For three days in 2003 I had relentlessly pushed a rental car through the splendors of western Colorado, what they call the West Slope. Now that I involuntarily live on the inferior side of the country, any time in the West is precious and I have to resort to rental cars to speed things along. The terrain here has the rugged red-rock look of Utah; you are no longer in the snow-and-alpine-meadow Rockies but in a realm of granite escarpments and flagstone mesas.
Marveling at how easy sightseeing is when you conform to America’s expectations and rent a car and reserve a motel room, I had based myself in Grand Junction and nailed down the Colorado National Monument, the ineffable Lands End lookout that commands views of the Grand Valley and the Book Cliffs, and the Uncompahgre Plateau.
There had even been a day of hiking the Maroon Bells Wilderness near the beautiful-people resort of Aspen. It had been rugged, scary driving — Lands End Road (also known as Forest Service Road 100) had reopened only a day ago after 218 inches of snowfall and was still clogged at the top with snowbanks — and I was always petrified by the prospect of having to back up if another car approached on those narrow, mountainous switchbacks.
It was more fearsome than hoboing to me. But grateful for the efficiency of cars, I turned mine in and morosely returned to the sprawling, denuded yard in Grand Junction. The cluster of shabby light industries along the north edge of the yard had not changed much since my last time in Grand Junction. It had been 11 years since I, with the assistance of a spry 73-year-old, had sailed off to Denver in an old crummy (caboose).
Now I was by myself in a yard that had switched from SP to UP ownership and had undoubtedly undergone other changes. Eleven years ago, there was no Internet to propagate train-hopping information; I had learned by talking to the lifers and by calling a few seasoned riders whose phone numbers I had gradually learned. It was harder to gain information, but then again our enemies were not using cellphones to betray us at every sighting, either. It was another universe.
Regretfully, I dismissed a train bound for Salt Lake that I could have caught from a wheelchair, since my goal was Denver. I found my way into several strings of cars, but they turned out to be bad orders, destined for some future repair and useless to me.
Stepping lively to avoid a silent-but-deadly string of cars that had suddenly charged at me, I worked deeper into the yard. Darkness fell, and I jumped a coal train heading east.
It coasted for a few miles and bumped to a halt, so I ditched it and asked a pair of flashlight-wielding yard workers to point out any eastbounds. The car knockers were initially stunned, undoubtedly having been free of the train-hopping plague in these recent years of zero tolerance, but they quickly reverted to form.
“That one’s headed out,” one said, stabbing a coal train with his flashlight. “If you wanna ride the units, the ones in the middle are up there by that light tower.”
The scale of the train dwarfed my strides. I thanked them and hurried down the track, periodically leaning against a car when the roving bull’s spotlight washed over the ballast, but within a few minutes my train took off and I had to settle for a bed of coal. I crawled in as coal soot worked its way into my collar and shoes, flattening myself as we passed the hostile control tower.
We sailed out of town and into night-shrouded Glenwood Canyon, where the swollen, ominous Colorado River promised a turbulent death for any derailed hoboes. In the Glenwood Springs yard, the train halted long enough for me to make a break for the vacant units at last. There I could bask in relative comfort in the engineer’s chair and drink railroad-supplied bottled water and turn on the air conditioner.
Comfortable though they may be, the units are just as dirty as the rest of the train, somehow. Even sitting still, you find the grit materializing on your hands and face, as if you are Pigpen. That’s when you turn to another railroad-supplied commodity, the dry-soap towelettes in the cab. So I spent the long night abusing the railroad’s hospitality until, in the misty gloamings of dawn, we pulled into the canyon-buried, townless point of Bond for a crew change.
My initial plan had been to take a stab at hopping a branch-line train here. Mainline trains stop in Bond for crew changes. The branch trains up scenic Rock Creek Canyon to Craig do not, though; they slow down only to 20 mph. I was contemplating a mad dash that would reduce the speed difference between me and such a train to a “safe” margin, but as the morning wore on with no activity, my mingled hope and anxiety faded. With all this time lost and with other things on my agenda, I filed the Craig Branch away for another day, another year.
After snoozing, eating sausage and apples, and drinking water in the cab for five hours, with intermittent bathroom breaks safe from any human eyes, I was startled when the stalled train beside me, which had actually arrived later, creaked toward Denver. So hastily did I pack up and flee for the other train that I left my bag of food and half my water behind.
In hoboing, which has so little margin, such mistakes can matter: it was only 10 a.m., I had many more unpredictable hours ahead in the mountains and countryside, and I would have nothing to eat. Water would have to sustain me. And I was going to have to emulate either coma or hibernation for the rest of the day.
As it was, since my belongings were so wildly scattered around the cab and took so long to gather, I missed the units in the middle of the departing coal train. I wound up in the very rear, catching those units only when the train had attained a disagreeable speed. (Later, I moved up to the middle.) Inside these latest accommodations, still unaware of having abandoned my food supply and much of my water, I stretched out and again turned on the air conditioner. There went my chance to jump a coal train in Bond headed for Craig, but I had given it enough time and had not been looking forward anyway to literally chasing a 20-mph freight over gravel.
This was the third time that I had ridden from Bond to Denver, so there was little novelty in this trip. At least I finally covered the entire run in daylight. In 1992 we’d reached Denver at 2 a.m.; in 1998 it had been around 8 a.m. This time I enjoyed the flood-stage river speckled with fearless white-water rafters, Gore Canyon, and the magnificent views around Granby, Fraser, and Winter Park in unambiguous daylight. We moved from a sunny microclimate to drizzly rain, on a rocky shelf of railbed high above the twisting ribbon of the Fraser River.
But at 6 p.m. another freight-related annoyance popped up: the crew completed its 12thhour of service and, obeying federal law, abandoned ship 18 miles out of Denver. It took me a while to figure this out; I was initially reluctant to consume waning energy by walking up half the length of the train.
Now here I was, atop a mountainous pasture and separated only by a fence from a herd of bemused cattle, with an unpredictably long wait until the railroad could be bothered to dispatch a replacement crew. Low-value coal did not command its attention, and in frustration and boredom I took an antihistamine as a veiled sleeping pill. It certainly did its job; I was quite asleep at midnight when the revival of the train jarred me awake.
Once the new crew took over, the obnoxious slowness of the preceding day disappeared. We practically raced into Denver, through the suburbs and into North Yard.
It was the first time in 11 years that I had seen this grim, huge, bull-infested place and I wasted no time in jumping off the train and heading for public property. It had only taken 26 hours to go 300 miles. I kept angling left, having jumped off the left side of the train once I saw the bull accompanying it on the right, and hustled into a maze of truck trailers when a pickup marked SECURITY appeared a few yards to my right. The bull could not see very far to his left at night, so the darkly dressed tramp with the dark green backpack who had just plunged into shadow escaped his attention.
The night is your friend. I plowed on, busily writing checks that my body could not cash, having gone the day and night without food, but not daring to stop until reaching the knee-high weeds outside a Denver Post printing plant. Beyond loomed some brightly lit motels and a Denny’s.
When you’re pushing 15 hours without food and you were not intending to fast, you forgive certain bigoted franchises. I gratefully slung off the framepack and devoured a Lumberjack Slam and headed back outside. Now it was raining, and there were still about 28 blocks to go before hitting downtown, where I would end up dozing on wet concrete behind the Amtrak station and catching the bus for my rendezvous with disappointment in Alamosa. But the gods have spared us the agony of foresight.
So my mood, fueled by the belated breakfast, was relatively good. Maybe my next sally will be less tormented than this one was.
Abdul Rahimov has a Ph.D. in Russian history from Stanford. He studied earlier at Harvard and grew up in Illinois in a railroad-dominated town.Rahimov prefers to use a pen name to avoid attracting unnecessary attention from railroads. He lives on the East Coast when he’s not living in a train.