The Beet Goes On

the perception of deception

My memory of the trip begins in the Southern Pacific freightyard in San Jose. Nothing remains of how I got there, but "there" I was waiting for a train to take me and my friend down the Coast Route to Southern California.

For some long-forgotten reason we left town on a loaded sugar beet gon the old ones with wooden sides and friction bearings. Riding on top gave us a great view of the scenery as we began the transition from the southern end of Northern California to the northern end of Central California. As suburbia disappeared behind us the beginnings of unending farmland spread out in front of us, and we failed to notice the dark clouds approaching. In no time the gentle rocking of the overloaded beet gon was joined by the pitter patter of huge raindrops landing all around us.

With no place to retreat to for cover, we burrowed down in the front of the gon as best we could and rode it out, emboldened with the glow of Hearty Burgundy. As the train left the straight tracks of the valley floor and entered some twisty low hills we now had to deal with not only the inescapable rain but even more rocking from side to side, with the rock hard beets moving around as well. Sitting on what amounted to a bunch of large, elongated coconuts was far from relaxing, so more wine was brought out to cushion the bumps, as whatever passed for springs on these cars had long since bottomed out.

As time passed (and the rain continued) I began to think about the sugar beets that we were sitting on. I had eaten ordinary beets before, but never a sugar beet. Being quite hungry, I imagined the flavor of the "ordinary" beet, but one that was much sweeter, earning it the name of "sugar beet". This pushed me over the edge and I took out my knife and sliced off a chunk and took a bite. This immediately proved to be a big mistake, as the taste was about as far from "sweet" as was possible. Spitting out whatever I could spit out, I vowed never again to be fooled by the name of any fruit or vegetable, much the same as I felt when I discovered that eggplant did not taste like eggs.

Slowing to enter a siding we rejoiced as the rocking stopped, and stretching out on either side of the train were lettuce fields that begged to be sampled. I climbed down the ladder and ran over to the first clump I saw and pulled it up. Shaking off some rain-splattered mud I broke off a leaf and took a bite it tasted great, so I pulled up another one and tossed them up to my partner, then climbed in to regale in a simple feast of a fresh "hobo salad" washed down with Ernest & Julio's finest.

After a northbound freight passed by we continued our undulating ride through low canyons and eventually came out in Watsonville, where the small yard there was to become our home for the next day. Our train stopped amidst a squealing of brakes and the engines broke away not a good sign, but an opportunity to search for a better ride, and hopefully one with a roof. Walking over to the edge of the yard to watch whatever switching was going on, I noticed that it was bordered by several fruit and vegetable packing houses, another indication that we were now officially in Central California.

Behind one building were numerous enormous carrots lying on the ground, and I recognized them as the type that are used for canned carrots. I'd seen the cans in markets before and always wondered why people would want to eat canned carrots instead of fresh ones, so I found a stick and managed to coerce a lone carrot over to the chainlink fence to where I could grasp it enough to pull it underneath. Brushing it off, I observed that it was still fairly stiff, so I took a bite and was treated to absolutely the most juice-filled carrot I had ever eaten.

Continuing my quest for food, I began to imagine a scenario where I was a prehistoric Man somewhere in the African continent millions of years ago. Obviously brought on by my acute hunger and the Hearty Burgundy, I nevertheless played along and plodded in an ape-like fashion along the fence searching for food. A few buildings down was an onion warehouse, and there were piles of softball-sized onions stacked just beyond the edge of the fence. I was never good at climbing chainlink fences, and this one was high and topped with barbed wire, so I had to figure out a way to get an onion from the pile to the edge of the fence where I could reach it.

At first I tried throwing rocks at the pile, but nothing moved. My frustration prompted me to remember the scene from the beginning of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the apes are jumping up and down, so I half-heartily started jumping up and down. At the same moment, a string of cars that was being shoved by an engine in the yard crashed into some stationary cars with a loud bang, and the resulting vibration caused a solitary onion to fall down the side of the pile and roll up to the edge of the fence. Grinning from ear to ear at my good fortune, I knelt at the base of the fence and gazed upon the exquisite onion just inches away but impossible to get to.

Now deep in my Prehistoric Man persona I searched the surrounding area for something to pry the fence away so I could free the onion. A few small sticks were tried but they broke, so I walked over to the nearest set of tracks and in a few minutes found a spike, which proved to be a perfect digging tool. The onion was far to big to pass through the holes in the fence, so I would have to dig out the ground beneath it. Digging away at the rock-hard ground, my thoughts turned to what similar efforts Prehistoric Man surely went through on his way to develop the first tools. The rain continued and after maybe 10 minutes of concentrated effort I was finally able to pull the bottom of the fence away enough to dislodge my onion.

Now I had the makings of at least several French bread, cheese, and onion sandwiches, with (hopefully) the Hearty Burgundy tempering the sting of the raw onion. But before food was prepared I needed to do something about my wet clothes, as the day was coming to an end and the wind was picking up, stealing away any warmth provided by the ever-present wine. A suitable location was settled upon for the fire, and as my partner assembled some tie plates and rocks I went in search of some dry wood.

Just as during every previous train trip when I wasn't looking for wood I would literally be tripping over some, now I couldn't find a single piece. Remembering my first attempt to pry the fence away with a stick of wood, I returned to the place where I found it and nearby was a small bundle of perfect kindling-sized pieces of wood. Eureka! I exclaimed to myself, and triumphantly returned with enough kindling for 10 fires. Again I returned to the Prehistoric Man theme, this time recreating the building of the "first fire", but with a cigarette lighter replacing the piece of flint or whatever.

Sandwiches were made, the wine was passed around, the rain stopped, my clothes were reasonably dry, and the absence of a departing train went almost unnoticed. At one point I got up to pee and in the distance I saw the glow of another jungle campfire. This initiated an effort to go over to say hello to fellow tramps and maybe find out if they knew anything about impending southbound trains. This later proved to be a mistake.

As I approached their fire I hollered out "Hello to Camp" as a warning that someone was approaching, but it was muffled by shouting going on amidst the three tramps sitting around the fire. It appeared that two of the tramps were trying to calm down an agitated and very drunk third tramp. My arrival couldn't have come at a worse time the drunk tramp, who was considerably larger than the other two, was trying to stand up and fight one of the others, but each time he stood up he immediately returned to a sitting position on an overturned bucket, much as if he was connected to it with a large rubber band. His inability to stand up was countered by a concerted effort by the other two to push him back to a sitting position, which soon became a prone position as the drunk tramp finally succumbed to gravity and alcohol and passed out.

In the midst of this drama one of the smaller tramps made eye contact with me and indicated that I would have to wait patiently while the drunk tramp commanded all of their attention. With the action now somewhat subdued, I learned that they were all headed to LA the same direction that my partner and I were traveling, and that they too were awaiting the next train that came in. I thanked the two conscious tramps and walked back to let my partner know that we needed to make sure we were on the next train before the other group, because I really didn't want to have to share a boxcar with them all the way to LA.

We settled on a plan, as it were. Our fire was much farther from the mainline than their's was, so we would leave our fire burning to make it appear that we were still hanging around in that location, but we would walk over to the mainline and roll out on the north end of the yard, so as to get the first look at any train coming in. The other tramps only saw me and not my partner, so if they came over to our campfire and didn't see anyone, they would figure that I had just walked away for a minute to pee or whatever, and they would have no idea where we were hanging out now.

Sitting back against a pile of ties, the remaining hours of darkness passed by amidst continued dollops of wine and hopes of a large number of rides on the next southbound. This, however, was not to be, as just at daybreak we heard a train approaching the north end of the yard and watched as it passed with no rideable cars, on our side anyway. As soon as it stopped we jumped up and crossed over to the other side to begin walking along looking for an open door. If there weren't any then we'd try to make it up to the last unit, if possible, as at this point there wasn't much of interest left in Watsonville for either of us.

Almost reaching the engines we spotted a boxcar with the door open just a few feet, and I got out my flashlight to look inside. To my extreme delight it was empty except for a small pile of 2x4s in one end. Taking off my pack and shoving it through the door, I climbed in to look around. Except for the wood it was clean and I tried and get the door open farther but it wouldn't budge. There was no need to wedge it so it wouldn't close on us because there was a large dent in the rail preventing the door from moving at all, and a red tag on the side of the car indicated that it was being returned to its home shop (wherever that was) for repairs.

Sensing that the other tramps were looking for a ride just as we were, another "plan" was hatched. We collected all of the pieces of wood and stacked them up in a single pile against the doorway, so as to appear, from the outside anyway, that the car was filled with a three foot high stack of lumber. We stood against each end to keep them upright, and minutes later as the air was being released and we were ready to leave we heard voices from outside the car. Recognizing them as the tramps from last night, they were still arguing about something and soon we heard footsteps in the ballast and then someone hollered "Here's one!", which was soon followed by "It's loaded!", then more footsteps as the train eased forward. My partner and I both leaned back as far as we could, knowing that unless someone looked in with a flashlight we couldn't be seen. Outside someone shouted "Try the door!" but by now the train was picking up speed and the footsteps receded into the distance. Our plan had worked, and we slumped down and set up camp in the gloom of the dark boxcar, hoping the car's "home shop" was somewhere in Southern California.