At 3 p.m., I was watching a film at the National Gallery. By 5:20 p.m. I was riding a grain car to Cumberland, 140 miles away in western Maryland.
Several times I had gone to the inviting Hyattsville – six miles north of D.C., where CSX freights slowly approach Baltimore, Cumberland, or Richmond. Each time, something had gone wrong: no trains headed in my direction, for example, or track repairs that made the Baltimore-bound freights too fast to hop. On this Saturday, other than a railfan whose presence forced me to catch out through a breach in a barbed-wire fence, my luck was superb. I heard the whistle of my train while I was stepping out of bus 83.
It was more than striving to rectify past bad luck that put me in Hyattsville. Subsisting in a decaying Eastern city, I needed a steel floor underfoot as a form of therapy, an assurance that if things became truly intolerable, I could always catch out and never look back. Someday, which cannot come soon enough, I shall cheerfully ride out of Dodge forever.
The train picked up on the straightaway down to D.C. For some reason, the line to western Maryland zigs south into our squalid capital and zags north into rich Montgomery County before heading west in earnest. The scenery shifted from ghetto to Union Station Amtrak yards to prosperous neighborhoods and malls. A few of the towns, such as Gaithersburg and Point of Rocks, had excellently preserved train depots. The sun was shining, the temperature was bearable for once, the train was headed for hayfields and cattle-dotted pastures. Why, this was more fun than reading a paper on vibriocidal antibody titers or ADP-ribosylating exotoxins!
Harpers Ferry, where John Brown famously attacked an arsenal and where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet under forested cliffs, was where the “golden hour” began for me, that ravishing time before sunset much prized by artists and photographers. Mellow light bathed the baseball diamonds and abandoned railroad shops of Martinsburg. When darkness fell, we were climbing the higher, cooler Alleghenies, initially through rain and flashes of lightning. Eventually, the rain drove me into the grainer’s cubbyhole, where I pondered being fried to a crisp in a steel car on steel rails. Unlike engineers and real passengers who benefit from the Faraday-cage effect, I was riding on the car’s surfaces, not inside it. From time to time in the darkness, the sight of campers tending fires and lanterns filled me with traveler’s despair.
Once I reached Cumberland and hit a McDonald’s a half hour before closing (benefitting from the car culture that we hoppers disparage), my luck worsened. I dozed behind the same pharmacy from several months ago, on a concrete deck between discarded washers. Trains switched all night long, but nothing apparent was headed back east. The next morning, I experimentally hopped something on track 2, but it confirmed TD’s advice: it went off to a siding and lost its power with a characteristic hiss.
Muttering glossolalia and nearly bereft of sleep, I climbed again out of the deeply sunken yard, breakfasted at franchise #2 (Burger King), and trudged about 2 miles to downtown Cumberland beside roaring trucks and cars. I succumbed to the sirens of comfort and reserved a ride home on the cushions. The Capitol Limited, running late, gave me time to doze in the air-conditioned station. Of all people, Amtrak creator Richard Nixon deserves a vote of thanks from weary recreational hoppers. Without Tricky Dick, we’d all be riding Greyhound.
Superb DC public transit finished the job, bringing me back to microbiology manuscripts and free movies. There are some, just some, benefits to living here, but constitutionally I prefer spacious, majestic landscapes. (Surprise). A poet who died too young captured such yearnings:
“We are the pilgrims, Master, we shall go Always a little further: it may be Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow, Across that angry or that shimmering sea …”
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.