Coast to Coast - part 1

secaucus to meadville

In 1976 I rode freight trains from Secaucus, New Jersey to Portland, Oregon. Secaucus is northwest of Hoboken, which lies on the west bank of the Hudson River, facing lower Manhattan. The trip took eight days on ten trains.

It was the start of a period of time when I would be away from my girlfriend, with whom I had been living in Germany. Originally I had planned to end our relationship, the logical outcome of commitment phobia, but she convinced me to compromise by taking a vacation in the States to think it over. I'm glad she suggested that: a few days into the trip I realized how much I wanted to be with her. Later that year we got married and in 2005 we're still together. That old phrase "absence makes the heart grow fonder" could be restated for me as "absence made me see the light."

So in mid-June I flew from Germany to New York City on a dirt-cheap charter flight. For the next four days I stayed at the YMCA in Hoboken, New Jersey. Hoboken is directly across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan. This was my base of operations for exploring the New Jersey side of the river and making two forays into Manhattan. Some of that exploring related to figuring out where to hop a freight train going west. I could have stayed at a YMCA in Manhattan, but it was cheaper to do so in Hoboken, and getting across the Hudson River was easy as pie on the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) trains.

During my explorations I saw a Railbox boxcar for the first time in my life. This was a treat because since the creation of the Railbox concept ("first load on any road") I had been in Germany and could only view pictures of them in Trains magazine. As a counterpoint to that wonderful experience, I was saddened when I was visually assaulted by the ugliest apartment building in the world: Troy Towers in Weehawken - a horrible monstrosity. I also visited the site of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. The view of Manhattan from there was superb.

But the most important exploration was my venturing out to Secaucus to examine Erie Lackawanna's Croxton Yard in preparation for hopping a freight. The yard employees were friendly and assured me that getting a ride west was not a problem. (Looking back from the year 2005, that cordial atmosphere seems like a fantasy.) Officially, the yard was a Conrail facility because of the huge railroad merger earlier that year, but everything still said "Erie Lackawanna."

During one of the trips to Manhattan, I studied topographic maps at the beautiful central library. Back in Hoboken, I purchased food for the first leg of my cross-country excursion. With this done, I was ready to head west.

Friday, June 18

On Friday morning I checked out of the Hoboken YMCA, ate breakfast, and traveled to Journal Square on a subway. Journal Square was a transportation interchange point in neighboring Jersey City, and a stopping place for local subways and regional commuter lines. It had retail shops, restaurants, etc. to serve commuters. It bustled with people. At a bookstore I bought two books to read during the trip: "Supership" (about huge oil tankers) and "The Bermuda Triangle."

From Journal Square it was a walk of two and a half miles to the west end of Croxton Yard. A quarter of that distance was on city streets. North of Journal Square, where the highway spanned a ravine containing commuter tracks, I descended stairs to the tracks. Then I followed a dirt road near the tracks to the west end of the yard, just west of Interstate 95. My gear weighed me down; it consisted of a big frame pack, a day pack with a few frequently-used items that I carried in one hand, and a gallon water bag carried in the other hand.

When I got to the west end of the yard and asked about trains going west, switchmen identified a westbound that was waiting to depart. Talk about good timing! With little trouble I found an empty boxcar. My water bag wasn't full, so I tempted fate by filling it. There was a small building next to the nearby engine sanding facility; I guessed correctly that it would have a water faucet. There I topped off the water bag. While doing this I kept an eye on my train, always ready to run back to it should it start to move. The train didn't budge. I returned to my boxcar without incident. It was about 1300 and hot.

Getonwithit, the god of prompt departures, was in a bad mood that day, so I had to wait a while for the train to leave. As the train sat there on the track, I got restless. Didn't the crew and dispatcher realize that this was the start of a grand adventure for me? At 1340 the engineer finally got the message and put the train into motion. It crawled down the track, immediately crossing the Hackensack River and heading into a built-up area that stretched northward through one town after another on its way to Suffern, New York (just north of the NY-NJ border). I was too excited to worry about recording the names of the towns, but as I write this in 2005, I estimate that I passed through Rutherford, Garfield, Saddle Brook, Waldwick, Ramsey, and Mahwah. Most of the time I stood in the rear of the boxcar, out of view of the public, watching the urban scenery pass by outside the open door.

Progress was steady, but the pace was modest - probably dictated by the uphill grade. The landscape evolved from urban to rural. The main thing I remember was that the engines repeatedly lost traction on the ascent (wet rails?), causing numerous slips and "catches." Every time the wheels regained traction, the train jerked forward. This became annoying.

A Burlington Northern boxcar ahead of me got a bad case of sticky brakes, which generated a cloud of smelly haze that I had to breathe for miles. In late afternoon the train arrived in sleepy Port Jervis, NY, where a fresh crew boarded. To this point the train had made good time, so I expected the new crew to move out without delay. I should have known better to disregard the first law of freight hopping: there is no schedule and train movements are not rational. As if to slap me in the face for being so stupid, the train sat in Port Jervis for about 30 minutes. Maybe an eastbound train had to get out of the way before we could take off.

After leaving Port Jervis the train continued on through the pretty terrain of the Delaware River. It got dark. The train barreled through Binghamton without stopping, which surprised the hell out of me: I had assumed it would stop there for switching. Soon thereafter I got tired of standing up and looking at dark scenery, so I got into my sleeping bag and went to sleep.

Saturday, June 19

Awful bouncing woke me up just as dawn was breaking. The air had an eerie blue color. I roused myself - probably because the bouncing was too uncomfortable to endure on my back - got dressed, and resumed the rite of scenery watching. The early morning air was cold, so I bundled up well. Soon after getting up I rode over a long trestle that spanned a river valley, gazing down on the pleasant rural landscape. [After much map study I determined that this was the valley of the Genesee River valley at Belfast, NY. The magnificent high trestle was dismantled years ago; all that remained when I saw it last were the huge concrete footings aligned in parallel rows across the valley floor.]

Farther down the line I passed through the towns of Olean, Salamanca, and Jamestown. It was a gentle topography of farms and forests. Although attractive, the landscape bored me - in those days of my youth I was easily bored. The boxcar developed an intense bounce that drove me crazy, so I got my gear ready for a quick car change at the first opportunity.

In mid-morning the train came to a halt in a freight yard. Strings of cars sat to either side of me, obscuring my view of the surroundings. I had no idea where I was and I didn't care; all I wanted to do was find another car to ride. The bouncing had worn me out. Hopping to the ground brought the relief of terra firma. Off I went toward the front of the train to find another car. The place was lonely - I saw not a soul in the canyon of steel.