Sometimes the most vivid memories of riding trains don't actually involve riding trains, but the periods of time between riding trains. One that comes to mind is returning from my first visit to the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa in August of 1984. Out of the hundreds (thousands?) of people who mill around town during the weekend, I met two guys who actually rode trains and were headed to Minneapolis to ride back to the West Coast along the Highline, which ran from the Twin Cities more or less due west until it got to Spokane, WA, and from then either to Seattle or Portland.
This was exactly the way I was headed, and I was looking forward to possibly riding through sections of the route during the day that I slept through at night on my way out to Iowa. It didn't take long for the "excitement" of being at the Hobo Convention to wear off, and we agreed in a matter of minutes that it was time to head out of town. We didn't spend much time stocking up on supplies as there would be plenty of time for that in St. Paul or Minneapolis, so we gathered up our gear and walked out to the highway.
Normally, three people hitchhiking with all of their gear in one spot in Iowa had about as much chance of getting a ride as Charles Manson would, but owing to the once-a-year event being held in Britt, it didn't take long at all for a station wagon to stop and suck us all in. Trying to engage in polite conversation with the man and woman in front and a small child next to me in the back seat, I tried to include my new friends curled up with all the gear in the back, but it didn't work out, leaving me with the sole duty of answering every possible question about the dangers of riding trains, which had been discussed ad nauseam for the last day or so to the tourist hordes around the jungle.
Surprisingly the man and woman were far from being judgmental and by the time we got to Mason City I half expected them to leave their car somewhere and tag along with us. After saying goodbye we walked up the tracks a bit to distance ourselves from any more question-spouting tourists, and hunkered down to wait for a northbound. In less than an hour the once-a-day train appeared and stopped to do some work in the tiny C&NW yard north of town. Patiently waiting for the train to return to the mainline to air up I began to curse the humidity and insects with a vengeance. Squatting in the trackside weeds I felt like a human aircraft carrier, with formations of mosquitoes taking off and landing continuously.
Almost delirious from the lack of blood due to hundreds of mosquito bites we eventually left town, but at what time and on what type of car is forgotten now. For some reason, however, we ended up getting off the train at night someplace south of the Twin Cities, for some unknown reason. I remember walking over to a nearby freeway onramp, figuring hitching the remaining few miles into Minneapolis would be our only option. Taking turns being the upturned thumb guy while the other two grabbed some sleep, during my shift I quickly realized that the big streetlight above our heads served as a homing beacon to zillions of nocturnal insects, as well as the bats that zig-zagged through the air doing their part to keep them under some degree of control.
In desperation I retrieved an onion from my pack, sliced off a section, then rubbed the oozing mess all over my forearms and face. Instantly the odor did its thing, and the buzzing hordes continued their buzzing, but avoided actually landing on me. To complete the transformation I brought out my foam earplugs and squished them in place to alleviate the torturous din of the hovering masses. Even though it was in the middle of the night and I didn't know where I was, there was a certain peacefulness that becalmed me, and I watched the stars disappear, replaced by the dim light of early morning. My trance-like state was interrupted by, of all things, a delivery truck for the morning newspaper skidding to a stop in front of me. The driver waved me over to the side door, which I opened and asked if he was stopping for us, as I wasn't sure if he noticed the other guys sleeping beside me. He said something but I wasn't sure what it was, so I repeated myself and still couldn't figure out what he was saying until it dawned on me that I still had my earplugs in, so I dug them out and he invited all of us into the back of the truck, which was actually like a large van.
He explained that he was eventually going into Minneapolis, but he had to finish his delivery route first, which might involve some winding around here and there, but we'd be certain of being dropped off in downtown before too long. Thinking that being dropped off anywhere would be preferable to our streetlight outpost, we settled down for the ride, which was made rather interesting by being unable to see outside, coupled with the Hell-bent-for-leather tactics of the driver. The floor of the cargo area of the truck was very smooth metal, probably intentioned to make the moving back and forth of large bundles of newspapers easier. This proved to be quite true, as every time the driver swerved around a corner or stopped abruptly, the dozen or so bundles of papers would all slide from one side to the other. Almost out of self-preservation, we all eventually climbed up and sat on top of bundles to eliminate being crushed between them every few seconds, as whatever route was chosen for the driver to adhere to didn't depend on him going in a straight line for any length of time.
A right turn would send every bundle to the left side of the truck, and a left turn would return them to the right side — a hard stop (which happened quite often) and they would bunch up near the front. When the driver mercifully came to a stop at some delivery point, he would open the back door to grab a bundle, and here is where we came into play. Since at that time the bundles would ordinarily be squished against the front wall of the truck, he would have to climb in to retrieve each one, but with us in back, we'd just slide a bundle to the back of the truck where he could grab it without having to climb in and out. He thought this was the greatest thing in the World, and we spent the early morning hours sitting atop a bundle and holding onto the nylon strap that held it together, all the while sliding all over the place like a bumper car ride at a fair. I imagined myself riding a bull at a rodeo, and it was made even more fun by not knowing when or in what direction we would slide next.
Eventually the fun came to an end as the last few bundles found their respective street corner, and we shortly found ourselves smack in the middle of downtown Minneapolis, just as the driver stated.
Another period of not riding a train also occured in Iowa, strangely enough. I had ridden east to Boone, IA where I was headed up to Britt for another go at the Hobo Convention. I had never been in the yard before, and didn't know which train was going anywhere near Britt, so I hopped on a short train that for sure wasn't a "mainline" train, thinking that it would be a fun ride anyway, whether or not it got me any closer to Britt. It slowly left the yard and began to turn in a northerly direction, so I relaxed with a bottle of wine and enjoyed a tour of central Iowa, such as it was. In late afternoon we got to Fort Dodge, where we dropped off the only ride (my boxcar), and I was forced to scramble back to a short hopper car full of gravel, and we shortly got under way again and continued at a snail's pace up to Eagle Grove, where I heard the dreaded sound of the brakeman setting handbrakes, and watched the crew walk off to a waiting van, with no one to replace them.
The entire time we were travelling from Boone to Eagle Grove I don't think we ever got above 20 mph. The track was rough and the trees grew over so much that they brushed against the side of the cars as they wobbled back and forth on turns. At one point I thought I saw sparks from hot brakes swirling along side of us but found out later that they were fireflies from the adjoining shrubbery. I walked over to a grove of trees, rolled out my bag, and slept until morning.
Early to rise in the morning sun, I walked over to a road crossing and awaited my fate, as the entire "town" looked to be no longer than a few blocks. After a few hours and as many cars, one stopped and I climbed in after being assured that I would indeed find myself in Britt in due time. Again I was cursed with someone on a delivery route, but this time it was packets of seeds to be taken to various hardware and grocery stores. Apparently the spring and summer seeds were now a thing of the past, and the unsold packets would have to be replaced with their fall/winter equivalents. The process was to stop somewhere, find the seed display, and while the guy who was giving me the ride would take care of the paperwork with the store owner, I would count and remove the "old" packets and replace them with new ones. The job was simple enough but quickly became incredibly boring, and the rate I was getting closer to Britt seemed to be measured in feet, not miles.
The confusing aspect was that I didn't have a very good idea of just where Britt was, and the roads around there were laid out either going north and south or east and west, so if you were heading for someplace that was, say, northeast of your present position, you'd have to make a series of drives going north and then east before you got there, involving much more driving than a route heading directly toward where you were going. Yearning for a diagonal option, we finally came up to a larger town with a big sign of a hobo with a bindle, and I knew I was "home" for the moment at least. After stashing my pack in the jungle I walked over to a grocery store to grab some bread and cheese, where I passed a man studying the seed packet display, and fought off an urge to engage him in conversation about the new and varied offerings in the Fall collection.