NIGHT TRAIN


There’s just something about the sound of a train blasting through the night; That harmonic whistle echoing up from the valley never fails to send chills up my spine. It seems to be calling me, promising endless adventure and unimaginable possibilities. As a boy, I used to watch the Southern Pacific freights roar by and disappear down the tracks that seemed to stretch off into infinity. Somewhere down that iron road was my future.

As you probably already see, rails have been a great source of comfort and stability in a crazy world where I always thought that I didn’t really fit in. When I’m on a train, all my troubles just melt away with the passing scenery. It’s like my imagination is fueled by massive steam locomotives, my ambition struggles against the grade, and my soul is a mile long freight train full of open boxcars, waiting for the hobos to hop on in.

I can be found hanging out with the rusting locomotive hulks of Humboldt Bay, or on a speeding subway train deep down in the tunnels of New York, or walking old abandoned rail right of ways where the tunnels remain like inviting ghosts offering glimpses of the past and insight into the future. It wouldn’t be strange to find me on a passenger train in the great Pacific Northwest, or even among the trench coats of the dashing commuters on the Long Island Railroad at the maze of tracks in Jamaica Queens, home of the famous, “change at Jamaica,” where rail lines fan out all over Long Island like all too comforting spider webs.

So you probably wouldn’t be surprised to find my girl and I in an industrial port city on the West Coast sitting behind a trailer in the dirt on the mainline waiting for that perfect freight train to take us right outta that dirty old town. We didn’t really care where the train was going. Destinations become mere distractions when faced with the rolling steel wheels of a freight train. The important thing was just to hop on and get out there into the night, to deliver ourselves beyond the smokestacks of industry to the simple pleasures of a mountain waterfall. The nights are cold; the days are nothing short of heaven, and all to the rhythmic clicking and the deafening shriek soundtrack of metal on metal braking. As the train swayed back and fourth, we knew deep down in our hearts that we couldn’t get off, even if we wanted to. With each jerk, we had to wonder if the train was going to stay on the tracks. We were completely in the hands of fate and the freight train, and what can be more freeing than that?

Initially, we had plans to ride a grainer. These railcars have a nice porch and a cubbyhole to ride in. However, the railroad had other plans for us. Rule #1: You can’t win an argument with the railroad. There’s no use in even trying. Sometimes you just gotta wait, but hell, that’s all part of the fun. We were sitting a little south of the BNSF yard, along the waterfront. The moon was full, and seemed to be smiling down upon us. There was a train coming out of the yard almost every hour, but they were all mostly unrideable intermodal double stack trains. Most of these cars don’t have floors, just bars for the containers to sit on, but there was one model of the 48’ freight car that did have a floor, and enough room to travel in style in front of the containers. It’d only be a matter of time.

We just sat in the shadows and dust, and watched the yard crews make up the freight. “No, that one won’t do.” We talked about things like formerly unknown mutual friends we had between us, and things like swamps, deserts, and our differing feelings about frozen tundra’s.
She really doesn’t think much of frozen wastelands, where as I dream of someday taking a VIA train up to Churchill, way up on Canada’s Hudson Bay.

The witching hour was upon us, and we just knew that the whistle of that perfect train was just around the bend. We never had a doubt that the call would come, that the rumble and blast of the locomotives would approach, and the freight would slow down and beckon us aboard.

Finally, our train appeared out of the mist where it slowed to a crawl and screeched to a stop along the waterfront trackage. We threw our packs in and climbed aboard. I was shaking with excitement, fear and exhilaration. When a freight train begins to move, you hear it coming towards you before you feel it. Its called slack action! It comes down car by car, and finally jerks you into motion. This is one of the best things in the world, besides my girl of course. She rolled up on me like a runaway freight, and I’ve never been the same since. Sometimes we don’t see each other for quite a long time, but all I gotta do is hop the next eastbound freight, heading off into a new state of mind, down mysterious rails to unknown cities, and somehow I always find her by
sheer coincidence and serendipity.

Tonight we were together, and all was right on the rails. The train sliced through the night as we marveled at the stars. As we entered a tunnel we clung together in the blackness, and laughed with giddy abandon as we emerged on the other side under the welcoming moon. We were in our own secret place, in love with the sounds and motion. The miles rolled away with the shriek of the freight train, a hundred miles vanished in a blaze. Nothing existed but the motion of the train. The rest of the world with its cities and wars, strip malls and cell phones simply didn’t exist. The world was only this stretch of railroad, and the stars above. It was all a symphony of screeches and groans as we cascaded through the mist, passing other freights in the night. It was so exciting to see the headlight of an approaching locomotive on the other track. It would fly by like an apparition followed by fluttering cinematic boxcars streaking by like the frames of an old film.

As we shot down the tracks, I started to think about the golden age of passenger trains. There was a time when if you wanted to cross the country by rail, you had more options than just an Amtrak train. Let’s say you were in Tacoma Washington, and were ready to embark on a journey east. You’d go downtown, and on one block there would be not one, not two, not even three, but four major railroad offices to choose from. Would you purchase a ticket on the Northern Pacific, the first railroad to be built mostly on the route of Lewis and Clark? How about the Great Northern? Would you be swayed by the ads touting the Empire Builder as, “a feast of travel perfection?” Then there’s always the Milwaukee Road, America’s Resourceful Railroad. The Milwaukee Road was a late entry into Pacific Northwest rail operations, but truly an innovator with main line electrification in Montana and Washington, and who could beat a ride on the Olympian Hiawatha. Then of course, there’s always the great Union Pacific, a railroad who’s roots can be traced back to 1848, and who could forget their involvement in the transcontinental railroad that first linked this country.

Of course today, my only options are Amtrak and this freight train, but that’s not really so bad. I feel damn lucky to be riding this train through the blustery night with my best girl, and all to the cacophonic thundering of this unstoppable machinery. I’m just happy to be a small part of the vast legacy, just two freighthoppers in the night. This train is my link to history, and the road to the future. By exploring it’s possibilities, I may be able to surpass my own. I’m addicted to the romance and endless mystery that awaits me anywhere I find a train, or the remnant of an overgrown track.

As our train passed Rye Junction, the new day was dawning. We were in awe as we witnessed the rebirth in secret, invisible spectators in the morning splendor. We were outside of society, looking in, and loving every exhilarating second of it. While most people were stuck in gridlock, our train came to a stop in the middle of nowhere. The morning beauty and calmness was intoxicating. We watched a coyote by a stream from the relative safety of our freight car. There was a small waterfall nearby and blackberries for breakfast. It was about a half-hour before the train started to move again, gaining momentum towards whatever adventure awaits us on the great iron road where the destinations really aren’t as important as the journey itself.

Editor’s note: Rails have been made of steel for well over a hundred years now, but the great iron road just sounds so damn dramatic, even if these iron rails were greatly flawed and rather dangerous.