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▶  More from Harm City Guest Authors Tao of Tony Rooster
Where the Train Takes You
The Tao of Tony Rooster

"Look for a flashing red light at the back. That's the Freddy. Means that she's going somewhere. Also, don't climb over the couplings. People do it all the time. It'll get you killed though. Just take your time and walk around."

The old man didn't mind answering my questions. He was old, 60, 70, who knows. He looked a lot like Skip James. It was just past dark, and we were both sitting on the grass hill behind the Pacific Coast Fruit Company. The tracks go around a big slow curve here. Some gutter punk told me this was the place to hop a train.

"One more thing. Find you a rail spike and put it in your pocket. If you find an open boxcar, jam it between the door and the wall. Otherwise you might get locked in when she starts slamming around."

I'm feeling thirsty and impatient, grab out my water bottle to take a drink. I offer it him. The old man looked at me with disgust and showed me the half pint of whiskey he was holding.

"I don't drink much water." He growled, and left on that note.

An hour later I see the train I want. I start running alongside of her, and realize she's going a lot faster than I thought. I spot a grain car with a porch and make my move. I can barely keep up, but manage to throw my backpack up on the porch and commit myself. Running jump, grab that ladder, and I'm on.

I wake up in Eugene and the train is stopped. It's probably midnight now, I got nowhere to be, so why not take a walk? I hop off and eventually spot a grocery store. I go in and see if I can buy a beer. Maybe they won't card me. I make my way towards the beer aisle and see an ancient Indian standing there, bottle of wine sky high to his lips, chugging that motherfucker. The employees are gently trying to take it away from him, "Come on Chief, you know you're not allowed in here. This is the third time today."

"Ahrrg ah grr ah arg." Proclaimed the noble savage as he heroically walks away victorious, having finished his nightcap.

What kind of an anarchist's paradise is this? In Seattle he'd already have had his face busted up and been sentenced to 30 days. Fuck oh dear.

The next morning I see Chief at a hobo camp next to the tracks. His woman was combing his hair, and you know, sober as he was, the brain damaged old bugger did look like he might have been a chief in some distant time.

Ten feet away, 2 homebums were fighting to the death over half a can of beer. Chief's woman scolded them, "KNOCK IT OFF! You guys are best friends now, just KNOCK IT OFF!"

Hobo camps are depressing and to be avoided. I realized, right then and there that riding the rails wasn't gonna be a long term thing for me.

I make a survey of this strange place and begin to think that at least half of the city's inhabitants live in tents along the tracks or outlying bushes.

Next stop was Klamath Falls. I heard the legend of Roger Dodger, a bull that had been on the job since anyone could remember. He'd been the railroad detective in K-Falls since at least the 60's, maybe before that. (A young friend of mine who recently passed told me he encountered Roger as late as 2010, still at it.). He was getting too old to bust heads, but wasn't afraid to shoot your ass if you got jumpy with him. Or so the story goes. I really wouldn't know, as I never got caught.

The rail yard in K-Falls is full of rocky, uneven terrain. There are many small depressions that look to be shallow puddles. They're not. They are full of 200° geothermally super heated water. Whilst running from Roger Dodger's SUV I damn near fell into one and almost cooked myself alive. I found out later that the old time hobos used to cook their potatoes in those dangerous earthen kitchens.

I eventually made it to Oakland on this trip, my first. These are but a few of the precious details I remember from the first leg of that trip. Going past Folsom Prison was another noteworthy sight. A sheriff standing next to the tracks cradling his shotgun, looked like something out of the past. Cowboy hat and everything.

Even now, 20 years since I hopped my last train, I get a funny feeling every time I see a freight train with an open boxcar go by.

Riding a freight train is like being on a million pound roller coaster with no seat belts, it goes up and over mountains, and has an entire police force dedicated to keeping you off of it. My best friend never did give it up completely. They found the ground up hamburger that once housed his soul just a few years ago, spread around the Union Pacific tracks in Rawlins, Wyoming. They buried him in a pauper's grave. That's where the train takes you.

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Add Comment
C DemonOctober 10, 2017 9:45 PM UTC

Great tale. Great ending. Great moral.
BobOctober 9, 2017 8:20 PM UTC

Steinbeck couldn't have done better. Thanks.