Off to Get Drafted - part 2

chicago to denver

In the previous story, I rode a Greyhound bus from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to downtown Chicago, then a city bus from downtown Chicago to Cicero, about seven miles to the southwest. Got off the bus at the end of the line on Ogden Avenue in Cicero. Time of arrival in Cicero: 0200 Tuesday.

Ogden Avenue had little traffic. The sidewalks were deserted. I wondered if being a young white male in this neighborhood was cause for concern, so I pretended to know where I was and what I was doing. I maintained a quick, steady pace. A sense of purpose overcame my anxiety. Previous studying of maps taught me that the yard was a mile or two beyond the end of the bus line.

Finally I arrived at Cylde Yard. This huge facility was a sight to behold with all of its floodlights. Entering the yard was easy as pie as there was no fence. Yard workers were tolerant or downright friendly. In no time at all some carmen were answering my questions about trains headed for Denver. The next train out would leave at 0600 "a few tracks over." One of them was impressed that such a young person was headed for Seattle by train. He was surprised to learn that I wasn't a teenager.

I thanked my information benefactors and left to seek my transportation. It was easy enough to locate the train; finding a car to ride was another matter. The only cars worth riding were a handful of piggyback rigs (semi-Trailers On Flat Cars or "TOFC"). I climbed aboard the one that had the perfect arrangement: trailer facing forward with its rear end hanging out a few feet beyond its wheels, and room under the overhang to be sheltered from the rain.

There was nothing else to do but wait. Experience had taught me that waiting was part of the freight-hopping game, but I still found it challenging. The minutes dragged by. When the train pulled out of the yard three and a half hours later, I said a prayer of thanks to the god of freight train departures.

From Cicero the train ran westward through the built-up area of the Chicago metropolitan area. It was one town after another for miles and miles: Brookfield, Hinsdale, Downers Grove, Naperville, etc. Some of the towns were quite attractive in the light of early morning. It was fun to observe people scurrying about during rush hour and a delight to know that while they were on their way to the drudgery of jobs, I was beginning an adventure. Gradually the built-up area dissolved into farmland.


At mid-morning the train stopped in the yard at Galesburg, Illinois. It was overcast and dreary. This was the first opportunity since leaving Cicero to stretch my legs, so I hopped to the ground and wandered around a little. I took a few pictures. No one else was about. I wondered if my mother had found my note yet. The sound of the charging of the air brakes summoned me back to my car.

Westward I continued, through farm land that stretched as far as the eye could see. After seeing the millionth row of corn I admitted to myself that in spite of being on a grand trek, I was bored to death by the scenery. Then something perked me up: the train reached the Mississippi River, and on its west bank, the cute town of Burlington, Iowa. In spite of the town's cuteness, the train didn't slow down, and Burlington was quickly relegated to the list of "places passed through."

All morning it had been overcast, and in places there had been a dull haze on the landscape. Now, though, the weather was changing. The sky became dark and threatening, but the storm was a turn-on: the wind blew vigorously and the rain poured down. My poncho kept me bone dry, even when wind blew the rain sideways, wetting my sitting area. Eventually I rode out of the storm and things dried out. Every so often I snapped a picture of the scenery.

Aside from the low "ceiling" of the piggyback rig, I had no complaints about the quality of the ride. Sitting under the over-hanging end of a semi-trailer, leaning against its tires, was comfortable, though I had little room to move about. I faced toward the back of the train. The tires shielded me from most of the wind. The car rode smoothly. Now and then it rocked gently back and forth. I nibbled on food. Scenery flowed by without interruption. A gust of wind blew one of my gloves off the train: horrors! Without that glove my hand would get dirty as hell, and I hated the feeling of railroad grime on my palms.


My speed dropped markedly just before crossing the Missouri River at Plattsmouth, Nebraska. The engineer had slowed down to negotiate the sharp turn on the far bank. I rolled lazily over the heavy railroad span, then passed through the curve, serenaded by ear-splitting flange squeals.

Down the line I enjoyed a delicious apple and again bemoaned the dreadfully boring scenery. Flat terrain challenges my patience. It was late morning, so I knew that my mother had found my note and was nervous as hell. (Nothing I told her about freight hopping ever eased her mind. Maybe a mother's job is to be perpetually worried about her kids.) The rural landscape just kept coming. The gentle ride and my lack of sleep conspired to force me to take a nap.


It was afternoon when I woke up. The train entered Lincoln, Nebraska. This was the biggest city encountered since leaving Cicero. At a grade crossing at the east end of a freight yard, a bull stood next to a truck, eyeballing the cars of my train as they passed. He yelled at me to get off the train. I yelled back that it was going too fast. This was blatantly untrue: at that low speed I could have easily dismounted. I just didn't want to get off and have my trip spoiled. It didn't matter much because in a few seconds I was pulled out of his view. The train continued past the yard and stopped on the main line. I remained on full "bull alert."

When the train stopped, I dismounted, grabbed my gear, and sat out of sight in nearby weeds. But when I sat down the bull had a form of revenge: I plopped down onto a prickly weed. Ouch! The layover in Lincoln was otherwise uneventful. When the train started up, I climbed back on my car and was again underway.

Darkness fell, and with it, the temperature. Even with several layers of clothes on, I got cold. By the time the train stopped near Hastings I had decided to seek warmer accommodations, namely the units. The train had three or four locomotives, so I figured that at least one would be empty. I gathered my pack and hand bag and crunched through the track ballast to the front of the train. I left the bamboo hiking pole on the piggyback car, to be retrieved later.

About two cars away from the rear unit I stopped to consider the situation one last time. Even thought I had lost my "locomotive virginity" earlier in the year, the thought of riding in a locomotive still scared me. Questions raced through my mind: Would I have the guts to climb aboard? Would I be seen by the crew? Were the cab doors locked? Would I be found inside? Would the crew report me to the railroad police? Would I go to jail? These fears paled when compared to the thought of freezing my ass off on a piggyback rig.

My fate was sealed. I walked up to the unit and climbed the steps. Soon I found my self alone in the cab. I dropped my gear, settled into the engineer's seat, and examined the controls. After determining which switch turned on the heater, I flipped it on and relaxed. Hastings was soon left behind.

Moonlight on the clouds above made a beautiful sight. I could have gazed at them for hours, but fatigue overcame my excitement and I drifted off, lying on the floor. I woke up early Wednesday morning somewhere in eastern Colorado. (A billboard or sign along the tracks must have provided this geographic insight.) I was shocked to see snow falling. The scenery was dull as dirt in the dark; I wondered what it was like during the day.


It was about 0530 when the train pulled into the CB&Q yard in Denver. I dismounted the unit without being seen. It was bitterly cold; the warmth of the locomotive had been a godsend. The next step was to send a telegram to my parents so they'd know I was all right.

While talking to switchmen about trains heading west, I learned that the train I had just abandoned would very soon be picked up by "The Grande" and hauled over to the D&RGW freight yard, from which it would continue to Salt Lake City. This connection was too good to pass up, so I decided to postpone the telegram. I got back on the train and in short order was transported to the Rio Grande yard.