“I don’t have long to live, and this is what heaven looks like,” I thought as I lay on my back, my breath freezing to my beard in the minus 3 temperature, the hard, dirty snow between the boxcars glowing in diffuse light. It was dawn, it was the coldest first day of spring on record, and we had stayed up all night drinking 10 cent beers and talking up the courage needed to tackle this adventure.
We were in a vast switchyard called the “puzzles”, near the U of M, looking for a boxcar to call our home for 4 or 5 days while it took us to Seattle through the backyard of America. The Great Northern Railroad was in its last days before merging with the Burlington. Art and I had dropped out of the University in the height of the Viet Nam war, and while our friends were hunkered down in the library over their dated history books, avoiding the draft, we wanted one last adventure as civilians before Uncle Sam put his thumbprint on our biographies. We didn’t know it at that moment, but we were also rehearsing our own deaths.
We were self-styled philosophers, like most sophomores since Peter Abelard taught doubt at the first secular University in 12th century Paris. We were taking the existential late-night bull sessions by the horns, risking everything for the defining experience of our short, pretentious lives. Kerouac had ennobled the act of freight hopping for the college crowd. I had read his “On the Road” the previous August, and participated in the Summer of Love by quitting my summer survey crew job and hitchhiking to San Francisco.
Those figurative flowers in my hair and idealistic politics in my head wilted in the addled smog of Haight-Ashbury, where runaways and discarded children ailing in body and mind pursued love but without the means to know it when they saw it, or keep it if they found it. My participation in the Hippie sideshow was sincerely against the Viet Nam debacle, but not sincerely in favor of drugs or free love, and I preferred good ethnic music to Rock and Roll. Art was more into the whole Rainbow Tribe thing, less critical, less paranoid, less afraid, I guess, of death.
So here we were, after an hour of fruitless walking between the silent hulks of trains, not finding any labels or manifests that said “attention you bums this car is leaving for Minot at 4:30 p.m. Hop aboard.” I lay down in the gritty crust of a harsh winter’s snow mixed with a winter’s grain spill, soot and debris, experiencing a low blood sugar fugue state that felt like a scuffed paperback version of the book of Nirvana. “Get up Jeff, I just found a workman and he told me how to find the train.”
Art lead me to the switchman’s shack, a different kind of little house on the prairie. Singed tar odors and fists of heat from an old oil stove blasted us when we stuck our heads in to ask the switchman where to get on the golden boxcar. He was not surprised to see us. Dressed in the striped mattress- ticking coveralls of a real old-school yard hand, and a Rocky the Flying Squirrel surplus aviator hat, he took a pull from his coffee, squinted and spit chaw into a dented red can.
I tried not to see that.
The naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling sharpened shadows on his weather-beaten face. He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his long underwear shirt, and looked out his window into the brightening labyrinth of battered steel. “They’re making up #2542 about a quarter mile west of here. Straight down that set of rails right in front of the shack. That’s a long-haul hot-shot, and they only stop to change crews, so any good prime freight car you find here is most likely going the whole way. But you don’t want the hot-shot boys; you’ll be stuck on it all the way to Willmar, where you’ll be breaking your teeth in the cold, and then if you’re brave you’ll stay on til Fargo and they’ll rake your frozen carcasses off with a roof rake and leave your for the coyotes. You want a local, if you still insist, and take my word you should go back to your cheerleaders right now, at least you’ll want to get out and flirt with the Willmar girls, if you still insist. Forget Seattle.”
“No, that is what we want.” Art declared. “I mean, we want to get to Seattle, and we don’t want to stop! We got gear at the surplus store. Real down Canadian Army sleeping bags, army air corps wool blankets, double loomed wool socks they made for the battle of Inchon, really. Look at these bunny boots we got, you inflate them with air and they are good to 60 below! We’re ready as anyone who ever came through here! I called the yard office yesterday and they said to come here and you might help us find our freight. Are you Fleming?”
Fleming raised an eyebrow at this and nodded slightly. “Alright, got us an adventure do we? You boys think you’re really ready for this, do you?” He vectored chaw into the old Folger’s coffee can again, and leaned forward, elbows on the scarred wooden table that had seen 10,000 hands of Buck Euchre played in the lull between trains. His grey mustache was a nicotine-yellowed curtain pulled over the stage of his bad teeth, and his eyes were acid-blackened silver nails at the bottom of his eye socket shadow pools. “But I warned you. And don’t think I’m just some old corn-cob with a busted prostate and a belly full of midnight gin, boys. I read Nietzsche, I read Schopenhauer. And I can read the white bread in your faces and the piss in your pants if you get knocked sideways by a freight car rolling down the grade with no engine to warn ya, just the momentum of a car cut into its make-up siding with enough fresh grease in the wheel trucks to lull you to sleep.”
After telling us all the ways we would die, and all the ways other college kids on a lark had died doing what we were doing, and warning us that no one would be there to see us die, Fleming told us everything we needed to know to increase our chances of survival…that we had to find a hydra-cushion car with a real suspension–designed to carry electronics and appliances–or the bones would shake right out of our assholes before we got 50 miles. And it had to have a wooden floor, instead of iron. Wood to nail nylon straps over irregular pallets of goods, wood for insulation because the iron floor would freeze our privates into dicksickles. “Rolling over the goddam mountains you don’t get to pull a cord and get off cause you’re uncomfortable or want to go home to your mammas” Fleming said with a fatherly derision.
I couldn’t believe the crew of the Great Northern Railroad was helping us hop a boxcar to Seattle. Art came up with the idea and did the research. He talked me into it, brought me along and my only job was to be the one who was sure we were going to die. “Why don’t you call the yard dicks to arrest us or throw our asses off the yard? Why are you helping us?” I asked Fleming as we pulled our blue watch caps back over our stiff ears.
“James J Hill built this railroad. You hear of him?” Fleming asked.
I said I had. He was the only Railroad Magnate of his era that rode his own trains across the roof of America, chasing off the competition, manhandling his own clerks and yardmasters if they didn’t measure up, throwing oak desks out the doors of whistle-stop stations if the local freight clerk’s waybills didn’t tally. He was a legend, but what did he have to do with anything?
“Well James J Hill said he would never throw a bum off the Great Northern, or let anyone else do that. The bums built the Great Northern, he said, and they were entitled to a free ride for life. Well, fellers, you are now official bums on the Great Northern. God help you.”
We thanked him eagerly, as though he had said something nice. “Do you think these bunny boots are a good idea?” Art asked.
Fleming slammed the door on us, and we knew what to do then.
We kicked our ridiculous foot-igloos down between long lines of cars sulking toward the horizon. Black chemical tank cars, massive grain cars with their drop spouts like mutant cow teats and boxcar after boxcar. We found our train and then started looking closely at the cars. Did Fleming really expect us to die, we wondered? I didn’t want to die. But the sense of adventure had ratcheted up a few notches since talking to the oddly educated old goat, who obviously enjoyed a bit of theater in the harshly lit oil stench of his lookout
Then there she was.
To us it was a “she,” like a ship, like a mother who would take her errant pups back into a protective pouch. Her walls of crimped steel showed scab-colored rust on ends and edges, and the abrasion of airborne sand over the Wenatchee River and the gravel slopes of the great glaciered mountain ranges of Montana revealed the history of the car through the ochre, bright red, forest green layers of paint under her newest turquoise skin.
She was fifty feet long, ten feet wide, and stood 13 feet to the crown of her soot blackened roof. The main impression she made was big, hard, cold and dark. Not the kind of “she” you think of as maternal. More like one of the harsher avatars of Kali, the Vedantic Goddess of both revenge and generation. That appealed to me, it was a relief from the simplistic feminine aspects of nature that made Western society a strait-jacket for women like my mother and sisters, who were prized for their beauty, but ignored for their intellect, their ambition, their discipline.
“She” who was not named, then, imbued our journey, through the vehicle of the boxcar, with a spirit of new life emerging from the winter, new life emerging from the cold metal, the frozen wastes, the white monochrome of a middle-class existence we wanted to escape.
Light coming through the 13 foot wide door was sucked into the dim recesses of the car, and we could see clearly the piles of discarded wooden freight pallets, the mounds of plastic wrap and a random rippled carpet of old and new cardboard packing, flattened by foot traffic in and out of the long cavernous car. There were bits of Styrofoam, a ragged plaid shirt, and someone had built a fire at in the back, leaving a charred circle of half-burned wooden scrap like the site of an archaic ritual, a sacrifice.
A sacrifice. Maybe a human sacrifice. Now shit was getting real. Beyond the fire ring lay darkness that didn’t yield much to daylight.
The train stood still at the moment, like a workhorse broke to the bridle. The floor of the boxcar was 3 feet off the rails, and we stood lower, down the riprap grade, crunching the grey stones with our boot soles, our jaws clenched against the cold which made the steel sill of the door a lethal contact to bare skin. We tossed our callow gear aboard and levered up five feet and in, shivering with the cold that bored through your layers like a diamond drill through a paper towel.
I was torn between huddling under as much debris as I could layer over me, or doing squats and jumping jacks to try to get my heart beating again. Art strode around like a gentleman examining his new country home, evaluating the quality of the debris with a practiced nose. He pushed a pile of cardboard aside and laughed with delight at the almost new wood floor he found. “This is a good one. Couldn’t do better.” He declared. The other boxcars were of an inferior sort, damaged in the wars, brittle and stiff, colder and lower on the ladder of evolution and comfort. Our ship was first class, the pride of the yard, the queen of the far reaches that the Great Northern spanned.
I made a chaise lounge of dusty packing discards, with my feet toward the view through the door, drank lukewarm coffee from my steel thermos, and kept my dark thoughts to myself; thoughts of 65,000 cubic feet of rugged steel coffins flying off the switchback rails in the Rockies.
Faint traces of moisture condensed into swirls of ice crystals dancing in the dawn light. We heard a sharp clunk, then a massive hiss as the airbrakes were bled off. The car seemed to settle back, then lurched forward a foot. A distant bang, a miniature cannon firing, signaling the beginning of a skirmish, fired off from the engine end of the train. The bang was echoed, repeated louder and closer until the knuckle hitch of our car jerked forward and yanked the car with it. We started to move: The percussive tug of the engine passed down the boxcars to the caboose, a mile away.
We were moving. Any confidence we had gained by securing the best car of the death-bound lot was dashed, though, by the darkness that slammed over us with the abrupt closing of the giant steel door. Utter darkness except for pinholes of light–a small triangle where a corner of the car had met an immovable object somewhere–tiny glows, an eerie sense of the inside of an angular steel leviathan, picking up speed…
The train was moving slowly, but the levers and wheels of fates machinery didn’t need a lot of speed to seal our doom. It just needed a few oiled top casters and a thousand pounds set in motion, and the door was shut, self-latched by gravity, with the latch lost in the darkness.
“Find the latch, find the latch, lift the latch” someone shouted just outside the door. Art staggered in the dark, pitched against the door with his shoulder and cried out, then turned to it again and felt for the latch. He grunted, grunted again.
“Lift the latch!, goddamn it I know you’re in there you fucking pricks let me in”
“Oh, lift the latch” Art muttered, reduced to the servile tone we all experience when a voice from nowhere insults us with instructions to survive our folly. “I was pushing it down.”
He got the door open a few inches, and I jumped up and put my back to it. We were going about 4 miles an hour and when the long slat of light flaring down on us was a foot wide we saw our drill instructor – an old bum, looked about 70, wearing green wool pants held up with clothesline suspenders over a greasy shirt, wing tip shoes and a stocking cap, but no jacket or gloves. His only protection from the blistering skin-chiseling ear-breaking cold was a four-foot flap of clear plastic he gripped closed around his neck while he reached up with his other hand.
“Give us a hand you goddamn greenhorns. Give us a hand” he wheezed striding, but not running, and falling slightly behind.
Between the two of us we hoisted his solid mass onto the thumping floor. He rolled on his back and coughed, spasmed, gasped for a few minutes, while we stood, waiting for him to recover, our jaws slack at the miracle and disaster of it, squinting against the bright world of morning traffic and city yards we rattled past, gaining speed, gaining distance from safety and warmth, getting deeper into this life and death game of the open road.
“Goddamn it thank you.” He said at last, and offered us some elderberry wine laced with pure grain alcohol.
Art laughed and took a deep swallow. I sipped it first, coughed on the acrid sleaze of it. I didn’t want to die, but something took fire in my gut then. I knocked back a slug, gulped more than my share of the fire in the bottle. By god we were doing it. I shook the tension out of my shoulders. Art leaped around and whooped like a kid out of school for the summer. By god this was the place to be. This was the place to be, and this place was like no place I had ever been before, but I had known it all before somehow. This fifty foot American steel rolling freight car, a building on wheels, had one enormous window, and it opened out onto the wonders of heaven and hell both. We could freeze to death or get shot by criminals. We could fall under the butchering wheels, or get speared by a loose rebar or clutched in mortal agony by an errant knuckle of steel. We could die at the crest of this sense of life. But it was a crest and we wanted to ride the wave. We could speed with the leisure of apprentice demons or apprentice angels, but the destination for both was the mystery of a far West we had dreamed of.
I looked around again. The inside of the boxcar barely bucked over the surges in steel rail that followed the contours of a frozen earth. It was the first day of spring, and we picked up speed again as we passed through the last western suburb of the twin cities. We would change crews and engines at Willmar and then stay in glorious motion til Fargo, then Minot, then Havre Montana, Wenatchee and Spokane and Seattle. The names were magical. We shouted them and beat life back into our freezing thighs.
The world moved beneath us, and didn’t know us. The cold didn’t care if we lived or died, but the great steel mother contained us. We hadn’t proven a damn thing yet, but when we stepped off in Seattle, no matter what ordeals faced us between now and then, we would leave the boys in school with their pretense and fantasies, and shake hands with the world as men.
That was what we thought then. Of course, everything changed, but that is another story.