home > stories > Spring Break '97 - part 4

Spring Break '97 - part 4

Chicago

 

It was a couple hours after first light on Tuesday, and a mild fog still hung over everything. I couldn't see the sun, but the air was calm and not too chilly. The train rolled into Aurora, Illinois, and then just past the Metra depot it stopped, next to a general merchandise train which was also an eastbound.

Apparently it was rush hour, because while the freight train I was on sat, I saw at least a half a dozen passenger trains whizz by in either direction. The freight would have to wait, I guess.

It wasn't until 9 am or so that we started moving again. The train rolled through Eola yard, and then through all of the little suburbs and Metra stations along the 30 mile trip to Chicago. I had ridden the Metra before, but never this far from the city. I watched the people and houses and backyards and factorites and fields roll by on the way to Chicago. The right-of-way was triple-tracked, and the train was moving at a pretty good clip.

I tried to be inconspicuous, but I had to keep checking where I was, so that I could get off before the train entered the intermodal yard. I knew I'd get busted if I let that happen.

Finally, I recognized the Berwyn passenger platform and the Illinois Central overpass, and the tower at the west end of Clyde yard. The train had to switch over two tracks so it slowed to a crawl. I threw my pack over the side, climbed up to the walkway, down the ladder, and on the the ballast. I grabbed my pack, and sprinted to the lowered crossing gates at the nearest sidewalk.

I then calmly watched the train clear the road and the crossing gates go up. I hadn't been off the train since central Minnesota when I got off to pee, so I stretched my legs and began to walk.

I had just ridden almost 2,000 miles in two and a half days, now I had only a few more miles to transverse the city until I'd be at my destination. I patted myself on the back and went to find some Gatorade to re-hydrate myself.

I walked around Cicero to the "Clyde" Metra platform, repacked my bag, and waited for a commuter train to take me the rest of the way.

I watched out the window as a wet snow began to fall. A commuter train didn't come, so after a couple of hours, I walked to 20 blocks or so to the El station at 54th & Cermak, and I rode that all the way to Evanston for $1.50.

 

Chapter 8 - The Trip Back
I got to Chicago on Tuesday morning and had a great week. I visited family and friends and checked out the scenery and got cleaned up and ate some great food, and you know, the whole deal.

Some obligations in Missoula the following week called, and a possible car ride back didn't pan out, so I decided to "go Amtrak" to Montana and either bus it from Whitefish, or try the freights again from Spokane. But good ol' Amtrak was booked up!

By that time it was Friday already, but I figured with a lot of luck and a little patience, I could be in Missoula by early Tuesday morning if I played my cards right. I would have to get a train to Laurel, on the "low-line", then to Missoula, and not the way I'd come.

On a warm, dry, Friday evening (in contrast to the chilly, snowy, morning of three days before), I took the Metra down to Berwyn at dusk. I walked over to, and then around, BNSF's Clyde yard for a while, looking for someone to get train schedule info out of, but its a big yard, and I didn't find anyone.

So, I strolled all the way around to the passenger platform on the north side of the yard and turned on my scanner, hoping to find just the right train before the batteries ran out. Right away, I heard talk of a "number 19" and a "C.L.A.U.", both of which I was certain referred to the Laurel, MT-bound train that I wanted. They were talking of auto-racks, though, which I knew I wouldn't be able to ride them.

There I was hanging around, pacing around, and being rather conspicuous at the Clyde Metra stop. Soon enough, someone approached. It was a plain-clothes bull, and his uniformed partner. I played dumb at first, saying I was waiting for a commuter train to Chicago, but soon it became apparent that they were only looking for "taggers" (grafitti artists), and were more interested in finding out what a Montana boy was doing in Chicago that writing me a ticket. They asked me how their buddies out west were doing. We had a little chat about the SF merger and MRL and current events, and then one of them "escorted" me out of the yard, and told me to wait on the other side of the IC bridge, off of railroad property. He also said that I'd have to catch one "on the fly", but to "be careful".

I said, "okey!", and walked all the way back around to the same spot where I'd originally gotten off my inbound train the previous Tuesday. I was serious now, and definitely going to get a train, so I stopped in at the conveniece stop on the way to restock provisions. A bottle of "Night Train Express", a can of chili, and some smokes.

I found a little patch of dirt, put my pack down and took stock of my situation. The city lights diffused into the moist night air, creating a pink aura all around, as I crouched down and waited for my train.

 

Chapter 9 - Catching Out of Chicago
At a quarter to ten, on a warm Friday night, I crouched on a little patch of dirt. I was near the border between Cicero and Berwyn, Illinois, just past the west end of the BNSF's Clyde Yard. Above me and to the east was a rail bridge, where another railroad's tracks crossed over the ones that I focused my attention on.

I had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to catch out on the "fly", something that I'd rather not do. But I was pretty sure that train speed would be low. In preparation for my upcoming ride, I verified a runway for myself along the tracks.

My walk around from the passenger depot, and a stop at a convenience store, had taken a bit of time. By now, I was pretty sure that the train number 19 (CHCLAU) would be ready, or almost ready, to roll out of the yard (if it hadn't already!). The bull had told me not to ride that one, because "they watch it pretty good". He had mentioned several others, so I figured that I'd have at least one other chance before midnight if I couldn't get the Laurel train. Yet, the number 19 was my choice: It would take directly home. Other trains could be going to Minneapolis and then the Hi-line, or to Denver, either one would get me back to Missoula eventually. Of course, all of this was just hunches - I'd take the next ride out and see where it went.

I only sat for less than an hour, when I saw the east side of all the bridge supports begin to glow white and a low rumbling noise start. I assumed it was a Metra, but I got up and looked - it was a real freight!

From what I could see, the power (three old BN units, headed by #6801) looked like what I'd associated with the Laurel train earlier, in the yard. Unfortunately, it was all autoracks as far as I could see. I hefted my pack and get ready to jump on if a ride appeared.

It was moving pretty good, but didn't seem to be accelerating, I'd estimate five mph. As I watched, the autoracks became mixed freight, empty lumber cars, closed boxcars, and tank cars. I thought about trying to grab a lumber car, but I'd never rode one of those before. I waited.

More auto racks. Then, COFC's, and then a semi-trailer! The first backwards facing TOFC I saw I set my sights on. As it rolled by, I threw my pack on, then grabbed on to the edge, ran alongside for a few steps, and mounted it. Quickly, I shoved me and my pack in between the wheels and huddled down. Soon the entire train was on the main tracks and was picking up speed.

Staring towards the rear of the train, equal ribbons of steel rail flanked either side of the spine car. The steel wheels were visible directly behind and I rode. The trip to Aurora was fast and furious, in the diminishing city light. Little towns passed by on both sides, as the wind whipped away all my warmth. I stayed hidden through the beautiful ride, thirty miles to Aurora.

Just outside of Aurora, the train finally stopped, and I climbed out of my perch, re-dressed with the proper layers for nighttime pig riding. Then, I wrapped the blanket around me, huddled up to the tires, and uncapped the wine.

I wondered if I'd got the right train. Would I wake up in Iowa? Would it get yarded in Minneapolis? Would I make it back to Missoula by Monday? Soon I forget all that and dozed off in the cool night air to the music of the rails. I slept great that night, warm and cozy, and I dreamt of trains.

 

Part 5