Freight Hopping, Aborted

First attempt at freight hopping.

One more place I'd like to be,
One more place I'd love to see:
To watch those old Blue Ridge Mountains climb
As I ride old Number Nine.

There's a certain romance about riding a freight train. It's the same appeal as that of mountain men, cowboys, fruited plains, and purple mountains' majesty. Haven't we all, at some time or another, been stuck at a railroad crossing wondering what it would be like to climb into a boxcar and ride to the end of the line? I suppose that many people have never considered such an adventure; my mother, for example, would be much too civilized for such thoughts. The rest of us, though - that is, those cursed with Y-chromosomes - are all too familiar with that subdued restlessness. If it were otherwise, Kerouac and London would never have become famous.

So, I set out to do it. I spent hours on the Internet, perusing railroad maps and schematics, newspaper articles, and forums about freighthopping. I bought Duffy Littlejohn's book, Hopping Freight Trains in America, and read it through in two days. I went down to Dolton to scope out the freight yard, bought gloves and earplugs, and basically did as much planning as possible for a trip devoid of such luxuries as timetables, tickets, or legality. After all, railroad companies operate on tonnage, keep schedule information to themselves, are inefficient in operation, and hate trespassers.

Somehow, all my planning paid off. When I got to Yard Center, I found myself face-to-face with the perfect train. It was Thursday at dusk - the height of freight yard activity - and they had just finished humping a gorgeous intermodal freighter. There were three or four beautiful Union Pacific units on the front end: I knew it wasn't going to toodle off to Danville or anything. The rest was 95% container-on-flatcar and trailer-on-flatcar - perfectly rideable. And, it was standing right on the mainline, aired up and ready to go. For crying out loud, all I had to do was to walk up and get on. I wouldn't even have to climb a fence or cross over a single track to do it.

That's when all the stories came true. They say that the Midwest and East are less friendly toward freighthoppers that the West. They say that some railroad cops actually take their jobs seriously. They say that the Union Pacific is particularly nasty with regard to trespassers. Well, I guess they're right.

As soon as I set my bag down underneath a trailer (about halfway down the train), I saw a pair of company headlights bouncing along the service road toward me. So, I ducked back behind a house. They rolled on by, I stepped out again, and then another truck came on down the line. And, this one was searching every car with a flashlight. OK, so I knew I'd been spotted - or they were more anal about their job than I cared to think about - but it was dark, and I figured I still had a fairly good chance. So, I stuck around to see one of the trucks drive on back to the yard office, about a half-mile north of me. Perfect! I was now between two sets of taillights. But - stupid me - I decided to wait until the second truck headed home.

Of course, it didn't. Instead, it turned around to face me, with the apparent intent of watching every car as the train crawled to a start. So, I watched the train creep on by. The last car was a flatcar with two trailers on top, end-to-end, and the two in front of it were woodchip gondolas or something huge like that. I quickly hatched a plan. The last car was rideable, and the two in front of it were virtually impregnable walls - perfect for hiding behind. As the end of the train rolled by, I ran around to the other side. I then moved up beside the gondolas so as to be invisible to anyone (say, for example, Union Pacific employees) on the other side. The plan was this: to run alongside the train until I was past the company truck, then drop back and climb aboard the last car.

Let's just say that a quarter-mile is a lot longer than it seems when you're running with two bags along a railroad at night. You guessed it: I stopped short, and I knew it. Unfortunately, by the time I realized my blunder, I had lost valuable ground: I couldn't catch up to my car again without passing in front of Mister Bull's headlights. So, I decided to count my losses, cross over the train on my left, and lowline out of the yard. Well, have you ever noticed that there's no easy and safe way to get across an auto-carrier unit train? Yeah, I noticed that too. The cars are basically just rounded off on the ends, with only the coupler between them. I could have been mistaken, with only a few seconds to check, but I didn't see any good way across. I even considered crawling under the train - and, at that point, would have done it - but there's virtually no ground clearance underneath those things.

So, I threw my bags down in the shallow dip in the ballast beside the auto-carrier, and lay down behind them. My train passed, and an eternity of non-action ensued. Let's be honest here: I had absolutely no excuse. I was dressed all in black, was packed for a trip, and was lying prostrate in a freight-yard at night. Furthermore, I was almost certain I'd been seen trying to climb aboard the dearly departed hotshot. Eventually, the truck started heading my way, the headlights much too bright and the sound of gravel much too loud all of a sudden. To my amazement and utter delight, the truck drove by without slowing down a bit. Either the driver didn't see me, or he figured he had done his job by keeping me off the train and it was time for coffee.

At that point, I was confronted with a choice. Now that I knew how the crew ran their operation, I also knew how to beat the system: all I had to do was to walk a half-mile down the line. That way, I would be positioned beyond the range of railroad eyes, but would still have access to a slow-moving train. But, no thanks: I'd had enough adventure for one night. I had my roommate pick me up and take me home. The next morning, I tried hitchhiking, but only made it eleven miles. After walking the next four miles to stand beside an I-55 entrance ramp in the rain, I broke down and took good old Greyhound. It was the best decision I'd made all week.

Of course, I've still got the itch. I still want to know what it's like to see the Ozarks from the back porch of a grain hopper. I suppose it's the same part of me that has always loved climbing rocks and trees, driving through snowstorms, and doing anything else that makes women say, "Be careful." And, whenever I'm stuck at a railroad crossing, I still wonder what it would be like to climb into a boxcar and ride to the end of the line. I suppose I always will.