Riding with ‘ghosts’ from Hagerstown to Altoona

It was time, after a long and gloomy hibernation in perhaps America’s foulest climate, to resume hitting the rails.

From time to time, I still like to explore the forgotten nation off the interstates. So I emerged blinking like a convict from six months of snow and rain and rode Greyhound 70 miles west to Hagerstown, Md., five miles south of the Pennsylvania border.

After two journeys aboard Norfolk Southern into the Confederacy, the last of which was interrupted by a despicable citizen’s betrayal and my subsequent fining, I was planning to go north on the same railroad to Allentown, the sadly faded industrial city 60 miles north of Philly.

So much has changed in freight-hopping in a few short years.

There are far fewer of us, a shrinkage caused by the end of welfare and the crackdown by bulls. Worse, years of propagandization by the railroads and the news media have turned the generally tolerant American people into a mob of good Germans. Ten years ago, I rode across Oregon, dividing an entire day between an exposed ladder and a flatcar. That was a time of waves and salutes from bystanders. Now you are as likely as not to be denounced by a cell phone.

I parked myself in the trees on the southern end of the yard, hoping to catch any northbound rising out of Virginia. Two hours later, there had been only two trains, both southbounds. If there weren’t any new northbounds for the time being, there might be some “older” ones in the north end of the yard waiting for crews or fresh power. I paralleled the tracks through a neglected stand of trees and indeed found a north-facing train with a freddy on the end. OK, now it could be 10 minutes or 10 hours. I resumed reading and opened a can of pineapples.

Since Norfolk Southern workers have a reputation for referring you to the bull for any questions about freights, I asked nobody and blithely assumed that my train was on the Atlanta-to-New York route. If so, it would pass through Allentown. About 4 p.m., three hours after my arrival in Hagerstown, I dived into the cubbyhole of a grainer and rode out into the countryside of Pennsylvania, interspersed with frame houses, vividly red barns and Holstein cattle.

Tired of holding down the rear of a car and facing the wrong way, I had an opportunity to improve my lot in Mount Holly Springs. There was an explosive hiss, indicating that the units had decoupled. I came down off the embankment to throw out some garbage. Trouble was, a homeowner was working in his garage with his back turned, maybe 20 feet away from me. I scampered out of his back yard unnoticed, did my job, and picked out another grainer with a forward-facing cubbyhole.

Approaching Harrisburg, we slowed down greatly to let another, more important train pass. For a good long time, my train was stalled in Lemoyne, still short of crossing the Susquehanna into Harrisburg. Between an interstate and a junkyard, under a towering neon billboard, I watched the death of the twilight. An army of oblivious motorists flew past on the highway, bound for Camp Hill and Gettysburg. Eventually, at dusk, we crossed beside a set of parallel bridges, past the state capitol and the Fulton Bank.

When I was discovering books and the dreams that they could unlock, my parents’ 1970 World Book described Pennsylvania as the 3rd most populous state. Who knows how far it has fallen since then? The old Pennsy, the railroad that built the state and the tracks that I was using, disappeared in 1968; its accompanying universe of mines and mills died as the Sun Belt flourished.

Tonight I would be riding with ghosts.

Somewhere in the colossal yard near the Harrisburg Amtrak station, we made a fateful turn. On unfamiliar territory and in darkness, I missed it. Having spent nearly two hours dawdling on the approach to and departure from Harrisburg, the train abruptly picked up speed. Now that it was completely dark, no citizen-informants could spot me. I stood on the front deck of my car in a bracing wind under the stars, the way it used to be.

As the night wore on, I began to feel some doubt. It should have been only 90 miles from Harrisburg to Allentown; why was it taking so long? For a line to densely populated eastern Pennsylvania, it seemed awfully desolate, too. Moreover, what were these towns Tyrone and Huntingdon, and why did Huntingdon have an Amtrak sign? There was no passenger service to Allentown. It was becoming apparent that I was on the wrong route, but since this was only the East and it was dark anyway, I was not unduly upset. It was equally important to sit on a bouncing steel floor, gulp in the chilly, fresh air and imagine.

We halted in a sprawling, fenced-in yard shortly after midnight. On my right, the hangar-sized doorways of a locomotive repair shop spilled forth light like the Titanic. There was clearly no benefit to staying here, but I risked detection for a few seconds by unfolding a map and learning my probable location: Altoona, 220 miles west of my destination. Somewhere in Harrisburg, we had hung a left instead of a right. I strode past the repair shop’s blazing, wide-open doorways and the mechanics’ voices, staring straight ahead. A tall, spiked fence blocked my way to public property; I went over it with the help of a tree branch and landed in the parking lot of a 24-hour Sheetz.

Using a pay phone and an 800 number, all you really need to scheme your way out of any American town, I determined that Altoona did have Amtrak. The quoted fare to D.C., which I reserved, was enough to dissuade me from getting a room. Inside the Sheetz, lest the cashier think that I was some sort of Martian, I asked, “How far is downtown Altoona?” rather than, “Where am I”?

“It’s a ways,” she answered, glancing skeptically at my thousand-mile stare and dusty clothes, “if you’re walking. Just keep going down that street.” At least she hadn’t said 10 miles or something worse.

The streets were silent a few minutes into Easter Sunday. I ravenously bolted my just-purchased food and followed the prescribed street downtown. Unfortunately, the train station was locked up for the night, so that sleeping option was out. I settled for the stairwell of a deserted four-story parking garage, top floor. Warm air rises, and the stairwell did have heat, as well as buzzing all-night fluorescents.

Suddenly there was a loud crash from the garage, followed by cursing male voices. A high-speed car chase had just come to an end, probably against a pillar. On the street below, a squad car and a tow truck materialized.

The tow driver and a cop conferred on the street, but neither looked up at me in the stairwell. I had no intention of appearing; officers excited by making an intense arrest would have disagreeable questions for somebody with out-of-state ID and credit cards who was nonetheless sleeping in a parking garage, next to a bust, instead of in a motel. The mind boggles to imagine that conversation. So I made myself small, a lifelong pursuit, until all the people and hubbub died away.

No more unwelcome excitement ensued. As soon as I could, I entered the train station, where the clerk was undoubtedly amazed to sell a ticket so early. Since Amtrak was running typically late, I stretched out on one of several comfortable couches – Altoona’s station is a great place to sleep – and crashed.

Having notched a few hours of actual rest, I strolled to the largest cathedral in town, the domed Blessed Sacrament, among townspeople who were converging for the noon mass. From its steps I took in the church steeples and fiercely tidy houses stacked on the surrounding hillsides. Feeling like a lost extra from “The Deer Hunter,” I descended to the station and caught the overpriced cushions back to D.C.

A long time ago, on frigid autumn nights, in this town and others like McKeesport and Aliquippa, these were the people who had cheered themselves hoarse for Montana and Unitas, Ditka and Namath, in high-school football games back when the steel mills were running full tilt.

They must have thought that the good times would last forever, but “the wolf finally came,” as the writer observed. Sooner or later, it always does.