Back in the saddle: Watching shooting stars from flatcars

It would work out this way: my first train in 15 months would be the toughest to catch. At 1:15 a.m. a few nights ago, the Midnight Ghost came barreling down a straightaway in San Jose.

It was a fast-moving string of empty TTX’s (flatcars for containers). I guessed the speed to be 15 mph; later, the engineer confirmed my estimate. Fifteen miles per hour equals 22 feet per second. There was no way to keep up with the train, certainly not on sloping railroad ballast. My only aim was to stay close to a ladder for a second. For safety reasons, I tossed my bag aboard a car. Now I was committed.

I watched in disbelief as my gym bag raced into the darkness, then kicked into a sprint. As soon as I seized the ladder, my legs rocketed straight into the air. The train was going so fast that it had sucked me from the ground.

Having survived said physics experiment, I savored the moment. But the wind chill is considerable on a train of empty flatcars. Within a few minutes, I couldn’t bear to sit upright and lay flat on my back. My field of vision was immediately reduced to the night sky overhead. Being a captive audience, I stared upward at a remarkable display of shooting stars. Four and a half hours later, we pulled into a yard 45 miles north of my planned destination. It was 5:40 a.m., still dark. Surprisingly, the units de-coupled from the cars.

Was the ride over?

“You setting these cars off?” I asked the engineer.

I rode in a flatcar like this gazing at the sky.

“Yeah. Where ya trying to go?”

“San Luis Obispo.”

“Shoulda asked me in Oakland. I’d’ve told you.”

“Couldn’t. I caught it in San Jose.”

“Ohhhhhh, did ya? Where, at the depot? When we were goin’ about 15?”

He started heading toward a crew van.

“You caught the wrong one. This is the only one all year that stops here.”

To my great good fortune, a northbound mixed freight stood on the next track. Within an hour, I was returning home; this time we passed through hilly, horsy Steinbeck country with benefit of daylight. I jumped off on the fly in San Jose and crossed over to the Caltrain.

The end to my 15-month drought was not a great ride, in terms of length or scenery. It’ll do, though. Every freight ride somehow evokes a special reverie; this time, the night-long spectacle of shooting stars awakened the “thoughts that lie too deep for tears.”