I’d been sitting beside the loading dock of some factory and geared upward to a sprint. Determined to catch out on anything remotely rideable – Wishram was only 96 miles east, so I could hang on – I raced past a camera-wielding rail buff and seized the rear ladder of a hopper car. Other than the bottom rung, there were only air and the wheels beneath my feet.
Soon the train was high balling at expressway speeds. I was beginning to question my decision. Besides a firm grip on the rungs, one needed absolute concentration on the task of survival. To make survival less dependent on my two hands, I hooked legs and arms through the rungs in various, ever-shifting configurations. Luckily, the stiff breeze of a 60-mph ride kept me cool.
On the right, houses and cleared sites gave way to open beach, where swimmers, sunbathers, windsurfers and boaters mingled under the hot July sun. Across the wide and sparkling Columbia River, one could behold the Union Pacific tracks, running on the Oregon side to The Dalles and points east. From time to time, the train swooped into noisy, stygian tunnels, exhilarating for the novice and not long enough to suffocate me. Initially, the land was forested and lush, but it dried out rapidly into scrubby bluffs as we sped to Wishram.
More than two hours later, we reached what was unquestionably the Wishram division. I gratefully hopped off and sat on the embankment to wait out the next southbound. A young black couple with considerably more luggage was already perched there. The man, who proved more voluble than his spouse/girlfriend, was a fount of valuable information. “Naw, Wishram ain’t hot. I just walked right up to someone and asked about the next one down to K Falls.” We talked on some more; the man explained that the Bay Area’s main yards were located in Oakland. “It is HOT! You gotta jump off before you get into the yards. Last time I was runnin’ like hell, and that fat old bull couldn’t catch me.”
It was nearing 6 when the eastbound snaked onto the bridge and halted. In unison, we all rose to pick out our rides. The sunbathers below scrambled up the slope too. This was a moment, repeated often, that I grew to enjoy for some reason. In town after town, when the time had come, tramps would wordlessly emerge from their hiding places and stalk forward. There was something permanent about the ritual. It had occurred since the birth of the railroads and would, I hoped, continue into the next century.
For a train this size, there were disappointingly few rideable cars. Maybe third from last, we spotted a bulkhead flat. The loose cables still flapped about. Seven of us clambered aboard; soon the train began to creak forward. We crossed the Columbia River, but were not done with rivers yet. The BN southbound line plies the Deschutes River gorge, a land of towering, sandy bluffs topped with enormous electrical pylons.
White-water rafters have turned the Deschutes into a veritable expressway of recreation; the tramps and the rafters waved to each other throughout the ride. The three pairs of tramps scattered over the flatcar’s daunting length and, to a man, began smoking. I leaned back against the car’s spine and soaked up the scenery. The setting sun transmuted the bluffs into heaps of molten gold and copper.
Everything – the utterly unpopulated bluffs, the pylons, the rocky, hard-charging river – possessed a Western grandeur of scale that filled me with delight. I had never doubted fleeing the joyless, narrow Northeast, but these spectacular vistas made me even more ecstatic about escaping. My memory floated back to a California bank commercial in which a middle-aged man and his buddies gallop on horseback to the edge of an immense canyon. Having purchased that land, he gloats, “So how do you like the new back yard?” In comparison, cramped and bitter Massachusetts looked pretty poor.
Suddenly, a gust of wind snatched one tramp’s cap off. As it fluttered past me, I made an uncoordinated stab, knocking it down, then clutched it in a fist. The tramp grinned through his beard, and we both smilingly shook our heads at the absurdity of the moment. I retreated to my former position to sit out the tunnels. We’d hit a series of them, some longer than others. Pent-up diesel fumes predominated in the stale air.
Most strikingly, in the roar and absolute blackness, I could see the glowing embers of the hoboes’ cigarettes – tiny chips of light in the void. It was growing darker and colder. We were now traversing a flatter section where some campsites and houses had taken a stand. Some of the houses sat so close to the tracks that I could distinguish the faces inside. It seemed as if the whole world was enjoying itself that night – families inside brightly lit homes, friends and Boy Scout troops clustered around their campfires. What they all had in common was the warm glow of light, natural or electrical, that sustained their gatherings. They were smiling, laughing, chatting in the light. What must it be like to ride the trains and stand always on the periphery of that happiness, always confronting a vision of what one cannot have?
A few hours later, it was dark altogether, and my seasoned carmates had all fallen asleep aboard the bucking, screeching flatcar. The moon hung in the sky. I stood, arms akimbo, staring outward. Our positively enormous shadows, mine and the car’s, raced over the hills. The young black hobo, to help me out, would cry out at every stop (to nobody in particular), “Is this Bend?” Since he was going on to Oakland, Bend didn’t matter to him. I appreciated the gesture.
Bend was undeniable, bigger and brighter than anything we’d passed. As absolute confirmation, on the right, I could make out BEND in a sign painted on a wooden building. It was 1:40 a.m. “Take care, man,” the young tramp said. “You too,” I answered. “Thanks for helping me out.” We shook hands in the dark and deserted yard. The BN line cut through Bend in a sunken trench, so I had to climb up a grassy, junk-strewn slope to get into the town proper.
My first stop was a 7-11, where I caught up on food and drink and asked some directions. Armed with the information, I found a 24-hour diner, ate up, drank hot water poured over a progressively more insipid teabag, and slept briefly in my booth. I moved out around 6 a.m. A railroad employee told me that the next southbound would come “around two-ish.” Sweaty and tired, with nowhere to wash up and nowhere to sit save the sidewalk, I charged up and down a local hill, then returned to the railyard. It was time to pick out a shady spot and read undemanding drugstore fiction.
When the train showed up, a fairly large contingent of tramps popped out of the woodwork. Several jumped off the train. More jumped on. Some delay was slowing the crew change, so the tramps exchanged intelligence. I had never been around so many of them, a good 15 to 20. A few warned me of the Klamath Falls bull, somebody named Roger. Others complained of the Sparks, Nev., bull. Somebody advised me to jump off as soon as the train neared the ball diamond. I walked up and down before selecting a boxcar. A large, middle-aged black man already occupied the car, but didn’t mind me coming aboard.
Along the way, I’d glimpsed someone who had lashed his mountain bike to the end of a grainer. He had an enormous store of equipment. While we waited for this delayed crew change to go through, he was frying bacon and eggs on a camp stove.
My carmate hailed from South Carolina. An old pro who might have ridden this line a hundred times already, he curled up in the cool, shady interior to sleep. I stood in the sun-drenched doorway to admire the landscape and shoot some photos. Initially, we passed through a volcanic national monument, with great heaps of black stone piled beside the track. In the distance loomed the snow-capped Cascades. Only sparse, slender conifers, probably lodgepole pines, graced the vicinity. Farther south, pasture lands began to predominate. Cattle grazed in view of the mountains.
At Chemult, BN switches to the Southern Pacific track and rides it for 73 miles into K Falls. Having decided that nothing more warranted a photo, I tucked my camera away. Then, to my astonishment, the train curved over a lush green ridge hundreds of feet over a wild river. There was no way to back up the train for that one glorious photo opportunity. Not only that, my lips were sunburned from the hours in the boxcar’s exposed doorway.
As we neared Klamath Falls, the track skirted the edge of Klamath Lake, paralleling U.S. 97. The view was superb; the lake formed a vast azure bridge to the mountains beyond. My carmate had a less fearful opinion of Roger the bull – “If you jes’ treat him fair, he’ll treat you fair” – so we coasted straight into the SP yard. The BN train stopped for less than a minute; its real destination was the BN yard three miles out of town. Having glanced around for bulls, we two leaped off and began to help the mountain-bike man unload his formidable stores. The train was already rolling out. Jogging beside his car, we took his bike, his stove, his bedroll, his frame pack.
The hoboes discussed their options. Somebody mentioned the mission in town, where a free meal and a night’s stay could be had if one sat through a sermon about the evils of the road. My carmate replied flatly, “Shit, I ain’t goin’ to no mission.” I felt a juvenile admiration for the tramps in some ways. They were better men than I. After two days, three trains, and 391 miles of hard riding aboard rocking freights and a nearly sleepless night, I felt battered and used up.
The rough, jolting rides induced a punch-drunk stupor. The accumulation of railroad grease and windblown grit on my face, hands and clothes disgusted me. These tramps, on the other hand, retained their wit and humor after riding the same trains. Loudly and good-naturedly, they elbowed each other and joked. I mused that the military could find here a very select pool of candidates distinguished for ox-like endurance and willpower. Their obedience to commands, though, might fall below the norm.
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.