Back in the Saddle

It would work out this way: my 1st train in 15 months would be the toughest to catch. At 1:15 a.m. a few nights ago, the Midnight Ghost came barreling down a straightaway in San Jose.

It was a fast-moving string of empty TTX's (flatcars for containers). I guessed the speed to be 15 mph; later, the engineer confirmed my estimate. Fifteen mph = 22 ft./sec. There was no way to keep up with the train, certainly not on sloping railroad ballast. My only aim was to stay close to a ladder for a second. For safety reasons, I tossed my bag aboard a car. Now I was committed.

I watched in disbelief as my gym bag raced into the darkness, then kicked into a sprint. As soon as I seized the ladder, my legs rocketed straight into the air. The train was going so fast that it had sucked me from the ground.

Having survived said physics experiment, I savored the moment. But the wind chill is considerable on a train of empty flatcars. Within a few minutes, I couldn't bear to sit upright and lay flat on my back. My field of vision was immediately reduced to the night sky overhead. Being a captive audience, I stared upward at a remarkable display of shooting stars. Four and a half hours later, we pulled into a yard 45 miles north of my planned destination. It was 5:40 am, still dark. Surprisingly, the units de-coupled from the cars. Was the ride over?
"You setting these cars off?" I asked the engineer.
"Yeah. Where ya trying to go?"
"San Luis Obispo."
"Shoulda asked me in Oakland. I'd've told you."
"Couldn't. I caught it in San Jose."
"Ohhhhhh, did ya? Where, at the depot? When we were goin' about 15?" He started heading toward a crew van. "You caught the wrong one. This is the only one all year that stops here." To my great good fortune, a northbound mixed freight stood on the next track. Within an hour, I was returning home; this time we passed through hilly, horsy Steinbeck country with benefit of daylight. I jumped off on the fly in San Jose and crossed over to the Caltrain.

The end to my 15-month drought was not a great ride, in terms of length or scenery. It'll do, though. Every freight ride somehow evokes a special reverie; this time, the night-long spectacle of shooting stars awakened the "thoughts that lie too deep for tears."