Hallucinations, freezing and lessons from veteran tramps in the Rockies in 1992

I’d bought a discounted round-trip Greyhound ticket to Salt Lake, my jumping-off point.  I looked through the bus window and saw a hobo emerging from the UP yards, so I quickly ran him down and solicited some advice.

Within the half hour, an SP train rolled out of the yard. I nailed a pig.

The train climbed into Colorado Plateau country along the Book Cliffs, one of the longest escarpments in the world, then whipped along under the flaming red bluffs that flank the Colorado River. For nine hours I beheld the absolute unpeopled desolation of the high desert.

We pulled into Grand Junction, Colo., 300 miles east of Salt Lake, around dinnertime. The next morning, I shuttled from one stretch of track to the other, looking for that elusive place where one can jump trains without getting busted. I found two other Denver-bound tramps. Lyndell was a wiry 66-year old, who claimed to have a B.S.M.E. and to have started hoboing after his wife died. Lai was the first Asian tramp I’d met, a 30-ish Vietnamese with limited English. He simply said, “I have no family, no friends, nobody.”

Experienced tramps make good things happen. We found a string of junkyard-bound crummies and boarded them. For a tramp, they’re positively luxurious – a bed, desk, windows and doors, even cases of bottled water. I picked out the absolute last caboose because it had the classic upper story from which the brakeman can see over the top of the train. There was an amusing graffito scrawled inside the crummy: “EMPEROR OF THE NORTH – A-NO. 1.” Somebody else had enjoyed the same movie, the best one ever made about tramps.

This was it, the ride that I’d yearned for and dreamed about for untold years. Through Glenwood Canyon and up toward the Moffat Tunnel, I could hear the rushing river, savor the forest scent of aspens and pines.

It was already dark when we popped into Moffat. Originally, I’d dreaded it – at six miles, it’s among the longest tunnels in North America, and its pent-up exhaust fumes have snuffed many an unwary hobo. Now, though, in a caboose with windows and doors, I laughed it off like any Amtrak passenger.

Because of mechanical delays, which were thoughtfully explained by the engineer and yard dispatcher on the caboose’s still-functioning radio, we rolled hours late into Denver yard. At 3 a.m., we heard the “breaking air.” The trip was over.

Lyndell, the older tramp, was still in the preceding crummy. Strangely enough, Lai had jumped off unnoticed. Lyndell and I strode into the moonscape of the Denver yard, heading for a rendezvous with a Pueblo-bound train. He’d cheered up when I agreed to ride with him. He wanted the safety afforded by a partner. More important, he wanted to ward off the loneliness that hangs over the full-time tramp. Meanwhile, I craved his priceless knowledge of yards and trains.

A young black man approached us; we were nearing an abandoned grain elevator where Lyndell claimed to have found two murder victims once. The newcomer asked us if we knew a place to sleep. Lyndell suggested some mission downtown. As the latter passed out of earshot, the young man asked softly, “You wanna blowjob?”

At 6 a.m. a Pueblo-bound coal train rolled up to us. I stared in wonderment at all the dials and gauges inside the unit. Lyndell explained them all. Lyndell said many things, because the ride was interminable; we creaked along at the peculiarly low speed of 15 to 20 mph.

Six hours later (the ride should have taken no more than three), he sat bolt upright. “AD, this train’s not headed for the yard. It’s going to the power plant. GET OUT.” So we did, at 20 miles per hour. A remarkable performance for a 66-year-old guy.

We ambled into the Pueblo yards. Lyndell sat down to figure it out; it was a marvel to watch him reason about the yard’s layout. From Pueblo, I was headed back west, and he was going east to Kansas City. We parted.

I was walking on an embankment bordering the yard when a badge-and-gun-toting man materialized. I’d been expecting this to happen someday but was angry to be so unalert. With a broad, sadistic grin, he vowed, “If I see you again, I can promise you more than the Tramp Special, which is one night in jail. I promise you 30 days in jail.”

The situation clearly demanded a change in strategy. I have plans – I have no time to rot in some abusive hick-town jail. Pueblo’s inconvenient layout forced me to walk better than a mile on the opposite side of the river, cross back to the yard side, then make my way through a patchwork of side streets to a safe catch-out point.

Shortly after 5:30 p.m., a hotshot appeared. Desperation gave me a few moments of grace. Keeping pace with the train, I somehow leaped over a switch and swung around a signpost. My right hand found a vertical post, while the left clamped onto a spiked grating. Arm strength kept me alive long enough to plant my feet on the rungs. The crisis was over.

We initially traversed some rather tiresome mesa country. A few miles past Canon City, we hit the roadless Royal Gorge. The train flies along the bank of the Arkansas River, at the bottom of a 1,000-foot-deep canyon. I stared up, up at the sheer canyon walls soaring into the crystal expanse of air and sky.

As night came on, though, it became dangerously cold. Freezing to death at 10,000 feet was a serious risk. Not only that, with lack of sleep and insufficient food, I was beginning to hallucinate. In the black stretches of night, luminous people turned out to be poles and trees and lamps. It was fortunate that I was standing in a four-walled space, because I bumped into the walls several times.

My first attempt to crawl into the unmanned second unit had failed; the door seemed locked. Two hours later, I simply could not take no for an answer. I tugged until the door opened. It had just been sticky all along. Gratefully, I sat in the engineer’s padded chair in the heated unit for the next five hours, but when the train reached Grand Junction, I hit the floor.

The unit door popped open, and a flashlight beam stabbed me. It was an inspector, not a bull.

“You’ll have to get out. You’re not allowed in the units.”
“I know. It was just too cold on the stacks last night.”
“Yeah …,” he conceded, not unkindly.
“I didn’t touch anything.”

I could have sneaked back onto a stack car, but desperately wanted to clean up and change clothes. Although my return trip by Greyhound was supposed to originate in Salt Lake, I caved in and bought an additional ticket to cover the distance from Grand Junction to Salt Lake. My well-being was worth more than the $37 I would have saved by iron-manning it on the train all the way to Salt Lake.

Still bull-shy after the previous day’s near-arrest, I rushed to leave the yard and promptly plunged into a ditch of waist-deep water. Granted, it had been obscured by darkness and tall weeds. But the slapstick incident underscored the deterioration wrought by a few sleepless days.

There are many things I’d gladly forget but not what it was like to ride a caboose over the Rockies as the light bled from the sky.