Dangerous train ride from Cumberland to Gaithersburg

Up in western Maryland, nestled in the Alleghenies, is the crew-change town of Cumberland. You can go west on CSX to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago, but I had to go back east to D.C., where my bonded servitude awaited. At least you see some scenic, rugged country, passing through West Virginia and the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers at Harpers Ferry.

The day before, I legally rode Amtrak to Cumberland, guaranteeing at least one daylight passage. In my innocent-tourist (no backpack) guise, I searched for bushes and other concealment beside the Cumberland tracks. As has been the case for several years, there were no hoboes. The economic boom and recent pressure by police have kept them off the rails.

The next day, I rode my tourist train to Frostburg and immediately started looking for a ride back to D.C. The town was smothered with that hateful Eastern humidity I had vowed vainly never to know again. Sweat dripped into my eyes and plastered my shirt to my collarbone. I may have been a miserable man, but I was also the invisible man, sitting in the bushes in a navy sweatshirt and dark green pants. Around my little arboreal sauna, oblivious, similarly miserable townspeople walked their dogs or drove on by.

Inevitably, my thoughts turned to better times hoboing in the West, where I roamed for long, rapturous days drunk with light. Once a poet said:

I cannot rest from travel; I will drink Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades Vext the dim sea. I am become a name; For always roaming with a hungry heart Much have I seen and known – cities of men And manners, climates, councils, governments …

To my great detriment, I had disregarded advice to wait behind Hank’s Pharmacy. When I started looking, I’d been in the heart of downtown, more than a mile from Hank’s, with a cumbersome pack. Hoping to escape the long trudge to Hank’s, I imagined that the trains would decelerate enough by the time they reached downtown.

Imagined foolishly, it turned out. The first great prospect, a stack train, clipped by at 15 or more. With my pack, I couldn’t catch it. The last 40 or so cars went by slowly enough, but they were all unridable – no floors or completely visible perches.

A series of misadventures ensued; CSX sadistically sent out a few all-unridable autorack unit trains, and I was too fat and slow with my framepack to catch out between two tracks (dangerous even if you’re traveling light). Long hours of frustration and legwork passed. To quote the comic, I was doing the job of two men, Laurel and Hardy.

I was morosely sitting behind Hank’s Pharmacy in a junkyard of washers and dryers, under a crescent moon and ballpark-like yard floodlights, when a pig(gyback) train showed up. It was 2:30 a.m. and they didn’t have any “ladders”, but you can catch anything at zero mph.

The stop to take on new crew was brief, well under a minute, and then we went rocketing off into the starlit night. From a sweltering East Coast day, I was suddenly plunged into a 60- to 70-mph wind chill at night. To minimize heat loss, I put on my knit cap and lay down parallel to the train’s movement. Now I was a captive admirer of the constellations, so brilliant in the countryside roamed by freights.

Grudgingly, I surrendered to fitful sleep. A flatcar, even one with truck tires straddling you, is not a safe sleeping environment. Depending on my rotational speed, if I rolled off, I would either be dashed to pieces along the tracks or turned into long-pig sausage by the wheels.

The train suddenly halted in Gaithersburg, Md., for a meet, 3.5 hours and 130 miles out of Cumberland. We were still 20 miles or more out of D.C., but I was not about to miss this opportunity to alight safely from a hot train without ladders. I bailed out across the tracks from the Montgomery County Fairgrounds and began heading east for Maryland 355, which promised to have bus stops. I was filthy, whiskery and half-frozen. Some rides are more enjoyable than others.

That said, the stillness of a Sunday morning was exquisite. The neighboring industrial park was so deserted that two Canadian geese were slowly crossing a four-lane street. It would have been a long, draining walk to the Shady Grove subway station, but the buses were already running. I strung together four of them and staggered into the apartment for a shower and bed.

On Monday I was back at work, daydreaming of a possible ride through the New River Gorge in Appalachia. I’d probably catch out in Charlottesville. The Mexicans often say of themselves, “So far from God and so close to the United States. Serving out a sentence in D.C., I would rephrase it: so close to Dixie and so, so far from the West. (Read more Rail Rides and True Adventures)