Milk Run

motion is overrated...

To "go on a train trip", in its purest form, requires you to leave somewhere on a train, heading for somewhere else. I had done neither, but still felt satisfied sitting in the woods adjoining a freightyard, drinking wine and keeping an ear cocked for that distant rumble.

There was no reason involved, just desire. Wanting to be on a train but not caring especially when that might happen. This approach was the correct approach, as I had been sitting now for almost 2 hours and began to yearn for a reason to get up and move around. A horn blowing for a road crossing was all it took one last swallow before shoving the bottle into my pack and grabbing my gloves.

Staying out of sight until the engines passed, I could see 20 or so cars at a time as the train crawled around a curve and came into view. With the head end now out of sight I emerged from the forest canopy and saw an old friend approaching a wooden-floored boxcar with both doors open. Following along at a slow walk I waited for the train to stop, then peered in to see if it was occupied, which it wasn't. Making sure that the door was latched securely, I tossed my pack inside and climbed in. Aside from being a bit warm because of only having single doors on each side, it was clean with no evidence of being used as a "bathroom" previously. I chose the back end to get a nice breeze and began to unfold the cardboard and set up camp.

A discarded newspaper I gleaned from a dumpster was to provide entertainment while I waited for the crew change to complete. With little else but the faint hiss of air escaping from the brake lines to distract me, I could devote my full attention to the news of the day, or in this case, the previous day. It reminded me of finding an old Readers Digest in a jungle once, and reading absolutely everything from cover to cover, including all of those ads for various kinds of drugs with the tiny printing that would be impossible to read on a moving train. I felt myself entering into a state of timelessness, where the day consisted of events that were linked by order only, and the time that these events themselves required for completion, as well as the time that separated them, was of no importance.

The hiss of brakeline air changed pitch and I felt relieved that we were soon going to leave and I could occupy myself with something more interesting than local high school sports. The newspaper was rolled up and stashed behind my pack for further use, and I walked over to the door to survey the vacant freightyard that kept me company for so long. In a moment or two we imperceptibly began to move forward, something I might have missed if I wasn't staring at a lizard crawling along next to the ties. I cringed a bit as I thought I felt the dreaded thunk of a flat wheel, but it was a false alarm, and we picked up speed smoothly, albeit slowly. Leaving the yard at no more than a slow walking speed I felt an impending let down as we passed a brakeman standing next to the train, and shortly we stopped, then began to back up. Looking back I could see what the problem was there was smoke pouring from the wheels of a car near the end of the train, and I knew that we'd be setting it out in the yard somewhere.

As luck would have it, we ended up stopping in almost exactly the same spot as we did earlier, only two tracks over. It seemed like a great time to finish up reading any of the fascinating articles I missed in the local paper, so I brought out the wine and delved into the Society page with as much interest as I could muster. Finishing the paper down to the last classified ad, I stood up to stretch and sit in the doorway just as the brakeman approached. Looking over at the discarded newspaper he laughed and related how he also had to rely on rather mundane reading material while waiting on sidings for other trains. I wanted to mention that at least he was getting paid for his time but chose not to. We talked about the weather and this and that, never assuming the roles of brakeman and tramp just two guys talking about stuff on the shady side of a boxcar on a warm day.

We ended up having to wait for a hotshot to pass us by, which explained his deliberate pace back up to the head end. We said our goodbyes and I returned to my wine bottle and an almost complete indifference to the progress of my train trip up to this point. I supposed that with enough wine and reading material one could get to know the surrounding area pretty well. Fortunately soon the area ceased to surround me as we again started up and this time with a true sense of determination. The freightyard faded into the distance once again and we were on the mainline passing the last few buildings of "town" and entering the realm of riding trains.


Waking up from a deep sleep by the spray from trackside irrigation sprinklers blowing into the boxcar, I saw that we were coming into the yard where I would have to detrain and switch to another railroad. What was left of the newspaper had been distributed all over the inside of the car by the wind, and I decided to leave it for the next rider to clean up, as environmentally unsound as that might have seemed. Slowing to a comfortable speed to detrain I landed on the ballast at a brisk walk and watched my train go by as I re-arranged my pack, then began to walk over to the next freightyard to begin the process all over again. The trip was not divided up into periods of "day" and "night" but "waiting for trains" and "riding trains".

Reaching an overpass at the far end of the yard I climbed up the embankment and sat under the cool concrete of the bridge when another tramp called out to me. Apparently he had walked away to go to the bathroom and when he returned the first thing he saw was me sitting next to his "gear", which consisted of a large mesh onion bag with who-knows-what inside. Initially it didn't register with me that this bag belonged to anyone, but upon closer examination I could see that it might actually contain items of interest and necessity. I hollered out that I didn't know that it was his gear and as he struggled up the slippery dirt toward me I saw a slight grin on his face. He apologized for his outburst, pointing out that outwardly his grip didn't appear to have any obvious value, but it was all that he owned, explaining that he was jumped by several wetbacks in a jungle the night before and he escaped with just the items he now carried with him.

We were headed in the same direction, and I reluctantly offered him some of my remaining bottle of wine, but he refused, stating that his drinking days were behind him. Relieved to hear this, I asked if he was hungry, and he replied in the affirmative, so I ceremoniously brought out a baguette of French bread and a carefully wrapped chunk of Sharp Cheddar cheese. We whiled away the afternoon eating and drinking, and I got almost as much enjoyment out of watching him eat as he must of had by eating.

He showed me the track below where our train would leave from, and it didn't look like there were any good rides. All the boxcars were closed and the only possible ride I could see appeared to be an ancient gondola, and judging by the sag in the springs it was loaded. I volunteered to walk over and see what was inside, and to my supreme disappointment it was half-filled with metal scraps of every size and shape you could imagine. With a little housekeeping we could probably clear out a space to ride, so I returned to the overpass and reported my findings. Realizing that it was likely the only ride, and not wanting to meet up with the wetbacks again, he accompanied me over to our new "home" and we began tossing hunks of metal away from one end of the car, which was difficult to do without announcing to any nearby yard workers that there were riders in the dirty gondola by all of the noise it made. My friend was using a pair of socks for gloves, but he showed a remarkable sense of drive and determination as we transformed at least the front 6' of the car to a reasonably comfortable area, free of most pieces of sharp metal but certainly not free of rust and dirt, by any means. I wasn't looking forward to inhaling swirling clouds of this stuff once we got up to speed, but neither did I want to go back up under the bridge to wait for another train. The fading hours of daylight were spent trading stories of riding freights, and I couldn't think of anywhere I would rather be than where I was right then...