You Terrify Me Machine (1 Viewer)

Jan 13, 2008

In the slow moments I can still feel the pounding in my head, the pulsar beat of iron wheels on iron rail. Chit-chattering, clanking over track sending short hot taps of sound about and thickly underplayed with dense bass thumps and violence. When a quiet sets in and surrounds me with stillness the power of the train comes back, beating back from the bottom of my joints, reverberating in my body. It grinds me up. It is as though the machine is still propelling me forward, even though I’m at rest.

The machine is love and hate to me. No, hate and love. Hate comes first. Can we not forget the horrible things it has done? The pillage of people and land made possible by locomotives along the iron rail, by their brutal force? And can we ignore the base fact that the rail even today, no, today more so than ever is the hard line down which it all flows? So much wealth, power, so much horrific abundance of material from south to north, east to west. But as with all we are born into, all the things not of our choosing, the rails can be loved if you approach them right, if you recognize. I love them because I embrace them as have countless others, from below, criminally, we’ve held and had the metal conveyors in a way that might very well undermine their very being and symbolism, their first sinister purpose. I love them in an outlaw approach to transform what is into what can be, a new line of attack. I love the rails as has a million hobos, migrants and back lot kids have. I love them as an escaped slave, a jump-ship mutineer, a class traitor, a pure indolent man pissed at the world not living up to itself.

I love the rails because I can imagine a world someday without trains as we know them. I can envision a world that doesn’t need to move so much produce and so many people about. It’s a saner place. It’s a utopia maybe, but it’s part of a bigger constellation of qualities that on a different planet earth could make me feel whole and stable, not this sick and anxious creature I am now who quivers in his own body and can’t handle the idea of what others call “success” and “normalcy.” As I am I love the rails and the whole subterranean world that surrounds them, just like I love other infrastructures of the submerged. I love the bridges and tunnels and overpasses. I lust after the concrete walls filled with tags. I tromp through broken glass and industrial waste and rest my tired feet under the cool shadows of grain towers and stacked bricks. In this strange way the machine has only been half winning these past several hundred years. The megamachine might have conquered the land into its expansive grid. It might have sucked the imagination and magic from the world and clamped down upon it a rigid metal break under hot sulfur and tungsten spotlights, measured, harvested, poisoned and consumed. All the same though, this very machine is run by men and women who are dissatisfied on many levels. Lurking below the scaffolds and engines exist a silent world of travelers and poor people, criminals and modern day saints, insane prophets, houseless but don’t call them homeless, riff raff and migrants, all who flux about in ways that defy the linear logic of the computerized monster. Subversion. A true kind of beauty and hope offered up from way down.

I had been watching the Norfolk Southern’s yard in New Orleans since not long after the mighty hurricane blew over and provided cover for the city’s plunder. My first foray across those tracks was with a friend who led me hazardously through one long string of cars after another. We were too impatient to walk around. We climbed through several trains caring not if they were powered up and about to jolt or smash together. Honestly at the time we didn’t know any better. Later that week I stood above the yard on the Robertson Avenue bridge peering down at the longest link of piggy backed flat cars carrying the now infamous first delivery of FEMA trailers. I remember those hundreds of trailers. They sat in that damn yard for a week or so. I crossed through there daily to and from the Marigny and 9th Ward. This was December 2005. New Orleans had just been fatally stabbed in the back, by the USA, by the savage mega-machine. By the fucking C-word.

It’s the only city in which I love the night and can’t wait for the rain to fall on, this low-down, so low-down river bend. The highest vantage point is a bridge or building that will in all likelihood teeter over in the mud-quick earth someday. My beautiful city, I walk through her streets, thick with blood and violence, intoxication, love, warring tribes and crooked cops, pissed face drunks and pit bulls, Indians and clowns, parades and trash mountains. Nobody really thinks any of this will change for the better, or even what “the better” would look like, just that it will change like the course of a river eventually does. And my heavy city drifts down that river, further down on a slick of oil and cash money, cotton, sugarcane and cracked corn through ravaged cypress swamps till maybe someday it’ll slide right off the edge of the edge for good and leave this betraying continent behind. What would be sweet and tearful is if the praline dropped into the bourbon and spilled alcohol on our laps. Then we could lick it up, dance, say fuck the rest, north, west and east of the big river, and we could float on off into the sea of black and neon lights and laughter.

I haunted about the Norfolk yard on every return visit to the city which has been quite often. Something about its location – right along the 9th Ward’s center from where the rough Desire and Florida housing projects used to be to the foot of St. Claude Avenue, and really all the way to the big river. It made the yard feel like an important place. When Nola was still an industrial city with a megaport, before the 1960s and 70s, how much wealth, labor, material, how much of the city’s hard work and soul was tapped from this vein? And how many sad saps and eager kids hopped in and out of Nola through this big riotous portal? This has been such an important place of entry and departure for those black and white country kids coming down from the sticks here along Rocheblave, unhappy southern boys and girls looking for some kind of way out, or at least further in.

Summertime now, two years to the day after the disaster that destroyed Nola and I sat upon the footings of the Almonaster bridge by Florida Avenue at the yard’s north end watching a conductor and brakeman hump a train together. (Humping a train means assembling strings of cars together. Technically this yard can’t operate a hump system because there’s no literal hump build into the switch over which cars can be propelled, cut and sorted onto varying tracks. However the process is still similar. The engine shifts strings of cars up and down while the yardies switch, cut, break and couple trains together and apart.) In from the north came a fresh train rumbling into the city. Halfway down it a lone hobo seated on back of a hopper car crosslegged looked wearily out the side and toward the front into the switchyard. Looking back he saw me perched on the big concrete pilings. Our eyes met. We waved at one another happy and momentarily relieved to see another human being under these massive mechanized shadows and structures, under but by no means crushed by them. His train rolled through down the public belt, a railway beyond the yard that connects the length of the Mississippi riverfront through Nola, from downtown to the uptown.

After a few more minutes the crew finished humping together the train they had been working on and within no time it was off, all horns and speed, but with this whole neighborhood of the city so abandoned, so closed off to its former residents not many motorist were passing by up the line to be scared off the tracks with this show. In the past when the Desire projects were around the residents, thousands of them, used to be cut off from the rest of the city for considerable time as trains like this passed by or assembled themselves in the yards. Now the empty houses, door-less with gutted insides and big gaping hole windows looking all like great square faces were the only ones around to see this freight off.


Three days later I returned to the yard feeling finally that summer in this city has ended for me and so has my period of self-introspection and distance from that place and those people who I had left a month ago. Time to go back. Back isn’t home, but it’s close. Obligations loom. Responsibilities that I’d just discovered not too long ago. Things and people to face up to, or not. California.

I carried with me in a large black backpack one change of clothes, gloves, a small package of food, two liters of water and railway map, notebook, two novels for the slow days, and bedding for cold nights. No sooner did I walk up through the yard and out along its eastern edge then a large train pulled out and began powering forward and backward, adding on more and more cars with each lunge and retreat. I had never hopped a train before and had no idea what really to expect. I had no idea except that part of me was so bummed out and obsessed over my personal problems that in truth I really didn’t care either way if this was going to be hell or a high time. Either way fuck it. Maybe I’ll get busted up the line and spend some time in jail? Thirty days would be a snap the shape I’m in. The four dollars in my pocket won’t help me out of that sort of jam. In fact it’s not good for much at all except four cups of black coffee somewhere ahead blurry eyed. Physical danger? Maybe okay. This shit’s dangerous.

In my eagerness I foolishly ran to catch a car quickly as the train pulled from the yard. It was unsuitable to ride on. It’s back end had no platform and was covered in grease. I clutched the ladder on its side peering down at it, the thick grease and pressure tank with deadly wheels rotating feet away and the rocks zipping by below me, the train breaking. I jumped of hard against the blue speckled ballast, swore myself and walked quick back away from the track. Curiously to me it slowed, stopped and began backing up again. Had I known better I would have seen it was far from being fully made up for its trip. It was still a relatively short linkage of random cars, hoppers, coal hoppers, boxcars, tankers, a few auto racks and other sorts. On days like these, Thursdays, they send out big schedules all day long.

Two workers still lingered about its front and back ends switching the train along different tracks to add more cars on the line. I realized this only after retreating and walking up to the Almonster bridge – a good spot to watch the action from. A real jungle. There I regained breath and confidence. The train lunged forward and back, smashing into a line of cars in the yard coupling with them. Again and again the same until its length was such that I could see easy riding cars right before me. And the way this whole business proceeded before me after my bungle told me that either the breakmen didn’t see me run out to leap on the train or else they didn’t care that I, some strange fellow coming out of the ghost-city neighborhoods of the 9th was rearing to hop this train. Surely the tower and engineer were clueless or else the white pickup with gun toting guard man would be already kicking up dust toward me. I walked out and took my seat on a hopper car’s back end. No running, no leaping or dramatic catch. Leisurely. The train lurched forward and back twice more adding dozens more cars. Then a pause.

Finally forward motion, this time more steady and unchecked than before so that I knew it was off for good. The tracks out of Nola point north through Gentilly until it hits lake Pontchartrain, the big body of cold water that legendary Madam Laveau was said to stand before during hurricanes defiantly saying with arms crossed, “I want to die in that lake.” Turning east the railroad shoots along grey choppy water and swampy residential lands, passing New Orleans East, into rural swamps and toward Slidell. At the edge of Nola’s limit the track passes off the levee onto a long, long bridge. The water is topped with sharp little triangle waves from hot winds. The air is humid and all about the sound is rattling and clanking.

Slidell is nice, new, even resort like compared to Nola. Just outside of town the rails split roughly east and north. My train heads north. I got comfortable and took in the passing scene of swamps and thickets of green wide leaf grass, 4 foot tall like only Louisiana can grow. In no time we crossed into Mississippi. Outside of Picayune the train slows and finally comes to a halt in a remote area. There are few houses and buildings around. Then there’s motion again. The train picks up speed throttling forward, but again after only a few seconds the squeal and hiss of breaks being let on. I realize at this point that I might be on a peddler, a train with a mixed inventory of mostly empty cars headed to factories, granaries, farms, plants and such to be dropped off along the line, loaded and eventually picked up again in a few days. It this is so then the ride ahead is likely to be long with lots of stops. The train lurches forward, then backward. It stops for a minute, then forward again. The crew is dropping a link of cars off near the back end onto a spur rail. I sit and wait.

Luckily I’m careless when it counts. Lucky only because the switchman who sees me is sympathetic. As I’m sitting exposed on my car thinking heavily about people in my life, people far away that I miss bad. I look up at the sound of boots trudging up the ballast sidelines along the tracks. The switchman saw me long before I heard him. He’s an older fellow, a black man with a peppery gray beard wearing jeans and a flannel shirt with a large straw hat to block out the sun. “catching you a ride, huh?,” he asks pleasantly like a Mississippian would.
“Yeah,” I say smiling and shrugging my shoulders.
“Where are you going to?,” he inquires. He probably sees an odd fellow like me on every other train clutching the ladders, sitting or laying about the little spaces that can be ridden. He probably sees several of us a week as he walks up and down the tracks switching out cars and gathering up others along this route through rural southern Mississippi. Who knows, he’s probably been like me on several occasions, more or less.
“I’d like to get up to Chicago eventually,” I say. From there I figure I can find a way to catch out westward on some long distance trains, Union Pacific in particular.
“Well, this train is headed to Chattanooga,” he notes. “I suppose you could catch a CS out of there and make it pretty far up that way.” CS seems to be a reference to CSX (formally CSX Transportation), a major railroad corporation with extensive lines that run up and down pretty much the entire eastern United States from Illinois down to Alabama, over to Florida and up to New York. “Lay low when we hit Meridian,” he warns me, “they watch for people there.”
“Thanks sir.” They watch for people there?

He walks on up the length of the train back to the engine. Soon we’re off again, no more stopping, just slow downs through cities and holing up for faster trains with higher priority cargoes. Pretty much every train gets the green light to pass us up from behind or put us down in the hole to zip by head on. The sun sets before Meridian. It’s beautiful as it drops down below the horizon. I can see it through the trees and tall vines reflecting off pools of water turning the sky purple and the forests dark grey. Ruby red sun drop, splash! In Meridian the train stops for a crew change. It takes only ten minutes or so. As we pull out a truck parks perpendicular to the rails shining a bright spotlight on the train. This is the “bull” as old time hobos call him. Railroad police. Railroad detective. Security. Guard. I’m not sure what to call him. I know that my mission is simple though: be a sneaky bastard. Don’t let this man see me. This man with a badge, gun and truck will be in every big yard and some small ones. His entire purpose is to scare off riders like me and to catch modern day train robbers. Apparently there do exist contemporary banditos who catch onto trains in motion or descend on them when they are holed up in order to find and pilfer valuable cargoes, automobiles and electronics in particular.

Into the night we rumble. I become tired after a while and lose track of time. No watch, no sun, no stars above to hint to me the passage of the hours. We roar through black Mississippi forests into dark Alabama countryside. On both sides of me a blur of shadows and dimly lit little southern houses with little southern porches go by. Soon I’m asleep sprawled lengthwise on the cool steel platform. It’s comfortable, surprisingly so in the heat of this deep south midnight.

Birmingham awakens me with its intense lights and industrial aura. No stopping though, just a slower pace through this mill of the south. I’m back asleep soon.


I awake before dawn. It’s as though the train knows to get me up and does so by shaking me rough and tenderly. The eastern sky is deep powder blue, the west still pitch black. The landscape is becoming visible all around, however. Tall mountains and smoky valleys tell me we’ve made it out of the low south and are now in the hill country. Chattanooga is close. It’s too perfect that the valleys really are sheathed in ribbons of white fog. Trees all around have broad leaves or pinnate arrays of foliage that crowds around the tracks, almost in reach. Walnuts have appeared alongside pom fruits and stone fruits, the sorts of sweet trees that only grow strong and drop sugary crops where there’s a cold snap winter. The air is fresh and slightly chilly.

The sun finally crests the horizon. In no time it climbs into a strong position, a more and more obtuse angle against the ground. All about is lush hillside, tall trees, pastures, cattle, farms, creeks, hallelujah! How tranquil and perfect.

As if to warn me that the ride, like anything, can never be pleasant though, we suddenly dive into a tunnel. Facing backward it swallows me up from behind with a big rush of wind and descending sound. I think at first not much of it, but the train’s slowing speed and the effect of the light getting dimmer, dimmer, dimmer still till its vacuumed out any chance of seeing anything, any visibility whatsoever, till there’s so little light that my eyes begin to create their own fake glows of orange, yellow, pink. I see lights that do not exist. I open my eyes wide into the void and see only emptiness. I close my eyes tight and feel confusedly that I can now see more. I see more texture and fuzziness in the tunnel. I reopen my eyes to zip. How long is this tube? How far into this mountain will we go? The smell of diesel fumes begins to hit me. The smoke becomes thicker and thicker in the air until worried about asphyxiation I pull the neck of my shirt over my nose and breath slow and measurably. What if the train stopped? What if the air filled up with smoke, me here in the nothing, choking dead on thick grey smolder? Still the tunnel, more exhaust, the faux lights in my head become stronger and shapely. Soon I may see lines and surface, perhaps then actual physicality. I imagine if the tunnel stretches on I’ll hallucinate and see full objects and people. Still the tunnel, no sign of light. I wonder, if the lights in my mind become too strong will I recognize the true sunlight when it creeps back into my vision, when the light appears at tunnels end. When is the end? The noise of the train is louder with solid walls only feet away to reverberate every bit of it back and forth.

Times like these, later in the day when they’re over, they always make me think metaphorically. Life. Tunnels. Vision. Reality. Love. What was I thinking? How could I have seen things that way? How did I possibly think any of that was okay? Tunnel vision. Shapes, colors, textures that really aren’t there but can be seen clear as day when you’ve got your eyes open in the darkness. Day ain’t gone, it’s real outside the mountain. But here I’ve been choking on fumes thinking my reality is so fucking clear. Things ain’t ever clear.

The tunnel ends when red light creeps back, indistinguishable at first from the glowing in the backs of my eye sockets but then undeniable. I see sooty rocks on each side. Then pop! Bright light and dark green flora. There’s a little adrenaline in me now. I’ve got a little more fear and excitement in my bones. I’m looking at a railroad map. It’s a tattered photocopy of the major lines in every state with crew change points marked along with other important bits of information. The whole USA is covered by the machine. Back before the turn of the 20th century reformers and anti-corporate populists, the “trust busters” used to target the railroads as the biggest baddest corporations. They would characterize the largest most monopolistic ones as slimy scaly octopuses with long tentacles that were squeezing and suffocating the hard workers of the nation, squiggling their pointed slimy tendrils into every last corner of the fertile plains, into the big rock candy mountains to rip out natural bounty. Octopuses, spiders, wolves. I’m not sure any analogy with any living thing can do justice to the machine though. Calling its physical infrastructure tentacles, a web, calling the train a snake or any other life form just doesn’t do right. It’s plain wrong. It leads us the wrong way in thinking.

The machine, the train, track and all the accompanying infrastructure of ports, bridges, every last gear and lever, microchip and fiber optic mile so mean and mad it makes no sense like life does. Even life in struggle and blood, life forms that kill one another on sight, predator and prey, even they have a pact of love between them. One knows it’s nothing without the other. The machine isn’t like that. It’s all take, never give. Conquer and never rest. Never back into the flowing stream for another to live. Always building up, always blowing off mountain tops to smelt more ore down into rail lines, always drying up lakes, damning rivers and pulverizing the thin membrane of life that makes us possible. But what can I call it then other than the machine? How can I characterize it? Seems like the best ways we found to impress the meaning of something is to make a metaphor for it, analogize it, compare it to some other thing. With the trains, with the megamachine at its core this just can’t be done if you’re trying to really level with the dead weight. It is what it is, and if you or anyone else don’t cringe at the word “machine,” if you don’t feel a little fear and regret upon the sight of a rail, a highway, a skyscraper or bulb then you’re so far gone into this cult of “progress” it may take a real crisis to wake you up. What will it take?

Why do we have so many words for monsters that invoke life? Brute, beast, savage, animal, and so many flesh and blood nightmares like hydras, minotaurs, serpents, and the Cerberus? Flesh and blood has been so demonized. It’s as though we don’t trust ourselves but that through alienation and myth we have continued to exalt the machine as advancement and light. Our animal instincts are pushed back, repressed under a tidal wave of language that has built up and now crashes ashore in modernity. We have no equivalent words to describe the machine’s own death instinct, its built in suicide doors and gas chamber, its canons and napalm. We have only this one ambiguous word: machine.

Can I compare myself to the machine? I wonder if it’s appropriate. I’ve been thinking so much about myself lately, my flaws and foolishness. This last disaster I precipitated between myself and a couple of loved ones makes me wonder about my own life and humanity. What does it take to be a good human being? This questions gets so much play. Used to be that one would say rationality is the path to justice and peace. To do no harm is to follow the path of logic and to measure all possible outcomes. The machine makes me think otherwise. At our core is some profound irrationality that always derails things. Derailments, by the way, might not always be such bad things? Track can get laid wherever for whatever purpose, but in this world it all boils down to moving mountains of goods for some to live abundantly off while others get to toil, suffer and just watch the cars roll by with their labor and land piled up inside, their children clutching on back heading North under the radar or the police forces to work in the kitchens and fields bent-backs and suffering to send dollars home.

Like in Birmingham and other parts of the south those black families forced to live along the tracks used to watch coal shipping out north. They knew it was going to white families and white owned industries and everyone else who could pay for it. It was not theirs, but it didn’t stop them from poaching off the tracks. I hear they do the same thing in Nigeria and parts of Latin America tapping the big oil pipelines to siphon off petrol for cooking and heating. Rationality, our supposedly best attribute, is nothing more than a slave to irrational desires. Seen as such it’s no longer confused as an attribute. Rationality is not a capability, it does not exist to be seized on and channeled by “liberated man.” It’s nothing more than a tool we can use. It’s a way of thinking about things that is particularly useful in some instances. At present the irrational desire that rules us socially (and in personal terms as little atomized competitors in casino America) seems to be greed. Unmitigated greed. Other emotions lurk beneath and erupt sometimes: compassion, mutuality, togetherness. But when the legitimate things in this world, the things that make up common sense, the physical things that exist everywhere you look, things aloft and celebrated, all the material facts of the machine’s processes, when these things are so wrong how can one think that we’ll be kind to one another? I suppose it’s worth a try. I’d like to be kind. I’d like to be a better human being. I know I’m not a fucking machine even if I’ve acted like it at times. Nobody’s a machine, but we’re all making it run. Unless we’re being strip-mined by it, no?


Chattanooga is a famous train town. Coming in on the edge of the city, slightly up the foot of a mountain with a good view a prominent billboard downtown advertises Chattanooga and the “choo-choo” with a profile of a giant old time steam locomotive. Norfolk Southern’s yard is right on the edge of the downtown. The train slows enough coming in for me to pack my bag and skip off its side. I climbed up an embankment and walk out onto 11th street. Chatt Looks to be a small city, compact but with a very tall and busy central skyline. Walking down 11th I make a bee line for the high rises. I need to refill my water, get more food, explore and use my legs some. I’m curious.

Six or seven blocks from its center on 11th I approach a long line and scattered groups of tired looking men and women waiting around outside a homeless and poor people’s center. A sign on the door says there’s a free breakfast, lunch and dinner among other services. Hopefully the fare is better than that in New Orleans. The weeks prior I had been living on the streets of N.O. without cash money, mostly without a roof to sleep under until I broke into a boarded up luxury apartment building and squatted for the short term. I visited the Ozanum on several occasions. Affectionately called “the Oz,” it’s a Christian institution in the city that rooms and feeds homeless men. For several nights I went for their “dinner.” Dinner consisted of a bologna sandwich: two slices of wonder bread, a hint of mayonnaise and one slice of meat. To wash it down they poured one small styrofoam cup of water per patron. Outside of this center in Chatt I asked the security guard about breakfast and lunch. “You missed it,” he said bluntly about breakfast. “Ended at 8:30. It’s 45 past now. Lunch is twice daily. Ten and Eleven.”

“Thanks sir.” The number of folks outside this city-run center for the poor seemed incredibly large for city the size of Chatt I’ve rarely seen groups this large in LA, San Francisco and New Orleans outside of mess halls and clinics. A lot of families out here, I think, even though men like me still outnumber women and children more than two to one.

I hiked several blocks over and found myself on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. A sign on a trash can promoted the neighborhood as the MLK area. Faces from passing cars, from windows and passers by on the streets, all black. I’m on the black side of town. A loud train is whipping by in the distance from where I’ve come. The houses are beat up, weathered, un-repaired. There are no new cars. The streets are pot-holed. Of course the railyard runs through here. Railyards and busy tracks were long ago either run through the black sides of cities or else the noisy dangerous urban zones around the tracks quickly became redlined, segregated and home to America’s racially oppressed, whatever that particular non-white majority happens to be in a particular city. And then of course in the aftermath of the civil rights movement – a window just a few feet wide that thousands of the desperate and tired were expected to jump through at once – a short period of legal and institutional struggle of the longer and ongoing black, brown and native freedom movements, during this time feel good measures were made by well-meaning whites and civic leaders to name streets, parks and portions of the cities after notables like King, Chavez, Castle-Haley. Cosmetic. A slap. Knee, face? Wrong side, we’re still on the wrong god-damn side the proverbial tracks but at least the name of the streets and neighborhoods is no longer “Brownsville” or “Darkie Town.” Me and I know others, we’re still waiting for Sitting Bull Street, Peltier Way, were secretly walking down George Jackson Lane, the Assatta Shakur highway. Yeah, Shakur highway. Isn’t that somewhere around the Jersey Turnpike?

Lurking around several back allies I discovered some of the beautiful and thoughtful graffiti which would cover the concrete-brick-iron canvasses that line the tracks everywhere across the earth. Big intricate tags of swirling psychedelic letters. Faces, bodies, sex, power, anarchy, gangsterdom, insults, jokes feminism, animals, politics, it’s all up there on the walls beneath America’s overpasses, in the grimy dim lit streets and across abandoned buildings and fence lines. My favorite tag in Chatt, a simple question written out in neat little spray painted letters with sharp ends and smooth rounded sides: “WHAT’S UP MY NOOGA?”

I spent the better part of the day wandering around town. School just having started it seems, at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, “UTC,” college kids are milling about the streets around the campus. The city has an unusually large number of coffee shops. Curious about possible routes out of Tennessee I decided to get on the internet in the university’s library, to look and see if there’s any information on the CSX yard. In UTC’s library I have to circle like a vulture around the computers to eventually find one still logged on with a student’s passcode. For a society that talks big about liberty, freedom and the importance of open information for democracy – yada, yada – I increasingly find libraries, public, private, city-run and at colleges to be very proprietary and secretive, almost punitive for those who haven’t purchased their access in one way or another. You simply can’t use the internet unless you’ve paid your fees, paid for your card, have a local address, etc. No information for the poor, the homeless, the traveler.

Finally jumping on an open computer I realize that the CSX corporation’s website itself has excellent maps and explanations of their routes and yards. CSX has two yards in Chatt The bigger one is actually in Wauhatchie, a little hamlet a few miles beyond the city to the southwest. Here is where I’ll hop out of town and head west. I decide that I’ll aim for Memphis and see what happens. From Memphis I can either head north to connect up eventually with the big Union Pacific routes that go west, or I can transfer over to the BNSF mega trains that scream across the continent from port to port, through forest and desert, day and night, no stopping for anything. Either will be fine I figure.

After failing to find a bookshop selling maps and striking out in my attempts to bum some spare change for a cup of coffee I decide to walk to Wauhatchie. Sparing change is a depressing experience that everyone should try. Make it an experiment. Go out to a busy street, sit down and ask passersby for quarters and dimes. Or walk through shopping districts and transit malls. Americans are infected with a bizarre guilt and shame/anger distrust complex when it comes to giving and receiving pennies on the street. It really makes no sense, but virtually no one wants to give and unless you’ve ever truly been poor and desperate, depending on lot in life, few can ask for change without feeling a profound sense of shame and loathing. It makes zero sense. People are willing to shill out serious cash for complete garbage, junk food, shitty films, clothing, and all the other wash-ashore consumables that get bought up and disposed of faster than the feeling of aiding another would dissipate, and yet people don’t share. No sense whatsoever.
My attempts to raise a dollar fifty cents reminded me of some things an old friend taught me a few years back. I went out with her to raise money for a political cause by going door to door in rich neighborhoods in a small coastal California city. She remarked to me after a few hours work that I had trouble, “a problem” as she put it, asking people for money because I only would ask once and then give up, that and my attempts at soliciting were half-hearted. The way I asked was all wrong. I asked as though it really didn’t matter if they gave or not. “It’s your class, man,” she explained. “You’ve never known true need and never been in that position where you have to ask someone else for something you’ve got to have, can’t live without. You’ve always been on that end of things with the change rattling in your pocket, the money in your bank, and the beggar looking up at you.” A few years later this same friend and I yelled at one another, a little drunk in some stupid argument with a not so stupid lesson at the end of it. Outside an all night burger joint on San Pablo Avenue we had been eating and handing out spare change to the endless procession of homeless men, junkies and forlorn types shuffling out of the West Oakland darkness one after another steady flowing. I was annoyed and made it known that my pockets aren’t endless, and “what for!?”.

“You and them and I, we’re all here right now together. What’s it hurt, what difference does it make, who cares what they need it for? Give the change man! Be thankful. Be humble. We’re together,” she said. I never quite figured out what she meant in full, but the episode had an enormous impact on me. It made me finally and more fully realize that money is a relationship, not a thing. No matter how green it is and how crumply it feels, it’s a vector between us, not an object or thing in its own right. It measures power. It means inequality. Nothing more, but I can’t say less. This much, these things of power and inequality are life and death, crime and so-called law, each more than a lot. To the marginalized it’s the major point of counter-reference.

“Spare change sir?,” I asked the single men walking down the street toward their office in white collars and shiny brown dress shoes. They look away with a bizarre expression on their face, as though they can’t figure out fast enough whether to chastise me, a young fit white man, to “get a job!” or whether they want to just hand over a buck. “Got any extra change?” I ask the small groups of men and women heading into and out of the cafes and restaurants. No response at all. The only man who gave me change, thirty cents, was a black man walking toward a bus stop, still in his work uniform, a janitors jumpsuit. “I’ve got to keep enough for the bus home though, bro,” as he counts the dimes and nickels and hands me as much as he can.

My same friend, so wise in the ways of money and how it fucks up our humanity, she once told me straight up that, “it’s always the poor, the working folks who give the most.” It truly is. To be rich in this world is to horde in greed. To be truly wealthy in health friends and community is to share unabashedly, to be as my friend says, “in this together.” Some of us, most of us on these streets, Chattanooga, New Orleans, where next? We’re all in this together. Anyone who grew up poor knows this. Working class America and those living in black and brown skins in a white supremacist society, these communities are bound together in no small part by old traditions and practices of mutual aid at many levels, through many creative channels. Mutual aid as a law of the street serves to build up the humanity, trust and security of the poor and dispossessed in the face of savage capitalism. Each and all understand the importance of sharing what you got now, receiving later when you need it. It’s more than a code or something people needed to figure out and negotiate. On some level it borders a natural evolution of sorts.


Just beyond Chatt the line becomes twin track and runs along a long cliff face at the foot of a small roll of a mountain. Several caves and big pock marks dot the stone. One is deep. I walk in stepping over bottles, trash, charcoal and filth. The walls are etched with names and dates of travelers, mantras and epitaphs; 1986, 1992, “Ken,” “Fuck the police!,” “We miss you Jim.”

I think I’ve found the yard in Wauhatchie, but really I’ve just found one edge of it where the rails switch from parallel tracks into three. I sit and wait, watch behemoth coal trains pass north, but see nothing headed west. I’m in no rush, but still I’m eager to figure out how this junction works, how and where trains slow and stop.

Earlier I had walked down the tracks from Chatt To here. The rails connecting the city to Wauhatchie are old, surrounded by numerous derelict warehouses and factories, big brick edifices no longer in use with re-rusting rail spurs along their backs adjacent to the doors and loading docks that haven’t seen a job in decades. This, I think, is where the parents and grandparents of all those poor souls I saw when I got off in this town used to work. Now they wait outside a charity, a charity housed in a building down by another set of tracks surrounded by the same sorts of old decaying buildings, structures, the floors and foundations rotted out from under these working families long time ago.

It’s not until late into the night that I realize I’ve bungled. I’m not in the Wauhatchie yard at all. I’m still a half mile away. Several big coal trains have passed but nothing going my way, nothing pretty. I follow the small footpath between the rails down. The Wauhatchie yard materializes. It’s small but serious, several tracks on a switch with some activity. I walk along chain link fence lines and close to dense underbrush to avoid the big floodlights and trucks that occasionally drive the access roads. Near the southern edge of the yard I step into a thicket of grass and weeds, five feet high. I feel tired and see no trains. Rolling out my sleeping bag, sipping water, I decide to lay low and wait.

A few trains pass through in the night as a I sleep just several feet away. Ants crawl over me. Mosquitoes would be whining in my ear had I not donned earplugs to kill the racket of the yard. Trucks drive back and forth to a switch near me. I awake fully before dawn and right before me a long train rolls slow. Packing my bag quick I step cautiously but happily up the incline, over the ballast, grab a hold and climb aboard another hopper. It’s certainly one of the better cars on this train, but still it’s dangerous. The wheels are exposed as there is no platform so to speak of. Instead there’s a small one foot ledge with two connected cubby holes above it in back. The holes are surprisingly spacious and clean inside. This is where I’ll ride for the most part, I assume. To Memphis, I assume.


Memphis isn’t in the cards just yet. My train travels much of the day and arrives in Nashville in the afternoon. Far before the yard it holes up in several spots around the edge of the city giving me some of the lay of the land. It’s flat. After letting some serious freighters pass at high speed my train rolls across a huge set of switches and what appears to be a couple of different yards all full of CSX units. My train is headed to the receiving end of the Radner yard.

Radner is a mega-CSX complex that receives and makes up trains to be sent far and wide on the company’s grid. Nashville’s Radner is also one of the only major US yards located outside of a ghetto or barrio. The houses surrounding it are big ranch country-western estates, probably owned by music industry moguls and sun-belt business tycoons, the people making a good deal of money off the crap being shipped over these transcontinental rails, all the plastic shit made and stitched in China and Vietnam. Their font yards, or should I say front acres were well-manicured lawns shaded with towering sycamores and pecans. These homes are, of course, far from the yard, not crammed up on the edges of track like the little houses and tiny apartments found from the Bronx to East LA, but they’re still near the train’s line, close enough to hear it in the early hours of the morning or on a holiday.

Getting off the train as it speeds down with squeaky clicking breaks I walk out of the yard the long way up an access road by a switch. There’s a worker there who spots me. Testing him I wave. He waves back. Friendly, okay. I approach him, “sir, can I ask you a question?” He looks at me curiously eyeing over my dirty clothes and beat demeanor. “Is there a store, a market somewhere close by to here?”

He thinks, smiles, “sure. Go out this road,” he points with his thumb. “Take a left at the foot of the hill, you’ll hit a big four-lane road. Actually it’s two lanes, but I call it four. It’s got a median in the middle. Head east on that till you reach a big intersection with a stoplight. Take a right. You’ll pass over the freeway, the tracks, and you’ll see a bunch of stores and stuff.” Then as if anticipating me, knowing what I’ll do and say next better than myself he volunteers, “the C-Yard is out there.”
“The ‘seeyard?”
“No, the C-Yard,” he says slowly, syllabically sharp with Nashville twang spelling it out for me, stupid parochial me not yet sensitive to this southern drawl that I should be able to pick up on if I were the real deal, experienced. “Departures. That’s what you’ll want. Find someone out there near a shack like this,” he nods back at the sheet metal switch station behind him. “They can tell you what train you’ll need, where to go.” Another worker walks out of the small shack and asks whether its door is locked. This fellow sees me but doesn’t seem the least bit interested in who I am or why I’m standing in this yard talking to his buddy. “I’ve got it,” says my source, my instant friend. I’m amazed. The look on these men’s faces is never eager to see me, somewhat weary at first, but at the same time it’s bordering an expression of joyful relief, as if they’re actually happy deep down to see me riding their freighters. You can only see this look if you peer into the corners of their eyes. It hides there by crow’s feet and wrinkles in the skin made permanent by a deep lifetime of smiles, but it’s there. It’s an acknowledgement scribed in the faces of us of things too true and powerful to speak aloud, hidden under the monotony of daytime.

Later on in the day I laugh out loud at the large sign posted at the front entrance of C-Yard, the place my confidant led me to: “Remember, security starts with all of us here at CSX. Follow the three R’s. RECOGNIZE suspicious persons and activity. RECORD the time and place of the incident. REPORT immediately.” Three R’s, huh? RECOGNIZE CSX Corporation could give a shit about your worker ass. RAP with all train hoppers and scamps who frequent our fine transportation system. Provide RELIABLE information to travelers because there’s a true beauty to what they’re doing and this blood sucking corporation is killing your soul. Three R’s, huh?

I follow his directions. On the way passing a big beautiful church with grassy hillside crowded with cars and a vinyl banner announcing the “Greek Festival,” I don my nice shirt from deep inside my backpack, neaten my hair, wipe dirt from under my eyes and cheeks and sneak in. Food! Lots of food, free, and music. I buy a cup of coffee for a dollar and feel ten times better after downing it’s steam. A light misty rain begins to fall all around. It’s not cold, but certainly not warm out. I rest my feet and snack on strange varieties of little sweet Greek pastries dripping with honey and rolled in all sorts of nuts. They’re far too sweet. I can’t tell the difference between them and the various kinds of middle eastern pastries I’ve had at Palestinian cafes. Being around so many people, probably several hundred is such a funny feeling after all these long hours by myself on the train and around the tracks – desolate parts of cities. All the sugar and caffeine is getting to me along with the mass of people. Time to leave.

It’s not much further to Harding Place, the intersection the yardie told me would have a store or two. Before sneaking into the yard I fill up my water bottle and scavenge around the shops and offices around. Diners in a little strip mall Italian restaurant eye me suspiciously out the big pane windows as I walk past their cars gazing with rolling eyes white, meatballs and spaghetti hanging out of their mouths. With only a few hours of sunlight left I make the long trek down a byway toward the entrance to C-Yard. I hike off the road onto a spur rail. As it gets closer to the yard a chain link fence comes up on the sides. Sure enough though there’s a big hold cut in the fence, right in the perfect spot to enter the yard. A little path leads for a few fee behind a stack of discarded ties, tall weeds, scrap metal. The only things separating me from the rails where humped trains rumbled out over switches onto the mainline is about twenty meters of blacktop and several semi-truck flatbeds.

I sit and watch the action for a little while. The yard is busy. A quarter mile down track looms the control tower. Up track is the holding area where cars await to be linked together. Beyond this is the hump and another tower. The hump is over-arched by a scaffold with lights and cameras. A constant progression of cars is being pushed over it by a billygoat unit with cuts being made on the fly sending singles and little chains of hoppers, tankers, flats and autoracks down the incline. Their breaks bleed gently to slow down these cars letting them bump into the backs of their new trains, couple together and await power. This is a slow moment. There will be many more. I’m catching my breath and thoughts. I’m catching up with all the thoughts I’ve had over the last 48 hours. Thoughts since Nola that I need to relive but haven’t had the time spell to dwell on.

No, actually my thoughts are catching up with me. I’m soon overtaken by several different conflicting streams each vying to monopolize my attention. My feelings are pretty much the same scramble I’m used to, just with more intense ingredients. Some terribly sad. Some just terrible. A few kind and smiling. I think of the homeless men and women I met in New Orleans over the past month, sick, tired, angry, young and old, strung out. Some addicts and alcoholics. Others not. Many never homeless in their lives until the disaster, the storm called America fucked everything and them up. I see the soggy beds, scattered newspaper and cardboard; the man with the horrible pink sore on his face; the fat man waiting for his bologna sandwich beside me, his ankles swelling pink puss and flaky skin out of his tennis shoes; the dwarf cook at the Ozanum who dishes out the food and conviviality.

I can see the bag-eyed men like me pacing the French Quarter in search of a free lunch, dodging shit-faced partygoers, getting hit on by gay men and intoxicated packs of women. I can see all the multitudes of dawn drunks puking up and down the streets after a toxic night, the kind that’ll take several years off your lifespan. I can see the man sprawled out on his back in the doorway of the JW Marriot on Canal Street, 7am with his cock hanging out of his pants, his mouth gaping wide open, dead drunk asleep. Was he masturbating, or was he a john? Did the sex worker leave his junk hanging out there as a joke, taking his cash, or was it just not worth shoving back into his pants? Is he alive? What a pathetic sight.
I can see the crack heads and meth heads, the toothless squatters downtown and around central city living in burned out hulls of shotguns and cottages, waiting around for odd jobs, robbing their friends and lovers for an angry fucked fix. Robbing randomly. Stealing for that next high. Getting lower everyday.
I see the vomit on the sidewalks. Shit in the alleyways. Needles. Cigarette butts everywhere. Stacks of ripped magazines and junk mail. Campgrounds under the bridges that fill up at sunset. Dead dogs, dead cats, flat squished rats in the roads, pigeon’s blood and bullet shells. I see beggars outside McDonalds. There’s the fellows like me who climb Lee Circle to see the sun set at night and end up sleeping on cardboard until the pounding rain drives them off under whatever shelter they can find. I see the looks of disgust and contempt on the faces of tourist and white collar workers who can’t seem to imagine why the city is so fucked up, still so fucked up, and why people like me look fucked up, so fucked up. Do they not live in America? Do they ever wander a few feet away from the controlled environments of their American dream homes, their car, commute, office cubicle and shopping mall? I hear Walter Mosely’s words ringing in my ears. He speaks the clear truth: “If we call ourselves Americans (and mean it), then we are all victims of Katrina. If we breathe the air or eat fresh fruit, if we call on our cell phones, drink water from a plastic bottle or just nibble on a chocolate bar, then we are Katrina; we are the rising waters around the ankles of this world.” Yeah, that’s right.

I see the Trump Tower’s future lot on Poydras with dying brick buildings, slummed before Katrina and slammed by the windy floods waiting for the impresario of real estate capitalism to come down and stab his tallest tower in Louisiana in the fester of the open wound. Is that man even real? Luxury apartments, condos, hotel, shopping mall, parking garage. I see hell on earth. God damn New Orleans! I see the kids without homes, and the kids living in gutted houses starving weary faced little kids not in school who deserve so much better but will never see it. I know the desperation in everyone’s eyes. Some are desperate for a buck, some desperate for a real friend. The “better off” are desperate for an end to the desperation of the rest of us. We’re all afraid. We’re all trembling in the muggy heat like ferns hanging off the live oaks. We cry like hanging potted plants dripping on the sidewalk, sometimes unabashedly pouring down on strangers who just thought they would walk by. God damn Louisiana! It’s so much bigger. My thoughts expand. Mississippi. The Gulf. Up and down. Tennessee. God damn America!
Another stream, conflicting, different, equally painful but less comprehensible. I remember those first few weeks with her in Nola. One of the best nights of my life. I see vividly the glow on her face when we found each other down on Esplanade and ran over to the levee together. We clutched each other’s bodies drunk by the big muddy, she grabbing the elbows of my red sweater, my hands around her hips. We kissed and smiled, rolled and squeezed. A random man passing said slow and poesy, “awe!, isn’t that nice?” She reminded me of it later, made the memory permanent, etched it in my brain. Thank you for that my love. “Isn’t that nice,” and she said that yes, “it most certainly was.” It most certainly was. It was most certainly nice. It was the last time I think I was really truly in, and capable of loving like she or any other woman would need it. Fireworks began exploding in the Gulf sky above us, New Year’s Eve, 2006. How did this fall away? How did I fuck this up? Did I even have a choice, or was it foreordained? After all, what can you do when you eventually find yourself pulled two ways by such powerful forces and you can’t choose for the life of you, don’t even think there’s a choice that needs to be made?
A train crashes back into a row of cars before me. Another pulls out quick with three units on front chugging ahead spitting diesel smoke upward into the starry night. I step out of the shadows, cross the blacktop and hop aboard. It moves out into a long line with parallel tracks of equally big trains, some much bigger. It stops alongside. Men with flashlights walk up and down the rows checking and securing break lines and couplings, inspecting all the parts that could go wrong, bust up and send us flying off track. I hide from them. It doesn’t take much effort. An hour passes and then the sound of air filling the break lines releasing the clamps on the wheels. Bang, bang, bang, crash! The engines’ forward motion catches up with my car jostling me and the mystery cargo like no other. We’re off.


Riding out of Nashville at night we slow through an old industrial part of town. Off in the distance is a county or state fair filled with bright red, green, blue and yellow lights in dizzying motion and flashing arrays. Ferris wheels and speedy scream rides whirl about sending cries from human beings gripping the handles, resisting the inertia. The hum of the crowd provides a background noise accented by a loud man announcer shouting some enticements through the air – “Buy, ride, play, win!” I sit back on my own big roller coaster and smile.

I’m getting more and more tired as the hours aboard these trains add up. I don’t sleep too much off the trains, spending most of the time hoofing it from yard to yard, city to track and back looking for necessities and gathering information. Sleeping aboard the trains is surprisingly easy, but I still don’t do much except napping. I’m in too much of a rush to get to California, but I don’t know why. I’m a rocket and every waking hour needs to be in movement. Every sleeping hour needs to be movement too. Even if I were somewhere quiet and comfortable – not that these freighters aren’t comforting to me in some pure and odd way – I don’t think I could sleep much anyhow. These problems in my life keep creeping into my thoughts no matter how loud and spectacular the scenery around me is, no matter how earsplitting the train can be. I can’t sleep too well. But I sleep out of Nashville anyway. It’s not a deep sleep, but it’s fine enough to take some the purple from under my eyes and put some pink back in my cheeks.

When my eyes open it’s light again. Morning, just before sunrise. Everything is calm and peaceful. A water tower tells me I’m in Brownsville, Tennessee. It’s a small farming city. It’s on the way to Memphis. I have family in Memphis. I could call them up and visit. I know this isn’t really an option, but I’m beginning to feel strange without real human contact except for the 5 sentence exchanges with yard workers here and there or the sudden and alienating dips into crowds such as that in Nashville. Riding alone is solitary confinement even though hoboing is romanticized as the most liberated and freewheeling thing. It’s confinement to one’s self. Your trapped even though your totally on your own. You are holed up as though your brain is one extended train. Your thoughts are the lowest priority cargo in the world, lower than low, your problems are petty and worthless to the great schedule you don’t control. You the train, your hulking thoughts heavy, holed up as more important things pass by.

I think about her. She’s the whole reason I’m even hopping trains. She helped me rediscover myself. I’m blessed I think because every few years a woman comes into my life and without warning throws me for a loop. She took me down, put my feet back in the dirt when I was all head in the clouds, head in the acid rain dream puffs. I was getting cynical and know it all again, and impatient with everyone around me. I had it all figured out to my own detriment. She planted the souls of my feet back down in the rich earth where things come up out of the ground fertile and new and uncontrollable, and if you can accept this then life is pretty fucking grand. She stuck my feet back into those tattered converse sneakers and out of those pretentious dress shoes. She tugged me away from the ideas and foolishness and set me upon the lap of mother earth. She gave me such an ego check. She sung songs and danced, moved like a beautiful bird and wore feathers along with handmade clothes and dumpstered jewelry. She did like one other woman did in my life at a critical time when I was close to losing it; she made me fall back in love with the world again. And I fell in love with her too. Even now, although it’s painful and confusing, even though I’ve got the feeling that I’ve ruined it with her I still think I owe such a thanks, such an impossible debt of love and gratitude that I’ll never be able to express it let alone make one tiny recompense. I can see so much worth living for, but more to the point I can feel the big expanse, the mystery beyond my sight. That’s life. Wonder, not knowing. Suddenly again able to see things through other’s eyes and thrilled to know the beauty and possibility of everyone else around me. Sunlight looks good again. How did I fuck this up though? What a horrible thing for me to have done… to not only take so much of her truth into my heart but to then turn around and break her’s through actions that I nor anyone else have yet been able to describe as anything more than deception and use.

When we arrive in Memphis I step off the train and walk up its length. We’re only in a switchyard with a few links of cars holed up around us. Little else is around. A worker sees me passing. We wave at one another. I decide to walk back and ask him for some tips. “Excuse me sir, do you know where the BNSF yard is?”

He looks up squinting, “it’s pretty far down track. You go a few miles. You’ll see a spur take off to the left. It’s down that.” Bending over he fastens a cable and pulls at something bulky, some sort of equipment below the flatcar. “You know what I’d do if I were you?” he says looking up. “I’d just get back on this here train. When we get the power back on it’ll roll right by that yard. You can just jump off there when you see it, cause it’s pretty darn far bro.”

“Thanks, I think I’ll do that.” I walk back down the line and hop on a car. Sure enough the engines come back after a few minutes and re-couple with the train. We’re off. I love it. The worker tells me to ride his train. No “shacks” here.

Memphis is fucked up. On all sides of the tracks I can see nothing but old boarded up houses between little homes with leaky roofs and rotting beams. I see black faces everywhere. Black men sitting around porches and congregating near storefronts. I see black women and kids walking about the streets with grocery bags. This is the Southside, segregated and poor. We pass by a huge old public housing development. It’s totally emptied. In all the apartments must number in the hundreds. Not one seems to be inhabited. All the doors and windows are missing and portions of the two and three story buildings are overgrown with big creeping southern vines. Down another street lined with little white and brown houses a dozen boys are shooting hoops with one sitting just behind the basket, watching, coaching, taunting them with calls and shouts when they miss a shot. We pass under a bridge with graffiti that says, “fuck the train people.” Painted all about are big pentagrams and short threats in red and blue spray warning about killing and raping. Everything is sooty and full of some kind of weight. As if to finish the atmosphere my nostrils are suddenly filled with the smell of death, rotting flesh, probably a raccoon. It’s a sensation that will come often when riding the rails. Death surrounds the tracks. On the left I see the BNSF yard from atop a bridge where the CSX track crosses over. A mile later the train has slowed enough to jump off but the speed is still great and the landing jars my bones, bruises my heels.

I walk the mile back to the BSNF yard. A thin rain begins to fall and I cover myself in a tarp. My feet and knees are soon soaked but my head, shoulders and bag remain dry. The rain is cold Autumn water, not the thick hot rain of the summertime South. When I make it to the yard a crew is finishing up a short train made entirely of auto-racks, nowhere to sit, no doors open, utterly impossible to ride unless you’ve got a death wish, unless you want to end up like some smelly racoon. It’s full of little Japanese cars, all manufactured in the new big auto plants of the South. In the 80s and 90s big Asian corporations opened up assemblies in Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and other cotton belt states avoid union labor and comply with the economics and politics of producing cars for the American market. For Detroit and the industrial north it was part of the big decline. For the southern workers it wasn’t much of a blessing, just a new job, a new means of trying to make a living. For the train hopper it means more traffic headed out but not much more. The trainload of autos is off before I even settle down near a bridge on the edge of the yard. Next comes a big intermodal freighter. It passes by slow. For whatever reason I decide not to get on, but no sooner is it chugging out of sight then I regret it. During a lull in activity I walk further toward the yard. It’s a small one located in the middle of a Southside neighborhood. It begins on the edge of a busy street with two markets a barbeque joint, auto shop and other businesses with clumsy hand painted signs and “no loitering” written big on all the walls. A man eyes me suspiciously as I walk down the street by the mechanics shop and turn back.

Exploring the edges of the yard I find its jungle. A jungle is that place where hoboes wait for their ride. It’s a place to share a meal, sit, talk, meet strangers, sleep, and do just about anything else. During the era of hobohemia from the late 19th and early 20th centuries just about every major train yard or junction had a jungle nearby. At the time jungles were almost continuously inhabited campgrounds filled with itinerant laborers, adventurous travelers, wobblies, criminals and scoundrels of all sorts. Today jungles are more or less just little squats in the dirt. Near busy jumping off points they can be festooned with trash, liquor bottles and graffiti. Some have old couches planted in the earth and fire pits. A modern day jungle can be safe or dangerous, busy or empty, but really it’s rare to come across other train hoppers in most.

This jungle is dead quiet. I enter it through a little path over some vines that grab at my heels like a dead man’s hands and nearly trip me up. In a medium sized tin shed with half a roof and two walls several old tires are arranged in a circle to sit on, a fire pit in the middle, broken glass everywhere. Connected to the shed is a wide-open work area filled with slabs of marble cut into all sorts of shapes. Everything is overgrown and covered in filth. A big warehouse is further in back. Inside are enormous rock cutting saws long rusted and locked up from disuse. Everything is rusted and rotting. A big billboard closer to the street says that this used to be the Sam P. Maury Construction Co. A train rumbles through carrying nothing but coal cars. A few minutes later another coal carrier thunders past.

Not seeing any signs of a freight car fit to catch out on I wander around the neighborhoods some more trying to be too conspicuous with my white skin in this part of town. I can’t see anything beyond the immediate surroundings of crumbling houses and little stores selling mostly liquor, smokes and milk, or barbeque diapers. Wherever downtown Memphis is it must be far away, physically and otherwise. This neighborhood is surely confined, sealed off, stuck to these morbid tracks somewhere below the wrong side. For certain, however, there’s redemption and beauty beyond my line of sight. As a passer-by I only see the hard outer grit around the tracks.

Finally a big intermodal train

I finally catch out on a west-bound intermodal freighter that stops for several minutes in the yard. Holed up it was passed by two giant coal clunkers. I found a flat car filled with piggy-backed shipping containers and a big sunken space in back to lie down, stretch out and be sly. The air brakes filled up and we were off. Heading out we zipped through the KC Junction where several other trains were waiting their turn.


I almost cried crossing the Mississippi. I suppose the only reason I really didn’t is from the hot wind blowing in my face instantly drying up my would be tears. This river makes everything else look small. Of course it does. It puts America in frame. It places this country. It gives it balance, symmetry by slicing it in half. And it’s given America everything truly of this land and blood. It’s so damn big you can’t take it in all at once. The bridge across runs alongside the motor bridge filled with cars, but far enough away that the highway is ignorable. Everything great and good and low and mean is all within sight upon crossing it. This spectacular river that humanity will never take or tame no matter how many levees, canals, damns are built, no matter how many ships plough up and down it nor how many refineries and plants dump into it. It cannot be taken. And all around its banks the beauty of people flourishes in tune with the worst of mankind. It’s all here on the banks.

Off the bridge and at once finally in the West, the big western expanse of America, we rip through a modern day mega-plantation of cotton. The capital city of the delta is still visible from these fields popping with cotton tufts on dry short stems. Slaves no longer pick, nor sharecroppers. Here and there a wooly mammoth sized machine tractor stomps over the furrows sucking up the plants and through a wondrous automation spits out chaff and packs the white fibers in bushels. This cotton goes everywhere. This pesticidal super crop will be in all likelihood refined somehow and shipped down and out through the Port of Southern Louisiana, past old dying New Orleans to Latin America, Asia, Africa. It’ll be spun into shirts, socks and blue jeans. I hear they even make our dollars from cotton. It gives money a crisp durable snap.

Fibers, yarn and string. I have found it to be that people in love are such terrifying forces, but also loose strings billowing in that very hurricane might of the heart. I wonder with all my mind’s ability to learn how others seem to have managed to thread the eye of that needle in this storm. Perhaps they waited for the eye of the storm itself to thread the needle’s? So capably, kind, honestly, they manage to hold the string down and thread…. It escapes me, but others do. Above all I have found myself to be thicker than thread, an inconsiderate bristle with frayed ends, too obtuse and sheared to fit, un, no in-secured and tossed up in twirling anxious sky. I wander about others who having secured themselves, thread to steel needle’s back, knotted happily now and again, begin to sew immense fabrics of joy and togetherness, sheets of time together with companionship and devotion, whereas me, I flap about, my heartstrings ripped raged, unraveling any and all clothes of companionship I have ever produced, stabbing thumbs, tangling fingers, bleeding on the fabric of a chance, torn and ragged fool.


Springfield’s BSNF yard is big. There are several shops, one giant hanger for engines where mechanics crawl over units day and night preparing them for the long haul. My train arrives around sunrise after a long evening of barreling through Arkansas and Missouri. Several times in the night I awoke to find my train holed up silently on some barren stretch of track, no sound for miles except crickets, no sights except stars, hushed empty expanses of farmland punctuated by distant lights of houses and grain towers. The weather is turning cold and I am beginning to shiver hours after falling asleep in the small hours of the pre-dawn.

In Springfield’s yard my train shuts down. The units detach from the font and head off to some distant line in the yard. What for? How long will the wait be? Will this train continue on or is it schedule to be cannibalized into other trains? I’m sitting in a line of multiple trains waiting, wondering. Soon enough workers are zipping up and down the trains on ATVs adjusting pressure hoses, checking brakes and couplings, etc. Impatiently I decided to find a yardie and ask him what the buzz is. One rips by my car on his ATV and down about a quarter mile, dismounts and begins crawling under a section of the train. I jump down and run the track exposed on one side to a maintenance yard but careless. When I reach him he’s still hard at work. Not wanting to be a distraction I walk by and figure I’ll cool my heels and turn back when he’s finishing. He sees me and we nod at one another.
He crawls out of his spot and dusts off his hands. I turn back and approach him, “howdy sir.” He looks at me with a blank stare from under his hard hat. “Could you tell me if any trains are going to be powered up soon heading west?”
“I can’t tell you that,” he says exasperated. His tone and response catches me by surprise, but I know what to do, I think. “You know, if they catch you they’ll put you jail? If I were you I’d get out of here!”
“Yes sir, excuse me I’ll leave.” I walk past him back up the train. He watches me walk off shaking his head. Seconds later he crawls onto the platform of a car and resumes work. I assume he’s worried mostly about safety, his job and regulations. He probably doesn’t want trouble. He probably sees me as trouble. Nothing could be worse for a worker than being busted for helping out some vagrant hobo kid, nothing except high crimes, I bet.

I walk quickly sure that this same train will head out eventually and that it’s headed west. Intermodal freight goes far and fast. This mixed freighter next to it probably will also. It’s full of loaded gondolas and box cars along with a few hoppers probably brimming with minerals and powdered goods. It can’t be long, can it? Up the train I look back and see him bent in working away on something. He pulls out and looks up the train toward me checking on my direction and progress. He seems to be making sure I’m headed out of the yard. He really cares, shit. I keep walking quick staying away from the train. When he moves back into the couplings with his tools in hand I hop quickly on and cross over the back end of a hopper car. I run up the length of the train and find a hopper with a cubbyhole in back. It’s not an intermodal train. This one’s mixed freight, but with the workers poking around on it, it can’t be long before power comes back on and takes this one out. This is what I’m thinking. I’m restless. My run in with this particular worker has left me uneasy. I hang off the side of the car and look down the line toward him. He’s crawling out of the train. He turns up toward me and is looking intently. He places his hands on his hips. He walks away from the train to get a better look down the line past the gentle curve of track trying to spot me, unsure if I left the yard or climbed back on. I pull slowly back and hide as best I can. I’m far enough away that he would have trouble spotting me without binoculars. He grabs the radio off his hip and speaks into it. Damn it. Why couldn’t he be helpful like the others? Thing is I really need to know what’s headed west. Springfield is a junction where trains can head west or north. North wouldn’t be too bad, but it wouldn’t be as cool as a westward bound freighter. West will eventually connect me with Amarillo. From there it’s a straight crazy shot to California.

Crawling into the cubbyhole of the hopper I decide at this point that it’s a waiting game. Sure enough after little time more ATVs are whipping up and down the train, slowing here and there. The men on these vehicles are not workers this time: they’re bulls, railroad police, detectives, cops, security, whatever. They’re looking for me. Shit. He called the pigs on me. One bull passes by on his vehicle slower this time as though he knows the general proximity of where I might be. I squeeze down as far and flat as I can into the car’s hiding spot. My clothes are smashing up against a thick white film that’s rubbing off one me, but at this point, after several days on these freighters it makes no difference. I’m already dirty. I’m probably so dirty that I’m getting the cars dirty, not the other way around. The bull is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, hard-hat, dark sunglasses and cowboy boots. He looks serious and comical at the same time. He’s here then he’s gone.

I climb out and look up and down both sides of the train, cautiously sticking my neck out slow and sly. The words of that first switchman I encountered in Mississippi ring in my ears, “lay low….” Coming up the line on the inside between my train and the intermodal I got off is another bull. He’s far away. He’s walking the length. He’s wearing a red and white striped shirt and carrying his walkie-talkie. I climb back in the cubbyhole, get low and wait. After a few minutes he’s reached me. I hear his feet on the ballast outside. My eyes peek out and see his body moving by. A blurt of noisy static speech belts out from his radio. He slows and speaks into it, “I’ve walked about as much of this train as I can and I don’t see em’. They said he might have gotten on this flat car, 3-north, but I don’t see anything. They didn’t actually see him get back on, even though they said they’re sure. Anyhow, I’m coming back in.” He turns and walks back down the line. My body relaxes, but what now? I’m sweating and in no mood to go to jail. I decide that if it comes down to it I’ll outrun any pig that trys to lay a hand on me. I’ll outrun and outfox them. Fuck the police.

After waiting another half hour cramped and feeling burned by the worker I decided it might be good to get out of this yard. I climb slow and sneaky from the cubby hole, peer around and make my escape. Near the train is a thicket of underbrush and short willow trees lining a murky reservoir with oily water and floating debris. I step into the comfort of the dark green foliage, out of sight. I’m almost out of the yard when I hear the reverse bells and rumble of engines coming back fast. Crawling up an embankment and peering out of the grass I see three units coupling with the intermodal. Shit! It’s going to leave soon. Another four units suddenly roll into place and line up on the track with the mixed freighter I was hiding on. Both are preparing to leave soon. I was impatient and scared. Now I’m just pissed. What does it matter that I ride these trains. What does it matter that any man or woman hops freight?

Ignoring the danger of lurking around the yard too much in the middle of the day I hustle back to the trains. It’s about noon or a little after so the mechanics and other workers around the yard are probably away on lunch making it safer to run about in the open, even if the yardies like my snitch friend are still on the job. I sprint across the open area and hop back aboard the mixed freight. Minutes pass into more. Thirty minutes accumulate but seem like five. Then though the air breaks begin to fill on the intermodal and the tap-click sound fills me with relief. I pounce down on the ballast between the two trains and hustle up track till I find a suitable platform to ride on. I jump in. Minutes later we’re off smoothly. I slouch down and keep my head low. Fuck this place I think. Good to be gone.

Soon enough we’re real gone, me happy to be going 65 again out over rural land. In terms of the cops and railroad snitches I can’t help but think about how things would play out different for other people. Tramping is most definitely still the domain of men, ones like me. This inheritance is something I’m not too plussed. Really it’s nice to think about the kids and drifters of generations past who as they would say ran with the push, rode the blinds and rods, knocked around town for sit-downs and hand outs, took every good opportunity for adventure generally following the road because it was there, and because its better to drift about in poverty than be tied down as a sucker, even a rich sucker at that. No, scratch that, it’s always better to be a poor traveler than a rich sedentary. Left out of this little subterranean republic of rabble though were our sisters and our black and brown brothers. They of course forged their worlds, networks of existence that were and still are in many ways far more exciting than the dominant sub-existence, but the loss was all of ours. The things we lose out on for our own exclusivity, our own clubbiest efforts to exercise power over one another, it’s sad.

But at these levels you can again see the fractal nature of how subversion works. Below the machine, in its innards and sulking around its shadows, sometimes screaming from the top of its tin-tarred roof we ride, sneak, steal and survive to create a whole other level of life. And in turn this level itself is designed to excludes and punish others who are deemed unfit or else prey for the wolves who call themselves “independent men.” Getting free for most has never meant freeing the most. Unfortunately it has often meant winning one’s freedom at another’s expense. It’s how my ancestors did it in working class America, in the white south. Thus another world below emerges and so on until the levels are infinite and interpenetrating, until one brave and open explorer who shifts about at multiple strata has trouble telling where they begin and end and for what reasons they might have ever emerged. The beauty and frustration of it all. The wet dream of layers of subversion melding together in fluidity, no longer themselves modeled so much after the world above ground. It makes the visible reality, the top crust, the world of dominant morals and domineering cops, corporations and capitalists seem so precarious. Under it shifts a wildly unfathomable quicksand of humanity in all its pride, color and fury. What could happen? You tell me.


Out of Missouri and into Oklahoma the landscape changes very little except for the slow retreat of big trees and the coming of wide open fields and drier creeks and streams. The sides of the tracks everywhere are lined with sunflowers, big patches of tall yellow petal blossoms mounding up and stooping down to turn with the sun. I sit on the platforms near the sides of the big intermodal car holding my hat against the wind and taking in the sunlight’s radiant warmth. Will we stop in Tulsa, I wonder? The sunset is beautiful and pink. Town after town with grain tower comes and goes.

Eventually I spread out my bedroll and sleep. Without cardboard to insulate me from the steel of the car’s floor the warmth is quickly stolen from my body into the train’s bottom. The cold is eventually too much to bear. The night air is crisp and very much unlike the southern humidity and warmth that comforted me up from Louisiana all the way through to Memphis. It had been so hot in Mississippi that I almost blessed the refrigerant of the iron freighter’s flooring. Luckily the clouds that gather above don’t send a single drop down. The moisture hangs high up in the sky. The weather could get terrible into Texas, New Mexico and Arizona though. Monsoons and high desert can be extremely hot and cold within hours. People think hot when they hear desert. I think extremes. I firmly decided after shivering miserably for hours of unhappy sleep, half perturbed by the freeze and half by my own restless thoughts, that I won’t board another train without a roll of cardboard to sleep on. Cardboard insulates surprisingly well and can make a huge difference. It’ll keep the steel flooring from tapping my body’s heat. It’ll keep me cleaner. I should have been packing it the whole time but had found my filth and the train’s hard touch so novel and pleasant.

Sometime a little after dusk I awake, cold but not quite miserable yet. My misery will come later in the night, again in the small hours. All I can see is purple sky above with wispy feather clouds. I raise myself up and look about. We’re aboard a massive bridge, stopped. Below is a churning wide stream of ferocious thick brown and grey water rapids. Motion is all about me but time has seemingly stopped in my dazed mindstate. Another bridge looms off to the left. Lights here and there in the distance glow bright and dim. The sound of motors all about. Tulsa? What is this incredibly wide river? Is this a river or lake? Can lakes have rapids? The scene is so surprising and big, it overwhelms me and I fall back on my bedding closing my eyes. I’m too tired to care. Other things haunt me, images and emotions of people, not these places. I don’t want to get off this train here in Tulsa. I want to sleep, even if I’m getting colder and the hard surface is beginning to make my joints ache. I want to sleep and forget about things. I want to meld with the train and roar across country. If I could, if it would make the aching go away, I would just sleep here and now forever into peace.

I think about my self. I wonder about my life over the past year. How did I accomplish it? The two of them so beautiful and honest, expecting the same from me. The two of them, and everyone else around, so obviously expecting a minimum of morality. Not just bullshit morals, but real care for our friends and loved ones. Oh me with my anti-morality, my carelessness! Me with my big silences and vagaries. I told myself, no definitions, no limits, boundaries, I am open. I am open to whoever I fall in love with, and that’ll be that. It’s simple because life can be simple. I told myself; this is radical, basic, new and honest. Besides, even if I wanted to I probably can’t give either of them what they need. Reality was far from such though. Reality is the closest approximation that any two or more people can agree upon. Nothing more and nothing less. So while I was pursuing my own, everyone else around me, especially these two lovely creatures, they had another agreement about the unfolding of my behavior. I rejected it out of hand and in doing so failed to face up to reality. I embraced individualism against community, against the erotic gathering of opinion and set myself up like some isolated thing to be accepted completely as is, not to be related to like a human being. This must be how I lost my humanity for a brief moment and in a small way. I thought my own was strong enough. It was a foolish mistake that really only a man like me an make, a man who’s yet to have his ego checked as it should be. I was deceptive. I was selfish and hurtful. Had I been trying to do harm to them, had I been aiming for their hearts with malice I couldn’t have done more damage. I think about all of this with that murky water churning below on the unknown bridge half asleep. Are we in Tulsa? Where is this place?

How easy it is to lose oneself and break hearts, I think about it. I ruined everything, and it was so simple. Is it permanent? All it took was a total abandonment of responsibility and communication. Yeah, this might sound like quite a feat but really was trouble-free while it went on. It was simple. It might not sound like such, but think about it. I’m the kind of person who can disappear and hop freight trains for days on end. I can disappear for weeks and linger alone for months chasing whatever new thing comes my way in distant places. It’s because of who I am. I’m the prototypical Londonian tramp. My skin and sex, my place in this world, it all lets me be so “independent.” But all independent really means is negligent with me. I’m a fool at best. I’m the archetype beat born two or three generations too late. I’m behind my times. Like the rest I can’t pull a William Tell and am destined to shoot my lovers in the forehead. But this don’t seem to stop me from trying.

They both helped me along, these two once in a lifetime women. Perhaps they were too enthralled with me? I’ve never thought of myself as much of a catch, but they both seemed so damn pleased to be mine and me theirs. Maybe this let them allow me to fuck things up so bad? But what do I know about them? I know all the little things that enthrall me about each, but what of the big things do I know, the lofty principles and powers that each has? I know one is in love with trees and was once teased as the most likely, by her classmates, to be a tree sitter someday. I know the other is most obsessed with train hopping and all the small acts of rebellion one can make against and upon the corpse of the machine. Hell, she’s why I climbed aboard the first damn freight back in the 9th Ward in the first place. Of what things that really matter, the things that make them complete do I know of though?

We never had time to have conversations about the future, us and the way things should be. We simply reveled in each other’s bodies and company. There was never any serious talk, or when it did break out it was usually snuffed short by me, by my skipping town or messing things up.

On my back watching the summer triangle materialize in the sky above me through breaking clouds I sighed. My chest is heavy. I’ve always thought heartbreak was just an expression, but now I can actually feel it in my chest. My heart has been crushed. My chest is heavy, my breathing difficult. And I did it to myself. I remember and sing all the sad love songs I can remember. Not too many, but enough to feel a little better. I arch my back against the metal floor writhing like a fish, wishing for another chance, for forgiveness, for an opportunity someday to be in the same room, for a smile, real reconciliation, something more than the hostility I now get from them through the phone, through messages, through long distance electronic love extinguished. I don’t know if I deserve more than to be abandoned after this, but I hope I’m right about myself. I hope I’m capable of more and that they see this, eventually. In the meantime I have the cold Oklahoma night shivers and the rhythm of the machine to accompany my thoughts.

Asleep, then awake, then back unconscious, we don’t stop in Tulsa if that even was Tulsa. We blaze through the night holing up only several times for short periods. In the morning we’re deep in the Texas panhandle on the way to Amarillo. There are really no trees here, just grasslands, low plains. It’s constantly windy. Doesn’t matter that I’m on a train or not, the wind always blows making anything more than grass hard to grow.

Approaching Amarillo the tracks double up. My train pulls to the right on a switch and slowly begins to break. We stop right at the edge of the Pantex facility. The barbed wire fence line is just meters away and displays two signs: the older more weather one says this is government property, “no trespassing.” The newer one says “warning: use of deadly force authorized.” Beyond the fence is a long expanse of open grass. Buildings and watch towers loom in the distance. Pantex – short for Panhandle of Texas - is where the United States assembles and disassembles nuclear weapons. Pantex is also home to an array of bunkers storing ten plus thousand plutonium bomb pits, little round atomic bomb triggers glowing with their nuclear radiation in the dark little mounds they rest under. The breaks on the train bleed fully. We’re here for a little while. Up and down the fence a few SUVs roll patrolling, probably filled with mean looking men clutching assault rifles and god knows what other kinds of weaponry. Further down the tracks several miles away but neighboring Pantex is a big slaughterhouse. Thousands of head of cattle are brought in and chopped up here daily. What a horrible place this is. I try not to think of anything for fear of the way it all might combine and make a melody of grisly proportions. I’m tired of thinking about my personal problems and then seeing shit like this, or tragedies like Memphis’s dying Southside.

Eventually the train gets rolling again. When we come into Amarillo I jump off before the yard and walk through industrial yards, under the tracks and freeway and into the city’s downtown area. Amarillo is a rough town. Texas has a rough and tumble reputation, and Amarillo really lives up to it. The streets are hard. Law enforcement is conspicuous. People walk tough. Buildings actually post signs telling patrons not to cary their fire arms inside. Amarillo is also a big tramp town. The rail line makes it and every other sizable town from here to Barstow, California a significant blimp on the tramp’s map.

It’s September 11th. This I realize only after looking at several newspaper vending machines. The headlines are all insane. Iraq ain’t’ looking so good. Bush has done and said it again. So many died today here and there. Massive earthquake, typhoon, drought, famine. Africa, what a sad story and little headline you get each day. News is called news because it’s new, is it not?, but an equally apt name would be the shits. We could get deliveries of the shitspaper in the morning and catch up on how shitty things are getting. We could watch the evening shits and listen to our local anchor spew shit. We could flip on CNN or one of the other now multiplying 24 hour networks and watch the shit hit the fan all day and night. The paper is full of tributes to 9-11. But I don’t see something I expect. All around town the super-conspicuous tributes to 9-11, to soldiers and jingoistic banners of warrior ethos are absent. No yellow ribbons. No big flags and pro-war bloodthirsty bills. No camouflage or militarist symbols beyond the regular and permanent displays that dot every American city, like the tank on the lawn of the museum downtown. Of all cities I would have figured Amarillo would be filled with nationalist propaganda on a day like this. Nada. Instead things are quiet except for a few business men toting lunch back to their buildings.

I’m hungry. I dig around dumpsters and trash cans looking for a meal. I find a baked potato outside a bank’s tall glass building thrown out by some working stiff who figured it wasn’t wroth finishing. I find chips and a soda nearby. I find bread rolls, salad and more chips outside a sandwich shop. While digging in the trash I run into several others doing the same. Amarillo has large homeless population. I remember reading in some shitspaper article recently that Amarillo was ranked up there as one of the ten meanest cities to the homeless. Another included Flagstaff, a city down this same railway to the west that I figure I could get off in if need be. “Any good stuff in there?,” one bum asks me as I walk away from a dumpster with sandwich in hand.

“Yeah, plenty. I left plenty.” And I did. He digs in and seems happy. Down the road I saunter eating bread rolls and a salad. I stop on a stoop out of the sun devouring the lettuce, pickles, bell peppers and tomatoes. I’m happy to have some vegetables after so much bread and fried food. A group of young Latinas walk by laughing clutching oversized backpacks, yapping in cell phones and at each other. Several look at me and smile. I smile back. They’re headed home from some after school thing? They speak in snippets of Spanish and English. A couple cars drive by thumping loud music, hip-hop. Things are looking good. An old one legged man with a sun withered raisin face rolls up to me in his wheelchair and says simply in his little deserpate breaking voice, “share!, share?” I ask him what he’d like. He points to the salad with a claw finger. I hand it over and say, “take all you want.” He takes two bites and hands it back in a hurry. I can tell he’s still hungry but afraid to take too much. Two bites? He needs to eat. His body is in poor health. I push the tray of vegetables back at him and demand that he finish it. He smiles and digs in to eat every last bite. After stuffing his face he thanks me and says he “may never have to eat again.” I laugh.

“You should eat three times a day,” I tell him. “Eat a lot. You want some of this bread?” He doesn’t. “Is there a store around here I ask? Is there a restaurant?” I need to refill my water and get more food for the road. He stammers and speaks in a frightfully broken voice. I can’t understand his slurred words but nod anyways. He says things I don’t understand, things that make no sense and probably wouldn’t even if his voice wasn’t so gargled and cracked. His face is richly thickened and bronzed from years of sunlight, pure Texas sunlight. His nose is red, probably from drinking. His missing leg and withered body are a sad sight. His hands are leathery and thick. He has no shoe on his one foot, nor sock. His toes dangle there covered in dirt and calloused with little pock-like sores here and there. What things broke this man, I wonder. War? Illness? Addiction? What took his legs? And why, how on earth does a man like this end up wandering the streets of this bare exposed low-plains city with its relentless wind and icy winters, solarized summers and bare knuckle attitude? I tell him I have to leave but give him a pat on the shoulder. He’s happy and has this crazy look in his eye as though he knows something I don’t. It’s there in the corners of his eyes, like the yardies, some long ago happiness still smiling out after all these fucking dreadful years gone by.

The library in Amarillo is unfriendly to travelers. A sign on the door says “bedrolls and camping supplies not allowed on library premises.” To use the internet without a card requires a five dollar fee. I ask a patron if I can use his account. He hand over a computer after a few minutes. I look up maps and stores, gather information and head out. Finding a busy commercial district I use several tricks of the trade, criminal tricks. I walk out of a supermarket with a bag full of food – fruits, ice cream, sliced deli meat, dried fruit and nuts. In back of the stores I find pallets of soda and bottled specialty coffee, Godiva mochas of all things. Tomorrow morning aboard my train I’ll wake up with bourgy coffee I tell myself slipping bottles in bag. I gorge on this food in a bar’s parking lot and then head back downtown. I refill my water, pack my bag and decide to head out of Amarillo before midnight if I can. On the way back the yard I see several other hoboes, old timers. They’re walking in my direction talking and laughing. I’m not sure how I can tell they hop trains. It’s something about their ambling walk, the way they talk, the crazy expressions on their faces. I can tell they hop trains and that they love doing it. We pass one another and nod.


About ten pm a few big intermodals are lined up in Amarillo and one is powering up to head out. I’ve been sneaking about the yard for hours. I lost a glove, a brand new cow-hide spandex fancy glove I had stolen from a big corporate hardware store up the street. Pissed at myself I threw the remaining glove into a puddle. It slapped the water and I mumbled, “shit.” So I’d have dirty hands riding through the southwest. Big deal. My hands are already filthy covered in the proverbial crime.

The intermodal that’s about to leave is incredibly long. I don’t know how many units they’ve attached because I can’t see the front, but I assume it’s many. It’s breaks are filling with air and I know I’ve got very little time to find a ride. Looking up and down the line all I see are semi-trailers on flat cars. I’ve yet to ride one of these and wasn’t really wanting to for many reasons, the cold winds being at the top of this list. I climb aboard anyways and roll out my cardboard at the base of big set of rubber tires, wedge my sleeping bag next to the tire and crawl in to the warmth of the thin fleece. Realizing the wind is going to be constant and strong with no solid break except for the tires and mud flaps above my skull I pull out a tarp from my bag and wrap it around me tight. We’re off. I’d be asleep but am kept up by the wobbling of the trailer, the centimeters of shifting the big wheels make next to my head, the occasionally jumps and bumps that almost send my body aloft. Ten feet beyond my toes the platform ends and the drop would be straight down the track under rails, death. I lay awake in the cold wind and watch everything hoping to assuage my fears by getting used to the motion. Eventually I am accustomed and I fall asleep. Maybe I’m just a little more freaked out tonight because of that motorcycle shop in Amarillo, the one that had the grisly 8X10 photos in the window, caption: “this is what a 170 mph crash looks like.” The pictures were all blood, gore, ripped leather, a smear across the pavement, helmet with head inside. High speed morbidity.

Several times in the night I wake up for a few minutes with my teeth chattering. I wrap myself tighter in the tarp and bag, adjust my head and close off the world from my consciousness again but in the back of my mind am scared shitless.

Belen! Belen, New Mexico. It’s just south of Albuquerque, the location of a switchyard. Not much heads north from here. That’s what’s funny about BNSF, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. It doesn’t even come close to going through Santa Fe. The whole Belen operation is mostly about maintenance, check ups, refueling, other essentials on these long-distance freight trips. I wake up when the train stops. Funny how the coming of peaceful stillness bereft of noise and shakes can wake a person up just as surely as a violent racket. It’s the sudden changes in perception that wake you up. That’s the jolt.

The sky is glowing cobalt blue in the east telling me that within an hour or so the sun will rise. It’s time to move, I know. If I stay under this piggy-baked trailer I’ll be spotted at the next station in Gallup or Grants. I roll up and pack my bedroll quickly. Up and down the train I hear the sound of small motors beginning to buzz. Here they come! The dim lights of ATVs glow far away but getting closer. I jump down and run up the train knowing that closer to the font of this train are container cars where I can stow my bag and myself under platforms and in wells that are better concealment than anything on these flatcars. I’m sprinting. Up ahead the light of the vehicle is getting bigger. If I wait too long he’ll be able to see me running toward him, he’ll see my motion. Behind me another light glows toward the tail of the train. Bigger and brighter I jump aboard a container car, unfit to ride but good enough to hide. I wait. The first ATV passes on the left, slowly flashing a light over the train. Is it a worker or a bull? Probably a worker, but who knows? I jump down and sprint ahead sucking in the dust kicked up by his passage. His taillights recede behind me. Another light appears up ahead. In no time I see his break lights flashing, reversing, he’s turned around and headed back up the train at a fast pace. I’m running as fast as I can, still groggy from days without solid sleep, arms aching and feet bruised and blistered. I feel wonderful.

A perfect car appears and I jump aboard just in time to dodge the oncoming lights of each ATV. It’s a tall car with a two and half food sunken well to ride in. At its back is a catwalk that stretches around the whole of the car. This can be crawled under and I can stash my bag under it if need be. Right now though, in the pitch black night of Belen I can just lay there, huffing, sweating, happy smiles. By the time the train takes off the sun is cresting up over by the Sandias, Las Sandias. The big mountains of central New Mexico atop which one can see the whole state. Albuquerque is glowing to the north. El Bosque and the Rio Grande provide me with a second great east/west divide moment, much like the Mississippi. I used to live here on the edge of the river up in Albuquerque. The memories are pleasant.

Just to the west we pass through the Acoma Pueblo and several other little towns that have been constantly inhabited for ages. These are probably the oldest cities in America. In some places they look it. In others they’re like a lot of reservations, trailers and modular houses linked with dirt roads. As we pass into the Navajo Nation marked with hogans all about I spend equal time sleeping, reading and gazing off the train into the high desert. Eventually I have to get down from the catwalks and platforms and can no longer sit casually. There’s BNSF employees every few miles along even the most remote stretches fixing and upgrading the track. A line this busy probably takes thousands of workers in constant motion to maintain. The wear and tear must be immense. When we stop in Winslow the crew change is quick, probably five minutes or less. A big white van speeds out toward the font of the train and makes the exchange.

The BNSF track through this part of the US is used almost exclusively by snaking intermodals on their way from the busy west coast ports deep into and out of the interior of the nation. The trains move quick, stopping only when they have to which isn’t often. We blaze through the rest of New Mexico without stopping at all. When we reach Flagstaff, Arizona there’s no stop, just a slower pace. It’s still too fast to jump from though. This is fine, I’ve spent too much time in this town in recent years. Flag is nice, but small and lonely.


This is the final stretch? Where will it end? LA, Barstow? Will this machine head north up to the Bay Area? What’s the plan? Where does this chain of commodities connect? What’s in these big steel boxes anyway? Does America even make the kinds of gadgets and trifles that go in shipping containers anymore? I’m running out of water before Needles. I’m going to have to cross the Mojave, the hottest desert on earth without water. The sun is well past its zenith in the sky, but the air is oven hot and will be all night. We’ve gone from cold Oklahoma and the high plain nights to the perpetually hot southern California badlands. There’s not way about it, no way to escape the heat that is sweating the moisture from my body. This whole horrible machine is glowing from the radiation of its own kinetic energy and the sun’s orange rays. Dust kicks up all about in the air. The Colorado is the last water I’ll see for some time and I only get to see it from atop a bridge pacing more than 55 mph. My lips begin to crack and bleed a little. I can taste little salty red dabs of it.

Miles beyond Needles, still far out from Barstow we pass through open dry lakebeds with homesteads dotting the landscape. Most are collections of trailers with big fences built of random objects, rope, barbed wire and junked cars. Each flies a ragged American flag. No one in sight, but each little compound is home to some brave crazy souls who have found their little piece of earth here in the desert. A lone dog jogs by in the distance taking long strides with strong shoulders and hot paws.

The sun is soon down again but the temperature does not drop perceptually. This last sunset is the most brutal and anticlimactic of any I’ve seen since Louisiana. The red orb drops into a layer of smog and smoke. Southern California’s desert cracks. The air settles down and the mountains don grey veils. Black birds, ravens sit perched in salt cedar by the tracks. With the light gone all I can see is their purple silhouette. Against the moonless sky their beaks hang open wide, pointed upward, seeming like they wanna caw, “why?” They gather in, what is it called, a murder?


There’ll be no stop in Barstow. I’m dying of thirst, literally I think my health is failing after so many hours in this train through Arizona across the border without a drop. My bottle ran out many miles back, my 2 liter plastic soda bottle I had picked from a garbage can back in New Orleans and filled and re-filled with water the whole way, water that tasted like root beer in ever decreasing amounts. As we near Barstow I’m watching the ground hoping it’ll slow down and the motion blur will disappear enough for me to chance a running dismount. I hang over the side of the train by handrails staring longingly out at the commercial strip filled with a dozen places where I could get a free gallon or two. We keep on going. Minutes later we’re bypassing the biggest railyard of all. Barstow just might be BNSF’s center – to avoid an organic metaphor like heart or artery – Barstow is its immense oily rattling pump and pistons driving the whole chain. It’s massive. Too many trains to count are arrayed side by side after the first set of swtches. There’s giant warehouses all around the sides. Tracks lead off main and sidelines into enormous barn like spaces where teams of mechanics clatter away at engines and bad order cars night and day. A parking lot near the yard’s western edge is constantly filled with trucks. A big sign near the entrance road reads, “Barstow, Jewel of the Desert. BNSF Railway Corporation.”

Barstow was founded by William Barstow Strong, president of the Atkinson Topeka Santa Fe Rail Railway in the late 1800s. During the machine’s conquest of North America, a time coinciding in the western US with wars of savage brutality against the first Nations, the indigenous, towns and cities were founded principally at logical points along rail lines, points where water, climate and terrain combined to create a good junction. Barstow has no good climate, no real water so to speak of. In fact what Barstow has is hard to tell. It seems like Gen. Barstow a high commander riding the megamachine into battle simply clamped down upon the land here simply to prove it could be done, to say fuck you to mother earth in this particular spot. It’s like a warning to the rest of the planet’s fields, mountains and valleys; we can fuck you anytime, anywhere. We can ruin you good, drive piles into your skin, lay track on your back, extinguish your former scape under our gridiron and asphalt.

“Drunken Barstow,” as I’ve heard it referred to is now not much more than a satellite of Los Angeles – but what in hundreds of miles isn’t with LA’s unimagined gravity? Holding it down is its place as BNSF’s “jewel,” the jumping off point for trans-continental freighters carrying goods out of the super ports of LA, Long Beach, Oakland. The only other major reason for its existence is the military. A marine corps base and other installations surround Barstow. Further out are various airstrips, radar stations and bombing ranges. As if to attest to both of these facts at once I see below in the passing yard a train carrying a long link of cars topped with tanks and other war vehicles.

Poverty surrounds this town and neighboring Lynwood. Many a family or lone desert rat lives out in the trailers and dilapidated houses among scrub and dirt. I’ve had to many days walking around the area’s roads with my thumb out in the past, hitch hiking through heading east or west, trying to head quick but finding several hours instead to wander around and gaze upon this place’s sad severity. Hundred yard stretches of sandy rock enfold little storefront churches, long ago abandoned but still touting that “Jesus Saves” on the side in big clumsy painted letters. Another hundred yards to the liquor store that has two layers of bars across its entire glass frontage, big signs advertising cheap smokes, 24 packs and lotto.

I love the desert. I have ever since I lived in central New Mexico a mile high. I’ve reaffirmed my love with periodic forays out into Northern Arizona onto the Navajo Nation, through Southern Utah and rural Nevada. The isolation, long distances and night skies have me solid. I hate what the machine has done to it. For whatever reasons, perhaps for the very reasons I love the desert, distance and isolation, and its surprising richness of life and land, the machine has colonized and raped the American desert west like no other place on earth.

Mountain top removal in Appalachia, clear cuts and road sprees in the Pacific Northwest, the steady erasure of the Gulf wetlands under the onslaught of drilling and dredging, toxic dumping up and down “cancer alley,” monocropping the landscape into monotony in the Midwest, million head hog farms in the Carolinas with million gallon sewage spills a day, urban sprawl east and west, of all the scars I’ve seen as a result of the machine’s relentless plundering of my mother earth none have terrified and angered me more than those I have witnessed in the desert’s, low and high that stretch from the edges of LA into the four corners. Here in this place on earth the machine and its masters have through their perverse will to power carried out the most ghoulish experiments, devised and tested the most murderous weapons, dug deep and relentlessly for the magnesium, boron, uranium, petroleum, gas, gold and silver to build their pyramids and missiles. They’ve assembled the most massive diversion of rivers and aquifers on earth to supply the every expanding industrial form with electricity and water. They’ve blow mountains and valleys apart, fenced off once boundless expanses, dumped on it relentlessly. And through it all is routed this train, the machine’s big conveyor belt. It’s A to B.

Barstow recedes into the night but California looms all about with her canals, prisons, proving grounds and poison pits. I drop down to my knees roll over on my right side, heart up, and sleep. What else can I do?

Hours later I am roused by lights. We are in a city, but where? Has LA enveloped us? No. We are somewhere else. I see a building with the seal of Kern County above a door. I see another edifice that looks like some sort of arena. A sign nearby says it’s the Rabobank Center or something like that. I know where we are. Bakersfield. The train is slowing up to make a few tight turns and cross intersections. There is no traffic on the streets about. I pack my bag and when the speed has dropped enough so do I, off the left side of the machine. I tell myself I will not touch another train for some time. I don’t think I’ve got the heart left to. Equally, I don’t think I’ll be able to avoid the aura and draw of the machine for too long though, regardless of its ferocity. Like I said, it’s hate and love. Hate and love.

Hitching the Change Back

“So you said you’re a what? One of those people who wears the funny hats and black suits and…?”
“No man, I’m a Quaker, but we don’t dress like that. You’re thinking of the Amish or another groups of fundamentalists along those lines. Quakers are just like you, except that we don’t believe in raising our fists in violence. We’re pacifist.” I’m really not a Quaker but I told the young gun-ho Marine I was just to see how he responds. He’s terribly confused.

“So if someone came at you and was gonna kill you, you wouldn’t protect yourself?” I try explaining that nonviolence is more complex and deeper than this. Of course I would protect myself, I say. The point here is that most violence is aggressive, indirect and veiled. This is the violence we must interrogate and try to put an end to. Most violence travels down the social hierarchy and is oppressive. We must stop being complicit in this violence. Only then can we be true Christians. Perhaps I’ve misjudged him in thinking he’s a Christian, but what I’m saying is confusing him so bad I think I’m right.

“Huh?” is is only response. He drops me off at the junction of highway 46 where I ask for. Earlier when he picked me up I had been asking him all about life in the Corps, his upcoming stint in Iraq, all of the nitty gritty. “I don’t care, no big deal,” was his response to my inquiries about Iraq. “It’s not dangerous. I’ll go over, do my stint and be out. I’ll be in either Fallujah or Baghdad.”

“It’s dangerous bro,” I assure him. “Soliders are dying there everyday.” He fakes like he’s unfazed, totally cool. “What do you think about the war, I mean about why we’re there.”
“Someone’s gotta do the job.”
“What’s the job?”
“See, what people don’t realize is that the government, or, what’s it called, um….” He’s thinking hard. “They asked us to come there see. We didn’t just invade, we were asked to go in by the um….”
“By the government in exile,” I volunteer.
“Yes! The government in exile. See they told us to go there, so it’s not like this was unwarranted.” I ask him about the so-called war on terror, all the while playing down my views, feigning curiosity and indecision, pretending like I’m learning from him when all I’m learning is how powerful misinformation can be to a 20 year old boy from Stockton out to prove his manhood. “Iraq supported that shit.”
“No, that regime didn’t,” I respond bluntly. “In fact…” He cuts me off with various corrections and clarifications that make not a bit of sense. Cheneyspeak as it were.

We start talking about life in the Marine Corps. He’s stationed at one of the bases beyond Barstow. “It’s pretty boring but we get leave and I drive up to my hometown or go out with friends now and then.” Drive he does, like a maniac, like a Mad Max solider bobbing and weaving through lanes at top speed. What’s the phrase? Young, dumb and full of cum. “I’m done with training. I’ll ship out soon.”

Awkward silence. “So, um, you what’s it like doing what you do?” He’s referring to my hitch hiking and travels. When I got in the car I told him what I was about, roughly.

“I’m headed to my temporary home. Been in Louisiana. Been traveling, taking in America, what a land!”
“You just drop everything and travel then?” His tone of voice carries equal amounts of interests, contempt and admiration. He wants to do it, but at the same time thinks I’m a bum.
“Well it’s fine.” I decide not to offer up anymore but he wants to know details. He’s been lusting after some kind of independence but found himself instead in the clutches of the machine, the war machine. He’s become a pawn in the big Marine Corps meat grinder. He pushes it. “Why don’t you find out?” is all I give him. In a few months he’ll be in Fallujah or Baghdad killing and trying not to be killed, riding in those tanks and dropping those bombs on little kids, mosques and markets, fighting for freedom.

“Yeah bro, I work out in Paso right now but I live in the desert. I’ve been on the road since 4 this morning.”
“That’s funny, I got off that freight train at 4 this morning.” Actually it was probably 3, but I didn’t have a watch to record it. I decided to tell this fellow my story and bend no truths, tell no provocative lies like I did to the solider who gave me my last ride. “What do you do?” I inquire.

“I work on drilling platforms. Oil. Been doing it for quite a few years now. I work about 7 months out of the year. The money’s real good see. I work hard for a little over half a year and then just chill.” We’re driving through Lost Hills, a lost little town in south-central California off the Highway 99 that sits on top a big lake of petroleum. His phone rings. “Hi baby. Yeah, yeah, uh-huh, that’s what I told him. Yes. Okay. Well now. If that’s the way it’s going to be…. Yeah. Okay. I love you too. By baby.” He hangs up. “My girlfriend. She’s going into to do 9 months tomorrow.”
“In what pen?” I ask. He says somewhere up near Sacramento, one of California’s many, many jails. “That’s rough, I’m sorry.”
“No big deal. I’ll visit. You know, you play the game and you’re gonna get burned,” he explains. He says she’s in for some drug offense. He says he’s done a lot of time himself and he’s got the tattoos and rough persona to prove it. All over drugs he says. “I used to be a wreck but got my shit straight a few years back. It’s how I got into this work in the first place. Looking for something demanding to take set me straight. Moved up here and started this.”
“How tough is the work?”
“Man, it’s rough. We work twelve hour shifts. They house us out here though and feed us. I’ll make seventy-k in half a year bro. Shit, I could call up a dude I know right now and get you a job on a rig up north of here. He called me up yesterday and said he needs another man for a crew; doesn’t matter if they’ve got experience or not.” I’m not interested but the whole chance encounter trips me up. What if I were to accept? Drop all obligations, disappear for a while on a rig along some California coastal range mountainside. I could make a mountain of money that would last me for years at the rate I spend. But to do so would mean being one of those workers who pulls the levers and greases the gears of the machine. I don’t think I could stand that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from pure. I’m caught up in all this shit just like my friend here behind the wheel, but I’m trying my best to move in some positive direction. To take up his chance offer would be too much. Besides, what would I do with $70,000? Possessions never meant anything to me. It’s all but worthless really.

“This is where James Dean died,” I point as we pass a junction in the road. Sure enough the state has put a little sign up calling it the James Dean Memorial Junction or something like that. The star was driving a little silvery sportscar when he met another head on and wiped out. Carnage.

In Paso Robles I walk into a coffee shop to wash up and get a little water. There’s a detective or FBI agent, or some sort of cop pouring sugar in his coffee staring at me as I walk in, me all ragged with a big red beard walking into his town with my pack and shady rolling deportment. He gives me a one over. I head straight for the restroom and take my time. On the way out I don’t see him. Good, he’s got more important things to worry about.

Back at the on ramp to the 101 freeway a young punk kid is sitting there with his pack and puppy dog trying to catch a ride. I know that drivers will never pick up two men. It’s almost a law of physics. Two men, especially two tired looking traveling men will never get a ride together. Anyone who would pick them up is probably a fucked up psycho in their own right. Surely someone you don’t wanna ride with. I say high to the kid, pet his dog and ask him where he’s headed. “LA!” he says jubilantly.

“Cool. I’ll give you space. Good luck bro.” I head off into Paso to wander around and kill some time. I walk down by the Union Pacific tracks not far from the freeway. Maybe I could just hop another freight down to my destination I think. No, these trains run only several times a day and hole up in random spots. It would take days to find the right place and time to catch out. I keep walking.

Down the tracks I find myself stepping on acorns. Freshly dropped acorns everywhere. Remembering a recipe for acorn bread I bend down and pick up several hundred of the little greenish brown nuts and stuff them into my bag. An hour passes while I’m gathering and meandering along the UP tracks. I turn around and head back along a street lined with cheap apartments run down houses. Paso is full of retired folks, millionaires and winery owners, but its growth means it needs cheap labor. This means that the land by the tracks here too is inhabited by Latinos and poor whites, the folks who clean up and do the dirty work in this big oak rolling hill paradise.

Close to the freeway I head back to the tracks to walk the last few hundred yards. Under a bridge I see the young punk kid sleeping with his head resting on his pack. He struck out. It’s too bad. His eyes and smile were kind. He seems like a good guy, cheerful and just out to live. No crimes or deception. His dog perks up at my passing, but the man is out.

Back at the on ramp it only takes me a few minutes to score a ride. “I usually don’t pick up hitch hikers but you looked cool,” he says. He wants to know my story, so I tell him I’m a student, putting that word in little quote marks with two fingers from each hand. I tell him that’s the cover story but in reality I’m part of a revolutionary militia of anarchist farmers out to topple the United States and bring about a thousand year reign of a regime less society. He laughs at this and so do I.
He asks me if hitch hiking is dangerous. I assure him it’s not, “and you should do it,” I advise.
“I’m taking classes down at the college in San Luis,” he says. “I grew up in Paso. It’s boring. Nothing to do there. So I come down here as much as I can. I think it’s because of the schools and all the young people that San Luis has more going on.”
I tell him I think San Luis is boring and full of conservative lunatics. “Well where do you live, what’s your favorite place?” he asks. I’ve got no answer for him.

My next ride picks me up on a busy ramp in San Luis. He’s a fat jolly man driving an old beat up truck, a small import model. The floor is crowded with trash and tools. “I work at the Elks Club down in Santa Maria, been bartending there for 30 years. Come by on a Friday night sometime and tell the doorman you’re there to see me, I’ll give you free beer.”
For whatever reason we begin talking immediately about the war. He has strong opinions. He hates the president, thinks it’s all a lie. He says he’s not conspiracy minded, but “there’s things going on up there at the highest levels that you and I can’t even imagine. Dark political shit man.” He begins a rant about Christianity and his distrust of Christians but pauses halfway through – “uh, you’re not religious are you?”
“Yeah, okay,” he delves further into his theory on how Christianity prepares people to be servants and non-thinkers, uncritically accepting things passed to them. “Ever hear of Dana? George Dana?”
“Well,” he launches into it, “his home where he retired is just up the road here in Nipomo. Dana Point is named after him. See he came to California when this place was still mostly just inhabited by Indians. The Spaniards had some missions up and down the coast, but these were tiny little islands in a sea of Native territory. Damn, can you imagine what that California must have been like!” I can and am. It fills me with excitement and joy but I simply nod my head in response. “Well, the reason I bring him up is that….” The story meanders about. He describes Dana’s journeys and takes several opportunities to go off on tangents about the historic period. Somehow in the end he ties in a lesson about Christianity, it’s flaws. I’m somewhat lost but nod my head saying “yeah, yeah.”
“Like I said my man, I’m not conspiracy minded, but you know why I think they let people loot out that museum in Baghdad?”
“There’s artifacts in there that combined with other things we know would have led quickly to revelations about the truth of Christianity. Man, if Christianity fell, if it were disproved as an ideology can you imagine how this empire they’ve built would crumble? It would make American power impotent. See today scholars are really close to proving the truth about human kind and it ain’t got much to do with this cult of Jesus and the bible. All that’s a lie. I’ve got a book you should read,” he goes on describing several titles written by independent scholars about biblical history, Islam, pre-history and even aliens. “I’m not conspiracy minded, but….”

My last ride picks me up in his little silver car that has a ladder strapped to the roof. Only now do I realize how long it has been since a woman gave me a ride. The road is so masculine, so damn manly. It’s really a downer. He’s nice though. A photographer, he’s drive up here to shoot a class photo for a high school.
He says he’s disillusioned with democracy. He’s launching immediately into political and philosophical speech and I’ve hardly told him anything about myself. I could be some totally disinterested drug addled gutter punk and here he is telling me his latest contemplative insights on pluralism and social discourses. When he strays from politics and philosophy he begins talking about rivers. I’m interested.

“I’ve spent most of my time kayaking up and down the San Joachin and workingn to restore it. Basically I’m trying to stop more damns and canals from getting built, stop diversions and further draws of water, and to try to dismantle what’s already built. Not much luck so far with tearing things down, but we’ve blocked some major projects that would have really messed things up more than they already are.”
“I saw Lake Powell for the first time recently,” I tell him. “It was huge. The guy who picked me up and drove me by it, a local who’d lived in Paige right there on the lake for years thought it was a natural lake, even though he saw the damn there, drove over the damn thing every damn day for the last 10 years on his way to and from work. He thought the lake was natural. It astounded him when I broke the news.” We both agree that Glen Canyon Damn like many others deserve to be blown to smithereens.

“In geologic history there have been several bid damns in the Grand Canyon and along other major American Rivers, some that have created lakes much larger than anything we’ve come up with yet. These have usually been produced through lava flow. But all damns are built to one day fail. Water backs up and overflows the top over many centuries. As it does it erodes the structure from the top and down until it cracks and is washed away. All damns, like anything really, are built to fail.” He has a pleased look on his face zig-zagin down the 101 near the coast. “You mind if I take this scenic highway back down? It’s been years since I’ve driven it.”

“Sure, let’s cruise it.” We drive over mountains and past Lake Cachuma over a summit and then down toward the ocean. He drops me off on the street where the house that I split rent on is located. He says bye and waves driving off toward the highway. Back here in this little metropolis standing in the street, this place is supposed to be my home. I don’t quite feel home.
We sell all kinds of other stuff in our Etsy store!


Sep 13, 2006
CS seems to be a reference to CSX (formally CSX Transportation),

I've ridden the CS out of Chattanooga many many times on the way to my home in Kentucky. It stands for Cincinnati Southern. It was/is the only major railroad funded and built by a city (Cincinnati) to connect it with Chattanooga via Danville. It became Cincinnati New Orleans and Texas Pacific>Southern Railway>Norfolk Southern. Many of the CS trains terminate in Cincinnati/Bellevue/other Ohio destinations, but some, especially IM, go on to Chicago.

Brings back funny memories. The first time talking to a worker in Chatt, he told me I need the CS train on the 8 track. I asked him what CS stood for, he just got a dumb look on his face, said "I don't know.. thats just.. thats just what we call em." The rest of the guys shrugged. Not a one of them knew.

Good story. Took me two days to read. I hate reading on computer screens!


Lawn Care Enthusiast
Nov 6, 2008
my eyes hurt, but it was worth it. this is a damn good read.


I'm a d-bag and got banned.
Dec 7, 2009
Kansas City, Kansas
This is really deep shit, man. I'm proud of you. Kudos from a total stranger, and ten stars to boot. Please keep it up man. I look forward to future posts


I'm a d-bag and got banned.
Jan 26, 2010
foreals this guy doesn't even seem active with his profile anymore so i may have to put it in my zine without permission...haha


Sep 9, 2010
That was great.
Awesome job on describing my shitty city Chattanooga, Tn.
The best money spot there is at the corner of The Terrace and Moore the main off ramps.


Feb 26, 2010
I had a good day reading this stuff! Glad this got necro'd to the top cause I might not have seen it. Definately worth the time!

Users who are viewing this thread

About us

  • Squat the Planet is the world's largest social network for misfit travelers. Join our community of do-it-yourself nomads and learn how to explore the world by any means necessary.

    More Info

Support StP!

Donations go towards paying our monthly server fees, adding new features to the website, and occasionally putting a burrito in Matt's mouth.

Total amount

Monthly Goals

  1. Paying the Bills
    $0.00 of $50.00
    The first $50 in donations go towards paying our monthly server fees and adding new features to the website. Once this goal is reached, we'll see about feeding Matt that burrito.
  2. Buy Matt a Beer
    $0.00 of $75.00
    Now that we have the bills paid for this month, let's give Matt a hearty thank you by buying him a drink for all the hard work he's done for StP. Hopefully this will help keep him from going insane after a long day of squishing website bugs.
  3. Feed Matt a Burrito
    $0.00 of $100.00
    Now that the bills are paid and Matt has a beer in his hand, how about showing him your love by rewarding all his hard work with a big fat burrito to put in his mouth. This will keep him alive while programming new features for the website.
  4. Finance the Shopping Cart
    $0.00 of $200.00
    Now that the bills are paid and Matt is fed, perhaps it's time to start planning for those twilight years under the bridge... if only he had that golden shopping cart all the oogles are bragging about these days.