The Sounds of Silence

in the key of see

All night my train rocked along at what seemed like a good pace, but it was too cold to unzip my sleeping bag cover to look outside and figure out where I was. I was somewhere west of Ogden, and even if I did get a glimpse of the landscape, without a moon it would all look alike anyway. I made a mental note that if we did slow down and stop it would probably be for the crew change at Elko, but I really didn't think I would want to double check that with a peek outside I could feel the snow building up against my feet because it was more and more difficult to cross and uncross my legs, or even roll over very much. With nothing to see and nothing to do, I just resigned myself to lie still in my bag and wait for the sun to come up. And hope I didn't have to pee anytime soon.

At some point in the night during a concerted effort to ship my position somewhat, I noticed that the flapping of my sleeping bag cover had ceased. I could still sense that the car was moving but there was very little sound to confirm it. Extracting my hand from the warmth of the sleeping bag I pressed it against the nylon cover and it felt like it was made of plywood. This meant that my sleeping bag cover was frozen, which was confirmed when I turned on my small flashlight and saw that my breath had coated the inside of the cover around my face with ice crystals. Feeling the very beginnings of panic creeping in, I tried to unzip the cover but the zipper wouldn't budge it too was frozen. Thankful that my flashlight batteries were fresh, I twisted around so the zipper was in front of me and began to blow on it to thaw it out. Almost immediately I was able to unzip it a few inches, and by contorting myself I freed up another foot or so, at least enough to allow me to get out if necessary.

With the sleeping bag cover now open a bit I stuck my head out and saw that it was almost sunrise and my bag was almost completely drifted over. The wind tunnel between the trailer wheels was clear of snow but behind each set of tires there was a teardrop pile of snow with me under one of them. The strange thing was that it was perfectly clear outside. I wasn't covered from snow falling out of the sky but from snow churned up by the moving train and deposited all around me. On the plus side I was certainly well camouflaged and probably didn't need to worry about passing train crews calling out the Bull on me, but I was getting closer and closer to a pee emergency, and as long as we kept up our fast pace I had no intent on getting frostbite by trying to pee over the side.

Miraculously we began to slow down and I craned my neck out to look ahead and saw the welcome sight of a signal indicating that we would be taking a siding. Once we sawed over to the siding itself I looked up again to see if the opposing train was getting close but didn't see anything resembling a headlight, so I dragged myself out of my bag and waited until we came to a complete stop, then proceeded to pee like a racehorse. Since the siding was on a slight curve I could look back and see the rear end of my train, and the last dozen or so cars were boxcars. I hadn't noticed them last night in my haste to catch the train on the fly as it left the yard, and I just figured that it consisted entirely of piggybacks. Immediately I began to rationalize the pros and cons of switching cars out here in the middle of a snow-covered desert.

I could see quite a ways ahead of my train on the mainline to alert me if another train was approaching, and even if I didn't have time to get all the way back to the boxcars before we began to move again, I could still climb back on a piggyback and be no worse off than I was now. That was all it took I pulled my boots out of my bag and managed a half-assed lacing job with my frozen fingers, then rolled up my sleeping bag cover and sleeping bag into a big cigar shape and strapped it to the outside of my pack, as it was still too frozen to stuff inside. Climbing down to the ground I realized that my legs were not exactly ready to rock and roll after the cramped night in my bag, so I resisted the urge to run and began a deliberate walk toward the rear of the train, glancing over my shoulder every minute or so. Although the ground was frozen I made pretty good time, and by the time I got to the first boxcar I was almost into a full run. The first open door came up and I cautiously peered in, then took off my pack and shoved it into the car. Although it had an open door on one side only, it was the sunny side, so I decided not to climb down and go around to free up the other door. I was really looking forward to sitting up and drinking wine without a wind blowing in my face.

I passed the time by thawing out my fingers, retying my boots, and spreading out my sleeping bag and cover in the doorway to melt the snow, even if the temperature was still below freezing at least it felt warm in the sunlight. Leaning my pack up against the wall, I took out a bottle of White Port to toast my good fortune. Closing my eyes, I noticed that there wasn't even the slightest hint of the sound of air leaking out of the brakelines somewhere. It seemed like every train, no matter what the consist was, had some small amount of air leakage, but I couldn't hear anything. I actually had to tap on the floor with the wine bottle to prove to myself that I hadn't gone deaf. It was almost a bit uncomfortable all night there was nothing but noise, even with my foam earplugs, and now there was nothing. I got up and walked to the doorway to hopefully hear some reassuring sound coming from the wind, or a passing plane, or a distant highway... but silence was all that I could "hear".

Looking forward I could see the engines in the far distance, and every so often a wisp of smoke would show up to prove that they were actually running, but they emitted no sound. Scanning the sky for the contrails of a plane turned up nothing, and there was no hint of a distant highway. I was startled to see a bird walking across a frozen puddle but it too made no sound. With thoughts of past episodes of the Twilight Zone going through my mind, I retreated to my pack and resumed drinking wine. For some reason I brought my watch up to my ear to listen for a comforting tick-tick-tick but realized it was a quartz movement and therefore was silent. I tried to squint my eyes closed and listen for my heartbeat, but all I could discern was the constant buzz of blood flowing through my head. At least it was something to listen to. This proved to be a big mistake, because with the absence of any other noises, all I could hear was the buzzing sound, which became more and more pronounced. This called for the administration of White Port in emergency portions, which seemed to do the trick, and in no time I drifted off to a deep sleep.

I was jolted awake by what I thought was the dreaded "buzzing" sound in my ears, but it proved to be the train air this time, indicating that the train we were waiting for was getting close. Relieved to find that I wasn't going mad, I dragged my bag and cover away from the open door and prepared myself for the return to the Land of Many Sounds. My entrance into this land began slowly, with the faint rumble of a moving train, then the snap and crack of the mainline rails and ties signalling something heavy is coming, then the singing of the rails themselves, and finally the crescendo of the engines roaring by, followed by the thumps and groans of the shifting freightcars, then the singing of the rails again... then silence. It was like listening to my own private concert. Soon there was a slight creeping feeling and the landscape outside began to move. Looking out my 10' widescreen TV I was watching the Nature Channel... the real Nature Channel, with no commercial interruptions...