On understanding the movements of flies

and how that relates to trains

An empty gondola would serve as a temporary home as I waited for a southbound to depart from the SP yard in Eugene, OR. My previous "home", under the Maxwell Rd. overpass, was vacated after a city cop stopped on the street below and with his loudspeaker told me to move on. I took his advice, and shortly began to "move onto" the freightyard across the street, where there were two strings of cars that looked like they might have southbounds on them.

It was a hot day, for Eugene anyway, and by sheer luck there was a gondola sitting in the shade under the overpass. Walking across on the bridge above earlier in the day I noticed the string that included my gondola and the string next to it looked promising, but instead of walking along both to look for rides I decided to watch for the guys on the 3-wheelers checking the brake pads before a train departs. Other than a flock of pigeons there wasn't any movement in the yard.

A point was being reached that manifests itself quite often on train trips do I stay in the yard waiting for a train to leave even though I'm low on wine, smokes, food, etc. or do I leave and go to the store and possibly miss my train? The longer I wait, the sooner a train leaves, right? Conversely, the sooner I go to the store, the possibility of missing my train diminishes. Is this one of those unsolvable riddles?

Taking stock of my supplies, I found that I was low on food, but I wasn't really hungry. I did have a full bottle of wine left, but who knew how long I'd be sitting here? The clincher was that I was down to my last 5 Viceroy non-filters. This simple fact catapulted me into action. I packed up my stuff, leaving the cardboard where it was, and climbed up to the top of the overpass for one last look over the yard to spot any activity. Even the pigeons had left for points unknown, so I turned and began to walk the 2 or 3 blocks over to a market I remembered from my last trip.

After sitting for so long it took awhile to develop any sort of efficient gait, but I could look ahead and see the cross traffic on the corner where the market was. A few minutes more and the parking lot came into view, but it was empty! As I reached the door I saw the sign that said they closed at 5pm on Sunday. This was Sunday, and my watch told me that it was 12 minutes after 5pm. Rather than stand there and curse my bad fortune, I turned and walked as fast as I could back to the yard, all the while cursing my bad fortune.

Ducking under the overpass and down to the tracks, I made my way over to the gondola and climbed in. Resigning myself to the fact that I might be sitting here for an extended period of time, I made myself as comfortable as possible and looked around for anything to help me pass the time. The floor was no different from the floors of other empty gons I'd ridden in a bewildering legacy of previous loads of scrap auto parts and virtually anything made of metal that was either beginning or ending its life.

Turning around to retrieve the wine from my pack, I noticed an alien form in the corner of the car. It was a flattened paper bag emanating an unpleasant odor, and hosting a large group of flies. I couldn't begin to guess its contents by the odor, but it also had attracted a few yellowjackets, so maybe it was the remains of someone's baloney sandwich. I wanted to distance myself from the bag, but it was on the only end of the car that was shaded, so if I wanted to remain where I was I would have to pick up the bag and toss it to the other end of the car.

Before I could get up, a thought occurred to me if I threw it away, I would be depriving the flies of a meal, something I could dearly use myself. The choice was made to leave the bag where it was, as long as the smell didn't get to me. The more I poured over my options, the more I became interested in the behavior of the individual flies.

Trying to sense some sort of pattern, I watched as they zig-zagged along a small length of wood next to the bag, then disappeared inside. Every so often a much larger yellowjacket would enter the bag, but it seemed to be ignored by the flies. If there was any animosity between the tiny flies and the large yellowjackets I didn't see it. Now and then a fly going in one direction would be approached by a yellowjacket going in the opposite direction, and they would merely pass by each other as if they were humans meeting on a sidewalk.

Of particular interest to me was the fact that sometimes an individual fly would walk along the board and approach the open bag, but for some reason just turn around and walk back the way it came. Were its services not needed? I imagined myself driving up to a burger joint, parking the car, getting out, walking up to the window, then turning around and returning to my car. There were other flies that did the opposite they emerged from the bag, made their way for a few inches along the piece of wood, then turned and re-entered the bag.

My mind was in overdrive trying to make sense of the fly community. Did they recognize other flies as distinct individuals, as we would if we saw a friend walking by and wave or greet them? Did the flies return to a certain place each night, their "home"? Did they differentiate between day and night Did they sleep? Laugh?

For some reason I was reminded of being in high school and smoking marijuana for the first time. Some friends and I walked deep into an orange grove at night to get high and after smoking for awhile my throat was burning up so I asked for a beer. One of the guys tossed a can toward me but in my lethargy I failed to catch it and it flew behind me and landed with a thud. Turning to retrieve it I was stopped in my tracks by a faint hissing sound coming from the darkness behind me. I immediately thought of rattlesnakes and called out to the others to listen carefully. Instantly there was mass hysteria as we all flashed on an image of a coiled rattlesnake just a few feet away, and we all ran away in different directions. Calling out to each other in the darkness we managed to regroup, but by that time we decided to call it a night and went our separate ways. The next day I realized that the hissing sound was probably just the shaken up beer fizzing from the can, but I kept it to myself so I wouldn't ruin a good story.

Why had I thought of the high school episode while watching flies? I began to think about how complicated the human brain is, but is it any more or less complicated than the brain of a fly? Their brain might be infinitely more complicated than ours, or maybe it's incredibly less complicated. Being simplistic might mean that it doesn't get clogged up with unnecessary thoughts, and can focus on the important things easier.

From my viewpoint, all the flies had to concern themselves with was walking into that paper bag and getting a meal. Considering the things I've seen flies land on, a slightly spoiled sandwich would appear to be a delicacy. And if they're not threatened by a yellowjacket it could be that their only known enemies are car windshields and fly swatter-bearing housewives. And their behavior of moving one way and suddenly reversing direction for no reason at all might not be dissimilar from a human dashing out of the house for school or work, then suddenly returning to retrieve some forgotten item.

Like in a dream, when you hear a faint buzzing in the background that persists for several moments, getting louder and louder, until you wake and realize that it's the alarm clock, my reverie with the flies was interrupted by the faint sound of a gas engine accelerating then idling, and then accelerating again. Once I figured out that it was the scooter guy and he was at the car in front of me, and I casually climbed down the ladder to greet him. He said that both of the strings I had noticed earlier were going south, and the crew were on their way down to double them over. More importantly, he said that there were several open boxcars a little ways down the track on the other string. I thanked him profusely and climbed back up to gather my gear.

I bid farewell to my winged companions and reluctantly walked up to one of the boxcars. The gondola was nice while sitting still, but going over the Cascades at night, as it was now getting dark, was more comfortable inside a boxcar. Laying out my gear on the trusty cardboard, I toured the interior of the car looking for this and that. I was almost disappointed to find that there were no insects to be found, but that might soon change when we got up in the mountains and passed through mosquito country. Briefly weighing the interest levels of watching a group of flies as opposed to a group of mosquitoes, I felt a need to rest my over-used brain and finish off the wine and cigarettes. I could re-supply in Klamath Falls if I wanted, but right now I was looking forward to a nice, smooth ride and a good sleep...