Hoboing north from Roanoke to Hagerstown

The Norfolk Southern’s Valley line runs up from Roanoke to Hagerstown, Md., through the Jefferson and George Washington national forests and between two mountain ranges. Roanoke is the corporate HQ of NS, which means it’s police HQ.

In Roanoke, eastbounds take you to Lynchburg, Hagerstown or Winston-Salem. I’d hoboed south from Hagerstown to Roanoke in 2000, hitting the glorious autumn peak perfectly but being betrayed by a civilian with a cell phone. Now I was starting in Roanoke, utterly indifferent to whichever route I ended up using. I simply wanted an autumn ride.

I arrived at 3:30 a.m. in downtown Roanoke, wondering hatefully how Greyhound keeps losing money when its squalid buses are always full. Having nothing to do in the shuttered downtown, I trudged 3½ miles up Orange Avenue to Denny’s to drink several cups of black coffee and eat hash browns until the sun rose, when I caught the city bus back to the railyard. I tentatively set up shop below the 5th Street overpass, 19 blocks east of the crew change. There was some switching going on though, right in front of me, and I did not want to have my chain pulled periodically by strings of cars going no farther than a few hundred yards.

I was preparing to sneak westward, closer to the lion’s den, when, on the north side of the yard, a stack train came out of nowhere. I stared in frustration from my hiding place on the south side – running across the yard would have exposed me to the yard workers. Not about to do a stuntman catch of a hotshot in full view of the working brakies, I stalked westward to the 10th Street overpass. Suddenly, now that I was standing on the north side, a second eastbound, a lower-priority mixed freight, steamed along the south side of the yard.

Missing one train is bad luck. Missing two is a sign of old age. I raced across the 10th Street overpass to the south side, forced to pull off a stuntman catch after all. There was a slope of trash trees and brambles between me and the sunken tracks, an obstacle worse than any fence. I charged, slid and cursed down the thicket, opening up my right palm and shin, at one point literally bouncing face-up on the springy mat of vegetation. The train was moving ominously fast, threatening to negate my wild dash down the embankment. Only nine cars from the end, finally free of brush and thorns, I ran alongside a grainer and seized the ladder and plunged feetfirst into the cubbyhole, out of sight of any eager informants/railfans lining the tracks. Since the train was going faster than I wanted, we positively sailed out of town, with me inwardly giving the finger to the humorless suits back at railroad HQ.

The autumn peak had passed several weeks ago, and the vast forest was mostly stripped. But the sky was still crisply blue, the air dry and sharp as a scalpel, and it was a joy to be riding outdoors again. The train chugged from trestle to trestle over a succession of sprawling, wooded valleys, past flashing streams and rolling hillsides still speckled with colors.

The longest wait “in the hole” came in Virginia or West Virginia, where we sat in the countryside for over an hour. I had bolted down my canned fish and wasn’t thirsty. The chill began eating away at me. I had lazily not packed my knit cap – it wasn’t a deadly oversight, but I definitely did not want to spend the remaining hours in that mental loop that excludes all thought other than obsession with the temperature. So I desperately pulled out a spare pair of long pants and wrapped them over my head.

It had grown too cold to occupy the head end of a car, facing the wind. I abandoned my perch and headed up the length of the train, crunching through gravel in search of a backward-facing grainer. Light was bleeding from the sky, and the chill was deepening. I turned around to see that the facing signal lights had turned green, which meant that soon the oncoming train would fill the main that we had vacated. It did, and as my train audibly ticked back to life, I gently swung aboard my targeted car.

The difference between daytime pleasure and nighttime misery can be slender. Now it was simply dark and cold, the taillights of homeward-bound drivers piercing the blackness. The air was rich with the aroma of their home-cooked dinners as I rode out of their lives. I jumped off at the familiar southern end of the Hagerstown yard. It had taken 11½ hours to cover 240 miles.