The Stampede ride ended one stage of my life; it was my last hobo trip as a graduate student. Nearly 6 years ago, I showed up in Portland's Brooklyn yard with nothing but a gym bag and a rage to learn. The West is full of secret places that sing to the heart. You can't see them by Amtrak and you can't see them by car. I did what I had to.

The memory of them all lingers still. Stampede Pass. The Deschutes River. The Feather River Canyon. Tennessee Pass. The Royal Gorge. Raton Pass. The Columbia River Gorge. The Blue Mountains in winter. The Tehachapis. The Bitterroots. The Rockies. The Cascades. The Sierras. The Black Rock Desert. The Mojave Desert. The Modoc Plateau. The Pacific coast.

I was lucky to have the gift of time. As a student, I was free from a 50-week-a-year job. And, like everyone else who has ever caught out, I was tutored by other recreational riders, lifers, and railroad workers. The free time and the guidance were treasures beyond price.

My greatest debt is owed to the tramps. They would never see me again, had nothing to gain, were absolutely hard up. Yet to a man they offered information about trains and spared me the hardship of figuring everything out for myself.

In the summer of 1991, a few months before I caught a Feather River freight on the Marysville levee, a tramp and I were stalking a train. He suggested various places to catch out on the fly, including that levee. Eventually he asked, "How fast can you run?"

Fast enough, it turned out. Most of the time. Still, his question - so simple, yet so metaphorical - has haunted me ever since. I thought about it while taking notes in unheated Russian archives, then while languishing in the airless night of finishing a dissertation. My life would become a losing race with failure and despair, but I could always envision the next escape to the realm of the freights. There I had wings.