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True Stories by Steve Keely
Executive Hobos and 9/11 (Part 7) "Rolling Classroom"
A hobo's next to finest moment is sitting on a sure ride and watching the scenery glide by after working his tail off to get there. Wind sweeps over the orange gondola conveying the three executives as hundreds of 4'-steel wheels beneath our eastbound train from Grand Junction roll, slow and climb up into the Rockies. The peak experience of hoboing becomes what's around the bend, the unexpected.
Our afternoon freight boasts one mile of mixed carriages drawn by three struggling diesel-electric engines. Our personal gondola, judging by the twigs and bark wind swept into the corners, recently hauled lumber, though this car type also transports pipes, machinery and anything else - including executives - that can be hoisted over the chin high sides. The length is about the same as a boxcar, fifteen paces, and six hobo steps wide. We spread across the back inner wall out of the airstream sitting on the packs, lying on bags, or standing and peeking over the walls. I yell across to the pair, "We're making fair time. Plus, up the line, "helpers" - extra engines - will be added to scale the Continental Divide. The prospect of Apple making his New York jet and the rest of us the Eris conference increases by the mile."
Grand Junction was only the foothills... The majestic Rocky Mountains loom ahead. The dirt heaps higher along the tracks, flat browns change to tilting greens, and the car rears as the rail charges up the first major canyon. A stream leaps at the right where pines march up and gains depth and speed behind us as the train's three chugging units slowly acquiesce to the incline.
At dusk, the helpers arrive. Six mighty diesel-electrics - three at the front and three in the rear - are tacked to the long train. In the 80's, my hobo heyday, no one thought of boarding a Rockies freight having less than four engines. Those coveted hotshots had four, up to nine engines, just pulling out the yards before helpers were added at the steep portions. Each modern locomotive, however, runs 20% stronger with 6000 horsepower, but what an evolution to reach it.
"Horsepower" came from horses straining at the bit between 15th-century wooden rails that hauled freight and passengers. Later, the early steam engines that replaced the animals were ridiculed as plodders alongside 10 mph stagecoaches. Horse vs. engine drawn stage races were thrown and, by the mid-1800's, the steam engines started winning. Their velocities soon doubled the stages, and still there were doubters about the use of mechanical trains to transport humans. One college professor predicted that rail travel at high speed was impossible since travelers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxiation. By WWII, locomotives set 140 mph speed records, and faster to the turn of the century as Japan, France and German high-speed diesel trains now reach 200 mph. Considering their rapid progress, the future holds great things for railroads.
On the road, there's a foretaste to hoboing that embraces the landscapes. This Rockies segment depicts the romantic hobos busting the breeze through treetops who are responsible to nothing nor anyone, free to wander the earth. Yet with responsibility may advance danger.
"Should we be thinking about the Moffat Tunnel?" Pronto questions as the rail slashes an uphill crag. "We'll hit it in the dark," I reply, "And I plan to sleep through it. However, you two should keep awake for the spectacle - the sixth-longest train tunnel in earth at 6.2 miles." Apple wonders, "Should we prepare in some way?" I warn, "Be ready with flashlights, bandanas and water for your mouths. You're safe here a half-mile at mid-train from the locomotives. You may get dizzy, but unless it halts no one should pass out."
My associates won't sit, refuse to sleep through the afternoon and evening hours. "There's too much to see," says Pronto wryly. "I catnap at sidings." Likewise, Apple misses not an inch of scenery and waves fanatically over the side at tiny mountain town crossings until the first stars twinkle. We continue to stand without speaking under a rising moon. Finally, Pronto sighs, "This is the only way to travel. I can do it alone now."
Dead on my feet at midnight, I fall to the joggling floor and roll up into my bag. I look up like when I was an Idaho kid on a backyard sleep watching the stars sweep over the fence. "Stars scribble mysteries across the galaxy," I repeat to myself, and turn my face to Pronto and Apple keeping the vigil like statues peering over the gondola sides at the progression of peaks. Then I tuck in like a turtle, and sleep.
I awaken in the wee hours to pee through a short rip in the floor. Shaking free, I see the other two on sailors' legs, have been standing for hours, under a star blanket at the passing craggy silhouettes of mountains and drop-offs. I join them to ask, "How was the Moffat tunnel?" "No big deal!" utters Apple, glimpsing Pronto who explains, "I put on a fireman's mask at the portal that made Apple nervous. But I wet a handkerchief for him and we ducked our heads inside our shirts just in case. Turns out the fumes were minimal." "About like in the old days," coughs Apple, "When fleabag tramps rode this track to kill vermin in that extermination tunnel." "Beautiful evening," Pronto closes the night, as soon the two finally dig deep into their bags.
Daylight cracks my eyes. The others stir also, and we cloister in a slat of sunshine at the rear of the wobbling shoebox along the rail. The last of the beef jerky is brought out and we chew the fat. Apple beams, "This gondola is a classroom leaving you learning wherever it rolls." Consequently the dialogue becomes a morning show. I hold a tape recorder before the execs and ask, "I wish the answers to five questions: Your Bio, Philosophy, Motivation, Reaction, and Application." Click...
Pronto (Brian Movler): "I was a rodeo hand in '88-9 working for a northern California stock company. I've always been a clown, but not when it comes to rodeo bulls; they're serious business. I roped and worked in the timed events trying to save the real cowboys from getting gored by horns. I retired from rodeoing to lasso my fiancee on a San Francisco sidewalk, and ask her to marry me. I was a U.S. mint guard and EMT by then, had been a firefighter and 4-star hotel detective. After it all, I find married life quietly appealing. It's different from the rodeo days for a few compromises. I must practice bagpipes in a cemetery at midnight because my wife can't stand the daily in-and-out. I moonlight as head of the San Francisco Drum and Pipe Band and play for weddings and funerals. I was the star with a medley of Irish tunes at the wake of a racehorse named Dublin Bay. Now, as head of the Bay Area Disaster Response Unit, I figure there's no place higher to go. This is the World Series of Life."
"My philosophy on life is to live well with as many concepts and feelings as one can muster, adding as ready to the ball-of-wax. When one remains in familiar territory - that's surviving, not living. The excitement I've gotten from hopping freights doesn't compare with any past experiences, and that's living."
"From that outlook, it's easy to see why I boarded this hobo freight. I hadn't been on a vacation in two years, so this was such a rare opportunity to unwind. My pop rode freights in the 30's. But most of all, I remember seeing a hobo in central Oregon in the 70's, and he waved to me... I said to myself, "I wonder what that's like?" I needed the hobo experience in me for decision-making for the rest of my life. It's predictably proving true."
"The first catchout in Roseville a few days ago captured me. Stepping up onto that freight in minimal time after so long, cold a night was intense. The bull was probably onto us because of our large group, so we had to wish the freight to pull out soon. Then the brake air let out, and I was on it. In the first five rolling minutes, I was in awe of riding something so big, heavy and stalwart while being at its will. That sensation of being whisked off is what I'm most enthused about and is the draw back to the rail."
"The things I learned train jumping I can sum in a heartbeat... Awesome! To be on a big rolling animal with water dropping from tunnel ceilings reaches the soul. Then there's the spectacular and proverbial light at the end of the tunnel coming out. The amount of force we've been riding on, witnessed by the derailment with shredded cars, and the unpredictability of the ride is etched in my memory. From that main lesson grow many branches. Imagine the awareness of new corridors of travel and lifestyle. Conjure over the decades the tens of thousands of tramps, brimming with yarns, who've experienced the same. The whole journey has been a great reawakening of my traveling days in rodeo. I have learned a greater itch for wanderlust. There are new experiences out there where the rails run. That compulsion makes me grateful for pressing obligations in my "real" life."
"There are myriad hobo applications to business. The basic elements of making it on the rail and missions are nearly exact to those as an executive. It's just another type of work - our business in the past week has been to get from point A to B safely, just as in my profession of managing people to reach business goals. Mental rehearsal sticks out in my mind. That is, trying it in advance when it's safe so you'll do it right when it isn't. And, backup plans - We got so sick of hearing "If this happens then..." and, "If that happens do..." But, listen, one in ten of those potentialities is going to pan out, and save your ass."
Apple (Omid Malekan): "I was born and raised in Tehrah, Iran and remember the oppressiveness at school and from listening to my family talk around the supper table. Of course, I didn't grasp the extent of being stifled until at age ten, in 1990, the family moved via Austria to New York and I discovered a whole new ball game. Coming to America was difficult at first for me. Its openness was intimidating to someone who had grown up in an oppressive theocracy. I learned to love the relative freedom this country offers and say, from a deep perspective, that it's by far the greatest place on earth. I soon enrolled in business at Columbia University, and with a knack for computers concurrently helped develop a small online brokerage and market company. Those were busy years, like being the bat boy in the big leagues. All I ever wanted to do was trade, but I understood it all began with a job at the periphery of trading. Ultimately, I became the manager of my own and my client's money."
"My motivation for joining this trip is deeply rooted. I always seem alone with my soul in a barrel, even when with others. Why doesn't everyone else think and inquire constantly as a sun, delight and wonder what's about him in trying to figure out himself? There I was following the discussion of the upcoming executive hobo trip at www.dailyspeculations.com when the open invitation was posted, so I jumped at it. Here was a chance to explore the country, a new lifestyle, and myself. I went into training immediately with weights and running and gave my girlfriend notice. I was entrenched in a relationship and wanted to do something I wouldn't ordinarily consider."
"Life philosophy? The day I find a concrete one is the day I'll bore myself to death. But I can offer this. First and foremost, there is never a best answer. Second, there is always a better answer. Third, the things I fear in life are squandered opportunities because of their emptiness. I can handle everything else, the pleasures and pains, but not the emptiness that could result from missing an opening. People say I gauge them like a giant electronic mechanism, and answer them with an overwhelming attempt of power of reason. I argue that. Mostly, at the core of my being, is heart."
"My reaction to the first California catchout was an initial relief after spending a dark night hiding and prowling the yard, and then suddenly our train showed and we waltzed to the mainline and got on easy as can be. What a succession of contrasts in a short frame. When the train started I was hyped for a minute followed by a sudden and complete realization that scenery was flowing past my face, and with it the memories of my life. I've always found clarity on a moving train because of the sharp twist of perspective, but nothing as staggering as the air, smells and scenes of hoboing."
"I'm enriched by the lessons from the rails in a short a period. The most dramatic incident was yesterday - jumping on the fly into this gondola. I lost the world for a moment and gained an identity for a lifetime. The hobo lifestyle is addicting but not particularly romantic. I learned about cigarettes, and I'm down to one-a-day and will quit by the end of the trip in a few hours. I've also decided to leave my girl. Freights are better. The scenery is fantastic, the exercise worthwhile, and the road characters step right out of a book. I now have greater recall for a warm bed, my ex-girlfriend, Starbucks in the morning, and the soft office chair. I had a really good time sleeping in the dirt, eating mission food, and having the cold wind whistle in my ears on the go, but I want to celebrate once I get home. I'm going to collect the lessons from this trip for the rest of my life."
"There is one profound application of hoboing to my profession of computer programming and speculation. It's the realization that one must continually make quick decisions under pressure of time and circumstance with limited information in order to get along. I feel like I've had a crash course on focus. I've never sustained such concentration for so long, but it's worth it because I'm well. There is no lesson above that from this trip. Now all I want to do is crawl into a nice bed."
"The other related tip is information gathering, and then assigning probability to conclusions to make decisions. Think of it like quantum theory. At the most fundamental levels, there is no causality, there is no certainty about anything, just certain equations that yield probability distributions. Sort of like the Wild West, or the stock market, or the process of the mind. There is no law, no explanations why things happen, but somehow everything works itself out. Retrospectively, it's all angles."
"Finally, the great lesson of humility. I've discovered new angles into my personality, with some added self-respect. The rich can afford to plan for tomorrow, the poor for today, but the tramp only for the next moment. I'll honor people who work for me, appreciate simple food, a bed... the list goes on. I figure down-the-line that this experience will serve as a model for other ventures. If I can hobo, I can do anything!"
Doc (Bo Keeley):
In the Big Rock Candy
There's a land that's fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars all are empty
And the sun shines every day
And the birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
("In the Big Rock Candy Mountains" by Harry McClintock)
I click off the recorder. This has been my peak hour on the rail forever. We peer over the sides of the gondola and are surprised to view Denver coming into line. The track flattens with the land and eventually straightens through the canyons to valleys to mesas and finally onto the foothills of the Mile High City.
A healthy civilization spreads slowly under and around us like roots of a living tree. Some folks this minute may be looking out their farmhouse and neighborhood windows at the shaky train and see three Kilroy heads protruding the orange wall: "Gee, Martha, I wish we were young again; I'd jump a train," and they turn to chores or supper. We pass the town limits almost to the last tie of the trip wondering, What's life for? This late afternoon freight ultimately slows in a manicured suburb and halts across from a green field alive with a baseball game. The players are uniformed and the freight becomes their centerfield fence. We wave from our bleacher seats but a hundred rooters seated along the first and third base lines are rooted to the game.
"There's a fly ball deep to center field... Back, back pedals the center fielder... He pulls it in at the right-of-way!" Pronto announces into a stick. Apple gleefully pounds the sides of the gondola. No one out there is aware; it's a Them-and-Us game. Two innings later, no runs have scored and the freight has not moved an inch.
Pronto rises proclaiming, "Seventh inning stretch - radios on." He scales the rear corner, descends the ladder and walks boldly toward the ball diamond like a relief pitcher muttering, "Game will be over before we get home." Simultaneously, I climb the front corner, alight on the gravel and yawp to both, "I'm hoofing to the units to see about the train delay." Apple stays to guard our equipment. All the radios are on, and over them while walking away we devise to ditch the freight should it move out with any team member unable to board.
Five minutes later, absurdly, I find no one in the locomotives. The abandoned diesels idle, but fresh tire marks tear the adjacent dirt road clueing that the crew was just snatched to be relieved. "Nobody's at home in the units," I boom over the radio. So our options are to hijack, forsake or wait." Pronto sounds with dismay, "I have a radio report too. It's tied at 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth. Nobody will let me use their cell phone. They stare at me like a mascot, an ape. I'm returning to the train." Then Apple reports, "I'm waiting on-deck in the gondola for both of you."
Once the triad is back within those walls, it's surmised this freight is "tied down" or holding on line for a fresh crew's arrival. The old shift legally ran out short of the Denver yard. We decide rather than wait for relief to hike to a highway to hitch or bus into the city. "Hurray!" cheer the spectators at the baseball field over our wall. We peek over to see handshakes around the diamond and that game adjourns... the bleachers empty.
Apple fidgets with his wristwatch. "Evil device! I should have left it at home." Minutes tick to his midnight departure. "Let's move out then," suggests Pronto. We collect the packs, scale the rolling classroom wall and drop from the hobo game.
Think yesterday! Act now! is the pilot trait of all executives, but you can't hurry old Dirty Face for any amount of money. We tread the vacated diamond turf and along asphalt county roads in search of a phone. An Erisian contact, if we can reach him, may fetch us. An hour later, we discover a phone booth in a cow pasture and pool our change to dial.
In thirty minutes, Mark Mahoney, a Denver speculator, jumps out his Jeep and warmly grasps our hands. "I just returned from a fishing trip and am now at your service." Pronto responds for us all, "I just came from a ball game. They treated me like an invading bear, so I left after an inning. I forgot how I look, like my pals. Thanks so much for rescuing us."
It's the end of the smoky line in Denver with our conclusion that the great American pastime for a century has been seeing the country firsthand from a boxcar.
(Continued in Part 8)
For more of Steve "Bo" Keely's writings
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