Checks and Balances

nobody checking and fewer balancing

Only the dead have seen the end of War

George Santayana in The Life of Reason

The dead are also among those who never have to wait for a train. I suppose that even if I were paying to ride on Amtrak then I'd still end up waiting for the train, so if I'm riding for free then what do I have to complain about?

If one were simply waiting for a train, and only waiting, then it would seem to be simply a matter of occupying oneself as if you were waiting for a fish to bite, or your team to score a run, but it's never that simple.

As the sun mercifully began it's descent beyond the western horizon I pondered these details over and over as I waited for the once-a-day northbound to pull into Mason City, Iowa and whisk me away from the dismal monotony of the Midwest. I had walked along the tracks a few blocks north of "town" and found a shady but nevertheless hot and humid spot to hang out across from the tiny C&NW yard. After grooming the ground litter so as to have a smooth place to sit back and wait, I quickly noticed that my disruptions were viewed with alarm by a nearby ant colony, and, being hopelessly outnumbered, I packed up and continued along the tracks until I came to a cement plant that appeared to be vacated for the weekend. The tall concrete walls absorbed the summer heat and continued to radiate it even as the sun had almost set, but I continued around to the back of the building and found some shade and an interesting looking pond.

Surrounded by hills of sand, a low depression contained a small amount of oddly-colored water. Upon closer examination, it looked sort of lime green... in fact, it looked really lime green. Initially put off by the color, I slowly realized that it had formed from the runoff of the cement trucks being rinsed out after returning from a pour somewhere. I bent down to smell the pond and was almost sucked in by the saturated sand at the edge, but there wasn't much of an odor, so I stripped down and slowly waded in. Sinking to mid-calf almost immediately I envisioned thoughts of various Jungle movies and the ubiquitous quicksand pit, but the sand was porous enough to allow me to pull up my legs easily, so I just sort of sat down and took a bath. The first thing I noticed, other than the fact that the water was surprisingly cool, was that I was now covered with a slimy goo from whatever was mixed in with the water, so I lumbered out and hobbled as fast as I could across the burning sand to some shade next to where I left my clothes.

Coiled up nearby was a hose that must have been used to rinse out the trucks, so I crammed it into a gap in the wall so that it pointed upward, then turned it on and proceeded to rinse of in my own personal shower. Wishing that I had thought to bring along a bar of soap, I managed to rid myself of the slime and was now considerably cooler than I was only minutes earlier. The humidity made it almost impossible to completely dry off, but I felt much better, and decided to pull out a celebratory bottle of White Port to toast an end to the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes and begin my return to the West Coast.

Intervening details are hazy, but a train did show up sometime after 9 pm, and I packed up and walked back to the mainline as the power cut off and backed down toward the yard with a dozen or so cars. The yard side of the train was lit up like daylight from the big yard lights, but I didn't want to be seen so I walked the train on the "dark" side, made all the more difficult by a steep coating of fresh ballast. Shortly I found a grainer facing the right way and climbed up and set up camp. It was still too hot to even think about getting into my sleeping bag, but I spread it out anyway and laid down on top, reminiscing about how cool it must be in California right now. I guzzled down some luke-warm water then continued to work on the White Port. We eventually got under way and I had a slow and wobbly ride up to South Saint Paul, getting in just as it was getting light, having slept the remainder of the night on top of my bag.

Having no clue about the local bus lines, I walked until I saw a bus stop sign and sat down to wait yet another time for transportation. In a matter of minutes a Black woman walked up and asked me where I was going, and before I could answer she said that the busses only stop at this particular stop during the week, and if I was going anywhere at all I should go up to another stop a few blocks away. I thanked her and transported me and my gear another two blocks to a bus stop sign that looked exactly like the previous sign. How was anyone supposed to know the difference? At the exact moment that I set my pack down on the sidewalk a bus pulled up out of nowhere. It stopped so fast I didn't even get a chance to read the sign in front to see where it was going. The doors swung open and I asked the driver if this bus was going to downtown Minneapolis. She said that all busses eventually make it to downtown Minneapolis because that's where the terminal is. I thanked her for this gem of information and stated that I was eventually headed for the Northtown freightyard on the west end of town. She motioned me in and away we went just the driver and me because this must have been the beginning of her route.

I sat down in the first row next to the door so I'd have more room for my pack and could stretch my legs out a bit. Since the driver and I were seated almost next to each other on an otherwise empty bus, I was sure that she would start up a conversation centered on where I was from and where I was going, but to my surprise (and delight) we just chatted about the weather, sports, and politics pretty basic stuff. She exhibited the rare quality of being able to engage in a conversation at the same time as she was negotiating the bus route, which I found very refreshing, as I know several females who, when driving somewhere, would practically run off the road if you so much as mumbled anything audibly.

During a break in the conversation I told her that before I reached the freightyard I would need to pick up some food for my impending travels and without missing a beat she told me where a small grocery store was and a nearby liquor store, as if she knew that any train trip would also involve liquor in some way. Her intuitiveness amazed me, and she even rattled off the series of lefts and rights I would have to take to catch another bus out to the freightyard. As tired as I was from the all-night train ride from Iowa I really wanted to just ride around and chat with her, but she turned to me and pointed to my stop coming up so I stood up, thanked her for her hospitality, and stepped down onto a sidewalk somewhere in Minneapolis and began another day of travelling.

My first stop was the market, and as usual, the selection of bread and cheese paled in comparison to just about any grocery store in California. Since I was in the Midwest I chose to do as the Midwesterners do and bought a loaf of pseudo-wheat bread and a huge block of American cheese. The bread was chosen not for it's flavor or any nutritional value it might have but for it's ability to withstand getting squashed in my pack. The same criteria were used to decide on which cheese to purchase would it deform if I stood on it? I toyed with the idea of adding a box of cookies but figured it would last about 10 minutes and I'd feel bad that I didn't bring 3 or 4 more along. The next stop proved to be most beneficial as there was a good supply of Gallo White Port, although the bottles looked like they'd spent the last 25 years sitting on the shelf. Hoping that I hadn't just purchased a couple of gallons of very potent vinegar, I somehow managed to cram everything in my pack and with a bit of difficulty managed to stand up and walk away without falling over from the added weight. The next corner was where I would hopefully catch the last bus and soon I would be headed West on a train.

The next bus was a far cry from the first it was mid day and even though it was a weekend there were lots of people on board already. I shuffled along the aisle to the back, dragging my pack along as carefully as I could without banging it against anyone. Once I got to the back I realized that the last few windows on either side were not only incredibly dirty but also scratched all over with graffiti, making it all but impossible to make out any details outside. At some point we crossed some railroad tracks and I could barely make out two tracks paralleling our route. Shortly the two tracks became three and then four and I began to make my way up to the front of the bus. Ahead was a small convenience store and an overpass that spanned the tracks, so I made it my stop and again I was on a sidewalk headed to the freightyard.

part 2 of 2