looking Black woman who ran the place.
Her version of chili fries consisted of a football-sized pile of french fries drowned by possibly a gallon of chili [hence the extra toilet paper]. This, combined with a cup or two of her nuclear coffee, usually cleared my gastrointestinal track back to the time of my childhood. After a half hour or so of ingesting "breakfast", it was off to the conveniently-situated liquor store next door for whatever liquid supplies I might need. After that, the next stop was the West Oakland Desert Yard, Southern Pacific's version of an intranational airport.
part 2 of 6→