Sacramento can be a challenging place to catch out. It has bulls and plenty of passersby, as well as a long yard fence topped with barbed wire and bottomed with razor wire, the latter to thwart tunneling. The local jail towers over the downtown; orange-jumpsuited guests see and are seen on their fenced-in balconies.
I was in town on another short-haul mission, namely the 84 miles to Oakland. For six years, I had maniacally roamed the West because time felt like sand slipping through my fingers. Now those longer routes are mostly accomplished; I can relax and have been nailing down shorter runs close to home.
Late in the afternoon, I hopped a double-stacker. In succession we passed a Midwestern-looking landscape of harvested cornfields; sprawling desolate wetlands; and the Mothball Fleet waiting for the next war. The old gray battleships were rose-tinged by the sunset. Abruptly after we crossed the Carquinez Strait, the scenery switched to a malignant refineryville along the coppery waters of Suisun Bay.
The hard part came near Oakland: getting off too fast a train. I passionately wanted to stay out of the Desert Yard, which is hemmed in by an army depot and an unfinished freeway; stalked by bulls; and surrounded by menacing slums. But the train heedlessly maintained 20 miles per hour through the “safe” neighborhoods of El Cerrito, Albany, and Berserkley.
A slight slowing, my only window of opportunity, occurred south of the Emeryville station. Clinging to the grab-irons, I windmilled my legs over the fast-moving ground. If you commit, you have to do so entirely. I pushed off and ran.
Having inherited the train’s momentum, I had to run: otherwise, I would have slammed face-first into the gravel. Galloping crazily at an unnatural, purely inherited speed, I hammered the ground with explosive, bone-shaking footfalls. It took several of those crashing strides before I could stop without falling over. Meanwhile, the hotshot receded mercilessly into the night, at a speed I could never have attained running from a standstill.
The lights of the Emeryville K-Mart blazed invitingly ahead. They were a more hospitable sight than the Desert Yard, that’s for sure. An AC Transit bus delivered me to the BART system.
One of these months, I have to check out a certain, less-known branch in the Rockies. There will be other rides.
Abdul Rahimov has a Ph.D. in Russian history from Stanford. He studied earlier at Harvard and grew up in Illinois in a railroad-dominated town.Rahimov prefers to use a pen name to avoid attracting unnecessary attention from railroads. He lives on the East Coast.