Train-hopping the wrong way again on Santa Fe’s Raton route

The Santa Fe’s Raton route’s existence is secure; though a secondary freight line, it has enough business and carries Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. I wanted to cross the Sangre de Cristo range at Raton Pass.

La Junta, Colo., the starting point for the Santa Fe ride to New Mexico, was thoroughly frustrating. They don’t run many freights here, and when I found a well on a juicy hotshot, my victory turned to ashes: the hotshot swerved toward Pueblo!

What is it with me and the Santa Fe? Three times I’ve jumped their trains with a fork up ahead and each time the train has gone the wrong way. If you flip a coin thrice, you stand only a one-eighth chance of losing all three times. I am a born loser.

I jumped off near Avondale during a meet, sat and brooded outside a produce wholesaler’s barn, and tried my luck on US 50. This time it was awful. I was even ID’d by a sheriff’s deputy while titillated drivers zoomed on. Finally a Mexican family drove me to Manzanola. Darkness came and my luck ran out. The nearest town with bus service to La Junta was Rocky Ford, a nine-mile stroll away. No choice. I hoofed it and caught a bus at 3:20 a.m.

Other tales of forced hobo marches came to mind: a long-ago riding partner once found himself set off in Weed and had to walk to Yreka. A-No. 1 and Jack London once ambled 19 miles from Cheyenne to Granite Canyon. Sooner or later, you will find yourself on foot on a highway, in a forest, in a pasture.

That night in La Junta, an amazingly diligent bull pinned me to my hiding place by cruising the area and flashing his searchlight. Things looked no better after sunrise; a deluge of flash-flood proportions was hammering the town. The arroyo under my hiding place was filling up rapidly. A hobo ride now would be risky (ladders would be slippery) and would invite pneumonia. Furthermore, another day might well go by without suitable trains. I decided to win on time instead of money and guiltily took the comfortable Southwest Chief to Albuquerque.

Raton Pass was a little disappointing, flatter and greener than I expected, not an exuberant fantasyland ringed with peaks. Glorieta Pass and Apache Canyon were a little more striking. In downtown Albuquerque, which had nothing to recommend a longer stay, I prepared to catch one back to La Junta.

A homeless non-rider explained that the northbound units fuel up in Albuquerque before hitching up to their cars. By 10:45 p.m., I was headed back to La Junta in an empty gondola car, beset by a swirling storm of rust flakes and sand. I settled in for another arctic night in the high country, under a speckled sky that seemed more white than black.

The next morning, for nostalgia’s sake, I transferred to an empty boxcar for the remaining 20 miles to La Junta. There was a Mexican inside, who had gotten through the night wearing a dress shirt. He’d been sitting far north of my own catch-out spot. Somehow he had caught an empty box on the fly – no mean feat.

Time and again I wonder about the restlessness that drives us to catch freight trains. Maybe the best evocation of our yearnings came from the poet, who longed for “that untravell’d world whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move.”

The spectacular, starry nights in the high country remind me of hoboes’ bond to travelers and dreamers of bygone days. Hoboing is one of the last ways to behold the brilliant night sky that the ancients knew, before light pollution and smog blotted everything out. This is the nearly lost universe that Ulysses navigated by on his voyage home.

The freights carry you across silent and forgotten lands in the West. You glide under an ageless visual symphony; the points of light overhead are older than time. Some of the starlight on display tonight began its long journey through space when the Earth was cooling, some more than a million midnights ago, when the Athenian seafarers peered up at the glittering heavens for guidance. The link between generations is cosmic.