Reflections on a 5-mile freight-hopping ride to RFK stadium

As the pig train trundled by, I cautiously touched its side. My hand came flying back toward my face. Yeah, the train was probably going too fast.

I was in Hyattsville, Md., a few miles north of D.C., to take a short freight ride. It didn’t seem right to end 2001 with only one trip dating back to May; I simply wanted to enjoy the sensations of gripping a ladder, smelling diesel and feeling rather than hearing the nearly subsonic rumble of the kinetic monsters pulling the train. But, since CSX fixed the tracks in Hyattsville, catching a freight at the wye was no longer a given.

At least there was a good place to wait. You can sit and read on a pleasant, grassy slope over a bike trail paralleling the Anacostia River. Across the river lie autumn-splashed woods. Nobody suspects that you are contemplating criminal trespassing, theft of services and tampering with interstate commerce.

After a few hours, though, of basking in the dry air and sunshine, I took my leave. The post-track repair trains ran too fast for my liking, so I strode down U.S. 1 beside the straightaway tracks, where a coal train pointed north toward Baltimore was awaiting clearance. Here, at last, was something that I could catch standing still.

I climbed up the track embankment, staying out of the sight of local workmen. When the train finally got dispatcher permission and crept to life, I dropped into a bed of black coal. The car was not absolutely topped off, so I had space for concealment. Slowly, the cargo began to work its way into my shoes and down my collar. I thought with regret of failing to score the fragrant sawdust rides in Washington State.

This was my first coal train in five years; in the summer of 1996, I used Too Tall Ken’s advice to jump a southbound from Colorado Springs to Pueblo, along the Front Range. Some of you fellow hoppers may remember how we streamed into Pueblo throughout 1996 and 1997 to catch the Royal Gorge before the bean counters shut it down. We were all a lot younger then, and life still made sense.

Inwardly, I groaned when my train, rather than proceed up to Baltimore, hung a right over the Anacostia River and U-turned toward D.C. But the disappointment was minor; all I wanted was a short ride. From time to time, I peered over the wall of the car at the passing Hyattsville rooftops, the tree-lined riverbank, and the shabby row houses of Anacostia. It was startling how dense and plentiful the woods were within D.C., a sign of how poverty can actually be good for the environment. Nobody was out to build Wal-Mart City in these parts.

Then the train halted and, with a lurch, began backing up. I wasn’t even going to make it to L’Enfant Plaza, my planned jumping-off point. Since there were several idle strings of coal cars beside us, we were clearly about to be dumped, until some later delivery to a power plant. The units decoupled with their characteristic explosive hiss, and I was stranded in Northeast.

The brush and trees grew right up to trackside here. If I’d timed my jump wrong, I probably would have been suspended in them like Velcro Man until the friendly locals perforated me with bullets. At least I knew where I was: RFK Stadium and the Armory were on my left, and the elevated Metro track curved off toward the Minnesota Avenue station. I scaled the fence – one of the benefits of hoboing for 19 years is that barbed-wire fences look like screen doors – and sootily rode the predictable, comfortable Metro back to my apartment.

It had been a simple maintenance ride, five miles and maybe a half hour, to store up the sensations for the winter to come, a winter where we can contemplate, post-September 11, preparing to live like Europeans of the 1970s or Israelis of any decade. In the much smaller scheme of things, we can also reflect on how those who still jump freight trains have been forced to mutate from nearly open practitioners to commandos.

A biographer of John Ford once said that his characters knowingly sacrifice for a secure, organized future that can never match their own rough and hearty good times. For those of us who knew and loved the same mythic landscapes, who rode across them on freights rather than on horseback, I wonder if something like the old times can ever return.