I recently took the train to Fargo, North Dakota to work a shitty but highly profitable two week stint at a strip club I had briefly worked at during the previous winter.
Call me crazy - yeah, I already know. But I was broke, depressed, and discouraged after a rather rough few months, and the anonymity of fly-by dancing and the promise of fast cash sucked me back in. I was already in Seattle and since the city of Moorhead (across the river from Fargo) was right off the highline route, I decided to hop there for my last winter ride of the year. Unfortunately my booking was timed so that I would be heading straight into a storm in the Cascades, but I packed well and knew that once I was over the mountains I would be enjoying sunny, crisp, cold air and smelling nothing but sweet bouquets of dollar bills.
My friend C was accompanying me as far as Idaho and in the morning we got on a bus in downtown Seattle to head towards my favorite spot for catching highline trains. Like civilized hobos, we stopped by a local coffee shop and enjoyed day-old pastries over a newspaper, backpacks at our feet, as we listened for an eastbound train to get called on the scanner. From what we could tell not much was happening in the Stacy Yard. We were starting to get antsy so we brushed off the table crumbs and started walking south to Spokane Street just to get closer to the catch out spot. As we began our long walk we started hearing them getting a train ready to leave, so we stepped up our game and dumpstered some cardboard (refrigerator boxes - score) as the train started to pull forward onto the mainline.
In a sea of 53's we got lucky and spotted a lone rideable 48. Crouching down in between parked cars, we watched anxiously, waiting for the magic moment to run up, throw our bags and water into the well, and hop onto the ladder before tumbling quickly over up and then down. A few seconds elapsed and we accomplished our mission. Although we had mostly been hidden to the line of cars at the next railroad crossing I heard a supportive honk right as I lowered my head.
We rode through Seattle without stopping, quickly reaching Balmer Yard and then going onward to Everett. It was a pretty ride but nothing too exciting as C and I had just ridden it a couple months before on a previous trip to Wyoming. After we started gaining elevation it started sprinkling slightly, and then it was outright pouring, until we were enveloped in the Cascade Tunnel (my favorite railroad tunnel and the longest in the US). Previously we had timed the tunnel trip at a new record low of 22 minutes, but this time around it was at least 30. Dank and smoky, it was terrible. But at least after we rode out of the tunnel we dropped elevation and the rain died down a bit.
It was still very chilly though and we had most of our clothes on, huddled together underneath my tarp, sitting on cardboard that was quickly getting submerged by the growing puddle of brown rain water in our car. Morale was low and my toes were getting tingly in a way that wasn't very pleasurable. C was going to bail off in Hauser and I wasn't really looking forward to a cold nighttime trip through Eastern Washington. I had packed my hammock in my backpack in anticipation of the floor flooding - I figured I could tie it up and stay elevated until I reached somewhere sunny and everything dried out. But after listening to C make a case for staying the night in Wenatchee, I decided to get off with him and catch out the next morning.
Two blocks away we found a motel and I bargained them down $20 before we bedded down for the night. In the morning I checked out and we found a small coffee shop in view of the yard and watched as figurative tumbleweeds blew down the tracks. Lots of westbound trains came through, but after four or five hours there was just one lone eastbound full of piggybacks. Maybe I'm getting soft, but I wasn't going to ride a pig to Spokane in 30 degree nighttime weather. Since I was on a time restriction and had to be in North Dakota by Friday for my booking, C and I both reluctantly got on the evening Amtrak.
We parted in Spokane and I continued on to Fargo, sitting in front of evangelical Christians that spoke of the importance of resisting temptation. By the time I reached my destination my train was three hours late and I was feeling very tired and very sinful.
Due to the delay I arrived in Fargo at the unfortunate time of 4am. The strip club ran a dorm nearby to house all the visiting dancers, but I was expected three hours earlier. When I paid for a cab to take me there the driver patiently waited while I pounded at the door and, surprise, no one answered. $8 in cab fare wasted, he dropped me off back downtown with directions to the nearest all-night diner. The idea of eating pie and drinking shitty coffee until 5pm the next day made me want to kill myself, so I dragged my dirty backpack to the Howard Johnson Hotel and bought a room. The night clerk was nice and decided to not count that night toward my reservation. I staggered to my room, ripped off my Carhartts, and indulged in my pre-dancing ritual of a long, hot bath. After shaving off most of my body hair I melted into the bed and watched a gem of a movie called "Roller Boogie", before passing out.
This motel was the type to offer a "free hot breakfast" in the morning, so I set my alarm in time to pillage it. Using the provided paper plates and napkins I managed to take enough food to ration out for the next two days. I was trying to avoid spending any money since I had already blown my budget. I went back to bed but cruelly had to wake up in time to pick up all the work stuff I had sent to the post office, general delivery, before walking in the opposite direction to the strip club, where I was supposed to dance for the next ten hours and pretend I was interested in men. I had a little bit of time left before my shift so I found a coffee shop to sit in and write while I drank my first coffee of the day. A mousy boy came up to me and managed to hit on me even though my head was buried deep in my journal and I thought I was radiating bad juju. He asked me what I was doing in Fargo and I told him the truth. He looked scared and left but then he came back and asked me out again. After declining politely I left to walk to the club.
I worked two nights before vowing to never work in Fargo again. Nothing bad happened or took me by surprise - it was more like nothing had changed. I was used to the bad music, rubbing my knees and feet in between stage sets, and drinking cheap shots of whiskey while simultaneously acting like I gave two shits about the stupid conversations men were trying to have with me. But the girls were the same, in a sad, scary sort of way, and the customers were worse, and cheaper than I remembered. After mentally calculating how much exactly the brain cells I was killing by being there were worth I decided to hit the road. I had hidden my pack in the dressing room and as soon as the clock struck 2am I grabbed it and walked straight to the train station. I only paid for a ticket as far as Whitefish since there was a big storm and western Montana was where the rain finally ended. When I got on the Amtrak the same evangelical Christians were there, heading back to Washington. We said hi but they I think they thought I was weird. All the money I'd made dancing was folded up in a bar napkin in my front pocket, and I was carrying a duffel bag full of high heels and mesh dresses. I wasn't really in the mood to answer anybody's questions.
The train dropped me off in Whitefish right after nightfall, and I quickly did a loop of downtown, scoring bread, apples, cardboard, and water. I saw a couple cops hanging around, but they waved a friendly hello when they watched me walking out of a dark alley, checking dumpsters. No one was around when I walked north and into the darkness along the tracks, past some work sheds where there were tags from previous westbound tramps (my tags had been long since painted over). I found a dusty old pick-up truck in an empty lot and put my stuff down before scooting underneath it and leaning up against the wheels. I figured I would only be there a few hours since there always seemed to be a lot of highline traffic passing through. On the Amtrak there had been a really annoying lady working in the cafe car, and I had stolen M&Ms when she wasn't looking. I ate them as I waited, drifting in and out of sleep.
Two hours had passed and I was zipping up my pants after a pee when I saw a dark figure walking toward me across the tracks. I wasn't sure if they saw me so I crouched down and resumed sitting beneath the truck. As a solo girl in the middle of nowhere I wasn't really excited about running into anyone at 2am, especially since I planned on camping out near that spot if I didn't catch anything soon. Usually I give my friends updates on where I am when I train hop by myself, but no one in the world knew where I was that evening, and I felt like the current state of my mental health wasn't really in top form. Within twenty minutes I heard more noise and then someone was shining a big flashlight at my face.
"Hello! You a rider?"
I had a new friend. D was a fellow train hopper, a veteran of 22 years. He seemed friendly enough and after making our introductions he expressed his concern about me camping out alone and being warm, no matter how much I insisted I was fine (it was about 20 degrees but for once I actually wasn't cold). He had a camp not far from where I was and repeatedly invited me to sleep there but I declined. Although I didn't get a bad vibe from him I wasn't comfortable with him knowing about where I was planning on sleeping, and with the cops circling around everywhere I wasn't really excited about finding a new spot. The more he talked the more I realized that he seemed to know about all the good spots anyway, and I quickly realized that even though he was nice, he was lonely and wasn't going to leave me alone until I got on a train. He wouldn't stop talking and I couldn't stop thinking about how I really wished it wasn't Sunday and I didn't have $700 in small bills stuffed in my pants.
Eventually I managed to get away, and after another extremely reluctant night in an overpriced motel I ran into D at a cafe and felt like I had made the right choice about not camping out. Over coffee and cherry pie he shared great stories about old timey freight-hopping, criss-crossing the country with just the clothes on your back, hobo jungle brawls. But after telling me I was really pretty, and then telling me about his impressive knife collection, I told him I had to go. I found an unlocked trailer by the train tracks and waited inside in the dark, until finally a train with rideable cars came by. A grain train to Pasco, with mostly tankers and BNSF grainers with no holes and no porches. After nearly getting attacked by a dog I lost my cardboard but still managed to catch a grainer on the fly. Although I like Whitefish I was extremely happy to leave. The entire time I was there my favorite diner was closed and I didn't even get to eat the pancakes I had been fantasizing about for the past three days. As the train sped up I saw D walking along the tracks, his silhouette lit up by the lights of the crew office. I felt bad but didn't know what I was supposed to do about it. I will never see him again.
For a junk train we made good time. A little past Sandpoint the storm caught up with us and it started raining. Unfortunately I had been passed out on the porch and only realized this when I woke up in a growing puddle. My sleeping bag wasn't too wet though, so I scrunched up in the cubby hole and tried to stay dry and sleep in there until the sun came out.
I woke up around 5am, stopped in Hauser, Idaho. All I could see were empty adjoining tracks, and a small highway a couple hundred feet away. Despite the cramped conditions I somehow fell back asleep and woke up again around 11, still stuck in Hauser. The yard seemed dead and I really had to pee so I got up, and right as I poked my head out a UP work truck screeched to a stop beside my train. Two workers yelled, "Hey!" and came over to talk to me. The night had been really cold, and I was wearing every article of clothing I had taken with me (not including the stripper gear), topped off with my favorite vintage Vietnam war-era flight suit. I think I still had eyeliner on. Basically I looked kind of ridiculous.
The workers assured me that if the yard's 'special agent' caught me I would be arrested and that I best be walking over to the highway and hitching to Spokane. They were nice enough though and waited for me to gather up my things and climb off, before they sped away. I sat in the brambles, wiggled out of my long johns, and ate my last bagel while I watched three or four different trucks drive along my train, each of them slowing slightly when they were adjacent to the grainer I had been on. Checking out the rest of the train I saw that there was an open boxcar five cars up from my car, and I decided that I would run over and get on it after the last workers drove off. I got my stuff together and started walking parallel to it when I heard the brakes airing up and then the train started rolling. I don't like getting on moving boxcars so instead I ran back over to my original grainer, threw my stuff in the hole, and very quickly hid. As the train pulled out of Hauser I felt pretty cool.
By dinner time I was in Pasco. My train terminated at the very eastern end of the yard, and I easily climbed off and hiked through the tall grass surrounding a gigantic ConAgra factory before hitching into town with a nice Mexican couple in a stuffed two-door sedan (it's always the poor people that pick you up). After eating a disappointing burrito from a taco truck I hiked back to the end of the train yard, where I knew there was a cheap motel. On the way there I ran into a group of too-cool-for-school crusty kids, looking like they had obviously just gotten off a train. They saw me and looked away, but I stopped anyway to ask where they had come from and where they were going. They answered with grunts and evasive eyes, so I wished them luck (all five of them were trying to hitchhike together) and kept walking.
When I made it to the motel the Indian guy behind the check-in desk knew I was a train rider. "I don't rent to train kids. They rent a room, say there's only one person, then they bring all their friends and trash the place!" But he broke his rule and rented a room out to me anyway, because he thought I was sweet and polite and because I was traveling alone. I promised to take care of the room but it didn't matter anyway because it was already totally disgusting. Everything in my pack was damp from being in the rain the night before, so I spread everything out on every available surface to dry, showered, shaved, and watched cable in bed. Out the window you could see the train yard forty feet away, just beyond the buzzing neon motel sign.
I met up with C again early in the morning, after he came in on a train from Seattle. We walked back downtown and spent the day eating tacos, smoking cigarettes and drinking horchata. After missing the Stampede Pass train for the second time in two months (still too fast) I took a bus by myself to Ellensburg, the next crew change point. The bus dropped me off and I walked over to the Red Horse Diner, ate French fries on the porch, and then climbed onto the mid-train DPU that was conveniently less than thirty feet from my table. I passed out on the floor with both windows open and the smell of pine trees in the air.
Six hours later and my train pulled into Seattle, along Boeing Field. I hopped off and started walking toward Georgetown as I watched a cute worker drive up, climb into the engine I had left just ten minutes later, and then cut the air. R picked me up and I went back home with him, to our old apartment. The end.