Southbound

by macksemil

On the evening of September 25, a Sunday, my friend Renee gave me a ride to the Union Pacifc trainyard in Eugene, OR. I fought back the want to stay with my friends in Eugene for another day, but I had postponed my departure two nights already. It was time to get on my way. I waited by the yard for an hour or two before I saw the light of my train pulling in. It stopped in front of where I was waiting. I hiked up and over the mainline and climbed up into a boxcar, spiking the door with a railspike so it wouldn´t close during the ride south.

There were some problems with the crew, I heard over the scanner. The yard office told the crew on duty to tie the train down, that the crew that was to take over the train had not come on duty yet. It was going to be a little bit of a wait. The night in Eugene was humid and warm so I drifted in and out of sleep, occasionally coming out of the corner of the dark boxcar to look out the doors and see if anything had changed.  Seeing only the traffic on the nearby road, I eventually gave up on watching for activity and went back to sleep using my backpack as a pillow.

I woke up when I heard the familiar crunch of ballast rock under truck tires. A vehicle passed the open door of the boxcar as it slowed down, then backed up to the door. The vehicle had a backup beeper so I knew that it was a work truck and not the bull. Not that there would have been a whole lot I could have done to escape at that point anyway. The worker took of his hardhat and shined his light in the corners. He saw me lying in the far corner and called out to me.

¨You going to California?¨

¨Yes sir.¨

¨Your train should be leaving in less than an hour.¨

¨Am I cool here?¨

¨Never saw ya.¨

¨Thank you.¨

With that, he was off and I was alone again. I drifted to sleep with my head resting on my backpack.

I woke up when the brakes aired up and we started rolling south. Slowly at first but picking up speed toward the southern terminus of the yard. I stood learning against the wall of the boxcar, looking out at the familiar city go by from the safety of the shadowed boxcar. I regretted not bringing any cigarettes as I fought through a wave of emotion after leaving town. From that point on it was more or less unfamiliar territory, I wouldn’t see my friends and family again for two or three months. Anticipating a cold night ahead I rolled out my sleeping bag, put on my longjohns, sweatshirt and fleece hat and went to sleep.

Anticipating warm weather from the central valley of California on through Colombia, I left my beloved 15 degree down sleeping bag in Oregon and took a cheap 32 degree synthetic one in its place. I woke up shivering and spent most of the night awake through the Cascade Mountains, Central Oregon and through the Shasta Wilderness area in Norhthern California. As we rolled along, winding down the valley into Dunsmuir for our second crew change since Eugene, the air started to warm and the sweet morning sunshine peirced through the trees. Soon I was out of my sleeping bag and basking in the morning sunshine as we approached the far north reaches of Dunsmuir. I began to feel my feet again. The train stopped under the I-5 bridge north of town for our crew change on the mainline, within 5 minutes we were rolling south again. On the side of the tracks, a lone worker stood by the side of the tracks and spotted me as the train rolled past him. Apparently he didn’t mind me riding since the train pulled on through town and off toward the central valley and Roseville without delay.

Mt. Shasta would be the last of the great Northwest that I would see for a long time. I have a strong connection with the place that I am from, which sometimes keeps me from leaving. At this time I was breaking through that wall, at this moment I realized that I was outside of my comfort zone. It was off to the big cities, the smog choked streets full of people I wouldn’t care to talk to. It was goodbye to good coffee, microbrews and basement shows. Goodbye to surfing in cold water, the coming frost and the long days of the Oregon summer.

I slept off and on through the afternoon, eventually taking off my longjohns for the last time in a long time as we descended into the central valley heat. It may have been approaching fall in Oregon, but the summertime was still in effect in Central California. We continued past Chico, Yuba City and Live Oak. Just south of Live Oak we started slowing down on the mainline, a bad sign. As we were coming to a stop I was again spotted by a lone worker standing by the side of the tracks. I had hardly been spotted by workers twice in my past years of riding trains, on this ride I was spotted twice in six hours. I turned on the scanner and heard that the train was going to be inspected for a detector that was set off. The detector alerted the train operators that something was hanging off of the train.  I put everything in my bag and hopped out of the boxcar, walking across the dirt road and climbing over a small barbed wire fence into a small field. I hid behind a tree and listened to the radio scanner to be sure not to get caught on the train.

As I was hiding there, I spotted another train rider confusedly looking out of a boxcar nearby where I was hiding. He was young, with a scraggly beard and shabby clothes. I waved and he disappeared back into the boxcar. He poked his head out again shortly after and asked me what was going on. I told him that the train had been stopped to be inspected and that I had been spotted by a worker, he decided to stay on once I told him that I was going to jump on again when the air brakes charged up. I never saw anyone walk the train and eventually the crew recieved the go-ahead to continue down the line toward Roseville. I sprinted over the fence and up to the boxcar I was in before once I heared the hiss of the air brakes. I managed to get onto the boxcar before it started moving again, and was safely stowed away again while we started further South.

I woke up again as the train slowed to the sight of the outskirts of Roseville. Looking out both boxcar doors I decided to bail out the opposite side as my last journey to Roseville. This turned out to be an incredibly easy escape compared to the one in 2008 when a group of three of us crusty trainriders were kicked out of the golf course by the groundskeeper after sneaking in under the fence by the tracks. On the other side of the train was a quick and fenceless exit to a busy street that led straight into downtown Roseville. Not wanting to chance getting spotted and pulled off the train in yards I’d never been to when I had a flight to catch in LA, I opted to ride the Amtrak the rest of the way to LA instead of trying to do the next leg of the trip by freight.

I walked to the Amtrak station in Roseville, which was closed. Through the operators on the other end of the 1-800 numbers for the Greyhound and Amtrak I learned that my options were a bit complicated. Eventually I walked over to what looked like a bus stop on the side of the railroad tracks to ask how much the ticket to Sacramento cost. Inside I met a nice lady who was on the customer advisory board for Amtrak who knew all of the schedules and routes in the area. We chatted for a while about my options and trains in general before she offered to introduce me to a friend of hers who was  the conductor on the next train. I got on with out a ticket by the means of my new friend namedropping a mutual connection we had discovered; another Amtrak engineer who was a train rider as well.

I ended up not having to pay to get to Sacramento, only about twenty miles. But the conductor of the train came back to chat with me about what riding the rails was like, and I got to ask him questions about what working for the railroad was like. He told me some stories about the huge influx of workers that came to Amtrak after Southern Pacific was absorbed by Union Pacific in 1996. He had a lot of interesting things to say about the railroads, and once he called me a “knight of the road,” an older term that’s not really used any more but sounds really grand. I don’t think that I have  earned that distinction, in my mind the knights of the road are the older riders with years and years of experience.

I got off the train on the platform in Sacramento with advice about how to connect to L.A. that night. I said goodbye to my new friends and thanked them for the help. I bought my tickets and spent the next 8 hours slowly making my way through the night to Union Station in Los Angeles. First a bus to Stockton, then a train to Bakersfield, then another bus to Los Angeles. I saw the signs of the stations as we briefly stopped; Modesto, Merced, Fresno, Tulare, Bakersfield.  I fell asleep on the bus trip into LA from Bakersfield  and woke up groggy at Union Station around 2:00 am.

The subways had stopped running for the night so I found a somewhat comfortable chair and fell asleep for about 3 hours until the first train in the morning. I was woken up intermittently by pains in my neck and security checking for tickets. Fianlly 5:00 came around and I walked to the Red Line train, which took me to the neighborhood of Silver Lake, where my friends live.  I walked down Sunset Boulevard to Sanborn and found the house before sunrise. There was a key under the mat for me, I let myself in and was asleep on the couch shortly.

My friends in L.A. are some of my room mates from college. Griff, Evan and evan’s cousin Dylan. Griff, who was born on the same day as me, had moved to Los Angeles a few years ago to pursue his passion of writing. He struggled for a long time to get his feet on the ground but now seemed to be on the up and up, establishing himself in the literary community and doing some freelance editing. Evan has had a rollercoaster ride the last few years but is always on a crazy adventure so he had lots of great stories to share. The house also had a couchsurfing guest at the time I was there, a sweet French girl named Elsa on holiday.

Los Angeles, as far as the city,  was what I had expected it to be. Busy, fashionable and choked full of cars and smog. I spent a lot of time relaxing during the day, hanging out with Dylan and Elsa. Evan took me to Griffith Park just after sunset. We walked up to the observatory and looked at downtown L.A. The sky was heavy and orange in the sunset with what I presumed to be smog. We returned home and made an enchilada dinner with microbrews which would be my last in a long time.

The following day I spent mostly running errands around town. Shopping for odds and ends that I still needed for my travels. Batteries, a razor, books, et cetera. In the afternoon, another old college room mate Nick Maffe stopped by to pick up Elsa. We caught up and talked about books before we again parted ways. Griff and I then walked to the little apartment in which Charles Bukowski wrote “Post Office” and “Women”.  It was nondescript, drab, cut-and-paste. There were many of the type on DeLongpre street. The site itself was without signage. Griff and I talked breifly on nearby church steps about our favorite Bukowski works.

 

Soon we were walking down Santa Monica boulevard waiting for a phone call from Griff’s friends who were going to pick us up on the way to a Rashashana dinner in West Hollywood. We walked into a Denny’s intending to get a slice of pie but found the establishment lacking the usual display by the counter. We used the pisser and left. Soon we recieved the phone call we were waiting for and were on our way. The dinner was semi-formal. As the “traveler passing through”, as Griff put it, I was able to skirt the formality with rolled up khakis, sandals and a rediculously oversized but tastefully colored button up shirt. Griff assured me that this was in accordance with acceptable L.A. fashion.

There was an interesting cast of characters at the small get together. One of which was Jake Hucko, a former University of Oregon lineman,  in slacks and a tie, hair slicked back with a well-trimmed moustache. The people in the room were involved with writing and television shows. The host Jill, being a mentor for up and coming writers, and had taken Griff’s friend Talia under her wing. Jill served us all a fantastic feast under candlelight, produced by candles which were blessed by Talia. Two moments from this party stand out for me. One was when a very charistmatic and energetic screenwriter named Glen told me that I reminded him of a young Bill Gates, who he attended Harvard with. The other was when Jill offered to help me write a book if I brought her the material. Jill is a fountain of positive energy and the atmosphere was infectious. We all left with huge smiles on our faces.

It was back to the house for one last night with Griff and Evan, Dylan being out for the evening. In the morning I was up at 6:00, out the door by 6:20 and connected all of the transit to the airport without hassle. The usual airport rigamarole failed to dampen my spirits. The storm over Houston that caused us to have to fly to Shreveport, Louisana and land for two hours did. Continental let the Managua plane leave Houston before we could make it. The airline offered a “discount” at local hotels, to be arranged through a phone line that no one was able to get through on. The customer service representative offered the only line to which I had no response: “Welcome to corporate America.” She kindly reserved my seat on the next day’s plane and handed me an over-night kit with some shaving cream and toothpaste. A decent sized group of us were stuck in the airport for the 22 hours until the next day’s flight to Managua.

Believe it or not, the George H. Bush International Airport has a multi-faith worship center in it. And inside this multi-faith worship center, believe it or not, are prayer rugs. If you ever find yourself shivering on an airport floor trying to sleep, look for the multi-faith worship center. If you are lucky, it will contain some prayer rugs which you can use to stay warm.

The flight to Managua the next day was uneventful. After filtering throgh many waiting lines, paying some guy behind a desk 10 bucks and having my bags lethargically checked I was free to set foot into Nicaragua. Quickly I found Mariel, who was waiting for me with a hired pickup truck driver. Glad for having arranged this throguh the spanish school I would be attending, I stuffed my pack in the back of the cab. Mariel squeezed in next to my pack and we were off into the dank air of the passing storm, cutting through the streets of Managua before hitting the rural highways. After two hours in and out of sleep, struggling with severly mangled spanish between naps, we arrived in San Juan Del Sur in the middle of a downpour. I climbed the steps and met Carmen, the matron of the Nicaraguan family I would be spending the next month living with. 11:00 being exceedingly late for her, she showed me to my room and quickly went to bed. I arranged payment for the transportation with Mariel. Soon I was stretched out on the full sized bed,  trying not to think about all the insects in the room. I meandered off to sleep, listening to the constant barrage of rain on the roof.

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