Music to my Ears

riding in e flat minor

This time I was gonna ride in style... packing a small battery-powered cassette tape player loaded with my latest gleanings from a late-night jazz station on the radio, I didn't care how long I'd have to wait for the train to leave.

During those pre-Internet days, music was often downloaded directly into the brain using a simple radio. As pedestrian as this might seem, it worked surprisingly well, although one of the biggest frustrations had to be the evil "AM drift" that dropped the music to inaudible levels every now and then, as if some invisible force was messing around with the volume control. It reminded me of sitting in the day room in county once for a couple of unpaid tickets and watching the World Series on the TV. Whenever somebody got a hit the Sheriff in control would switch the channel for a minute or so, creating a very effective kind of mental abuse that left no visible marks.

Hunkering down in the yard to wait, I silently marveled at my resourcefulness in addition to not one but two bottles of Ernest & Julio's finest, I brought along Coleman Hawkins playing Out of Nowhere, Charlie Parker with Hot House, Woody Herman with Early Autumn, and numerous other offerings that had no name nor entirety due to the cursed drift late at night, but would still make the usual wait for a train much more enjoyable.

The boxcar I was waiting in made for a challenging sound stage. I experimented with various locations to place the tape player, finally settling on the unexpected solution of leaving it near the almost-closed door on one side, then taking up a listening position at the very end of the car.

At one point I wondered why I didn't take the tape player along on more trips, but it seemed that the situation would dictate whether or not I could listen to music, not the other way around. And who had any control over the "situations" one encounters on train trips anyway?

Exerting some form of "control" over travelling by freight seemed rather futile at best. Things were just supposed to "happen", and we were merely along for the ride, in one form or another. As this trip began, however, the "ride", so far, consisted of being shuttled from one end of the yard to the other, as a bad ordered car was transferred to another track.

As I moved back and forth it seemed as though there was no passage of time, nor any feeling of achievement. No indication that whatever work that was required to get the train ready to go was progressing. Just a jolt, the body either tilting forward or backward, a feeling of motion for a few seconds, then a sudden stop, noises from the air lines, squeaks from the boxcar, then silence until the process repeats itself. Each time we would stop there would be a different view out the open door of my car, ranging from a glimpse of distant scenery to a reminder that if I ever decided to build a model train set the only color I would need to paint the cars would be brown.

By now it was dark enough for the yard lights to come on, and any hopes I had of enjoying the scenery of the Oregon Cascades had drifted away like the waning saxophone riffs from my tape player. Oh well, there was still plenty of wine left, so I shut the music off and jumped down from the car to stretch my legs a bit. It felt good to be walking around on the ballast again, even though it was only a few hundred feet from where I started several hours ago. I could still make out monikers on the sides of the cars, and added some wine-induced bon mots of my own here and there.

Trying not to stray far from my boxcar in case the train suddenly lurched to life, I read all of the witticisms that were within my reach, but I was limited to the side of the train facing the lights, as it was now pitch black on the other side. In hindsight, I should have used the previous hours of sunlight to scan the train for a suitable replacement ride in case I had to switch cars at some point. It never seems to fail that when traveling at slow speed in the yard an empty boxcar can roll so smoothly that it's difficult to detect motion, but once it reaches track speed it can behave quite differently.

At one point I walked up to the head end to innocently inquire as to our intended departure time, and was told by a frustrated conductor that they were waiting on another train to pass, but its progress was slowed by a dynamiting car, and it might be another half hour until we could finally pull out. By this time my anxiety of getting out on the open road had dwindled, and I resigned myself to returning to my car and continuing my wine tasting, if nothing else.

Breaking out a hunk of sharp cheddar cheese to balance out the very young Burgundy I was enjoying, I made a mental note to try a different, perhaps drier type of cheese next time, as the moistness of the aged cheddar tended to coat my hands with a film of... I don't know... "cheese" oil, which, in the dirty environment of freighthopping, served as a sort of grime magnet, and soon my hands resembled those of someone who had been exhumed from a grave.

The whole process of eating on train trips takes on an entirely different level of trust when it is done in the dark. If one is seated at a table at home or in a restaurant, there is always [one hopes] ample lighting for which to examine the food before eating. On train trips, though, meals are often taken whenever one gets the chance, and that chance is often in the middle of the night, or in a darkened freightcar. Sometimes it's not prudent to turn on a flashlight to eat by, as this might attract unwanted attention from railroad employees or other riders, so many meals are eaten with a sort of "5 fingers and a prayer" approach. Many times I've peeled the wrapper off a candy bar in the middle of the night, only to find as I was eating it that I didn't quite remove all of the wrapper.

Any amount of time spent on a train without gloves on almost guarantees that your hands will develop an outer "skin" of who knows what, whether you actually touched something or not. A memorable example came during a ride from Salt Lake City to Grand Junction in an empty but crud-filled gondola. My riding partner brought along some rather exotic fare, compared to my humble cheese and French bread some big, fragrant, delicious-looking oranges and pepperoni!

As we slowly made our way up the west side of the mountains toward Soldier Summit, I removed my gloves and enjoyed a few pieces of the oranges, washed down with an appropriate Burgundy. The next course consisted of several thick slices of a very juicy pepperoni, again accompanied by the Burgundy. The combination of the dripping orange juice and the pepperoni "slime" covered my hands and anything else I touched, so I stood up to hold my hands over the side to sort of "air dry" them, as we had now crested the summit and were flying down the east side toward Price and eventually Grand Junction. Sitting back down, I held my hands outstretched, not wanting to rest them on my person for fear that they might get stuck and I'd be unable to move. Shortly I noticed that the wind from the speeding train was now swirling around the gondola, whipping up clouds of rust and dirt, and this was falling on (and sticking to) my sticky hands, then drying and forming an impervious sort of exoskeletal glove.

Soon afterward we stopped on a siding to meet another train, and as we climbed down to walk around, I noticed that the "gloves" had now hardened considerably, and I was having difficulty opening my hand and extending my fingers much at all, but on the plus side, I developed a sort of Super Grip on the ladder, and almost had to forcefully release my hands. I mused at the possibilities of passing this technique on to others in the train riding community just give your hands the orange/pepperoni treatment before you catch out, and soon you'll be able to grab on and swing up on the fly like Spiderman. No more having the wine bottle slip out of your hands and break as you drift off to a unexpected slumber, and if you get stuck on a "boxcar from Hell" that hunts and bounces all over the tracks at speed you can just slap the wall with both hands and never have to worry about falling out the door.

My trip down Memory Lane was cut short as the power finally returned to the train and aired up what I hoped were to be the cars that actually left the yard and went someplace, as by now I must have been approaching some kind of record for miles travelled by train without ever leaving the freightyard. In a strange way I was almost satisfied at the "train trip" I'd already been on, even though I didn't really go anywhere. When the train is moving there's not much of an opportunity to allow ones thoughts to "drift", as the bouncing car and sometimes deafening noise takes control, and our thoughts are consumed with the feeling of tilt from curves, thumps from jointed rail, the Doppler Effect from crossing bells, and whatever nuances the weather comes up with, but there's very little "me" time, although that may not be something that was expected in the first place.

So the "me" time ended and the train time began as the southbound roared past, signalling that the mainline was ours, so I re-arranged my gear once again, added another layer of clothing, and tossed the now-empty wine bottle into the trackside bushes to remain as a memento of time well spent.

For someone who doesn't ride trains, their level of importance that any train trip might bring about is based, it would seem, on how comfortable the ride was, or how soon it left after you started to wait, or what type of scenery you gazed upon, but none of these things seemed to matter now. Sitting on a cold steel floor with my pack under me, several hours spent going nowhere, whatever scenic wonders now hidden by darkness, and a far-from-comfortable sleep to look forward to were my reward. There were other trips that unrolled quite differently, but the overall feeling was the same and "riding" trains doesn't always mean riding them, it's a lot more of gray area stuff that's hard to explain. The less you expect, the less you're disappointed. As the telephone poles passed by quicker and quicker, and the car settled into a more-or-less manageable rocking motion, it was time to open the next bottle of wine and relax.