Crossing the middle of the country in anything but an airplane is difficult to describe. Even in the desert there's a new mountain range to see every hour or so, or the road makes a change in direction... goes up a hill, or down a hill, or around a curve, but somehow the railroads have figured out a way to bypass any geographical feature and just go in a straight line... for way too long.
After riding out from the West Coast, the last three days (and nights) were spent going up, down, around, and through one range of mountains after another, but after leaving Denver it suddenly became different. Now I could doze off under the piggyback trailer without the urge to turn around and lean out to see where I was, because I knew where I was. Whatever things looked like behind me, they looked the same in front of me, so there was no need to move. Just reach over to get the wine bottle, unscrew the cap, take a drink, screw the cap on, and set it back down along side of me.
My train was moving quickly — I could tell that by looking down at the ballast flying by, but the scenery, such as it was, gave the impression that I was merely creeping along. I would open my eyes, look around, take a drink of wine, close my eyes, and after what seemed like a reasonable amount of time ensued I would open my eyes again and be greeted by the exact scenery I saw previously — corn fields, soy fields, grasslands...
The helpful highway signs telling you how many miles you had to travel to get to the next three towns were absent. There were no "Welcome to Utah" billboards. It was like looking into an 8-Ball and having the same message come up every time. I actually felt myself slowing down. At the beginning of the trip I was feeling like the ballast — zipping along for mile after mile, but gradually I instead began to identify with the scenery... much slower, but somehow still keeping pace with the speeding ballast.
After watching a beautiful sunset for several miles, the train slowed and I figured it was finally time for a crew change, and if trains changed crews in whatever town we were coming into, then trains going in the other direction might stop too. Sitting up quickly, I decided to get off here (wherever here was), kick back for the night, then catch back the next day. I had probably already seen 99% of whatever there was to see in this part of the country, and I really needed to get back to the mountains.
We had already began to enter the yard before I could even get my gear packed, but I managed to make sort of a controlled plop off the ladder with most of my things where they should be. I watched the rest of my train creep by, then stepped over the mainline and into some woods next to the yard. Sleeping next to the tracks doesn't always result in anything resembling a sound nights rest, but at least the trains would be going slow, and I would have a very short "commute" to the yard in the morning. My cardboard matted down the grass enough to stretch out more or less level, and since I couldn't hear any mosquitoes I considered this to be a good spot to crash, so crash I did. A few trains during the night but no mosquitoes, and I woke up feeling surprisingly rested.
Getting up to pee, I noticed an overgrown cabin or building set back a ways into the woods, so I put my boots on and walked over for a look. There was no way I could have seen this place last night, but it sure would have been a great place to sleep. Sort of like a bunkhouse, it had four "sleeping platforms", for lack of a better word, made out of a wood frame maybe 2 feet off the floor, with heavy chicken wire stretched across the top as maybe a surface for a mattress. The only hint that a mattress (or mattresses) ever existed were small remnants of them littering a huge wood rat nest in the middle of the floor.
There was nothing to indicate what the building was used for, but judging from several inscriptions on the walls, at least 5 or 6 different individuals were here at various times during the 30's. Whether these were hobos or workers was unknown, but one of them made a personal observation about his dislike for the rats that he shared the room with that caused me to laugh out loud. Suddenly my enthusiasm for train riding began to wane and my interest in hanging out for the day got the best of me. I cleared enough litter away from two of the "beds" — one to use as a somewhat sanitary platform for my gear, and the other as a bed for the night. I decided to take a day off from riding and spend it in the woods — a chance to experience what Thoreau might have felt if he ever rode trains.
Thanks to stocking up at a market near the yard in Denver, I had plenty of food and wine, but my water was getting low, especially after washing my hands thoroughly, so I worked my way back out to the mainline to hit the yard for a source of water. No buildings were in sight, but a rumbling yard engine got my attention and I headed over to the far side of the small yard. Instead of a single yard engine it ended up being two big road units coupled to a long line of flatcars loaded with rail. I couldn't tell if anyone was in the lead unit because of the dirty, tinted windows, and after several attempts to wave in the general direction of the cab yielded no results, I climbed up the ladder and walked over to the engine door, fervently hoping that no one was inside. The door was unlocked, and the cab was empty, so I walked through and out the other door, them back to the second unit, where a quick opening of the small fridge in the nose revealed four six-packs of ice-cold railroad water. Looking out the windows over the empty yard for workers that might see me, I grabbed the water and slunk back to the woods. I was set for the day.
Arriving back at the cabin, I first set about to figure out some sort of chair or sofa or some kind of platform to recline in during the day, perhaps to access my muse, or whatever. Hanging out on the ground, even on my expansive collection of cardboard, was not in the picture because of the ants that one minute were no where to be seen, but as soon as you sit down in the shade under a tree they would magically appear. Having insects alight on my body was usually dealt with by swatting them away, but here in the Midwest I was hopelessly outnumbered, and I had to force myself to get used to having a fly land and remain on my arm, rather that be chased away by a flailing hand, for the simple fact that if I made an effort to brush away any insect that came in contact with me I would be in perpetual motion and unable to do anything else. I had to draw a line in the sand, so to speak, and chose mosquitoes and ants as sure things to swat away, while leaving ordinary flies and the occasional moth alone to do whatever it is that they do when they land on you.
Returning to the chair/sofa project, I soured the inside of the cabin but there was nothing that even MacGyver could find useful, so I walked over to the yard to look for something there. Realizing that however cold the water bottles I "stole" from the engines might have been immediately after liberating them from the cooler, I knew that if I was to enjoy the feeling of ice cold water trickling down my throat I better do it sooner rather than later, because it was probably already close to 90° and it wasn't even noon yet.
Opening the pint-sized bottle, I poured a gulp or two down and quickly realized that although the water was cold, it had absolutely no taste. None. It was as if all of the minerals had been removed, and I was immediately reminded of how some distilled water tasted that my Mom used when she was ironing clothes. After tasting fresh mountain water right out of a creek, this stuff tasted like cardboard. I tried to imagine what it must taste like after it had reached "room temperature", and made a mental note to dig a small underground refrigerator for my wine, cheese, and remaining water bottles when I got back to the cabin.
Meanwhile, I kept an eye out for materials that I could use to make an above-ground platform while I wandered around the small yard. The train with the rail was gone, and aside from a few covered hoppers there was nothing that looked like it might contain anything useful. Staying out of sight of the small building that I assumed was the yard office, I noticed a dumpster sitting behind the building, but since there were no windows on that side, if I approached from a certain direction there was no way I would be seen. Walking as purposely as I could, I reached the dumpster and tiptoed to look inside. To my delight there was a large spool inside that looked like it had originally held a long length of wire, but now, if I could get it out and roll it all the way back to the cabin, it could be re-born as a nice chair.
Looking around in every direction, I climbed up and over into the dumpster, which was pretty much empty except for the spool. With a reasonable amount of effort I lifted it up and dropped it as gently as I could, not only to keep from breaking it but also to make sure that it landed flat, and didn't start rolling away. Both criteria were met, and I hopped out and began the long journey back to the cabin, rolling the spool ahead of me, then overtaking it and re-rolling it after making adjustments to its intended direction. Aside from having to cross over some yard tracks, I made a surprisingly straight line across the yard and into the woods. Turning around to bask in my great accomplishment, I noticed that there was a zig-zagged trail of two lines leading from the yard into the woods, and anyone who looked upon them might think that two drunken bicyclists had ridden side by side across the yard and disappeared into the trees.
For all of the zillions of times that I wandered around hobo jungles and seen dilapidated chairs everywhere, there wasn't a single one to be found during my travels around the outskirts of the freightyard. Aside from the mysterious cabin in the woods, there was no sign at all that any tramps had ever hung out here. I figured that either there was a railroad Bull that had struck the fear of God into any and all riders, or that nobody (except me) had ever gotten off here. This was cause for concern, as now that I began to think about it, there were only two trains that I remembered coming through during the day, but at least they were going slow — hence my reasoning that it was a crew change. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to make sure that this was in fact a crew change, and trains actually stopped.
I went into the cabin to check on my gear and frightened off a group of either large mice or juvenile rats that had surrounded my pack. A new tactic was developed where I suspended my pack from the ceiling by a length of barbed wire I found rolled up outside. This'll teach 'em, I hoped, and left the cabin for a walk up the tracks to find out if the crew change actually occurred as I had hoped. My hopes plummeted when I saw the reason why all the trains seemed to go so slow when they got to the yard — there were several maintenance vehicles parked around a grade crossing and it looked like they were replacing the panels where the road crossed the tracks with new concrete ones. I walked up to a workman and said "Howdy" as accurately as I could for the local culture, and he responded with the same. Feigning no more than a casual interest in his work, I asked how long the project might take, and he replied that they should have everything back to normal by nightfall. Looking past him down the mainline I saw a small sign with the number 60 above the number 50, indicating that the speed for passenger trains was 60mph and for freights it was 50 — which meant that as soon as they finished their work the slow trains crawling past "my" cabin would become a thing of the past.
Concealing my concern, I walked back to the cabin and immediately began to formulate a plan. I really need to catch the next train going either direction, and began to look around for a spot that would provide concealment, yet allow me to quickly run out and climb on a passing train. Nothing came to mind immediately, but I gathered up my gear so that I could be ready to mobilize as soon as necessary. As I reached for my pack two mice leaped off, obviously unhindered by the barbed wire suspension system. Looking inside I found the beginnings of a tiny nest built from the chewed off fragments of my spare socks. I quickly emptied out the contents on the ground but didn't find any more signs of occupation, so I repacked everything, then walked over to my underground refrigerator to reclaim my cheese and water. Here is where my relationship with any form of rodent took a nosedive, as the hunk of cheese, although originally wrapped in aluminum foil, had now been unceremoniously "entered", and partially consumed. The little bastards burrowed in from underneath, avoiding the large block of concrete I placed over the top as "protection".
Downplaying my acute misfortune, I left them a sizeable chunk and re-wrapped the unblemished portion and placed it in my pack. The remaining water bottles followed shortly, along with my most precious cargo — three bottles of White Port, which received a carefully applied layer of my sleeping bag around all sides. Looking around for anything I might have missed, it occurred to me to mark up as the few others did on the walls, so I retrieved my marker from the pack and jotted down a few words of muse describing my brief stay, and warning of the determined rodents that called this cabin their home.
It was now the hottest part of the day, but I managed to find a conveniently situated shade tree along the tracks, and I spread out my cardboard and began to wait for a train. I had never done this "first train, no matter which direction" thing before, and I began to weigh the pros and cons of travelling in either direction. The main thing was to catch out before the work at the road crossing was finished and there would be no more "slow" trains. My nervousness was soon calmed by the infusion of White Port, and the afternoon became just another afternoon of waiting for a train. I concerned myself only with details that might relate to walking out and climbing on a train, and no effort was made to anticipate my fate if one didn't come along. Slowly my thoughts drifted away and it was just me, my gear, and the tracks — about as basic as you could get, and in reality, all that I needed at the moment...