Pleasant Saturday freight ride from Hagerstown to Manassas

Listen to this article

Having ridden CSX three times, I wanted to knock off its Eastern rival, the Norfolk Southern. It has a militaristic anti-hobo reputation, much like the Santa Fe out West.

The NS is harder to catch out of D.C., because it – except for some very rare jobs – comes no closer than Manassas, Va., 20-plus miles away. Hagerstown, Md., is farther from D.C., but for various reasons is a better yard for tramps. From there, northbounds proceed to Allentown, Pa. Southbounds hit a fork south of Hagerstown, either proceeding to Roanoke, along the Shenandoah Valley, or to Manassas, along I-66. All three stretches are Amtrak-free, making them especially worthwhile.

On a pleasant Saturday morning, I materialized beside a mall (that’s all you see now, malls and tract houses) and, within 20 minutes, caught a southbound piggyback. The weirdly mild summer and plentiful rain have created corn of nearly radioactive height. Lost in morose thoughts, I daydreamed my way over the scenic Potomac and past a series of poignant, boarded-up train stations and proudly flown Confederate flags in the sleepy towns after Maryland. There were two aspects of this ride into West Virginia and Virginia that were characteristic of the current era: no hoboes to be seen anywhere and a very short train. Maniacal police enforcement and a booming economy caused the former. Shippers’ disgust with NS’s post-merger performance caused the latter.

Fifty miles south of Hagerstown, we reached the split at Front Royal, Va., and veered east to Manassas instead of south to Roanoke. I had guessed that it would go this way; somehow, the all-pig train seemed likelier to be serving the New York-Atlanta route. Oh well. It meant that my ride would be capped at 110 Amtrak-free miles; I was not going on to Charlottesville. It also meant that I had an eight-hour walk awaiting me.

This has always been America’s curse: if you don’t happen to be holding a set of car keys, you are suddenly back in the Stone Age. Upon jumping off in Manassas, near the site of the Battle of Bull Run, I was 20 miles from the nearest Metro station, with no weekend bus service to cut the distance. And I detest the endless rejection of hitchhiking.

With an inward scream of frustration, I began marching down the NS main line to Fairfax County. Not many people walk from one county to another anymore.

Oddly, miles down the tracks, I ran into four normal-looking people. Where they had come from and why they were trudging in the other direction, I sullenly did not bother to ask. In the tiny town of Clifton, where yuppies were piling out of SUVs (Firestone equipped?) for overpriced dinners in “quaint” restaurants, I switched from the leg-pulverizing tracks to a country road. It wound up hills and past rich people’s houses and sun-splashed horse pastures. After a few hours of this, the ‘burbs and the night began.

Stalking out of a Wendy’s, strengthened by a greasewich, I trudged back out for another four hours of unsought exercise. There was one more night walker, who seemed erratic and spoke no English. But he apparently knew where he was going, so I left him.

The Franconia Road overpass over I-95 is temporarily closed to pedestrians, but I staggered across illegally, essentially sharing the right lane with traffic, and ended the agony of spine, hips, knees, and pronated foot on one of the last Metros back to D.C. I had ridden for four hours and walked for eight miles. Purification through suffering, preach the saints. Give me corruption and damnation any day.

(Read more Rail Rides and True Adventures)