Rhapsody in Steel

by Ed Davis

A drawing of a man sitting on a crate, waiting for the train in the distance

The first time I caught a freight train, it felt as if I had learned how to fly.

One minute I was anchored to the ground—feet in the gravel, backpack weighing me down—the next I was moving through space, transported not by wings but by tons of straining steel. Becoming airborne wasn’t easy. I had to run faster than I believed I could, stretch my muscles past their pulling point, reach beyond my fingers’ grasp; like a fledgling leaving his nest for the first time.

To fall could mean death.

But to soar?

Hatcher had suggested that I travel, not to get anywhere in particular, but to go.

I started with hitchhiking, a rolling realm of billboards and backseats, populated by people who, though on the move, often seemed stuck in place. The peddler, so hungry for company as he drove from one far-flung account to another that he talked the whole way, words flowing out of him like a dam bursting. The trucker who, numbed by the drone of his engine and drift of his thoughts, defied company policy and plucked me from the asphalt, if only to have another sentient being riding shotgun for a while. Hippies gathering riders for gas money. Solid citizens, with sons or daughters of their own on the road somewhere, gathering Karma.

Hopping that first freight was an act of near desperation, born of road weariness, bad sight lines, and a yearning to be home. My previous ride—a mill-hand coming off shift—had dropped me on a lonely stretch of Hwy 101 a few miles south of Scotia. It was a ride I never should have taken; better to get stuck in a settlement, even a small one, than stranded out in the wild. But I was still a novice then. Thumbing rides around O’Farrell as a kid was different, the distances not as daunting, the stakes not as high. I’d already been traveling for almost two weeks, hitching as far north as Washington, as far east as Idaho, but I was headed home now; Villa Deluxe, and my bed and my friends, just a couple of hundred miles away.

If only I could catch a lift.

Most drivers won’t stop for you no matter what, but those few who are favorably inclined won’t do it if they are going too fast, or if the way ahead is obscured. They can’t stop if there is no place to do it safely. I hit the jackpot. A long straightaway, a sharp turn, then a high bridge across the Eel River. Too much speed, too little visibility, nowhere to pull over.

Hitchhiking is an exercise in optimism; wanderlust may put you on the road, but it is belief that keeps you standing there, your thumb extended, your best face forward. Someone will stop, you tell yourself. It is only a matter of time, and luck, and fate. But mostly time. What keeps you rooted in a bad spot, long after your belief is exhausted, is the awareness, sharpened by experience, that you may walk for miles and not find anyplace better.

It is the devil you know.

But on that particular February afternoon, daylight already thinning in the tops of the redwoods to the west, stillness settling among the shadows, temperature descending with the sun, a new devil appeared on the scene.

A set of railroad tracks paralleled the river there, two steel ribbons mostly obscured in the gathering gloom, and entirely devoid of movement, no more alive than a riverbed without water. The Eel next to them, so animated with its shoals and rapids out in midstream, its eddies and currents along the jagged shore, was everything that the rails were not.

I stood up on the highway, thumb still extended but sagging lower like a minute hand sinking toward the bottom of the hour, as a string of logging trucks rumbled by, engines laboring under their impossibly large, precarious loads. As I watched the last of them pull out of sight, the engine noise remained somehow, though lower, more constant, more a rumble than a growl.

Nothing visible on the highway, I looked over the bank.

Three massive locomotives, black and oil stained and spewing smoke, passed almost directly beneath me. Vibrations from the nearness of all that weight and power came up through my feet and legs like heat rising off a griddle. I stood, transfixed, the spectacle as arresting as if I were beholding the ocean for the first time.

“I’ll be damned.”

The train was going south.

I was going south.

Jack London had ridden freights. I’d read The Road, but with no thought of ever following his lead.

Kerouac, as a Dharma Bum, had beaten his way north from LA with a little bum in an open gondola, sharing Tokay and bread with him. Hatcher had given me the novel, and I knew that first chapter well.

Steinbeck called hobos the last free men.

But it was Thomas Wolfe asking, Brother, have you seen starlight on the rails? that, when I first read it, felt like an invitation, as if he was personally reaching out to me from some dusky Asheville train depot, hand extended, hat tilted back on his head, knowing gleam in his eye. Have you heard the thunder of the fast express?

I was hearing it now, and the call was impossible to resist.

In the months and years to come, I would study the ways of the freights, learning—both from trial and error, and from the few grizzled men who still rode them—the subtleties and secrets, the tricks and techniques required to stay on the move, stay out of jail, and stay alive. The first, the most important rule was to never, never attempt to hop a train that was not standing still. No ride, no matter how desperate your situation, was worth the risk of losing your legs, and possibly your life, beneath the wheels of moving freight.

“What the fuck’s your hurry?” An old hobo—more gaps in his grin than teeth, more stubble on his chin than his scalp—posed that rhetorical question one night outside of Pasco, Washington. A few of us—me younger than the others by thirty years—were sharing a feeble fire while we waited for a Spokane-bound train to build in the yard. “If you’ve got someplace better to be…and can’t take your sweet time enjoyin’ the journey…then what the fuck are you doin’ out here?”

It was wisdom, on that afternoon south of Scotia, that I had not yet acquired.

The embankment down to the train tracks was steep, loose shale, and harder to descend than it should be.

Everything about riding freights is harder than it looks.

Up close the cars were bigger than they had seemed from my vantage point on the highway, and what had appeared to be a leisurely pace at a distance was anything but. One by one the clanking behemoths peeled past, kicking up dust, their wheels screaming against the rails with a sound like a knife drawn over a whetstone. And they were not just bigger than I imagined, but higher; the roadbed elevated so that when an open boxcar rocked by, its floor was at my eye level.

Could I match their speed, on a rough gravel roadbed with a backpack dragging me down? Maybe. But there was no way I’d be able to do that and throw myself and my gear into an open boxcar door.

A gondola. That’s what Kerouac had ridden, like a boxcar with no roof, walls only chest high, and at each end—ladders.

As if I had conjured it, one appeared a few cars away, coming at me, if anything, faster than before. My first instinct, to run toward it, was all wrong; the forward ladder shooting past me, no hope of even grabbing it, let alone getting on. I struggled to reverse direction, arms flailing, heels digging in, finally finding traction. Now I was running with the train, but not keeping up, the car’s length slipping past my shoulder until the rear ladder, my only chance, came up beside me.

Any speed I had left, I spent right then, heedless of the broken gravel roadbed that jarred my joints at every step; trying to ignore the threat of the massive wheels, their pounding thundering in my ears. My hand found a rung, slipped to fingertips, but held. My arm stretched, my shoulder; muscles protesting but not rebelling or worse, surrendering. Boots still pounding the ground, my gait lengthened, lengthened as the train began to carry me along, each stride growing longer than the last, each covering yards now instead of mere feet.

Instinct took care of the rest. My body must have understood that letting go was no longer a choice, running much farther no longer an option. A hard spring with my outside leg, a one-armed pull-up.

My inside foot found the bottom rung, other hand found the ladder.

And my bonds to the earth were broken.

I was on.

The gondola was empty, no cargo, no other riders; unlike Kerouac I would have it to myself. Ample shelter from the wind if I sat. Unlimited views if I stood.

And stand I did.

For several miles the tracks followed both the river and the highway. I could sometimes see cars wheeling by up on the blacktop, their drivers and passengers unaware that my train—it had become my train—was traveling almost beside them down along the river, beside but not with. This, I understood immediately, was not transportation but transcendence; as different as floating in a backyard pool is from surfing down the face of a breaking wave. Any illusion of control was gone, given up to the primal fusion of steel, adrenaline, diesel, and speed.

The tracks and the river swung away from the highway then, and the wilderness opened up in the waning afternoon light. Though man-made, the train was so much a part of the landscape that it felt as if I had discovered a new element: air, earth, water, fire, freight.

Around me fragrances of creosote, evergreen forest, and the muted musk of the river canyon were blended with the locomotive’s lingering exhaust, then spiced with the sharp metallic scent of hot brakes, and of the huge wheels honing themselves to a high polish on the anvil of the rails. As darkness fell, I stood and watched as we rolled past towering Douglas firs almost close enough to touch them. Deep excavations opened in seemingly impassable hillsides, and allowed the train to thread through with scant inches to spare. Dizzying trestles carried it across what appeared to be bottomless gorges, and bare-rock tunnels bore it beneath the very core of the mountains themselves. As it wove its way around looming bluffs and swept along valley curves, I could sometimes see the sinuous length of the beast, from its lead engine’s wavering tracer light to the caboose’s golden windows; all the cars between were a moving shadow, their immense weight and bulk as insubstantial as the mist rising above the Eel.

When I got too cold to stand, I hunkered down, unfurled my bag, and watched the star-strewn sky scrolling overhead. The clicking of the wheels created a metronome of movement, its rhythmic syncopation resonating within me like a Siren’s song, one that I opened my ears and my heart to. Though I did not know that such a thing existed until that night, I had fallen prey to the rapture of the rails, and would never again be entirely free of its spell.

I surrendered to it, like a weary traveler yielding to his lover’s arms, and let sleep and the southbound freight carry me home.

Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story