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Seattle to Rochester, Part 4: Conway (Pittsburgh) to Buffalo

 

It was about 0740 on Thursday, August 29, 1968, and I was riding in a railroad repair truck down a service road in Penn Central's big yard in Conway, Pennsylvania. Twenty minutes earlier I had hopped off a train that had brought me here from Chicago and I was on my way to the departure yard section of this huge facility. The men in the truck were driving me to the departure yard.

They took me to an area where outbound trains were made up and stopped where a carman was standing. As I got out of the truck, the driver "introduced" me and asked the carman if there was anything the guy could do to help me out. I thanked the driver and his companion and they drove off, wishing me well. I expected the carman to plead ignorance or direct me to someone else for help, but he surprised me by calling somebody on his two-way radio and asking about trains to Buffalo. And wouldn't you know it, the guy he talked to told him a Buffalo train was due to leave in a couple of hours from track number so-and-so. My radio Samaritan then showed me the track in question. After thanking the man for his help I went off in search of a car to ride, dumbfounded by the gracious treatment I had just received from railroad employees who owed me nothing.

The Buffalo-bound train had several empty boxcars; I selected the best one and memorized its location. Knowing I had time to kill, I hustled out of the yard, crossed the street, and walked to a gas station where I picked up a handful of road maps, which in those days were free for the asking. Back in the yard at a locomotive fueling station, I filled my water bag and washed my face and hands. Being a bit cleaner made me feel good. But my grumbling stomach told me it was time to prepare some food, so I returned to the boxcar and prepared some beef stew on my camping stove. This time the food didn't get burned on the bottom of the pot: on the first leg of this journey I burned beef hash in a bouncing boxcar in western Montana.

My body's clock, all screwed up from the rigors of travel, told me it was time to yield to fatigue, so I drifted off to sleep. As I dreamed of freight yards staffed exclusively by attractive young women, the train departed, bound for Buffalo. Somewhere in or near Pittsburgh I woke up, glanced out the boxcar door, saw that I was moving past some buildings, and went back to sleep. Around 1430 I woke up again near Ford City, a town situated on the Allegheny River northeast of Pittsburgh. Travel up the river was pleasant and relaxing. I remember lots of trees and few roads. Late in the afternoon the train stopped at Oil City for about 30 minutes. During this pause I walked around taking pictures of the train, the railroad bridge it was sitting on, and the river that flowed under the bridge. Trees were everywhere. The view upriver from the bridge was serenity itself. For a few minutes I talked to a guy who was fishing.

The train crossed the bridge and headed into the gentle hills, following a stream. Minor roads, a rural environment, and not many people were the things I saw. In Corry, Pennsylvania I crossed the tracks of the Erie Lackawanna Railroad that I would ride eight years later on another cross-country adventure. Darkness set in. All I recall about the night scenery is that I saw some lights reflected on Lake Chautauqua. It was cold.

At 2330 the train stopped at a yard on the outskirts of Buffalo. Yard workers explained that Rochester-bound trains left from Frontier Yard in another part of town and told me which direction to go to get there. In the cold darkness I started walking down some tracks toward downtown. This was a lonely trek. I knew only that I was headed toward downtown. Not a soul was around, except for people in cars and trucks on the occasional nearby road. The highlight of this walk was passing over a small trestle at a creek: smoke rose from between the timbers of the trestle. Someone had a campfire going below me. I said nothing as I went by.

 

FRIDAY
I left the tracks and walked to a nearby street intersection. Amazingly, at this hour I encountered someone on the sidewalk, so I asked him how to get a bus going to downtown. In spite of being drunk, he managed to explain which bus to catch and where to get it. Not far away I boarded a city bus that took me downtown. The driver must have thought I was a sight: dirty, wearing a pack and carrying two bags. I transferred to a bus that took me to Penn Central's Frontier Yard on Broadway. It was 0600 when I got there. I looked around, sat around, watched, waited. The yard workers I encountered all warned me about tough cops, so I dared not enter the yards. What to do? There was a street that went over the yard, so I figured that getting the view from above the yard would help. It was a nice view of the tracks and trains, but helped not in the least. Then I got the bright idea to telephone the yard office and ask about the schedule for eastbound trains. After finding a telephone booth and looking up the number for the yard office in the yellow pages, I called. When the guy who answered asked me why I wanted to know "who was calling," I muttered something about "an interested citizen..." He didn't buy it. End of call.

After returning to the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the edge of the yard I encountered a maintenance guy who showed an interest in my plight. He advised me to try to hop a train as it stopped for a crew change - "right here next to Broadway." About noon - six hours after getting here - I climbed onto a piggyback train as crews changed. One of the engineers warned me that I'd be arrested if I didn't get off. I got off. The yard worker who was with me asked the engineer if I could ride in one of the locomotives, to which he swiftly replied, "No one rides the fuckin' units!"

That was the straw that broke the camel's back: I gave up on riding a freight train into Rochester and decided that arriving on a Greyhound bus would be acceptable. I rode a city bus downtown, got cleaned up at the YMCA, and boarded a greyhound bus that took me 80 miles to my home town of Rochester, arriving at 1730 on Friday, six full days after leaving Seattle. Within an hour I was picked up by old family friends and taken to their house to clean up and rest. What an adventure: 2950 miles, six train rides, great weather, fantastic railroad help along the way, no physical threats, and I learned how to use my brand new camping stove. And my parents had no idea that I had crossed the country, let alone by freight trains; they thought I was still in Bellingham.