Riding in darkness with the stars from Hagerstown to Harrisburg

It was time for a training ride, nothing glamorous or long, but a tune-up for a much longer trip up ahead. Back in 2002 or 2003, I had accidentally ridden to Altoona while trying to reach Allentown.

This time, my goal was to cut the same route short by jumping off in Harrisburg over Memorial Day weekend, to do a bit of sightseeing. I reached Hagerstown, the starting point, on an overpriced Greyhound bus and swiftly slipped into my local routine, stopping at Burger King and then cutting through the outlet mall. The teeming shoppers paid no attention to the man heading past them and through the parking lot toward the tree line.

On this day, the yard looked more confusing than it had on my last northward ride, when I had immediately spotted the right train. This time, I was tormented by deceptive-looking strings of cars in the midst of switching and several times with strangled patience waited for the freddyless ones to come back.

Having no desire to befriend the surprisingly many yard workers, I paralleled the yard through the dense woods on its west. A machete would have been useful, but eventually I emerged on the US 11 (Virginia Ave.) overpass above the northern throat of the yard, from which I dropped down beside an abandoned freight car.

First I finished a soft-serve cone that I had bought along the way to soothe my bored hunger. Out of the rails’ sight, I watched them make up the mixed northbound, until it unmistakably pulled out. I joined it, only to promptly wind up on the siding while a higher-priority hotshot zoomed out – one that I could have caught standing still. You take your chances when you refuse to press rails for info.

I had started late and the day was done; in fact, it became dark so soon, with some rain even, that I sullenly sank back into the cubbyhole of my front-facing grainer and let the world shrink to the car in front and the blurred ballast on both sides. To keep my sweatshirt from picking up all the grease and oil on the surrounding walls, I punched out holes in a garbage bag and put it on.

This part of Pennsylvania is almost completely rural, so for several hours I rode mostly in darkness lit only by stars. The appearance of light industry and streetlights signified that the chance to jump off somewhere around Harrisburg was approaching. For the second time, I crossed the Susquehanna past the lighted dome of the capitol, always a spectacular nighttime sight in a state that has seen much better days.

Then I panicked (unjustifiably), since the train was shooting out of Harrisburg as quickly as it had entered. My memories of being shanghaied to Altoona came racing back. Even if we did slow or stop in Enola Yard, it would be a long shuffle back to town under the spotlights of security. I lowered my foot experimentally to the ground, which promptly flung it back up onto my butt. OK, train going too fast.

Sometime later, perceiving a dip in speed, I tried again. Dismounting could be done this time, but even so, I had to run like a silent-movie clown to burn off the inherited momentum from the train, my knees practically hitting my chest. I was somewhere short of Enola Yard but still a mile or two out of the center of town and in a sunken railroad trench parallel to the booming, brightly lit traffic on I-83. The easiest way back downtown was to follow the tracks toward the lights, taking care not to be pulverized by the various trains headed in and out of the yard.

Once off the train, I went from glory-wreathed hobo to just another vagrant. During Memorial Day weekend, there were no hotel rooms in walking distance of downtown for under $100. Even though I felt as if I had been inside a barrel pounded with hammers, I would sooner “carry the banner” all night than pay that much for a night’s sleep. I almost did.

Leaving behind a saloon drag teeming with partygoers, I crossed the river in search of seclusion and found a boat stored upside down beside a tavern. Sleeping under it without a bedroll was not going to work out, so I wearily returned downtown and sneaked through a side door into the Hilton.

The lobby had several floors; at 3 a.m. I picked out a couch two floors above the front desk and slept sitting up. Two and a half hours later, a pair of security guards rousted me. For my third place to wait out the night, I took the elevator to the top and camped out in the stairwell. In an increasingly fat and lazy country, nobody is going to use the stairs. Eventually, my vigil ended, and I devastated the breakfast buffet. The Hilton’s rooms cost too much, but the buffet was a comparative bargain, especially when one’s capacity for all-you-can-eat is supernatural. Feeling more alive than dead at last, I toured the capitol (monument to a lost coal-and-steel civilization) and the state museum.

It had been a useful training exercise. My thoughts turned to Wyoming. Soon, I thought.