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True Stories by Steve Keely
Mexican diesel locomotives operate seemingly without safety standards such as emissions controls. Diesel states, If they run, they hook em up! I thought the rust should have been painted over.
The Copper Canyon route is a mountainous ascent from sea level to 10,000 in 200 miles. That, or to claim engineering wizardry after 90 construction years, is why they bored 88 tunnels, built over a hundred trestles, and put in a corkscrew loop between Surfractia and Chihuahua. Most the tunnels occur on the sharp climb out of Surfractia to the continental divide. Some are ten sooty minutes long, and we knew the descript engines would spew exhaust like a smokers marathon. This may be the most scenic and hazardous hobo ride in the world, and that s why we wanted it.
It got cold in the altitude. Tiny feet on the back of my hand took it to the moon. A seven-inch lizard clung for warmth and wouldn t let go. The reptile, born on the car or dropped from a branch, had more frequent rider mileage than all the trampas combined. I shook him to the ground as the train slowed on an uphill curve.
Diesel and I sat on opposite sides of the metal platform just one couple-length from the three engines where I provided no pre-instruction because he s bright. The first tunnel took us in the dark. We sickened in every one.
A routine of echolocation hatched instead of seeing tunnels approach in the black. With each, I listened, ducked into my child s sleeping bag, and grasped close the end for seconds or minutes. The smoke bounced up the smokestacks and reflected off the ceiling directly onto us. My god, I thought, he has just a blanket, and nearly passed out. The practice was: Sound Hold breath Heat Pass out maybe Quiet First breath! My sleeping bag nearly caught fire 88 times in eight hours. His back would blister. We got knocked closer together.
The morning was better because the tunnels could be seen coming and going. At long last, the holes stopped. Diesel crawled out the blanket with a black face and light glinting off his lenses, and asked drunkenly, Didn t that affect you? I shook my head stupidly back-and-forth.
The next morning the freight dropped a string of cars in Creel in the heart of the Copper Canyon. We descended the ballast and, fearing for the welfare of the T-shirted trampas who rode the rim all night, walked back. Each beamed this morn from a new sooty face and made no mention of the previous cold or heat. Diesel said they were noble beings, but it s true that a good quest is also heartwarming.
He is a vegan every minute of the year except in Mexico where he wolfs carne asada every meal doused with the hottest sauces. I warned him to cut back or suffer a personality change. I m sorry, he burped this morning squatting on a rail. I ve lost everything in my pockets. His pen, light, coins, safety pins, and wedding gift had and blown overboard. I lost my visa too, he shrugged, But it doesn t matter since we re illegal.
He saved a detailed bathroom kit that daily he set out between his legs on a rail or car. He pulled it out today on a Creel park bench with the most primitive aboriginal culture left in North America watching like a documentary special. We saw him trim his nails and brush his teeth twice and swab his ears like a good London lad. He smiled sweetly at them, I m also getting used to his filthy flannel shirt. There was a fungus infection on the right big toe for which I had prescribed Iodine that he alternated the brush from the toe to a tongue canker. He paraded about town with a bare purple toe and Chow s tongue searching for carne asada. A white tether dangled from a loaned cap to the backs of his calves, and he ll be told in mountain legend for generations as the famous Mr. Kite
Daily, I tried to break his innate, dangerous verve by adding more weight to our regular misery. He entered Mexico kicking heels at the sky. I sat him on two-by-fours that replace the passenger seat in my sedan and cranked the heater with the windows closed to prepare for the hot ride. I ate and drank minimally in the initial days on the rail as an example of what a hardy hobo can accomplish, and he followed suit. He endured tedious transplantations despite my passable Spanish. There were constant safety drills that he hated A year of planning; a second of perfect execution! When he boarded the car behind the smoking units and rode through 88 scorching tunnels, I didn t argue. These were nothing I wouldn t do myself, and for his own good. To date, he s gotten worse and I felt outlasted. Today the alpha hobo wore a primal grin about town and felt more daring than ever.
The freight cast off with a goodbye toot to the Creel aborigines. It flew east shorter by some cars. We dropped anchor hours later at the continental divide, El Cielo, and all stole glances through the pines to puzzle why. From the west a silver streak gained and slid alongside our rust bucket freight on the side track, and stopped. It was a fancy private train like the one Diesel and I had tried to hobo two nights ago in Surfractia. Dirty faces atop the graincars stared across a narrow space into the second-story tinted windows at jolly people looking back who paid a grand each for the tour. We sat on grates in the sunshine; they sat at tables with white cloths and glassed roses within the dining car. The sun shifted over time until we saw only our hungry reflections.
We waited an hour until the priority train raced off, and lumbered after it on a single eastbound rail through the Sierra Madres. The passenger and freight trains run the same scenic rail rim of the Copper Canyon into which four Grand Canyons could be dropped! Sunshine brought everyone up onto the car decks for the vista. The locomotive exhaust tossed thick pine branches ten-feet above the smokestacks and then the branches pounded on us on the first car. The train dove into tunnels that would scrape a haircut but we flattened, and Diesel whooped and shook his fist after each exit.
Freights are decked more often south of the border because the prevalent ancient graincar roofs have a steel grate - a 2 -wide walkway - lengthwise over the grain hatches. This is the Mexi-hobo bench with a 360-degree view while punching wind with faces. Our car carried corn from the coast to the interior, judging by the spring weight and spilled kernels on the platform ends. Ladders there lead to the top. The grate overhangs the car ends by a couple feet so that with a long stride one may travel from car-to-car the length of a train. I tried once to say I could, and now leave it to the hobo acrobats. An older painter with a brush mustache and speckled shirt bounded the gaps from the rear train to join us. He remarked that at the next pueblo he would disembark for a month-long job, but first he wanted to meet the oddball gringos to tell his co-workers about. He had been deported about forty times over the years from the US and the last time was inserted into the dread computer. Caught again it was straight to jail for four years. So he had retired to paint in Mexico at one-third pay.
A Guatemalan also grew bolder and crossed cars to sit beside us on the deck of the 35mph freight. He pulled a wrinkled baggie from his pocket and carefully extracted a 4 x4 worn, thin booklet that I clutched like the original Genesis atop the devil s tornado. The title was Help for Central American Immigrants through Mexico . Seeing I wouldn t crack it in the whipping wind, he summarized into my ear, It says that an immigrant, legal or not, shall never be harassed or pay bribes to any authority while passing through Mexico. It was printed by the Mexican government and distributed along the Central American border, and he claimed it had great power when shown to Mexican police and soldiers.
I adhere to three strict rules atop a moving freight: Face forward, keep one handhold, and sleep with feet forward. Most the trampas, who had spent a wakeful, cold night in thin shirts on bare metal along the rim, flopped like pups in the deck sunshine to catch forty winks. My partner swung his head up there to announce, I want to be able to say I didn t sleep in a bed for two weeks, and reclined on the sunny grate with his head beating wind. I didn t like the smell of his feet mixed with the smoke and peril, so kicked hard after he almost got decapitated by a branch. Hey! he jerked, and I admonished, Look back at the other sleeping trampas! They swayed and snored smoke with the train, feet first. He sheepishly turned about and slept.
What s it like to ride a Mexican freight? Each day s minute and every night s hour the train shakes a ribbon to your goal. You hold the bucking floor with a pack between your legs and watch a thousand scenes scramble by. The mind relaxes and the past peeks in. You scrawl a diary, chat and the wind rustles the clothes and hair. You may visit other trampas along the upper grate and hop between cars. There s plenty of room out here! The two missing Hondurans re-boarded once as the freight huffed impatiently for the engineer to grab a taco at a mountain stand. The trampas decked all the cars to dance and ripple laughter across the townsfolk heads like a 4th of July parade.
Suddenly, there came a disturbing WHOOSH as the train rumbled through a pueblo. That wasn t a mechanical release! Diesel spouted. Somebody broke the brake line! I added in a tick. We were atop the steel grate of a car with six other riders who all peered over the side at the ballast that stopped. The town had turned out for the train in waves.
The lovely smudged chica jumped down and ran through the right-of-way to fall into the waiting arms of her clean townsman Latin lover. It was a wedding! Citizens applauded from the sidewalks. The engineer touched the brake hoses and the freight jerked to Chihuahua.
The train was short now, only fourteen cars glancing down the country. It passed an enormous red-white-and green Mexican flag the size of four boxcar sides. The trampas grew lively in spirit with each decreasing mile. How they waltzed on the freight decks! Almost to the USA!
Chihuahua City, nestled in foothills, livened as street lights ignited at dusk when the train rolled in. The Hondurans asked for twenty minutes at each bridge if this was the one to jump down into the yard. Diesel good-naturedly abided, Mas. A little farther. Four illegals Hondurans and two illegal gringos coiled side-by-side on the thin rear bumper until El puente! shouted Diesel, as the locomotives nosed under the correct bridge.
The train hissed and squealed decelerating to 20 and soon 15 mph. First, the elder leaped and one foot hit gravel followed by the other. He sprinted alongside for a hundred yards to check the three youngsters didn t slip under the cookie-cutter wheels. We disembarked on their heels.
The party assembled under the bridge as a comfortable darkness settled over the city. Diesel and I conferred and then told them that since they now were four instead of two we wouldn t encumber by buying them as coyotes. So, the hands white American and brown would-be Americans clasped and unclasped beneath the overpass. We pitched in different directions into the darkness.
We are the first to hobo North America s three most scenic freights! I cried out. The USA Royal Gorge. The Canadian Rockies. Mexico s Copper Canyon!
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