Over the course of two weeks, I’ve done what research I possibly can online and speaking to a few people who have some experience hopping trains, but let’s be frank here– the reality is that I’ve never done this, and I have no idea what I’m doing. Experience will be the only real teacher here. Experience is the only real teacher anyways.
So it’s dark out, and I find a place to hop the fence near the Denver rail yard. There are numerous high-rise apartments around the area, but it’s black as coal outside and most people are too busy absorbed in most likely the television or Internet to really care or notice the guy outside preparing to hop this gigantic metal fence. I stand in between the wall and the fence for a moment contemplating, and then tell myself that sitting here pondering all night isn’t going to get me on this coal train. So like an ungraceful monkey, I climb the fence and somehow manage to scale myself down safely using the support of a tree. One small mission accomplished, I suppose– I’m actually in the yard!
My heart rate is accelerated. I control my breathing and my ears are highly tuned in to what is going on around me. I hear voices in the distance, the light rail chugging along somewhere nearby. Bracing myself for when the time is right, I fret over whether it would be better to hop this coal train while it is starting in motion or to make a dash for it, hop inside and just wait till it starts moving. I decide to endure the latter.
I hang out for a few minutes before determining that the coast seems to be clear and make a sharp dash for the nearest coal train. I climb the metal rungs of the ladder, throw my backpack on top and lay down inside on the mound of coal. Mission one accomplished– I am inside the non-moving car! I take cover the best I can and question the sanity about what I am in doing. I told myself that I would do this once before the summer was up– the first time I ever hopped a rail car. What if someone saw me? What if something bad happens? There have been horror stories about people getting killed while train hopping and it ultimately is no completely-safe endeavor by any means. Of course, the bad stuff is all we ever hear on the news, but still– there is plausibility to this, and it adds to my adrenaline.
I use my pack as a head rest and try to wait patiently in the coal truck. Fifteen minutes later, and I’m still laying there, anticipating the rail cars to move, yet nothing is happening. I start to wonder what could possibly be happening. What if the cars didn’t move for another two hours? I had done my homework and I thought I knew what time they would be moving regularly, but this was starting to seem to drag on…
Then suddenly, there is the psssssshhh sound as air is released from the hydraulic systems. A few seconds later, there is a sharp tug and I feel the weight of the train pull the car and myself along with it. Slowly, the train starts chugging along the tracks as we depart Denver. I lay as low as I possibly can.
I want to get up and peer out the side to see we are, but I’m concerned that someone will see me laying down inside the coal car. In reality, these concerns are really not that valid as nobody really cares and it’s difficult to see at dark too. The train hums and sings to me mechanically as we roll along the tracks. It stops for five minutes, probably to wait for another train to pass, and then carries on. This is the part where one just has to be patient– this train is going somewhere, but it’s definitely not going there fast. You’re all alone in this coal train, and you don’t know where it’s ultimately going, except that it’s heading south. You’ve got to put faith in something random, and sometimes you’ve got to shut your mind down from worrying and just enjoy the ride. This is what I try to do.
Riding in the cars at night, the train becomes an actual living, breathing mechanical being– I imagine it as a giant Lockness land-locked monster chugging on through the night. Soon we are out of Denver and it gets dark enough that I can sit upright and enjoy the view. Everything seems so alien– unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I’m in complete awe. Once out of Denver, the air gets cleaner and colder and better to breath. When my feet get cold, I do push-ups and run in place with my hands on the coal to stay warm.
More than four hours later, past midnight, the coal train finally rolls into Colorado Springs– after blowing through Castle Rock, Monument and the military base and the train slows down, and I ready myself to jump out once the train comes to a stop. To my surprise, the train actually speeds up, and starts moving even faster. This train isn’t stopping!, I realize with a slight sense of dread. If it’s not stopping in Colorado Springs– where is it stopping?! The furthest that this particular line goes is to Raton, New Mexico as far as I know, which would put me in for a very long ride and an extremely long night if that is the case. I turn my Ipod on and listen to the song “Ordinary World” by Duran Duran.
I’m ready to get off this damn train, these damn unstoppable tracks.
We pass downtown Colorado Springs, a shining beacon in the night air. The train reaches speeds that it hadn’t reached prior to now– right when I wanted to get off, go figure. I just laugh and hold on, peering over the side as we pass trees and terrain and darkness in the space between towns and cities, the only “wilderness” left. The train starts to blow dust around at speeds this high and it’s hard to look over the side for any considerable amount of time without a bandana.
Another hour later, the train finally comes to a complete halt and I take a good look around, trying to figure out where we might be. My guess is Pueblo, but it’s dark, and it all looks the same right now, so it’s hard to say. I poke my head up, and duck it back down just in time as a truck comes by flashing a bright light. This must be what they mean by the “bulls”– people that are hired to drive around and bust people for hopping trains. Or maybe it’s just rail workers, it’s hard to tell, but it’s best to remain undercover for obvious reasons.
I wait a few minutes for the truck to pass on by, but not too long because I don’t want the train to take off again. I toss my pack over my back and scoot on down the metal ladder. Look both ways, and dart across the yard, only to find a barbed-wire fence that runs along the side of the yard. I have a feeling of being trapped. The lights of the truck pass by again on the other side of the train, and I quickly duck down behind some tumbleweeds and dead brush. I remain still and one with the tumbleweed.
I lay there for a minute and decide it’s now or never. I make a mad dash along the fence line until I find an opening (finally), and run down a steep slope, and my foot sinks into some thick mud and a small river (fuck!), and just keep going, off into the night, hoping that nobody is behind me chasing me down (this is only my imagination) and I come to a conclusion that this must be Pueblo, because this town is just too big to be anything else. Nobody is on the streets, everything is silent for the most part since it’s near three in the morning. The only resident I find is the local skunk, who is scavenging around for food at this late hour. I opt out of asking the stinky fellow for directions and carry on. I find a gas station and decide to get some snacks, my stomach craving food. At this hour, only the sliding window is open– this must be a sketchy part of town. Never till this experience have I actually bought a bag of Chex Mix and a root beer through a sliding window. The old lady working as a cashier gives me a twice over look (I must not look like a local) and hands me the goods. Later on, I will discover how dirty I look, covered in coal dust from my ride into town, after looking in the mirror! A girl with two kids in her car and a seedy-looking guy buys a pack of cigarettes and gives me a tentative glance. I feel like a ghost in this town.
I find a a dusty park, throw my pack down atop a hill, and fall asleep despite how uncomfortable I am, utterly exhausted. I find myself a nice bed in the sand, scoot aside the shards of broken beer bottle glass, and fall asleep almost immediately.
TO BE CONTINUED….