First solo ride (i.e. Portland can suck it)

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#1
Guest starring STP's own Widerstand! Drum roll, please...
(for additional photos you can click here: www.yeehowe.com/solo.html)

The first time I ever tried to hop a train by myself I was in Eugene, Oregon. My grandpa lived south of there in Roseburg and after staying with him a few days I had some time to kill before heading back up to Seattle. I got a ride with one of the caretakers from his retirement home and after they dropped me off downtown I walked to the nearest gas station, ripped out a map of the city from the phonebook, and started walking to the train yard. It was cold, I was carrying too much stuff, and I had no idea where I was going. Two hours later I was still walking, the sun having set hours before. I walked through suburbs and strip malls and up long winding roads, stopping now and then to consult the map that was more or less useless at that point. Somewhere up on River Road I walked past two men standing next to a car talking, outside a restaurant in a strip mall. I gave up and asked them for directions on how to get to an intersection that was listed in the ten year old crew change guide I had brought with me, and one of them offered to drive me there. It was a long drive. He kept asking me why I was going to this seemingly random industrial location in the middle of the night but I just said I was meeting 'a friend'.

After a few more minutes of small talk I had him drop me off at a little mini-mart nearby, so I could pee indoors and buy some water under the comforting shroud of fluorescent lights before going back out into the darkness. I opened up my crew change guide again and tried to follow the directions it listed, but all the information it listed was outdated. I walked down a long and narrow dirt road parallel to the train tracks and the old shack that was there in 1995 looked as if it had been torn down years before. I turned around and walked back. I was terrified. It was pitch black and there was an enormous fertilizer factory nearby that made the air smell fecal. I started feeling like such an idiot - no one knew where I was, I had no idea what I was doing, it was the middle of the night and here I was alone in some train yard just because I had this whimsical idea that it might be fun to hop to the next town. If someone had wanted to fuck with me at that point I wouldn't have blamed them. I walked back to the main road and felt better once I was further away from the dark shadows of the underpass.

Alongside the highway I found a spot to wait against a concrete column that wasn't littered with trash. Sitting there I was hidden from the cars that would sporadically drive past and I was right in front of what I eventually figured out was the mainline. I stayed up for hours, listening to engines rumble by and trains switching around, but none departing. After awhile I felt better about being there alone - there was literally nothing to be scared of. Soon I was sleepy so I got out my sleeping bag and snuggled inside, with my backpack tucked under my head for a pillow. When a train finally came through on the mainline and stopped for a crew change I got up and half-asleep walked alongside it, touching its side and feeling the heat radiate off the wheels. I was so sleepy that it was hard to think clearly but luckily I was smart enough to not get on it. It was a piggyback train and at that point I had never ridden one before. The brakes started airing up to leave and I returned to my sleeping bag and resigned myself back to sleep.

Two more nights passed like this before I gave up. Trains would come through on the mainline very sporadically, but they were either going the wrong way or consisted of types of cars I didn't want to ride (lumber racks, pigs, sketchy gondolas overflowing with industrial waste). I hadn't brought a lot of food but as the hours dragged on without any traffic I started getting paranoid that if I left to go to a store then I would miss the day's one and only ridable train. Instead of walking ten minutes away to the mini-mart I wandered along the tracks and found a bunch of blackberry bushes. I filled a plastic bag up and kept eating till I was sick to my stomach. That night I found a different spot to sleep in, nestled in some tall grass near a pond on the other side of the highway. For the first time in my life I started to feel comfortable camping out alone and feeling invisible. I slept easily once I stopped worrying about people finding me. Even though it rained all night, as long as I folded myself up like a little taco inside of the tarp I had brought, I slept like a baby.


It was on the third night that I started to hallucinate. I had never waited so long just to catch a train and I had spent most of the day shitting out blackberries on the side of the highway. I had already read two issues of the New York Times back-to-back and written pages of stream-of-consciousness bullshit in my journal. Once the sun set the temperature dropped significantly and I had to get in my sleeping bag to stay warm, which made my body think it was time to go to sleep, except I couldn't sleep, because then I might miss the train. Unless I used my headlamp I couldn't read or write, so instead I just sat up against the pillar listening for the sound of distant train whistles. They were few and far between, so I started spacing out on the music of nature. The wind would rustle through the grass around me and after a good hour of near-silence I started getting really paranoid. By 2am I swore I saw rats swarming around my body and I was convinced I was going to get eaten alive if I didn't get on a train soon. I was so tired that I was delirious. Like clockwork the regular Z-BRLC train pulled up to crew change, and once again it was nothing but pigs. Ah, fuck it...at 3am I packed my stuff up and started walking back down the highway.

I had maybe made it a mile down when I saw a car pass me and then, brake lights. It pulled over to the shoulder and when I caught up I just started to walk around it and ignore them. Instead I heard the whirr of a window roll down, and then a 'hey!'. It was a man, driving alone, and he asked me where I was going and if I wanted a ride. I was miles away from any excuse of a destination and under normal circumstances I would never hitch a ride with a solo dude in the middle of the night. But, what the hell, it was, as my friend Ellie would say, a 'whateva kind of night'. I got in the car with him and we started driving toward downtown.

He asked me what I was doing and I told him, and he told me about how he had tried to do the same thing a few years back. He lived in Eugene but I didn't ask him what he was doing out so late, driving down some lonely highway by himself. Instead I asked him to drive me to this one stretch of road near downtown where I knew there were a lot of cheap motels. I had officially given up. We drove down lots of dark side streets and when we passed an especially shadowy road heading up a hill he mentioned that there was an incredible look-out spot at the top, where you could see the whole city, and maybe did I want to see it? No, I said, just keep driving. And I was lucky because he did.

A few minutes later I got out of the car intact, and after wishing each other good luck we said goodbye. For $45 I bought a room at the 66 Motel and immediately took a bubble bath. Then I stayed up till 8am watching movies on cable. Less than a few months later I would end up becoming best friends with the director of photography of one of the movies I watched in bed - why does stuff like that always happen? - and by noon the next day I was on a bus going back to Seattle, sad that I didn't catch a train, but glad to be leaving Eugene...finally.



***



Several months after that I tried hopping out of Eugene again, only to give up again. And then it was Christmas. Christmas is my favorite holiday and to celebrate I would always take an Amtrak down to southern Oregon with my dad to visit my grandpa. After spending a couple days at the retirement home we would drive up to Eugene and then take the train back up to Seattle together. I was determined to finally get it right, so that year, instead of driving to the train station, my dad dropped me off under an overpass on the highway, gave me a hug, and said to call him when I made it home.

Earlier in the day it had been drizzling but after I settled in at what was becoming my usual spot a rainbow streaked across the sky, which was stark blue and clear. It seemed like an affirmation of the good luck I was hoping for. Around 9am the northbound Amtrak train that was taking my dad back to Seattle flew by and I waved. A couple hours after that a slumbering grain train two tracks over started hissing and I put my book away and hopped on. After a little bit of back and forth the train switched onto the mainline and picked up speed, heading north out of town. I was absolutely ecstatic. I had finally hopped a train by myself and it felt fabulous! I screamed and sang songs at the top of my lungs but all I could hear were squeals of metal on metal.

Once the initial excitement wore off I was reminded by the scenery that the distance between Eugene and Portland is one of the ugliest stretches along the west coast. The train tracks are tethered to the I-5 corridor and pass a monotonous pattern of empty fields and strip malls. You are never completely out in the country so you have to stay low and try not to get spotted at crossings. I sat in the little crook of the cubby hole, writing in my journal and taking photos. Driving, it takes about two hours to drive to Portland from Eugene. On freight train, it took five. When my grainer finally chugged into Portland city limits I woke my ass up and was glad to stretch out my legs.

I waited until it whined to a stop before I climbed off underneath an overpass in the Brooklyn yard (almost one year later and I would be passed out in a hammock in the same exact spot with my friend Anna). I had no idea where I was but I walked through some bushes and found myself in a familiar train yard neighbor - a golf course. Across the parking lot there was a little clubhouse of sorts, where they let me use the bathroom and gave me free hot chocolate. The guy at the desk asked me where I was going but I had no idea. The weather was starting to get a little nippy for my tastes and I didn't want to camp out since I hadn't brought my sleeping bag. But I had forgotten my debit card in Seattle and didn't have that much cash on me for other options. He pointed me in the direction of a bus stop to go downtown and I figured I would just start there and end up somewhere.

When I got off the bus I started wandering around with my backpack, walking along empty streets lit up with glowing strings of Christmas lights everywhere. In shop windows there were lots of holiday displays and it was surreally pretty. I found the hotel that I had stayed at a few months before, when I was in Portland for a bike messenger race. My friends and I had crashed there after a long night of riding track bikes all over the city in a scavenger hunt. I remembered the rates being reasonable so I went in to ask how much a room that night would cost and the prices were double what they used to be. So instead I asked for a phone book and I reserved the last bed at a hostel on the other side of the river.

Another long bus ride and then I was there. Generally I hate hostels, and this one didn't really do much to dissuade me. A tanned young blonde boy checked me in and started asking me personal questions right away, but traveling alone so much and being so anti-social has made me a champ at evasion. After I deflected all of his inquiries he started talking about himself and told me that this hostel gig wasn't really his thing, and that actually he was a male model. From his wallet he took out a black and white business card - his sculpted torso in soft focus. After I got the key to my room I avoided him for the rest of the night.

Since I got the last bed that meant I had a shitty top bunk. I have a morbid fear of falling and the idea of sleeping so high up was sort of terrifying, but by the time I finished showering it was too late to trade with anyone. The woman underneath me had the loudest snores I'd ever heard in my life. Usually I can sleep through anything but I tossed and turned the whole night. By 7am I was wide awake but groggy and sick. I had completely lost my voice. In the bathroom I tried to talk and all that came out of my mouth was scratchy bird sounds. I drank hot tea with honey to try and feel better and by the time I left I still felt awful, but at least I could talk.

I got on another bus, this time heading toward Powell's Books. I was going to meet up with Widerstand, someone I had been exchanging train info with through email over the years. He knew where I could catch a train going north to Seattle and had generously offered to show me his waiting spot. I bought a new book to read (Jack Black's You Can't Win) and listened to him give me a comprehensive overview of freight train operations in Portland as we sat on a bus, weaving its way through Portland under increasingly overcast skies. When we got off the bus I thought we were close but as I followed behind Widerstand, listening to him chatter on about trains, it became apparent that we were still a long way away from where I was to spend the next few hours in the cold, waiting for a train to take me back to Seattle.

After what seemed like miles we were walking alongside an empty golf course when I realized we were alongside two sets of train tracks, rising up on a hill and up over the Columbia River. Although we had spent several hours together at that point it only took Widerstand and I a minute or two to say goodbye, and then I was alone again. I walked on the ballast next to the tracks looking for a way to get down to a ravine where I could hide out and wait. Eventually I found a path and stumbled down to a damp patch of grass where I put my stuff down. I was exhausted and felt very sick and very cold. I was in another place I had never been before, where no one (besides Widerstand) knew where I was. After I had settled down I looked up at the train tracks because I thought I saw something moving, and I had - there was a lone figure dressed in black that was walking toward me and waving.

This time I knew I wasn't seeing things, although I was practically in the middle of nowhere and running into someone wasn't something I had expected. I was scared and I didn't wave back. The figure turned around and walked beyond my field of vision and I continued sitting on my backpack, wondering what was going to happen. It seemed pointless to move since there was nowhere to go. A few minutes later I looked up again, and the figure was back. As it got closer I saw it was now carrying a large backpack and...a banjo? Then it was at the top of the path, and I saw that it was a girl! Suddenly I felt a lot less miserable and lonely. As she walked down the path I tried to hide how excited I really was. In all my traveling alone I had never run into another woman.


We quickly said hello and introduced ourselves. A was trying to hop up to Seattle too, and had followed the information in her crew change guide to find this spot. I watched her go through all her things while she told me about how she had been traveling all winter, hopping trains all over the country by herself. She had just made it back from the highline, where she had gotten thrown in jail in Havre. There had been six feet of snow on the ground and desperate to leave her piggyback she had jumped off and hidden in a unit, where workers found her during the inspection. Finally, someone as crazy as me, if not crazier! The whole time we were talking she took occasional bites of the only food she was carrying - a plastic jar of peanut butter, with the label long worn off. She ate it with a big silver spoon and offered me a bite. Inside the peanut butter there were three or four different types of candies and chocolate mixed in. It was disgusting, but delicious!

Wordlessly it had been decided that we would try to hop north together, and I unfolded my tarp so we could both wait underneath it as the sky finally opened up to downpour. Both Widerstand and the crew change guide had recommended this spot to wait for Seattle-bound trains, but we had yet to see a single one pass by. As we sat on our backpacks eating peanut butter and shivering we told stories and listened for distant rumbling of train engines. Finally, after an hour or two of waiting, there was a succession of doublestacks. Like soldiers, we methodically packed our things up in seconds and ran up the steep ravine, ducking when the first engine went by and then quickly getting up and watching for something ridable as the entire train flew by us a few feet away. It was too fast, but just barely. Running on the uneven ballast was hard enough but trying to grip onto the wet metal rungs of the ladders going by was impossible at fifteen or twenty miles an hour. After I tried a few times I fell back and watched sadly as our train left without us. A didn't want to give up, but after a few more failed attempts she did.

Two or three more trains passed by the same exact way, almost slow enough for us to catch, but not quite. It was a tease, a frustrating taunt, another way for Portland (already one of my least favorite cities) to say 'fuck you'. A and I were getting drenched and I was freezing, having once again forgotten to wear enough clothes or bring my sleeping bag. Both of us decided that we should abandon our spot in the ravine and walk back further, where we could try to catch the train before it picked up speed and it wasn't going so fast.

After another long walk we came to a track junction, where it seemed probable that the trains would slow down before switching onto the line that led over the Columbia River and into Washington State. There was a lone tree in the middle of the diamond, and we immediately camped out under it, desperate for any cover from the rain we might get. Back under the tarp we went, drifting in and out sleep - we had stopped talking much at this point, since we were so cold and miserable and tired. I forget how many hours went by but there were no trains. My throat hurt and I wanted to die, so I suggested we leave and go downtown, where maybe we could find a place to sleep that wasn't so depressing. A was ambivalent, but she agreed. She had been traveling all over the country for months without spending much money or having much responsibility. I, on the other hand, had a job and a warm cozy apartment back in Seattle waiting for me. I suppose it was my privilege talking, but it seemed pointless to keep waiting in the rain for trains that were never going to be slow enough to take us anywhere.

We caught a bus downtown and ended up where I always seem to end up in the middle of the night when I'm in Portland - Roxy's Diner. It was the only thing open at that hour, anyway. A and I were both dripping wet and when we maneuvered through the tables with our big backpacks, my badly-folded tarp, and A's banjo we were given looks of sympathy. The waitress gave us a spot to put everything down and we melted into our chairs. I was anxious to order something, anything, as long as it was hot. I greedily looked at the menu and then I noticed that A was oblivious, and wasn't planning on ordering anything. She had money but she wasn't spending it. I felt like such a yuppie. I ordered cheaply - French fries and hot tea - and she refused my offers to share. But when I was full and couldn't eat anymore and the waitress tried to take the plate away, she leapt upon them and ate every last one. In my head I wondered how long exactly one could subsist on peanut butter and sugar.

Roxy's was busy despite it being 4am, and A and I spent hours there waiting for the sun to come up and the rain to stop, fighting back the urge to rest our heads on the table and sleep. For a moment there was some commotion - one of the waitresses offered a van nearby that we could sleep in, except then it wasn't available, and then she offered again, but only if we 'really needed it'. Both of us were bent on leaving town as soon as possible so we kept drinking our shitty free coffee. I felt like I was in a Jim Jarmusch movie. I took pictures of A and we kept talking until finally, daylight. We gathered up our things again, slightly damp but no worse for wear, and left the diner as a fresh wave of zombies marched in for breakfast.

A knew of a rest stop where she could hitch a ride north, outside of city limits but just a short bus ride away. Back at Roxy's I had checked the Greyhound schedule and saw that if I caught the earliest bus I could be home by noon. The yuppie in me won out again and I decided I was through with roughing it for this trip. I had bronchitis and Oregon had long since lost its charm. A and I exchanged addresses and hugs and then we said goodbye, quickly ending our brief cameos in each other's lives. I walked a few blocks over to the old bus station and bought a ticket with the last of my money and an apple with the pocket change. Four hours later and I was home in bed and talking to my dad on the phone, telling him that everything was fine.
 
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#2
Damn, I actually read that whole thing!! You're a gifted writer, although it does kinda suck that u let "the yuppie in you" win you over haha...You'll get it right eventually, maybe. Good story though
 
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#3
Great story. You ever meet up with/ go on any adventures with the girl you met?
 
OP
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#4
You know...I may have yuppie tendencies but would you say no to a hot shower after getting rained on all night?

I kept in touch with A sporadically for a little while but she's hard to track. I still have her info. She was an amazing lady. I probably would have totally fallen head over heels for her if the big heterosexual in me didn't like dick so much.

I think this all happened in 2004? I actually have no idea. Well...I think I was 20 then? Damn Wider, we are getting old.
 
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#5
reading this story makes me happy. well written and a tale of a female.
 
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#6
Great story. Read it start to finish!
 

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#7
yep. looked at your website too, you are good at lots of things. I cringed at the yuppie bit too, but the honesty is part of what makes it good.
 
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#8
Oh, there's the date!
Nice account... ya can't win 'em all.
(Did you finish You Can't Win?)
 
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#9
yep. looked at your website too, you are good at lots of things. I cringed at the yuppie bit too, but the honesty is part of what makes it good.
I am merely competent at many things. But thank you!

Oh, there's the date!
Nice account... ya can't win 'em all.
(Did you finish You Can't Win?)
Oh please. You have no right to complain seeing as how your lazy hobo ass did not come to NY as previously promised. Suck a turd.

(And of course I finished that book.)
 

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#10
your ¨competence¨ falls in the good camp, don´t tell me what to think!
 
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#11
You know...I may have yuppie tendencies but would you say no to a hot shower after getting rained on all night?
Oh most def I wasn't knockin your jock at all yo! I just meant that it sucked that it had to come down to that for you and didnt work out. Sorry if I came off like an ass-tard(which most of the time I actually am)
 

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#12
This is one of the most enjoyable stories of a miserable time that I've read!
 
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#13
Oh most def I wasn't knockin your jock at all yo! I just meant that it sucked that it had to come down to that for you and didnt work out. Sorry if I came off like an ass-tard(which most of the time I actually am)
Oh, I didn't take offense. I do feel guilty every time I give up on train trips and end up buying hotel rooms I can't afford (don't ask me about credit card debt), but oh god, does it feel wonderful, especially after a real shitty cold trip.

This is one of the most enjoyable stories of a miserable time that I've read!
Thank you...it's funny how the most interesting or best stories are the ones about really horrible, painful experiences. I can think of a lot of things I've done that I never in a million years would want to do over again, but when I read about them now or tell stories about them it all sounds very comical. If only frostbite or wet feet could be so amusing.
 

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#14
A good story. Much better, and more effort in this than most first-time stories. I think this reads well both to seasoned hoppers and people who want a glimpse at what challenges await them if they're planning to start out. Above all, this story doesn't sound trapped within a certain sub-culture...whileA's character is a nice glimpse into how the road shapes people.

I'm not sure that taking a bus or payfare train is particularly young urban professional-ish. I can relate to the extreme self-disappointment that results from giving up and paying for a bus ride to another place, though. Albany crushed me that way.

I have a sky-high metabolism (gonna get checked out for hyperthyroidism soon), and so I have to eat a full meal every 4 hours and poop 4 or 5 times a day. I'm so embarrassed when I'm with my friends because I need to find food at odd intervals of the day. I try to buy cheap and little as much as possible. Since most of my friends are suburbanites, I would totally give them heck for throwing out good food. Except that I'm already treated like the family dog where I go, so people tend always give me leftovers, etc. It's really awesome.

Anyways, awesome story. Props to Wider for gettin' you on the rails. Are you pretty full-time by now?
 
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#15
Anyways, awesome story. Props to Wider for gettin' you on the rails. Are you pretty full-time by now?
Ha ha, no. Very, very, very far from it.

This wasn't my first ride. I did the highline and hopped in Canada a few times before I went on a trip strictly by myself.
 
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#16
hell yeah, sister.

its true.. that the misery makes for a better story.

i have yet to hop trains, but my travlin shoes have left me sleepin in ditches in the middle of fuckin nowhere or hiking with a heavy load for way too many miles... but its those shit parades that made the high points... the points where i could put my pack down and jump naked off a river bridge or meet a lover so much more golden and sweet.

well done. and everyone's right... you're a fantastic writer!
 

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#17
Hell yeah, reading trainz stories from other fellow lady riders puts such a big smile on my face! Super well written.
 

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