My Weirdest Ride

riding 'em like you find 'em

The innocence with which one approaches train riding can lead to experiences not available to those with rigid guidelines toward selecting the proper car to ride.

Another way of looking at this is, just because it's raining don't expect to find an open boxcar. I was in the Stockton SP yard, well after midnight, heading to LA, and I couldn't find anything open. There were only two strings of cars in the yard a dozen or so piggybacks on one track, and a much longer string next to them that I was walking along now looking for a ride. The bright yard lights made the falling rain seem like it was snowing, and every so often I'd have to look at my sleeves to confirm that it wasn't.

Reaching the end of the piggybacks, I could now move away from the cars I was walking along so the rain hitting their sides didn't splash on me as much. So far I was reasonably warm and dry, but it wouldn't be long before the persistent rain found its way through my clothes. What a crappy train to get stuck with in weather like this there weren't even any grainers or anything resembling a decent ride. As I got closer to the end of the string I could see that a caboose was already coupled up, and the remaining 20 or so cars didn't look promising at all. I passed a few more cars as a rivulet of cold water made its way down the back of my collar. As my hopes of getting out of town tonight sank even lower, I saw a flatcar up ahead with some huge piece of farm machinery under an even larger tarp.

The instant that I reached the car I heard the air coming up, and it was either cram myself under the tarp or walk back through the yard and look for a place to get out of the rain until morning. With no discernible command from my brain, my body took charge and I tossed my pack on the car and climbed on. Walking over to the edge of the tarp I took hold and lifted it up far enough to slide under. My flashlight was still in my pack so I was just feeling around to see if there was enough room to stretch out when I had the shit scared out of me by someone yelling in Spanish right next to me. I remembered seeing a small group of Mexicans walking around earlier but they were streamlined and I didn't think that they would try and catch out in this weather. Apparently they lowered their standards as did I, and we were all hunkered under the tarp waiting to leave town.

In the middle of the night, under overcast skies and covered by a dark colored tarp, there was no "getting my eyes used to the dark", and I was left to try and understand what my jabbering companions were saying. With great dexterity I managed to pry my flashlight from the pack and, pointing it carefully downward so as not to blind anyone seated near me, I switched it on. This event was met with unbridled enthusiasm from my fellow riders, who I estimated as either five or six, all sitting in a circle under some dangerous-looking farm implement. After a few minutes of establishing that I didn't speak Spanish and they didn't speak English, there was a slight rocking feeling and we were all underway, although I don't think that anyone knew exactly were we were going.

freight train

Once we got up to speed, it became apparent that it was the responsibility of those sitting on the outside to hold the tarp down to keep it from flapping violently in the wind. With no room for anyone to roll out and sleep, it was to be a long night of sitting up in the dark. Even if there was enough room, being the only person with a sleeping bag, I had to keep it stowed away in my pack. Additionally being the only person with alcohol, I decided to "live in the moment" and bring out one of the two bottles of White Port I was packing. This singular gesture turned a long night of uncomfortable riding into a memorable party, and we enjoyed ourselves oblivious to the passing scenery outside.

Every so often one of us would have to get up to pee, making their way hunched over to the edge of the tarp, then quickly sliding under and disappearing for a few minutes, then re-entering our encampment, when I would briefly turn on the flashlight to avoid any collisions. A few words in Spanish relayed any important tidbits of information that were obtained from the "outside", and at one time there was an excited exchange urging those on the outside to lift up the tarp. This was done and we all were greeted with a cloudless sky and an almost-full moon the rain had stopped but I didn't have a clue where we were.

My companions seemed to disagree as to whether we were headed to LA or not, and I was equally confused, as we should have been travelling along a major highway for several hours, but now there was no highway, just winding, low hills. The buzz from the White Port didn't help my "internal compass", but after a few minutes I figured out that we were going west, not south, and in all likelyhood headed for the Bay Area, where we would either turn north toward Oakland or south toward San Jose. Not wanting to alarm my fellow riders until I was positive of our destination, I crawled back under the tarp, followed by the others, and we continued our party by unsrewing the second bottle and toasting wherever it was that we were.

Waking up with my legs tingling from immobility, I became aware of the sounds of civilization all around us. I looked out from under the tarp and saw that it was almost sunrise, and we were indeed turning toward San Jose. Thankful that it was a word I could reasonably fake the Spanish pronunciation of, I turned on the flashlight and triumphantly announced "Sannn Hozay" as authentically as I could. Strangely enough this was received positively by my friends, thinking that anyplace was better than being cooped up under the tarp. As we crept into the yard I felt like taking this car was a positive experience, although I was probably no closer to LA than I was yesterday. As we squealed to a stop in the yard, my companions bailed off one side and I on the other. No heartfelt "goodbyes", just back to the routine of them finding a ride and me finding a liquor store.