Sense and Sensimilla

home is where the heart was

How did I get here? Where am I going? How long do I have?

These thoughts from the end of the movie Blade Runner seemed appropriate, if not to question one's life in general, but equally fitting to my current situation was my train ever going to leave or would I merely die, if not from boredom, then surely from starvation in this tiny town in eastern Wyoming?

Dozing off and waking to a movie line from some weird dream. It wasn't a "real" sleep like I'd have in bed at home; more like a period of not being aware of events in the present. Easy to do as there weren't any events of the present, or the last several hours to be aware of, other than the faint sound of the air hissing from some leak in the brake lines, or the tapping of some metal lever dangling in the wind on the outside of the boxcar.


I'd been parked on a siding in what I found out later to be Greybull, Wyoming. Headed west from Iowa, I had to switch trains in North Platte, Nebraska, probably the largest freightyard on the Union Pacific system. The heat, humidity, boring scenery, and 3.2% beer of the last day or so made me glad to be on foot and in the land of air-conditioned liquor stores again.

In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the yard layout on the way in, but instead I chose to plaster myself against the back wall of the car so I wouldn't be seen by any yard workers or train crews. When my train finally stopped, it seemed like we passed miles of parked trains already and I thought that we'd be at the west end of the yard, but it was more like the middle. Climbing over numerous couplers in the heat made me ready to drop by the time I reached a paved road running along the north side of what I figured out what must be the departure yard.

Feeling like a rat in a maze, I hoped to see downtown North Platte in front of me, choked with markets and liquor stores, but there was nothing but trees and that awful flatness of the Midwest. A passing worker on a 3-wheeler confirmed that downtown was unfortunately on the south side of the yard, but that there was a convenience store a few hundred yards north on a paved highway. Elated that I'd gotten out of the coupler-hurdling again, I set out through a nettle-infested field to reach the store.

A sign in the parking lot proclaimed that travelers from other states could buy beer there on Sunday, which was another in a series of quirks I was learning about this part of the country. I was a traveler, and I was from "out of state", and I sure as hell wanted to buy beer, so in I went. Feeling doubly lucky because it was real beer that they sold, I was torn between buying enough beer for the next few days and realizing that I had no way to keep it cold or stop it from rattling around and going flat, so I settled on two six-packs and some bread and cheese.

By the time I got back to the yard my legs looked like they'd been attacked by a swarm of bees, but all I needed now was a shady spot to hang out and a nice ride out of there. The shady spot would have to wait as I saw a string of six road units back down and hook onto the string of cars nearest to me. Thinking I was really stupid not to look for rides right away, I doubled back along the road searching for an open boxcar or a grainer. A shadeless gondola would be my last choice, and I didn't stop to put the food and beer in my pack to save time, which proved to be a huge mistake in a few minutes.

Car after car was passed with nothing resembling a comfortable ride, when suddenly the string shuddered for a moment and slowly started to creep away. Thinking that they couldn't possibly have had enough time to air up the entire train, I remembered seeing yard air lines attached to a section of the string earlier, and now it dawned on me that the train was indeed leaving town, and I had a full gallon water jug in one hand and a sack of precious (and heavy) groceries in the other.

A grainer was coming up, but it was facing the wrong way, and I didn't have much time left to pick and choose. The track was on a long curve and I was on the outside, so I could only see about five or six cars at a time coming toward me. Suddenly, the backward-facing grainer seemed like my only choice, so I turned and ran up to the ladder. I couldn't climb it with both hands full, so I tossed my water jug up and ran along to heave the grocery sack up as gently as I could, but it caught on a piece of metal and split in half, sending the six-packs tumbling onto the grainer's deck and my bread and cheese falling to the ground, where I managed to put the nail in the coffin by stepping on the brick of cheese and almost falling down in a heap. It was now "showtime" go back and grab the bread and try to catch up to my car, or hop on and not have any food. Forgetting the food, I vowed to live on beer for the next day or two...

At the time that I made the "I can live on beer" decision, I based it on flying along at 60 miles per hour toward whatever big city was just beyond the horizon, but that's not what happened at all.

Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.

Glad to be free of the huge freightyard, heat, humidity, nettles, etc. I settled back on the brake rigging as best I could and began to down the explosive-but-still-cold beers as fast as I could. As luck would have it, one of them developed a small leak from their "landing" and naturally poured out a geyser of sticky beer just where I wanted to sit. Soon I was almost stuck to the floor of the car and decided to shift position a little bit. What happened next was almost surreal... I moved the beer over to make room to sit somewhere other than in the glue-like puddle of drying beer when the train either applied or released the brakes, causing a large metal arm attached to the brakes to move a few inches and in doing so it pinched one of the remaining full beer cans against another piece of metal, crushing the can just enough to produce another beer geyser, which shot into the wind and sprayed all over me.

I went from being drenched in perspiration to being drenched in beer and perspiration, and the rushing wind dried it all into a sort of exoskeleton around me. I had now consumed either three or four beers, internally anyway, and I really needed to burp or there would simply not be enough room in my body to fit any more beers, and shortly, thanks to a particularly uneven section of track, I managed to come up with a burp of almost historical proportions. I half expected to see some internal organs come flying out. My stomach was actually a little sore after that one, but another round of beer was getting warm on the deck next to me, and I had to do something about it...

Look out the window. And doesn't this remind you of when you were in the boat, and then later that night, you were lying, looking up at the ceiling, and the water in your head was not dissimilar from the landscape, and you think to yourself, "Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?"

Again a dream, this time inspired by the movie Dead Man. I'm often surprised at just how it is that I can drift off into a deep sleep in some convoluted position on a speeding freight car, with all of the noise and shaking going on, and the wind across my face, but it sometimes takes forever to get to sleep in the comfort of my own bed at home. There have been rides, though, when I was laying on the bottom of a double-stack well, looking up, with my earplugs in, and the first indication of movement was not from the motion of my car but from the sight of telephone poles moving past above me.

As we began to leave the town of North Platte in the distance and round a few curves, I noticed a nice, properly-oriented grainer just a few cars behind me, and vowed to make the switch at the first siding we pulled into. By now my stock of "groceries" was next to nothing, so switching cars even at a slow crawl was possible, since I would be letting the train bring my car to me, rather than having to run forward. As is often the case, when you want your train to go in the hole, it never does, so I resigned myself to whatever nap time I could come up with on the windy end of the car.

Awakened from a blissful sleep by the brake rigging moving again, I saw a yellow signal up ahead and hurriedly gathered up my gear. To my surprise I noticed that the ballast along side the tracks was mercifully flat, and de-training would be easy. The train slowed, I climbed down the ladder, plopped to the ground at a leisurely run, and was back up the ladder of my new ride in less than a minute. It was probably a good thing that I bagged the first ride available when I did, however, and waited to switch later, because I don't think that the train would have been going slow enough to catch if I had to wait for 3 or 4 more cars back in the yard.

view from grainer

Drifting back to sleep aided by the 8 or 10 beers I managed to drink before they got too shaken up and warm, I was awakened again in what seemed like only a few minutes by a sudden chill. We were still flying along through the monotonous prairie, but it felt much colder for some reason, so I turned around and looked forward and was startled to see an almost pitch black sky ahead of us. Familiar with only the intermittent and moderate rains of California, I was completely unprepared for what happened next. Within a few seconds the rain went from a gentle "pitter patter" to what felt like we were traveling underwater. Initially I thought that the sloping canopy above me would be enough of a shield from getting completely soaked, but the raindrops were so big that I seemed to be getting more water on me from rain striking the car behind me and splashing forward than dripping on me from the roof of my car.

As uncomfortable as the rain was, it did signal at least a temporary end to the chatter that was going on in my head, sort of like some stupid song you hear somewhere and can't seem to stop thinking about all the time. There was now something to focus on instead of the rapidly-hunting wheels of the car behind me and the boring scenery moving past on either side. There were numerous currents of rainwater swirling around on the porch of the grainer, each carrying flotsam and, I suppose, jetsam to some other location, then re-deposited where they originated as the train rocked along. I wondered briefly if the Coriolis Effect was adhered to on moving trains.

Soon a new "game" was born as I placed small objects in various places on the deck and wondered how long, and along what path, it would take them to make their way over to a large circular hole in the floor and drop to the ballast below. Sort of like golfing in a way. Riveted by this diversion for some time, it was a distinct letdown when we left the thunder clouds behind and the rain stopped.


At some point we slowed up a bit and looking forward I saw that we were about to be diverted into a siding, with a train headed in the opposite direction stopped on the main. Not wanting to be spotted by the crew of the other train, but too lazy to jump up and burrow into the hole in the wall behind me, I just sat there and hoped I wouldn't be seen, as the area we were traveling through was not someplace that I'd like to be kicked off the train at. As luck would have it, when we passed the engines the crew member on the ground was taking a leak, and I remained unnoticed.

Strangely, just as we came to a stop there was a car on the other train that ended up being right along side of mine that had a tramp sleeping on the end of a grainer like mine, only headed the other way. I wasn't sure if I should holler out "Hello" or anything, but the air was dynamited as we stopped with a loud clap and he woke up anyway. Turning in my direction he seemed as startled as one might expect in that situation, but soon grinned and said "What are the odds, right?", or words to that effect.

At first thinking that he was incredibly dirty, I soon realized instead that he was Black, and exceptionally cheerful and chatty for someone who awakens in the middle of nowhere with a complete stranger staring at him from a few feet away. Initially I thought that there was someone else sleeping along side of him, and wondered how uncomfortable it must be to have to share the porch of a grainer with another person, but soon found out otherwise.

Pulling back what I thought was a sleeping bag covering a sleeping tramp, it was in reality a sleeping bag covering a duffle bag filled with high-grade marijuana. He had seen the same thunderstorm that I had just passed under and, knowing that he'd be getting drenched in a matter of minutes, covered up his "cargo" as best he could, because there was no way that he could have shoved the dope into the cubbyhole on his car. Unfortunately, just as he was about to dig into the bag and offer me a sample his train started to move and we just waved and settled back down. Soon his car would be drenched like mine and mine would be as dry as his...

Sometime during the night I woke up to crossing bells and city lights we were coming into Billings, Montana. I dearly wanted to get off my train and have a decent sleep on something that wasn't moving, but we never quite slowed down enough to bail off. Figuring that I'd blew my only chance at de-training, I was about to roll out again when we slowed even more as a real freight yard appeared in the distance. This time I was determined to bid this train farewell and I plopped down in the Laurel yard shortly after midnight. I wandered over to the west end of the yard and found a nice place to sleep next to a dead line of old cars, and sleep I did...

The next morning found me feeling surprisingly refreshed after such an abbreviated sleep, and I was able to just hang out and look around for an hour or so because there were no workers anywhere nearby. Right next to me was an old boxcar with ladders that went all the way up to the roof. Other cars looked (and sometimes smelled) like they'd been "around the block a few times". I re-arranged my pack, found some clean cardboard, and walked to the edge of the yard to get my bearings. To my delight there was a bar right across the street! I found a spot just inside the door to leave my pack and took a seat at the first booth I came to. Before my eyes even had a chance to adjust from the bright sunlight outside to the gloom indoors a waitress appeared and set a glass of beer down in front of me. Wow, I thought... what service! She explained that a "gentleman" had paid for my beer, but wouldn't indicate which one of the several guys at the counter was my benefactor. With no desire to press the issue, I raised my glass as a sign of thanks and tried to drink it with as much reservation and as little desperation as I could.

Realizing that I had better get something to eat before I filled up on beer, I ordered a sandwich and later learned from the waitress that the person who paid for my beer was an old guy who used to ride trains, but since then settled down in the nearby neighborhood. Since just about everyone else in the bar could pass for an "old guy", I figured that whoever bestowed their generosity on me would have to remain a mystery. To maintain an air of respectability I ordered a cup of coffee, and soon paid my tab and exited into the now-blinding sunshine, almost walking right into a kid carrying a pack, water jug, and cardboard who seemed in a hurry to cross the street into the yard. I asked him which way he was headed and he replied "Portland he's pulling out now!"


My brief introduction to Laurel, Montana was finished, and again I found myself on the back porch of a grainer, this time at least knowing that there was a pretty good chance that this train was going where I wanted to go, only I wasn't completely sure that I wanted to "go" at all. For the last several days I was heading into an adventure, and now it seemed like I was heading away from one. The fun was over and now it was time to be back on home rails. I wondered if the Black guy with the dope would make it to wherever he was headed without getting busted, as any cop who might see him dragging that huge dufflebag along some side street would surely think that it contained a dead body. Riding around on freights aimlessly with no destination in mind sometimes seemed more structured and deliberate than simply traveling from Point A to Point B on a familiar line. On foreign lines there was adventure, and unexpected things always seemed to happen, where riding on familiar lines was often not much more than shakey boxcars, wind, and cold. I suppose riders who kept to the Midwest might indeed find adventure riding in my neck of the woods, but that didn't seem to make any difference. Maybe the "adventure" was more mental than physical, and if I tried, I could even make the milk run back to the West Coast seem like it did the first time I rode out there. One way to find out was to break out my last bottle of White Port, which I kept wrapped up in a jacket in the bottom of my pack. Leaning back on the grainer porch as we passed along the Clark Fork River, I let the adventure begin again...