No hell below us

above us only sky

After being immersed in all of the folderol that passes for the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, I was ready for some real train riding. In two days I had seen more dogs wearing bandanas than in my entire life up to that point. Almost all of the bandanas worn by humans (and there were lots of them) were spotlessly clean, with an ironed crease that looked like it could impart a serious injury if it were used as a weapon.

This was as close to being a Hobo Disneyland as one could imagine. Sort of like the Beverley Hillbillies, Leave it to Beaver, and Green Acres all rolled into one. As strange as it sounds, it felt uncomfortable to be greeted by so many "ordinary citizens" in a positive way. Normally they would at least avert their eyes when passed by a tramp on a sidewalk, but here they would almost trip over themselves asking if they could get their picture taken with you, or have your autograph (complete with some mysterious Hobo glyph).

As I watched the wide-eyed kids fascinated by the "hoboes" I couldn't shake the feeling that if their parents saw them talking to a "real hobo" on any other weekend of the year they would be on the receiving end of a stern lecture focussing on never doing that again.

The accompanying flea market had an interesting mixture of pure heartland junk as well as some of the phoniest hobo-related crap I'd ever seen. I don't know how many gold spray-painted railroad spikes were on display, but they were selling like hotcakes. I was struck momentarily with the idea of walking around town collecting dog crap, spray-painting each one gold, then selling them as genuine hob poops straight out of the nearest jungle.

Tearing myself away from the bandana-filled vortex, I walked out to the highway and un-enthusiastically held out my thumb to the occasional car that appeared. To my delight one stopped in a matter of minutes and I was soon heading east toward Mason City and the railroad, chatting with some insurance agent. As refreshing as it was discussing subjects not related to hoboes, I nevertheless wondered if I could endure the short ride without sharing how I got here, etc., but such was not the case. Being from California and never experiencing a tornado, I asked the driver numerous questions about the whole tearing-the-roof-off thing and he patiently explained how it does happen and the consequences. I reciprocated with my memories of earthquakes and wildfires, and we both agreed that we were comfortable with where we lived and didn't want to move anytime soon.

I caught an incredibly slow northbound out of Mason City heading to the Twin Cities. It never quite got out of the "harmonic rocking" zone but I managed to doze off for a few hours, getting into St. Paul in the morning. Not wanting to spend hours threading my way over to Minneapolis by train, I walked out to a bus stop, and through the magic of "transfers" made it to the Northtown yard just three busses later.

Stocking up with food and drink at a convenience store run by the most convivial clerk I ever met (Yeah... sure... you betcha!), I maneuvered my way across the overpass and under the bridge as stealthily as possible. Fortunately I had the whole spot to myself, and after un-folding my cardboard and clearing away a few hunks of crap, I relaxed in the solitude and shifted into "train riding mode", assisted by a recent vintage of White Port.

I had only caught out of this yard a few times before, but I knew that the Bull would occassionally drive along the gravel road below, but I would be lost in the shadows if I sat as far back on the embankment as I could. Surveying the departure yard below me I noticed two tracks that had long strings of cars on them, and some of the cars indicted that they might be used on the West Coast, so all I had to do is wait for power to pull up and find a ride. Less than an hour later some power did pull up and, as hoped for, backed down to one of the strings of cars I had been observing earlier.

Packing up and walking down to ground level I climbed over a few couplers until I recognized the string I wanted, then began looking for rides. The first possibility was a boxcar that had both doors upon, but had obviously been used for hauling newspapers for recycling, because there were zillions of small pieces of newsprint carpeting the floor. Trying to imagine what that might be like when we got up to speed with a strong wind blowing through the doors, I continued onward where I found a perfectly clean version of the previous boxcar and climbed in.

After rolling out my gear I watched a westbound pig train zip by on the main track, then shortly the air started to pump up and in a reasonable time I was slowly creeping out of the yard, anxiously awaiting my return to California, where it cooled-off at night and there were no mosquitoes, among other things. Soon our speed exceeded the "harmonic rocking" zone I was stuck in coming up from Mason City, and I enjoyed a fast, smooth ride until the wine was finished and I settled into a good nap.

Getting up to pee I saw that we were going through the "sunflower zone" and figured that by now I might be in western Minnesota or eastern North Dakota, not that it meant much at that time. Before I could get back to sleep we dynamited while going through a series of dips and noisily ground to a halt. As luck would have it, the air hose that broke (strangely enough) was on the head end of the car I was riding in, which I found out after the brakeman made his way back from the engine and I jumped out to chat.

He said that there was some sort of damage done and we would have to set the car out at our next opportunity, which would be in a few miles at a freightyard outside of Minot, ND. I was soon to find out the true meaning of the word "outside". After waiting for the brakeman to walk back, we limped along for several miles until I could make out the appearance of a freightyard ahead. Wishing I had looked for other rides back at Northtown, and not wanting to switch to the "newspaper" car, I figured I would get off in the yard and see what was available after we made our setout. This action proved to be ill-timed, at best.

Walking over to some shade next to a switchman's shanty, I realized that I had to take a crap, so I cautiously walked inside and seeing nobody around, set down my pack and made a beeline for the bathroom. With that chore out of the way, I topped off my water jug and went outside to find that my train had vanished. Walking over to the track it had come in on I could see a faint red light way, way down the track. The only thing left to do was walk down the track hoping to get back on before my train left. The "walking down the track" part was accomplished, but the "faint red light" blended into the distant haze as I passed by the boxcar I rode in on.

Continuing my westward march, I expected to see the outskirts of Minot in the distance, but there was nothing. To compound matters, in addition to the midday August heat and humidity, the railroad had recently added a large amount of ballast to the tracks, with a steep 3' or so angle on either side of the tracks. I could either walk along the bottom of the ballast, filling my socks with stickers from the weeds that were everywhere, walk along the ballast itself, which was sure to cause me to end up with one leg longer than the other, or walk along between the rails, where the ties were spaced at a distance that forced me to either take short, mincing steps or giant strides if I skipped a tie.

Since I was out of options I just kept walking... and walking... until I could see the shimmering image of buildings in the distance. My immediate thoughts of catching a train, after turning around to look over my shoulder every few steps, was slowly being replaced by thoughts of sitting under a cool, shady overpass and drinking even colder beer. My pace quickened as I entertained the thought that North Dakota was a state that sold real beer (instead of 3.2%). Eventually I entered what passed for downtown and veered off to sit in the shade under an overpass next to the tracks.

Here is where every tramp has to make an unpleasant decision do I walk into town to get some alcohol, and possibly miss my train, or do I remain where I am? The longer I wait, the more I think that if I walked into town when I first thought of it, I would be back by now with some ice-cold beer. Or, by the time I got to the nearest liquor store (wherever it was) I would surely hear a train stopping back at the tracks.

Checking my wine supply I was relieved to find that however heavy my pack might have felt during the ordeal of walking into town, the reason was that I had three bottles of very room temperature wine, not two. This temporarily relieved the necessity for a beer run, and I settled down to wait it out. The large steel I-beams that supported the road above were a safe haven for dozens of pigeons, which seemed to spend their leisure time doing little else but making noise and crapping on the ground below. Noting that my initial placement of the cardboard was partially in the "drop zone" I made a few adjustments and relaxed to while away the afternoon.

Almost right across the tracks from me was a small Burlington Northern freight office. I toyed with the idea of walking over there to inquire about train movements, but thought that if my effort resulted in a warning to "stay the Hell away from the trains" I might have to move my waiting spot into the sunlight somewhere else, which didn't seem like a good idea at the moment. I would take my chances here in the shade. And here in the shade I would stay for a few hours until the distant sound of a train horn roused me into wakefulness.

Jumping up to gather my gear, I saw an empty autorack train slowly approach the freight office, and I swiftly made my way around some parked trailers to approach the train far enough back from the head end to avoid detection. Running along side a number of newer autoracks with the closed doors on either end I finally came up to and older car where the doors didn't go all the way to the top. Climbing up the ladder to the top level, I swung around and flopped over the top of the door onto the third level, greeted by a loud yell from a homeless person below who toasted my exploits by hoisting a bottle of wine in the air. I returned the greeting and retreated into the car as we began to leave. Remembering how noisey these cars were once they got moving, I stuffed foam earplugs into my ears, rolled out the cardboard, took my boots off, and bid farewell to the Midwest. California, or more likely Oregon or Washington, here I come...