Heartburn in the Heartland

west meets midwest... midwest wins

Winston Churchill described to his mother his reaction on visiting Calcutta for the first time, saying:

"I shall always be glad to have seen it, for the same reason Papa gave for being glad to have seen Lisbon, namely that it will be unnecessary for me ever to see it again."

I felt a similar foreboding as I was awakened from a brief slumber by the tickling sensation of a bead of perspiration gliding down my forehead and into my right eye. Again the transition was made from dream into reality in this case, transported from the Fires of Hell in my dream to the sunny end of a grainer on a siding somewhere in North Dakota in August. The reasons I imagined for this boring land being so sparsely populated were legion: the landscape was boring, you were so far away from someplace that wasn't boring, the humidity, the almost total lack of any amount of shade, the humidity, the insects, blah blah blah. National Geographic had done a commendable job of marketing this part of the country for years. County Fairs, watermelon eating contests, corn, soybeans, pigs, wholesome looking girls-next-door. The only thing missing from the articles was the lack of any tactile connection with the land. Pictures, yes, but smells and sounds and, yes, humidity, were not there. Reading them gave me the idea that the President was going to pay a visit and the Secret Service people had swept the entire Midwest ahead of time to get rid of the chaff and anything else that might offend any visitors.

view from back of grainer

My grainer had acted like a compass needle the entire day, constantly pointing my end of the car into the sun regardless of the direction the train was going. At least when the train was "going" I had a slight breeze to soften the afternoon sauna I had been trapped in, but now we were stopped for a meet, and I fervently hoped that it would occur soon and then I would resume my eastward journey from the cool, dry mountains of California into the jungle-like corn and soybean fields of Iowa.

Even the desert landscape of Nevada rivaled the monotonous carpet of moisture-spewing vegetation that bordered the Highline across eastern Montana, North Dakota. and western Minnesota. Alright already, I needed something different to look at. For hours my hypnotic trance of watching the front wheels of the grainer behind me hunt back and forth from one edge of the rails to the other was only briefly disturbed by the two blocks or so of dusty brick buildings that passed for towns out here. Eventually I drifted off to sleep again and woke up, this time, actually rather cold as it was now early evening and the wind blowing over my sweaty form had begun the miracle of evaporative cooling, bypassing any comfortable stage available between roasting and freezing. The sides of my train were now enveloped in tracers of fireflies, and the horizon glowed with what I assumed (and hoped) to be the lights of the Twin Cities, where I would arise from my 36-hour transformation from Northwest to Midwest, and thread my way over to South Saint Paul for the final leg of the trip down to Iowa.

My goal, in theory, was the National Hobo Convention, held each year in Britt, a town that, on the map anyway, was situated on one of the zillions of railroad lines that cobwebbed all over this part of the country. Later I was to learn that being in close proximity to train tracks proved only that there were, indeed, train tracks nearby, and the actual event of a train using these tracks was by no means guaranteed. My immediate goal, however, was to get from the far northwestern end of the Twin Cities, Burlington Northern Railroad's Northtown yard, to the far southeastern end, Chicago Northwestern Railroad's South Saint Paul yard, where a nightly train would take me south for 4 or 5 hours to Mason City, Iowa, only 30 miles east of Britt.

After spending the last day and a half sitting on the back end of a grainer, I didn't feel like sitting anymore for quite awhile, so this ruled out taking a bus or jumping on some local freight and hoping it was just going crosstown. Since I was now in "civilization", I got rid of a gallon or so of water as well as a block of cheese that, due to the heat, had now morphed into some alien dairy product that threatened to ooze into every nook and cranny of my pack. Initially walking like some sort of stilt-like bird from have my legs extended out in front of me for so long on the train, my body slowly remembered what it was like to gracefully glide along on two legs, and away I flew with a much lighter pack and, since I had been on "train time" for 3 or 4 days now, no real desire to sleep, even though it was a few minutes before midnight. Steadily heading more or less east, I approached what had to be some large University, with hordes of students milling around every street corner.

Apparently some sporting event had just ended, and judging by their actions it was obvious that their team had won. Shortly I came upon a hamburger joint called White Castle, some chain I'd never seen out West. With a powerful hunger building ever since my sole block of cheese had "gone south", I leaned my pack up inside the door and joined the long line waiting to order. After several days of train food I wasn't too particular about what type of meal I ordered, and was overjoyed to notice that the prices for the hamburgers were incredibly cheap probably some sort of promotion to coincide with whatever game had taken place earlier that evening. Watching those in front of me, almost to a person, ordering several burgers at a time, I sensed that these ridiculously low prices were soon going to be a thing of the past, and when it became my turn to order I boldly stated that "I'll have two hamburgers - I'm starving!" This declaration was met with a confused look on the part of the kid taking my order, but I was satisfied that I could dine on one burger tonight and carefully save the other for tomorrow's dinner, since my appetite during the hot part of the day had been nil. Due to the large crowd of students no doubt attracted by the low prices, it seemed to take forever to get my order, but patience is foremost in the mind of a train rider, and I bided my time oogling the freshly scrubbed females that surrounded me. After a reasonable wait I wished that I had ordered even another burger to take advantage of my good fortune of being in the right place at the right time, for once, and when my puny sack was finally brought to my table I then wished that I'd ordered a dozen more the "burgers" were the size of a small fried egg or a large cracker! Spinning around to see if the people at the adjoining table had suffered a similar fate, or if some sick practical joke was being played on me alone because of my grungy appearance, it dawned on me that everyone had been served these tiny patties, and taken it in stride as well. Sheesh, so much for "tomorrow's dinner"! With the line now even longer than it was during my initial ordering, I gulped both burgerettes down immediately, cursed myself for not choosing some type of deluxe Whopper instead, and grabbed my pack as I hurriedly left. In the time it took for my order to arrive I could have gotten more food value by merely standing around outside with my mouth wide open and dined on mosquitoes, instead.

Again heading toward where I imagined South Saint Paul to be, blocks and more blocks fell behind me until my body used up all of the 3 ounces of "energy" derived from my dinner and I found a deserted corner of yet another freightyard to roll out and grab some rest. It was already light enough in the eastern sky to extinguish any stars that might have been visible, but I only needed an hour or so of sleep to get back to normal, which was all I was able to get before the yard came alive with the sounds of cars being switched and vehicles driving by. Dropping down a long line of bluffs along the Mississippi River, I followed a rail line around a sewage treatment plant (how quaint) and crossed on a bridge to the South Saint Paul side of the river that I'd seen so many pictures of but never had the opportunity to just stand and observe. The combination of the slow moving muddy water and the local "fragrances" didn't exactly capture my imagination as if I had stumbled upon Shangri-la, but it was interesting nonetheless. Another mile or so put me into the small yard where I would end up waiting all day to finally catch the Mason City man at a little after 9:00 pm. The activities that I devised during the day were many and varied, as only long stretches in foreign freightyards can inspire. The day was saved, however, as I carefully retrieved my last bottle of White Port from it's protective cocoon of a semi-clean t-shirt in my pack, and savored the evening as much as I could before the mosquitoes arrived.

freightcar wheel

A quick crew change in Mason City early the next morning had me bailing off the side of a piggyback before I had the chance to properly pack up, but a short walk out to the highway and a lengthy, boring hitchhike into Britt lent a rather anti-climatic finish to my first visit to so famous a convention of hobos. As is often the case, history can be made with little regard for anything else, but all of the slow trains, heat, humidity, mosquitoes, and the worst tasting ears of corn I've ever found growing along a country road brought Dorothy's revelation after returning from Oz to mind... whenever I get back to California, I'm never (at least for several months) leaving home again.