Rain, trains, and (patrolling) automobiles (1 Viewer)

Tekamthi

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Joined
Sep 18, 2018
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21
Location
Great Lakes
'Darkest hours of the night…' the obscurely infamous phrase echoed through my thoughts as I stood in some forgotten park, about a kilometre or five off the Western end of the Trans-Canada highway. I shivered in the coastal October breeze, squinting from the sudden glare as my phone screen flicked on, tapping it a few times to load oruxmaps. I could see a road and the bridge that held it in the distance, cast faintly in the glow of its street lamps, and little else beyond the silhouettes of tree trunks, branches, and leaves.

I wasn’t all that familiar with this part of Sto:lo territory, and the darkness amplified the uncertain solitude into which I was wading. Before me, a path wound its way along a noisy, bubbling creek, barely visible as it traced along its settled run, disappearing into pitch black as it passed under the small overpass ahead. The GPS receiver in my phone was struggling to find a signal, encircled by tree trunks and dense foliage as I was. An intermittent car buzzed across the uneven surface of the bridge, casting eerie animated shadows in my periphery, substituting an anxious alertness for the tiredness I'd normally be feeling at this hour. I took comfort in the constant, softer din of more distant traffic - the feeling that my city was still just there beyond my sight as I crept along in the suburban night. Growing impatient, I flicked the screen off again and kept walking.

'...he's dead you fool, and you will be soon too...' The voice of doubt argued with my consciousness and wrestled against my confidence, threatening to drag me back to False Creek where I'd lived blissfully through much of my decade-long love affair with the lower mainland. We'd cared deeply for each other once, this land and I. We'd made great plans together as lovers do -- but piece by piece that was torn away, leaving behind an icy scorn that corroded my soul, and engorged itself bite by bite on my conscience. A battle raged within my mind as my feet trudged forward automatically.

Embarking on this kind of journey is usually done for a reason. Or maybe several reasons, if one stands back to look at the big picture of our interlinked global world -- but each traveler has a personal reason too; a reason intrinsic to him or her. It may be dramatic, inevitable, recreational, or even trivial, perhaps, but it’s his or hers all the same: A lasting, intimate possession carried while most others are cast aside. My reason was as complex as it was mundane, really, and properly part of a much longer story -- not this one.

But if you must know, briefly and to the point: I fell in love with a fairy tale. A humbling partial truth, to put it generously; not my own, nor any individual’s, really. Neither well-designed nor carefully-crafted, my toxic beloved was woven with plenty of blemishes and tears in its fabric. The sum of its falsity was beautiful though, the kind we desperately hope to be true -- and since its initial fabrication, many people much more clever than I have been charmed and put under its spell, too. Unlike most of those others, mind you, I was provided the antidote to this deception early on, an offer from those who loved me to walk my life’s path free from its ensnaring threads and constrictive yarns.

I didn’t though. Instead, I scooped it up wholeheartedly; carried it with me and made it mine, wrapped myself in it like a favorite blanket, infected others with it, allowed it to comfort and guide me head on into its seductive malevolence. Worst of all, deep down, I knew it couldn’t be trusted; I was always most careful to keep it apart from the truth in my thoughts, the way one might discreetly make separate plans with two incompatible friends. For a time, even as its material wore transparently thin, as pieces went missing, or were torn away by those that could not stand to see me wearing it, I still defended the familiar shelter of its falsehood. The inevitable clash came on suddenly, unexpectedly; a jumble of seemingly inert, disparate events had mixed together in just the right way to catalyze. Key ingredients of the unlikely poison chafed through my mind often lately: An intriguing internship… A contrived trinket… A retired arena... An old woman wailing… A box of seized files… A respected institution… A splendorous sunset. The reckoning, overdue and now in-progress, had quickly become a decaying calamity of my sentience and self-respect -- an existential trainwreck, just around the next bend, or maybe the one after. The excision of such absurdity demanded a walk in a different direction.

I closed my eyes tightly a moment, trying to clear my mind and heart. My steps felt heavy -- I kicked into a root, stumbling forward, startling my eyes wide open and knocking my thoughts firmly back into the present. The air rushed past my ears as my weight shifted, but I caught my footing again fairly easily. I stopped, adjusting the straps of my pack. As though mocking, the breeze picked up, rushing past me, mimicking my misstep, then subsiding just as quickly. My hand reached forward reflexively and caught a leaf as it swirled towards my face. Slowly, gently, my half-gloved fingers clenched tight, savoring the seemingly insignificant but unique sensation of its crisp, crunchy texture as it crumpled. I inhaled deeply, imprisoning cool air in my lungs purposefully as I spun in a circle, enjoying the moment for what it was. I caught a glimpse through the waving branches of familiar mountains, their tops dominated by snaking ski runs, streaks of glowing white against the black sky. Regaining my sense of direction, I turned in place nearly 180 degrees to face east. From deep in the park before me, the faint ‘caw’ of a crow or raven, at once both sympathetic and urgent in its shrill tone, dodged against the breeze.

Heeding the bird's call, I set off down the path. I imagined it was watching me somehow, that it was judging my progress through the shadows. '...like Bran the fuckin broken', I smiled smugly at doubt's latest jab, then struck back, kicking free from caution's hold, sinking it even deeper into the back of my mind where it was less of a bother. '...broken ain't dead...' The distant wail of sirens picked up suddenly, then faded gradually as they sped off to some emergency; I spent a moment hoping the best for whoever was in trouble, then another appreciating that it wasn't me.

Suddenly feeling oddly light of heart and less alone, I wondered if these were the thoughts of a crazy person, or just someone en route to insanity. Initially, I scoffed at the idea, but gradually mulled over the nature of this evening’s planned activity, then indulged the question with amusement, trying to think up some rational framework to go about self-analyzing as I walked on through the dark. As I neared the bridge, its street lights brightened my surroundings, burning off the shadowy fog of uncertainty just enough. I relaxed, and let my mind wander further as my ankles adjusted to the occasional root or rock.

Ambush -- a sudden movement, my head turned just the right way, and my eyes caught a split second image, engaging memories of having driven by this park once, long ago. Melancholy smashed through my train of thought, splintering my resolve as a warm fondness pulled at my heart - a new strike from the subconscious rebellion aimed at dragging me back to what it knew, to defunct plans and dreams it secretly still cherished. My mind pivoted to this new front, though, still fresh and enthusiastic for the march ahead. Nostalgia quickly crumbled under the weight of reality as I mentally reviewed tonight’s objective. The crushed remains of the leaf I still held dropped from my grasp, and I wiggled my toes in my shoes, pushing against the hard, cool ground under foot. The breeze picked up again, snuffing the old memories out just as quickly as they had ignited. My resolve regrouped as I reinforced my will Eastwards.

The street lights loomed almost directly overhead as I reached the bridge, and the shadows underneath were oppressively dark in contrast. The overhang created a solid black wall, appearing to obstruct the path. A sound -- something moving unseen in the shadows -- unleashed a sense of foreboding in me, and I crouched reflexively, readying for whatever. I quickly drew the flashlight out of one of the cargo pockets on my jacket, and clicked it on to ‘high’. The structure's underbelly was covered with graffiti, tags and intimidating shapes and phrases -- a cat scurried away to the other side, startled by the sudden light. Laughing to myself as my paranoia subsided, I relaxed and stood upright once again. Somewhere over my shoulder, the beckoning ‘caw’ returned.

Yeah, yeah, I’m going...’ I waited until an approaching car drove by, the bridge resonating disturbingly, then I passed underneath quickly, unable to completely shake the eerie feeling of this spot. The park on the other side was similarly shrouded in urban woodland darkness, though I returned to it eagerly.

The previous question of my state of mind returned to me as I walked on. 'Probably the latter,' I mused as the lightness of heart returned, deciding that the issue was at least worth a conclusion before being dismissed entirely. A fierce gust of cool fall wind rushed into the far end of the park, making the branches ahead bend and snap. Leaves rustled wildly as the burst of chilled air overtook and enveloped me. I shivered and mentally kicked the doubter just as it began to react, finally shutting it up for the night. I unslung my pack and dug around for a minute or two, eventually freeing my tightly packed shell jacket as the air ebbed and surged around me.

Creaking branches threatened to assault me as I resumed walking, swinging low in the darkness, causing me to duck reflexively as I pushed on. Intermittent drops of water hit my cheeks, but I decided optimistically that this was left-overs from an earlier storm, and not fresh rainfall. I stopped again as the wind’s fury peaked, turning my back to the worst of its brunt, pulling my toque down a little tighter, and tucking my hoodie around my neck like a scarf, stuffing it into the stiff collar of my waxed cotton jacket. The doubter remained silent, but I could feel it restless, watching my every move with disapproval.

The sudden metallic clanging of rail cars, still distant but starkly distinct from all other urban sounds, recalled my attention fully to the purpose of this post-bedtime expedition. I hoisted my pack a little higher on my back, cinched it tight and wound my hand in the strap of my small supply bag before marching on. It had been a decade or more since I had last been here; back then I was guided by friendly, knowledgeable wanderers, whom I had befriended for a year or two, but never altogether fit in with. The kind of friends you make when you move somewhere new, then gradually lose touch with. They had finally persuaded me that their hobby was not entirely absurd after we ran out of weed and beer and the usual excuses to stay out one Friday night in pre-olympics Vancouver.

'No problem,' I psyched myself up, remembering truly little of what they had told me, other than a general suggestion to catch out after dark. I reached the end of the path and emerged from the trees; a glimpse of the yard came into view. When we'd last been here as a group, Jack -- a mid-thirties, mixed-blood Salish guy that looked to be maybe 24 -- had led us across an empty overgrown lot, through an old warehouse, between a large gap in a chain link fence, and out to an unlit part of the railway property where we could freely move between several rows of parked freight cars. He'd been working nearby as part of a film crew when he found this "entrance", he explained excitedly to four of us as we followed his meandering path into the lower mainland's late-2000s industrial wasteland. He urged us nervously to be quiet, shushing us often, but the group couldn’t resist excited whispers and hushed laughter as we infiltrated leisurely into the yard.

I had followed along care-free back then; but the feeling now, alone, was much heavier. I walked quickly, but also as inconspicuously as I could even though I had yet to leave public property. The industrial buildings -- previously worn, wooden, mostly abandoned museum pieces in their bygone appearance -- had nearly all been replaced or renovated into utilitarian, metallic monstrosities of efficiency, standing now as stark obstructions to my plans. An engine’s bell rang out in the distance and cars clunked, bumping together as I approached. The glimpses I caught of the yard looked more or less the same, but the abandoned lot I remembered was now a busy facility of some kind, well lit with tall barbed wire fences. The other lots nearby were similarly upgraded and active. Impassable.

I walked over to the commuter rail terminal, abandoned by most at this hour, other than a mini-bus every 45 minutes or so. I stood right up against the fence for a while, in the public part of the property, staring into the yard. I felt light as a feather now with my pack off my shoulders, despite only a minuscule distance traveled with it so far. It was stashed behind a row of shrubs to avoid raising anyone's suspicions if they saw me standing there. I could easily walk into the yard through the passenger platform, which had only a low railing; one hop and I'd be out onto the tracks -- but it was brightly lit from nearly every angle, so that there was barely a shadow for a couple hundred meters at least. With cameras mounted on the platform and all around up high as well, I wasn't feeling good about my chances of getting very far unnoticed.

Peering deeper, it looked like a train was about to depart on the main line, and another was being assembled. A few golf-cart style ATVs with flashing orange-yellow lights were patrolling up and down the space between two rows of cars on secondary track, occasionally stopping, their drivers disembarking briefly, headlamps bobbing faintly as they worked. I stared longingly at the assembled train on the mainline, but it departed only a few minutes after I had arrived on the platform. After it left, I noticed hopefully that the far end of the yard, at least a kilometer or two further east, looked a lot less well lit.

I stood there for a few minutes too long; complacency now caught up with my will to keep moving. I looked around and thought of maybe setting up a stealth camp behind a nearby wall with a sight line into the yard, then curling up in my sleeping bag and listening to the rail channels on the radio til morning to get a sense of how they were operating. Indulging this thought, I pulled my two-way 'baofeng' out of my jacket pocket and hit ‘scan’. The blue glow of the digital panel stopped scrolling on the weather broadcast.

“...scattered showers tonight, with the temperature dropping tomorrow…” it droned electronically for a few seconds.

Son of a...’ The forecast had indicated clear skies and steady temperatures for the next few days when I checked that morning. I had basic rain gear, but would have to stop and setup shelter to avoid getting soaked in a heavy or sustained downpour, especially with cold on the way. I looked up at the sky, but it was still clear in every direction. The radio scanned onwards through the frequencies I'd hastily programmed into it that afternoon at Tim Hortons. It found only the 'whir' of an encrypted rail channel before circling back to the repeating weather broadcast. 'Useless…' I stuffed the radio back into my jacket pocket and checked oruxmaps again, noting that I was still a good distance from what I had guessed earlier was the best spot to catch out eastbound.

I considered my situation a moment longer, but shortly grabbed my things and kept walking, leaving the passenger terminal and sidewalk behind, following a dirt path scratched into the grass by other pioneering pedestrians a little ways off the road. I wondered how many of them were trying to get to the yard, too. My mind occupied itself imagining where they were going, and why they were leaving.

I passed a few more industrial lots, some with large grey or off-white structures, some more barren. A few seemed to warrant a closer look, but generally I found that each had a fence and barbed wire at the back. I wondered if passing cars could see me, all dressed in black as I was, skirting around the properties adjacent to the yard. I felt incredibly conspicuous, walking along grass shoulders and up and down the edges of wide driveways; surely everyone knew what I was up to. Then a turning truck nearly ran me over. Undeterred, I sidestepped quickly across a small ditch as he turned, scrambled behind the shadow of an overgrown fence as his headlights swung past, then crossed a moist grassy field diagonally to the next property.

Walking quickly again as I returned to the path, I passed a mid-size commercial/industrial mixed block, then arrived at the city bus facility. It was brightly lit, a mix of unearthly yellows and surreal blues from the sodium and HID lamps positioned around its paved lot. Workers were busy parking buses as they ended their routes for the night, and the garage buzzed with activity as it made repairs in all available bays. I was about to skip it all, when I spotted a low part of the fence in the far corner, with a minuscule bit of railway jungle sprouting from the other side.

'Impossible' I thought soberly, analyzing the obstacles between that location and my position near the road. There were lights everywhere, and surely cameras too, though I couldn't see any. On the upside, the low fence was well beyond the garage, away from the main building and the activity in the lot. There was a wide mowed shoulder approaching that corner down the perimeter, but the main drive ran right alongside it, and buses were still arriving every few minutes. There was nowhere to hide if one came along. Plus it was easily in view of anyone looking that way from the garage. But I couldn't let it go.

Turning back towards the neighboring mixed commercial building, I noted that it had some retail store fronts, and some of these had only recently closed, leaving a few staff and customers still milling about. I weighed the option of walking on to search for a better opportunity, versus maybe only ending back here in an hour or two. Freight cars clanged around as an engine roared in the distance. My pack and shoulders conspired to help make up my mind.

'These shops will all be long closed in an hour or two, and these stragglers long gone' I rationalized, figuring I could blend in better, and I'd have better contingency excuses available if I made the attempt immediately. Mind made up, I walked back in front of the neighboring lot, then ducked into some trees at the far side, pushing through the thick coniferous branches crowded between the building’s outer wall and its perimeter fence. To my surprise, I emerged onto a well-maintained but vacant back pathway, easy to move quickly through, right up to the perimeter of the main transit building.

I dropped my pack a little ways back from the transit property fence and crouched low up against it, watching the transit workers for a few minutes. They were passing back and forth, some arriving from parking buses, others leaving to go to their cars to drive home. Most of the staff cars were parked to my right, on the near side of the lot, resulting in heavy foot traffic just a couple dozen feet from where I crouched. There was nowhere else to approach, though, without crossing its path. I thought briefly at returning the way I'd came and finding another property to access the yard, my resolve suddenly vulnerable at its flanks -- but doubt had no response, this time. I shrugged and stayed put.

'History favors the bold,' the voice of a good friend sprung to mind, filling the void of momentary uncertainty. I doubled back a dozen meters, where I could throw my stuff over into the main office building’s garden, away from passers-by. Both my food bag and pack fell with a solid thud, despite the dense, manicured ground cover I had chosen for their landing. I cringed at the noise as I moved forward again, crouching low, looking around nervously. No one had heard. With no workers in sight, I quickly scaled and hopped the fence, landing much more quietly on the other side. I collected my things and crouched behind a large, green electrical box, positioned conveniently at the edge of the garden I had landed in, just before the wide asphalt expanse of the city's main bus lot. For the next several minutes, a steady stream of workers passed by, headed in either direction, maybe 15 feet off at their closest on the other side from my cover, broken up by at most 20 to 30 second gaps.

I could reasonably tell when workers approached from the lot, as their footsteps could easily be heard, but I had no way of knowing when they'd emerge from the main building, next to which I was crouched, hiding, with the main entrance maybe only 20 feet away, just around the corner. Five minutes behind that box felt like forever, and the soft buzz humming away inside made me a little uneasy, but I was relatively undetectable behind it. I used the chance to check oruxmaps again, and grab a bite of food to replace the calories burned so far.

Suddenly, a large group of workers emerged from the main building all at once, chatting loudly, heading to their cars. Only one bus had parked recently, and its driver was about to pass by as well. As soon as he'd disappeared around the corner, I peeked out from behind the box: No one else in sight. I crept out a little further, but still within the building’s shadows, watching the backs of the group that had just passed. Beyond them, there was no one else approaching.

Cute.. must’ve waited and left together,’ I reasoned, hoping this would leave a gap in the traffic. I dashed back to the box. Grabbing my pack and food, I took another look and darted quietly out of the garden, into the open lot. Head on a swivel as I moved, I half-crouched, half-jogged across where the workers had stepped only seconds earlier, staring at their backs as I closed the final few steps back into cover, hearing only their casual chatter as they made for their cars.

Undetected, I slipped into the shadows between the main row of buses, my adrenaline coursing a little. I tried not to think of how I’d chosen possibly the most brightly lit path into the yard, risking detection by a whole other crew of workers before ever reaching the rail property itself. Conflicted between mild feelings of paranoia and amusement, my tension eased slightly as I surveyed the row. The buses were all parked at diagonals facing away from the busy parts of the lot, and provided a corner to pivot behind just a step or two away no matter where I stood; a perfect place to hide, right in the centre of the well-lit, highly secured transit lot. I wandered down the row, walking lazily and fully upright now. Another bus entered the lot, and parked in the next row over. I watched as his driver descended and walked towards the main building. A minute or two later, I re-emerged from the shadows at the far end of the bus row, crouching low as I dashed across the short distance to the corner fence, then dropped to a knee behind a waist-high pile of cinder blocks and other debris discarded conveniently to cover the most vulnerable sight lines.

The fence to the rail property here was only about waist high, and it was bent lower into the corner, with the barbed wire pressed down, easy to step over. Pausing just a moment to look back for anyone that might’ve spotted me, I quickly tossed my bags over then followed myself, landing in long, wet grass. Relieved to finally be out of sight from the transit facility and its staff, I paused to catch my breath amidst the overgrown shrubs and saplings. I swapped some items from my pack to jacket and vice versa, gearing up for the next level. I spent a few minutes surveying the rail yard and downing a granola bar, fueling up too. The train they were working on was still two hundred meters or so off to my right, across the mainline and several rows of secondary track -- but the passenger terminal’s big HID lights were now to my left, with plenty of shadows covering my approach.

From this vantage, looking towards the parked rows at roughly 45 degrees, I could see partially between the nearest ones and occasionally made out one of the smaller ATV-style vehicles that seemed to be patrolling up and down the corridor between freight cars. Elsewhere, two or three pick-up trucks roamed around the yard as well. I tried the radio again, but still found no traffic other than the ‘whirring’ of the yard’s encrypted channel.

'Keep moving, in case they saw...' My nerves grew restless now, well justified, given the reckless approach I'd naively chosen. Besides, there was no reason to linger here. As the vehicle traffic passed by the near end of the train cars and disappeared from view, I grabbed my pack and jogged across the mainline, out onto the secondary tracks.

Rail ballast crunched and rolled under foot, uneven and jagged like no other terrain encountered in the city, making me step cautiously as I regained familiarity with the sensation. The faint smell of machine oil and rusted metal wafted in the air. Memories of having been here before flooded back, as did some of the details I needed, and my eyes started searching the mostly junk cars for promising shapes that might indicate porches and other rides. There were a few empty intermodal, several hundred meters further east and parked a few lines over from the train being built, and a bunch of box cars, hoppers and grainers on the rows that seemed to be the focus of attention. As I accelerated my pace towards them, loose ballast scattered and kicked around my shoes. Maintaining my footing and a decent pace in the dark occupied most of my attention.

With little warning a set of headlights swung around the near end of the rail cars from the obstructed-view side, closing quickly on a raised crossing between the secondary lines and turning towards me. I was out in the open in the middle of the yard, much too far from any structure, shrub, or other cover. Without much time to even think, I scanned the shadows, jogged ahead a dozen steps and dove to the ground, flattening myself in a slight dip in the yard’s rough surface, a safe distance from the tracks. There was no time to lose my pack, so I rolled to my right so it wouldn’t stick up. It wasn’t much, probably only a few inches deep, twenty feet wide and round -- like using a giant dinner plate as a hiding place -- but it was close to midnight now, and the shadows here were complete. The pickup careened through its wide 180, the beams of its headlights illuminating the round, rocky rim of the depression I lay hidden in. I held my breath a moment before the truck drove on, engine roaring as it accelerated down the near side of the parked cars.

Seconds later, I jumped to my feet and pressed forward immediately, watching the spaces under the rail cars carefully now for any approaching vehicles. As I was about 50 meters away from the cars, the previous pickup, or a different one from that same direction in which he’d disappeared, rounded the far corner of the cars and began heading towards me again. With still too little time to close the gap to the train, I jogged forward about half the remaining distance and lay in the next dip, legs coiled and ready to spring up to close the final distance to the cars as soon as he’d passed, unsure when the next of the smaller vehicles would be by.

The truck drove by twenty seconds later, deafeningly loud as it passed just on the other side of the last secondary line between me and the parked cars. It then reversed its earlier 180 maneuver over the raised crossing and disappeared back around the other side of the yard. Feeling slightly incredulous that I had stayed hidden in the midst of flat, clear ground, I lifted my head. The orange lights from one of the smaller patrolling vehicles were now flashing their way up between the row of cars, just on the other side of the line I approached. I flattened back into the jagged surface. The smell of oil and metal permeated my senses, clinging to me as I carefully watched the orange glow flitting over the slight incline of ballast rocks that hid me so slightly, yet so perfectly. The ATV crossed over the same raised crossing as the pickup, then turned towards me and slowed, stopping almost right next to me on the makeshift road, just across the last empty secondary line between me and the parked cars.

Shit...’ boots crunched on gravel, just out of my sight; close, then closer. ‘Fuck…’ The last hour or so of my stealthing around flashed before my eyes. ‘Caught for sure,’ I was certain of it. I could now see the top of the vehicle and its yellow-orange lamp directly, just by lifting my head a fraction of an inch. The worker’s headlamp bobbed in and out of my view, obstructed just barely by the tiny rise in my shadowy hiding dip. Its beam turned towards me, threatening to reveal my prone form. I felt naked. His radio crackled, blaring out instructions from the yard coordinator, clearly audible to me. The light from his headlamp danced brightly over the rocks just above my eyes. He seemed to pause in his reply, as though distracted? Did he see me? My mind reached desperately for options: ‘...run past him, and lose him in the rail cars...’ I discarded this idea almost instantly, weighted down as I was. A few even worse plans scrambled through my thoughts, and tension coursed through my body.

Breathe, stupid,’ trying to hold unreasonably still, I’d held my breath without really thinking, and my legs were starting to complain. As I inhaled deeply, I heard the quick rasping sound of a cigarette lighter, followed by the smell of tobacco mixing in with the metal and oil that permeated the atmosphere of the rail yard. I imagined his night vision diminishing from the brightness of the small flame.

You’re invisible, don’t move...’ I thought intensely of the ground, hard and jagged underneath me, imagining myself as part of it. After a moment, the worker answered back over the radio with a few words, asking for clarification, followed again by the yard operator’s voice providing a number. As the voice cut off, the worker jumped back in his vehicle and drove down a half-dozen more car lengths before stopping again. Fear kept me pinned to the ground; the sharp ballast seemed the most comfortable of surfaces to lay on right then. ‘Get up, dammit.

I rose reluctantly to a knee and watched the worker as he approached the train further down. I faintly heard the crunch of his boots, but just barely. As he moved out of the glow of his vehicle’s lights, I couldn’t see anything other than the reflective strips on his safety vest, his headlamp bobbing around, and the occasional swaying red dot of his cigarette. He didn’t seem all that far away to me in my alarmed state, but I reasoned he wouldn’t be able to see me at all.

Ignoring my rattled nerves, I moved up to the last car of the nearest row, ducked around its corner, and peered down the corridor walled by freight cars on either side. The coast was clear, though the next track was separated by a small road, where the ATV-style vehicles had been emerging from. There were several promising cars just ahead, and I moved towards them, not wasting any time. Four or five cars in, I noticed a flashing orange hue reflecting faintly off the metallic sides that flanked ahead, intensifying with every step I took.

The nearby worker finished his task and his engine revved up as he moved on down the other side of the line to my right. My sense of alarm grew as the reflected light brightened steadily, the weathered sides of the junk cars gleaming imperfectly from the approaching orange-yellow glow. My nerves bristled again as I tried to guess how far he was around the gradual bend in the line of cars. On closer inspection, most of the porches through this section were incomplete or altogether floor-less, so I advanced anxiously down the line while the pulsating light intensified. As I spotted a car with a half-adequate platform, I surrendered this game of chicken and tossed my food bag up, then scrambled onto it, too.

The wheels protruded up through this one, though it had a flat surface around and between them, and the triangular ‘v’ shaped outcropping of metal common to certain grainers, just wide enough to stand between. I flattened my pack against the back wall of the porch, hid myself in the alcove of the ‘v’, and waited. My nerves must’ve gotten the better of me, or the vehicle stopped on the way, because a good 3 or 4 minutes elapsed before it rumbled by, just below where I now stood. I hung out there for another 10 minutes or so, hoping to catch a glimpse to confirm which row the yard workers were focused on. It seemed like the first row that I had skipped was the target, or maybe both; it was hard to tell without climbing down and running a good ways down the line to follow the vehicles when they stopped out of sight.

On one pass, a vehicle slowed and idled just within earshot, its radio droning on about a delay in completing the manifest as all the yard's resources were being diverted elsewhere. A westbound train pulled in slowly a few minutes later, and the workers began breaking it up and parking its cars on the empty secondary rows I had crossed over earlier, encasing me in heavy metal in all directions. I decided to explore the yard as I waited for them to finish with the arriving westbound.

For the next hour or so I crawled over every type of rail car the yard had available, walked silently alongside their hulking forms, dodged the bobbing headlamps of workers or their crunching footsteps, and re-familiarized myself with the yard's layout. As I got used to climbing rungs and ladders with the weight of my pack, swinging my supplies up onto narrow platforms and moving across them, I’d stop occasionally to catch my breath, looking up at the stars. I felt wonderfully alone and invisible in the depths of this yard where I wasn’t supposed to be, shrouded in darkness. Eventually, I heard the metallic clanging resume from the direction of the cars being assembled earlier, and immediately rushed my way back over five or six lines of cars separating me from my presumed ride into the mountains.

Further east down the same line of cars I had previously hid and waited on briefly, the next row over from what had been the first occupied track when I arrived, I found a relatively clean and new grainer with a deep porch and spacious hole. I climbed on, slightly winded and on the verge of overheating into sweat from the rush back. As I caught my breath, I stashed my pack and shell jacket, then resumed my surveillance, watching the ATVs roar by every few minutes. It still seemed to me that they were preparing the row next to mine for departure, but I couldn’t tell for sure. Sometimes when they stopped out of sight, further east in the yard, I’d hear and feel the clunking of metal tools reverberating through the floor on which I crouched; other times I’d hear the same from the row across.

Just as I grew comfortable waiting and watching, a blistering wave of kinetic energy roared through the row next to mine, splitting the tranquility with a terrifying, cascading crash, and sending the neighboring line of cars moving slowly west. As they all settled into the same creeping pace, they crawled by mostly silently for a few minutes, with the occasional squeak of metal, one by one for many dozens or more... I lost count after a while. It was hypnotic to watch, giant dark silhouettes drifting by lazily, a dozen feet across the gap. The movement eventually subsided and the cars rolled gently to a stop, their joints clanging softly against one another. I grabbed my gear, preparing to move over -- but now unsure if I should, the line’s slow western crawl making me second guess the situation.

C’mon, why would it go west from here?’ I tried to reason myself back onto the previous best-guess plan. I gathered my supplies at the edge of the porch and crouched on one knee, holding the railing, watching for any vehicles or other clues as to what they were up to. A set of orange lights flew past on the other side of the row that had just moved, and slowed somewhere further to the west. I was torn, having decided already to mitigate risks by not catching out on the fly, green as I was; but desperate not to miss my ride if this was it, too. Indecision surged uncomfortably into my limbs, making them restless. The desire to move grew intensely as I waited, almost overwhelming me into action as it peaked -- suddenly the roar of the oncoming wave of rail cars smashing together returned, approaching quickly. The sound was slightly different this time, and I gripped the railing hard.

A nerve-shattering strike slammed into my car, making the porch lurch violently underneath me to my right, knocking my weight off center as my hip smashed into the side of my pack to my left. Immediately, the force pulled through my flexed, gripping arms and righted me again, just as violently as the floor had threatened to knock me over. ‘Dammit,’ I grunted as I stabilized myself again. That shunt seemed much harder than the cloudy memories left over from the few times I had felt this a decade before, and had instantly dumped a surge of adrenaline into my nervous system. Combined with their previous restlessness, my legs were ready for a sprint, but I braced and waited. Rather than drift to the west and gradually stop like the row across had done, the brutal force tore down my line again after we’d traveled only a few car lengths, bringing us to an instant halt. The energy of the stopping action seemed to flow through me a little better this time, braced for it as I was.

A minute or two later, the violent wave cascaded down the line again, pushing another few car lengths west before shunting to a stop. I waited, crouched and wary, not daring to move very far as the world rocked back and forth with little warning. The pause extended this time, long enough for me to dig my ear plugs out of my pack. Just as I thought our maneuvers were over, my hiding spot smashed off to the west yet again. Becoming somewhat accustomed to the motion, my nerves soothed into an expectant, excited anticipation, and I started to fantasize that maybe this would be my ride after all. As we moved car-length by car-length towards the big overhead HID lights, I rechecked the car’s hole with my flashlight, stashed my pack further inside, then dove headfirst out of sight.

Over the next half hour, my grainer was shunted back and forth as I peered out at the bright lights, then eventually pulled eastward again, close to where I’d started. Clouds had covered the stars as I pushed my head out of the hole to look around. With my hiding place shrouded in darkness, and with no one in sight nor earshot, I crawled out and surveyed my position. The yard's activity was taking place much further east now, and the feeling of being alone returned. I took a leak off the side of the porch before crawling back inside and sprawling out as best I could in the confined owl's hole. The shunting movements resumed intermittently for another hour or more, alternating between my line and the one across every so often.

The night wore on, and lightning flashed uncharacteristically through the West coast sky as my shelter thundered back and forth across the industrialized earth below. I fidgeted around in the small space for a long time before finding the one comfortable pose to hold, reclining on my side against my pack. I ate a fistful of jerky as I watched the yard, peering out as attentively as I could, the exhilaration of a successful catch out tantalizingly close, lulling me into a sense of comfort and imminent departure.

After a good while on the flat metal floor, my thighs and butt had become numb and sore from its rigidity, and more generally I was feeling kind of crashed from the earlier adrenaline surge and exertion. I took out my sleeping pad and inflated it, then curled up on top. The soft patter of rain on the car’s metal hull picked up shortly. It was just after 2am, and I had spent over an hour hauling 50 lbs of gear up and down ladders and across precarious railings before settling in to wait things out. Exhaustion caught up with me, and I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of clanging freight cars, hissing air brakes, and squealing rail wheels...

(To Be Continued)
 
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