Hagerstown to Manassas

Having ridden CSX 3 times, I wanted to knock off its Eastern rival, the Norfolk Southern. It has a militaristic anti-hobo reputation, much like the Santa Fe out West.

The NS is harder to catch out of DC, because it - except for some very rare jobs - comes no closer than Manassas, VA, 20-plus miles away. Hagerstown, MD, is farther from DC, but for various reasons is a better yard for tramps. From there, northbounds proceed to Altoona, PA. Southbounds hit a fork south of Hagerstown, either proceeding to Roanoke, along the Shenandoah Valley, or to Manassas, along I-66. All 3 stretches are Amtrak-free, making them especially worthwhile.

On a pleasant Saturday morning, I materialized beside a mall (that's all you see now, malls and tract houses) and, within 20 minutes, caught a southbound piggyback. The weirdly mild summer and plentiful rain have created corn of nearly radioactive height. Lost in morose thoughts, I daydreamed my way over the scenic Potomac and past a series of poignant, boarded-up train stations and proudly flown Confederate flags in the sleepy towns after Maryland. There were 2 aspects of this ride into West Virginia and Virginia that were characteristic of the current era: no hoboes to be seen anywhere and a very short train. Maniacal police enforcement and a booming economy caused the former. Shippers' disgust with NS's post-merger performance caused the latter.

Fifty miles south of Hagerstown, we reached the split at Front Royal, VA, and veered east to Manassas instead of south to Roanoke. I had guessed that it would go this way; somehow, the all-pig train seemed likelier to be serving the New York-Atlanta route. Oh well. It meant that my ride would be capped at 110 Amtrak-free miles; I was not going on to Charlottesville. It also meant that I had an 8-hour walk awaiting me.

This has always been America's curse: if you don't happen to be holding a set of car keys, you are suddenly back in the Stone Age. Upon jumping off in Manassas, near the site of the Battle of Bull Run, I was 20 miles from the nearest Metro station, with no weekend bus service to cut the distance. And I detest the endless rejection of hitchhiking.

With an inward scream of frustration, I began marching down the NS main line to Fairfax County. Not many people walk from one county to another anymore.

Oddly, miles down the tracks, I ran into 4 normal-looking people. Where they had come from and why they were trudging in the other direction, I sullenly did not bother to ask. In the tiny town of Clifton, where yuppies were piling out of SUVs (Firestone equipped?) for overpriced dinners in "quaint" restaurants, I switched from the leg-pulverizing tracks to a country road. It wound up hills and past rich people's houses and sun-splashed horse pastures. After a few hours of this, the 'burbs and the night began.

Stalking out of a Wendy's, strengthened by a greasewich, I trudged back out for another 4 hours of unsought exercise. There was one more night walker, who seemed erratic and spoke no English. But he apparently knew where he was going, so I left him.

The Franconia Road overpass over I-95 is temporarily closed to pedestrians, but I staggered across illegally, essentially sharing the right lane with traffic, and ended the agony of spine, hips, knees, and pronated foot on one of the last Metros back to DC. I had ridden for 4 hours and walked for 8. Purification through suffering, preach the saints. Give me corruption and damnation any day.