Mar

10

 I've taken many executive hobos on the rails around the country with all kinds of electronic gadgets, but this is the first journey that has been guided by mobile astrological devices.

Two Slab City women approached me with a wish to ride the fast freight…

'Anywhere!' they said.

The first hoboette is Breeze, a college grad from Massachusetts who ran cross-country and recently hiked the 2200-mile Appalachian trail. She boasts tattooed Popeye forearms from welding, and speaks poetry when she (rarely) talks. The second hoboette is a sister of the road from Michigan named Starr who is patching together a tapestry of alternative travel called, 'Hobo Culturenomics' in a series that has won Sundance and New York Film Festival awards . She was a five-sport champion in school, and resembles a Nile queen, regal and ebony at almost 6', with a photographic memory that law enforcement has offered to hire as a license plate reader (LPR).

Each tired of the American traditional treadmill in their hometowns, stuck out their thumbs on opposite sides of the country, and arrived independently a month ago at the mecca of meeting places in Slab City. Each was the fastest sprinter on her boys' track teams, and is still pretty enough to get away with it.

We drove in my Spark rental for two hours to the Colton RR Yard in San Bernardino, CA, which is a crew change yard and the portal for nearly all freights into and out of the greater Los Angeles.

We parked conveniently at the Arrowhead Hospital kitty-corner from the RR yard, and walked across the street to the Chevron station for liquids and snacks for a short trip. I got salted peanuts and V8 juice, while they, as vegans, shared lettuce and tomatoes. We stuffed ourselves and the 30-pound packs, as they chatted about fashion and astrology. They rolled their eyes when I said my sign was 'Feces'. With that, we slung our packs and walked out and up and over the Pepper Street Bridge, gazing like gods and goddesses over the Colton yard spreading toward the Pacific Ocean.

Like other classification yards around the country that build and break apart freight trains, this one is about five miles long, and shaped like a double ended funnel, with a breadth of about 40 tracks at its center, that dwindle to two main lines in and out each end. The west end is our hoboettes gateway into the grimy, greasy, noisy, exciting virgin territory under the Pepper Street Bridge. We crawled down the embankment and under the bridge at Colton Crossing.

We stood on the site of, in 1883, the most intense Frog War in railroad history. The crossing is the intersection for ATSF (now BNSF) and Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) railroads. A frog is a switch at a junction to allow trains to pass one way or the other. At the 'Battle of the Crossing' citizens from Colton and San Bernadino gathered on each side of the tracks - San Bernadino residents on the north side and the citizens from Colton on the south – with the Southern Pacific locomotive between them.

Men on both sides carried, picks, shovels, sledgehammers, shotguns and revolvers. Virgil Earp stood in the gangway between the engine cab and tender facing the two mobs, his revolver in hand. California governor Robert Waterman posed on the cowcatcher between Earp and the mob, ordering the group to clear for the passage of the locomotive, and instructing Earp that if he made any move with his six-shooter, that his San Bernadino Sheriff and deputies were authorized to shoot. Tensions rose, and one of the bloodiest battles since Earp's Tombstone Shootout was sidetracked when Earp realized that further resistance was hopeless and would cause bloodshed. He holstered his weapon, and ordered the engineer to move the locomotive forward.

A hundred trains now use the crossing daily, where the two Hoboettes and I huddled near the frog for pre-game instructions.

I told them to keep their lights handy, dreadlocks bunned up under caps, double lace shoes, and secure every valuable. The blonde whispered to the other.

'I don't wear underwear.'

'Then pull out the bra.'

The blonde shrugged, and yanked a bra from her pack, raised her shirt, and strapped it on. Then she slipped her wallet and cell phone into the spare spaces.

Two huffing locomotives stood at ready, coupled to mile-long strings of cars, at 100 yards to the west, and shook the earth. We looped through the brush around the locomotives for 20 minutes to the midpoint of one of the freights. It whistled cannonball! and departed as we approached, and so we boarded the train on the adjacent track. Suddenly those engines 'dynamited' or separated from the string of cars, and left likely to fetch more.

So we crawled over five more sets of parked parallel iron strings, up and down ladders on each, until coming to another made-up- train ready for departure. Its engines rumbled a half-mile at the front end, diesel smoke drifted over us on an eastbound zephyr, and an electrical ticking from car-to-car along the entire line checking for connections cued an imminent departure. We climbed and hunkered in a box car … waiting … for 30 minutes. Unexpectedly, two yard workers screeched to a stop on the ballast on either side of the track, and the one on the right boomed, 'We seen your legs (under the cars)!'

'But they disappeared while you was walkin!' chimed his partner.

'We found you!' they tweeted like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The girls cringed in horror at the twin bearded apparitions. However, one of the workers offered a 12-pack of Danone mineral water, and the other some dry advice that would change our astrological journey, 'Go to the main rail, and get on that BNSF fixin' to pull out.'

'What's your sign?' asked the blonde.

'Virgo,' they replied in unison.

'I knew it,' joined Starr. 'I attract Virgos.'

Eager in their beliefs, they leapt like superwomen over four strings on parallel tracks to the main line, so that I next saw aboard a curved-side hopper on the BNSF train. The curves indicate 8'x12' steel verandas at either end with a portal to a hobo hotel room the size of a pup tent, that is equipped with a bathroom hole in the car infrastructure over the ties.

A quarter-mile ahead, four red-and-black BNSF engines grumbled, wheels pawing the ties, for two minutes. The brakes released a whoosh, and the train lurched toward our destination.

A hobo never knows where he's rolling. The hoboettes seem satisfied with this. We slid under the Pepper Street Bridge, bent north at the Colton Crossing, and rode into the night. The girls bucked a chilly March wind, for a while naming the constellations, and then curled up in their sleeping bags, as I watched moonlight disappear under the 4' steel wheels.

No one could figure out if it was the sunrise or the stop of the wheels that awoke us the next morning. The locomotives abruptly dynamited off the freight, and since I had allowed the hobo faux pas of suggesting that everyone remove his shoes, we couldn't chase the locomotives to catch the continuing train. We were 'put out to the farm', as hobos say.

'First things first,' yawned the black-haired girl, pulling her Smartphone from her underwear. 'We're in Santa Fe Springs of north Los Angeles,' she said, keying the pad. 'And my online astrologer says that it's reasonable and permissible to exploit the past. We know what to do and how to do it.'

With that, the blonde offered, I hear freeway traffic.'

We had been set off on a spur track in an industrial park, and so any direction would be progress. 'Let's go!.' I agreed.

'We jetted toward the highway noise, and in minutes were also listening to the patter of rain on the brims of our hats like the sound of 'A Hobo Don't Mind a Little Rain', until it started to pour. We asked a Good Samaritan for directions to the Metro-link that floats light trains on the same tracks that the big locomotives travel. Soon a light rail whisked us to Union Station in downtown LA where a Chinese Lantern Festival was underway under sunnier skies. We caught another light rail out to San Bernadino, and then a local bus back to square one at the Colton RR Yard.

The athletic hoboettes were effervescent, and spun pirouettes, skipped and strutted across the hospital parking lot to the car. They were baptized hoboettes, and would ride the rail again.


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1 Comment so far

  1. Mark A Bates on March 17, 2017 10:49 am

    of all Vic’s excellent contributors, you are my favorite. I have gotten a lot of enjoyment listening to and sharing “A Hobo Don’t Mind A Little Rain”.
    Before my time is done, I’d like to ride the rails.

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