Outside Looking In

voyages of voyeurism

The act of waking up and not knowing where you are is both frightening and exhilarating depending on a number of factors. As a child I remember going on a cross-country automobile trip with my parents from California to New York and back again. Either out of a sense of expediency or simply to avoid spending money on motel rooms, most of the time my parents would switch off driving chores so that we'd spend every hour on the road moving toward our destination. This meant that I spent a number of nights asleep in the back seat, which was pretty much my "world" at that point.

My parents would pour over maps at every opportunity, giving them a very real feeling of getting closer to our "goal", but I, on the other hand, had no appreciation of what our "goal" might be, so every day was spent neither farther away from our beginning nor closer to our end. I was merely sitting in the back seat, watching the scenery go by. Time had ceased to exist. Constant naps brought on by the boredom of the Midwest during the day would create bouts of sleeplessness at night, calmed only by the even greater boredom of staring out at the headlight lit Interstate.

The occasional roadside signs stating that we had just entered yet another state didn't help much as the land itself seemed unaware of it's new name, and instead of picking out distant landforms to identify and learn about it was a constant quest to be the first one to spot a gas station, curio shop, or a Giant Orange café. Since I was a child I didn't really interact with other adults along the way, and once we left Southern California you could have told me that we were on Mars and I might have believed you. Deserts came and went, mountains came and went, bathroom breaks came and went, and I really had no feeling of travelling. The scenery around me was doing the "travelling", not me. There had to be a better way of knowing that it was you that was doing the moving, and that way was by hopping freights.


In the West it was easier to sleep on a train if it was in the mountains, or somewhere that had curved sections of track every now and then. Continuous travel on straight track seemed to always induce some form of harmonic rocking, ranging from a soft tilting to one side and then the other, to the other extreme the demonic shaking that seems to go on forever and instills visions of catastrophic derailments and the resulting carnage.

For some unknown reason when I've been on long straight tracks in the Midwest they seemed quite comfortable, and even riding outside on a piggyback going 70mph I could have a deep, relaxing sleep. Of course, most of those "sleeps" were brought on by consuming White Port earlier, but I did feel refreshed upon awakening. The downside was that upon awakening it was not always evident just where exactly I was. Even when you're sound asleep on a train there is some sense in the back of your mind that you are, indeed moving. Not so much if you're sleeping in an automobile. Waking on a train I knew that I was someplace "else" from where I was before I went to sleep, I just couldn't put my finger on where that place was.

Heading east from Denver one summer the blandness of eastern Colorado and the soothing effects of White Port allowed me to descend into a deep sleep aboard a very fast but comfortably riding piggyback train on Burlington Northern tracks. I would roll over to one side and glimpse dry grasslands flying by, then go back to sleep. Later, I would roll over on my other side, briefly open my eyes, and see dry grasslands flying by. Later, rolling over again I would notice that it was dark, and stars were flying by. Next time I roll over it's getting light ahead of us, and the stars are gone, presumably somewhere behind me.

At some point I decide that it's time to get up, as it's getting too warm in my bag and there's another bottle of Port waiting for me in the bottom of my pack. Passing signs take the guesswork out of the morning ritual of figuring out where I am, as I'm now officially in Nebraska, for whatever that's worth. We slow to enter a freightyard so I take a few quick sips and stow the wine in case I have to detrain. Creeping alongside an awning-covered dock and I look up to see an Amtrak sign telling me that this stop is Lincoln. The train stops and I look ahead to see the old crew climb down to be replaced by a new crew, and I remember something about having to change routes in Lincoln, but I don't remember the details, so I hop off just as the train begins to pull out. I walk up to the crew rolling the train by and wait to strike up a conversation until it passes. They smile and say hello and ask me if I just rode in on "their" train and I say yes, and compliment them on their masterful job of train handling that allowed me to get a great night's sleep.

My comment is well received and I asked them how I might get up to the Union Pacific line, and they said that a drag leaves out of the very yard I'm now standing in, headed up to Fremont on the UP mainline, which is also a crew change. Thanking them profusely, I check out a few strings of cars in the yard, but no power is around so I walk over to the mission a few blocks away to see about getting a shower. My timing is superb if I was there any earlier or later I would have to endure a meal and sermon before I was allowed to shower, but I got there during their "in between" time, so I was given a towel and shown the way downstairs to the shower room in the basement. This is where things got weird.

Across from the shower stalls, which had no curtains whatsoever, was a row of benches. My first guess was that these benches were for people taking showers to sit on while they undressed, but shortly after I entered the shower stall and was shocked by an almost complete lack of hot water, I watched as a group of men came down the stairs and sat on the benches and stared at me. None of them made any effort to undress and shower, they just stared in silence as I attempted to wash with the transparent sliver of soap I found on the floor. Feeling a bit nervous about my "audience", I cut the shower short and had to walk over to their midst to get my towel. As if watching me shower wasn't enough, they took an even greater interest in watching me dry off. This was done with great dispatch, and I quickly dressed and practically ran up the stairs to get away. I would have liked to hang around in the air-conditioned day room and score some magazines to read later but my gut reaction was just to get back to the freightyard as quickly as possible.

A few hours spent waiting in the yard sweating like a pig and I found an empty grainer that I was told would be taken up to Fremont "later that day". A few more hours of sweating and drinking and the engines pulled down, hooked up to about a dozen cars, and soon I had a gentle breeze blowing on me as we headed north to Fremont. It didn't take long to realize that there weren't any "time sensitive" loads on this train, as we moved not much faster than a brisk walk the entire way up to the UP yard, where I bailed off a few blocks away to size things up in case the yard was hot.

Before I could get close enough to see anything an eastbound autorack train pulled up on the main track next to me and stopped for a crew change. This was too good to be true as I didn't even have to set foot in the yard I walked up to a ladder and climbed in, laying out my cardboard on the floor between the tied-down cars with just enough room between them to stretch out and re-acquaint myself with my morning bottle of White Port. In minutes we were zipping along through the low hills of western Iowa, headed for Boone.


Since I'd never ridden out here before, and I conveniently forgot to bring my railroad maps, I really had no idea when we were getting close to Boone. The sides of the autorack car were covered but there were patterns of small holes through which I could get an abbreviated view of the outside world, but it was hard to tell when we were approaching a "town", as we pretty much flew through what passed for towns around here. Finally we slowed down and I got up to look outside, but couldn't see any street signs or anything to tell me where we were. We came to a stop, and I debated jumping off, just in case this was Boone, but in a minute or so we started up again and accelerated like a rocket, and to my disappointment I saw a sign saying "Boone" on a building in a small yard, and knew that I'd blown my chance. Oh well, at least I now knew what Boone looked like...

Retiring to my cozy nook between the clanging autos, I kept my gear together and prepared to bail off at my next opportunity, providing it wasn't in the middle of nowhere. Again we began to slow and I was up instantly peering through the maze of holes at the town we were approaching. We passed through the beginnings of a freightyard, and not waiting for a real stop, I bailed at a brisk walking pace and watched as my train came to a complete stop a few cars down the track. It felt good to be on the ground and not surrounded my clanging metal, and a short walk brought me to a shanty, where I poked my head in and sheepishly asked the guy inside where I was. He laughed and replied "Marshalltown", then laughed even harder when I asked which state Marshalltown was in.

He invited me in to enjoy the air conditioning and asked where it was that I wanted to go. At this point I realized that I didn't really have a destination, per se, but actually just wanted to continue riding, although probably not east anymore. Not wanting to admit that I had just gotten off an eastbound and wanted to turn around and catch back west, I asked him when the next train was due in, leaving out any specifics. He turned around to his computer screen, then spun around to face me and asked if I wanted a junker or a hotshot. Since I wasn't in the middle of the most scenic area of North America, I answered that I'd prefer the hotshot, and he said that one going west will be stopping for a crew change in about an hour.

We talked about this and that and he let me fill up my water jug with intensely cold water from a fridge, then he copied a map of the Union Pacific lines for me, and marked the crew changes and the various freightyards along the way as far as Utah, admitting that he couldn't be of any further help because he "didn't get out West much". I wanted to tell him how great just about everything was "out West" but another guy came in and the guy I was talking to made a gesture that I should leave, which I did.

Walking out to a good spot to hang out without being seen I was glad to notice that the sun had gone behind a cloud and though it was still humid it wasn't quite as hot, even though I'd spent the last half hour in front of an air conditioner. I looked around and tried to imagine what this area would be like if it didn't have the crappy humidity and mosquitos and 3.2% beer, and came to the conclusion that it still couldn't hold a candle to just about anywhere "out West". With that thought in mind I was glad that I was waiting on a hotshot, as the sooner I got back West, the better...