Hagerstown to Roanoke

The Norfolk Southern includes the old Southern Railway and Norfolk & Western. The former N & W territory, alas, is rumored to be seriously unfriendly to hoboes. That's a shame, because in autumn, the run to Roanoke down the Shenandoah Valley and along the Blue Ridge Mountains promises to be sensational and colorful. And there has been no passenger service for at least 30 years. I let the weeks drift by, waiting for the chemistry of soil, air, and light to do its magic. I wanted to ride off into the fall foliage, one of the few things in which the East excels, and take stock of a miserable year since leaving the West. Was it a sign of clinical depression that I could not reassemble my bike for 2 months and stopped looking at women?

For the second time, I rode Greyhound to the Hagerstown yard. If things worked out, I had about 230 southward rail miles to roll up. It was a crisp, perfect day with sunlight dappling the leaves. I stretched out under the trees beside the yard and savored the feeling of autumn. A long time ago, I associated autumn with Indian corn and the smell of burning leaves. A long time ago, I was happy.

Now that the mosquitoes have been killed off by cold, it was pleasant enough to spend 3 hours reading and watching. Around 1:30 pm I snatched the ladder of a departing pig(gyback). Lulled by the dry, tangy air and the vibrant colors of fields and woods, I fatefully basked in front of the truck tires instead of cowering under the axle.

Since I could see a CSX train perpendicular to ours at Shenandoah Jct., West Virginia, and vaguely recalled a grade-level junction there, I was unconcerned when we slowed to a crawl. Too late, I noticed that here CSX had an underpass, vitiating any need for us to slow down. The most unwelcome sight, 2 Charles County deputies and a trainman, greeted me. The annoyed rail turned and began his long walk back to the units. "Naw, we don't need his name. I just want him off the train," he said over his shoulder.

Betrayed by some smug, anonymous do-gooder with a cell phone, I sat in the back seat while the town clowns checked for outstanding warrants. The squad car had no partition and still had door handles for the "passengers"! Impulsively, I thought of grabbing the shotgun and adding double homicide to my growing rap sheet.

Finding nothing to hold me on, the lead cop wrote me a $92 ticket for railroad trespassing ("on RR train [moving]") was his helpful annotation. "Look," he admonished me, possibly stifling a smile, "I know you didn't mean any harm, but riding a freight train is illegal and dangerous! As you know." With that, I was sprung to sin again. Maybe it will kill my Presidential campaign 24 years later.

A rational individual would have hitched out of town to avoid inflaming the same officers. In fact, a local who noticed my bereft expression offered to drive me to DC for gas money. I stingily refused and hid in an abandoned open-air shelter that abutted the NS and CSX track junction. While townspeople played with their dogs and led normal lives, I obsessively watched train after train shoot by at 30 mph or more. An hour went by, and I was just commencing the 7-mile hike to Harper's Ferry (the nearest Amtrak station) when an NS local ground to a halt behind me. I was saved.

Since the crew was dropping off a string of cars at a siding, I flung myself into a roofless gondola and waited for the units to rejoin us. A bit of knowledge passed on by a hobo in Oregon 9 years ago came in handy: catch the rear half of a local; the forward cars are likelier to be dropped off. Enjoying the protection of twilight, I jumped off a few hours later short of the trestle across the Shenandoah River, outside Front Royal, Virginia.

Front Royal was full of tempting motel rooms for Shenandoah National Park leaf-peepers, but I steeled myself and bought nothing more than an ice cream cone. I trudged back to the Riverton Company, a sprawling cement-mixing plant bisected by the tracks. It was completely lit up but also completely deserted for the weekend.

Out of boredom, I wandered through the factory, along high catwalks and up spiraling metal staircases into pigeon roosts. Every surface was covered by several inches of white grit. Dozing spasmodically on a gritty plank floor in a darkened outbuilding, I was awakened at 5:30 am by the sun-like headlamp of my third train. Several others had blitzed through at uncatchable speeds, but this one actually stopped. Slipping out under the blinding beam, I settled aboard the cold steel deck of a grainer. After an hour of mysterious backing and filling, we creaked toward the trestle and the crucial wye up ahead.

I peered into the predawn blackness to learn whether we would veer left or right. If we went left, back toward DC, I would have to jump off dicily into the night and wait with dwindling energy to leap onto another train. For once, my luck held; we veered right, and I leaned back in relief. Hungry, cold, and determined not to be seen again, I reveled in the approach to the hamlets of southern Virginia. A foggy, cool morning, punctuated by distant dogs' barking, broke over the cattle-dotted pastures. Occasionally the tracks sliced into roadless forests, where the trees grew in layers of luminous yellow shot through with piercing flashes of red. The landscape, I was glad to see, had retained its charm: developers never build first along freight-only railways. We snaked through the multicolored Blue Ridge Mountains; along rippling backwoods streams; under a broad, heartbreaking sky. Seven hours and 160 miles south of Front Royal, I belatedly recognized Roanoke's one skyscraper from a photo. Filled with paranoia, I hurtled out through a gap in the fence.

From 1991 to 1998, I was never pulled off a moving train. Since 1999 it has happened twice. Now that the public (the "sheeple," someone said) has been propagandized to regard train-hoppers as serial killers, I am pondering a hiatus. Like the aging gunslingers in "The Wild Bunch," I can't adjust to this changing world. Why put up with a hostile, cell-phone-equipped public in the scenery-deprived East anyway?

Then again, in my darkest moments, I fear that moving back West would not change anything; lost paradises of the imagination recede as you approach them. Nothing is real; nothing can stay. I never found a life.