Apr

9

 Newly baptized executive hobo Geko (pictured ), a Los Angeles computer sophisticate and sailor of the seas, rode a quirky freight out the Colton yard last night. We parked in a hospital lot like any other patients and crossed the Pepper Street bridge over Interstate 10 to scramble down an aloe vera carpet into the RR yard at sunset. This is the southern California Eucalyptus fringed hub (B.K. pictured ) where in these rough times a mile-long string of some 100 locomotives coupled nose-to-tail gather dust beneath the bloody red sun… now gone. Two other almost mile-long freights with four and five locomotives huffed near the Pepper bridge and we slithered twist them away from the bulls with infrared eyes in a thick diesel haze trying to fathom which would pull out first. "Whichever it is," I said, "We'll be carried over the San Bernadino hump (mountains), past the Coachella naked people (five hundred ten-story windmills), within twenty miles of my Sand Valley home under the sand, and on to the tramp capital of Yuma, Arizona in time for morning chow at the mission."

We climbed the metal ladder of a cement hopper car to a 8'x12' steel 'front porch' with a 3' portal to a hobo 'hotel room' within the bulwark and hugged the steel floor ready to spring if the adjacent train highballed first. Geko marked our spot with a GPS that would become his close companion on the trip as i flashed a disposable camera. An electrical click up and down the train signaled the brake check prior to departure on the line next to next us, so we rose to change rides even as our own freight clamped and strained in a metallic beat from engine to tail, and our platform on America jolted east. Hunkered on packs with a mounting breeze in our hair and not a care in the world the train advanced from one to five mph to… The yard bull (policeman) accelerated a white Bronco in pursuit nearly alongside our car until the dirt road hit the bridge where he peeled off, and we jiggled the iron road east.

Geko's analytical jaw dropped in appreciation of his first hobo ride and I peeked around our curved side cement car at the five locos and felt my own whiskers hit lapels at viewing a long intermodel freight perpendicular blocking our path at Colton Crossing a hundred yards ahead. The crossing is one of the busiest junctions in the United States where the east-west Union Pacific intersect the north-south BNSF rails that also carry Metrolink and Amtrak trains, and if it's a potential headache tonight it was a bloody scene in the 1882 Frog Wars between the two lines. At the last second our freight swung north, I whistled and admitted, "We just made a rare turn into unknown territory." He punched the GPS, and we settled into the sleeping bags on cardboard on the steel under a star spangled sky. An hour later Geko whispered to himself, "Average velocity 49 mph north-northeast." I propped on a calloused elbow and confirmed by the bounce and Polaris that we were speeding over 40 mph nearly due north.

 We'd packed light for the trip, just the sleepers, quart of water each, granola bars, and reading books stuffed into day packs, with dark clothes on our backs. My new road partner peered over the 1' platform lip at house-size boulders rolling past as I slid asleep and the train snaked through mountains striking sharp notes on curves with sparks under a full April moon. The freight chugged in the wee hours beneath a ghostly bridge and crawled under one after another yellow yard lamps popping with moths. Slowly the five locomotives and two human cargo entered a half-mile wide bowl of rails at least four miles long. "No idea where we are," I offered, "But strike the ballast before the yonder yardmaster tower…." The sentence was punctuated by the brake, stop, and release of all cars as the locos ran off. "Ditched in a mysterious yard," I muttered.We scrambled up a dusty bank and broke out a Euclyptus hedge to scan all horizons for a hint of location but saw only a quiet, darkened desert stretching off to a tiny green stamp that may be an interstate sign. "It matters less where we are than how to return," Geko said dryly. "Freight hopping is computer programming with grit," I replied shivering in his frosty breath, and adding, "What should we do?" He proposed to drop into the yard to try to catch back to Colton. Down we slid, stepped over a dozen rails capturing starlight, and climbed the rungs of a trundling car string that stopped and reversed. We hopped doggedly to the ballast and delved deeper into the yard.

In the next hour we took stationary or moving posts on a dozen cars as other metal strings entwined about us, and twenty times we bobbed around cars to avoid yard workers' eyes and a circling security truck with bubblegum roof lights. We boarded a slow rolling coal train and squatted atop anthracite like moonstruck cats until the train gathered speed and coal dust blew up and we jumped off the black cloud. So we shrugged and climbed out the yard bowl and slalomed the chaparral toward the far off postage stamp. An hour later Geko brightly used the GPS to determine our latitude and longitude, and dialed a Florida kin to paste the coordinates onto GoogleMaps and tell us where we are. "Then," assured my road partner, "I'll call Tomorrow, my wife, to pick us up!" However, Florida didn't answer and Tomorrow never arrives.

 Approaching the freeway in another hour, five mongrels leaped out an abandoned car and barked our butts to the freeway sign that read 'Interstate 15'. False dawn lit a long arc along the freeway to lead us full circle back to the RR yard far end where we hiked up to yet another sign that broke the suspense, 'Barstow, California'. A nearby all-night diner was assaulted for eggs, bacon, and a plan to get home. The options were to freight that we nixed, Amtrak just left, Greyhound didn't go till noon, hitchhike, call the wife, or.. I dropped my fork and slapped my head, "Let's rent a car." "Avis is around the corner," chimed our waiter, and in five minutes we had reserved a car with no drop fee from Barstow to Colton for $40, about the same price as one Greyhound ticket.

On the short walk to Avis it was apparent that the hobo bug had drawn blood in Geko. "I like the ongoing puzzles with the need to remain calm during crises," he gushed. Now it was back to a California condo hidden in roses and a loving wife and high salary job, with a pain that will forever stab the heart every time a train whistle blows. He had darted from the crowd like other executive hobos who stumble on www.bokeelytours.com and found I was not too mad in the short run. Four hours later Geko wheeled a '09 Pontiac into the hospital lot near the Colton RR yard and exclaimed, "That's the way to return from a class hobo trip!"


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