My body ripped up at a ninety-degree angle, my eyes popping open, hearing what sounded like a freight train. Brian was asleep, his rucksack propping his head up like some 1930s Depression-era freight train hopper. If Dorthea Lange were here, she’d have gotten a good photograph.
The train whistle throbbed, that loud, wheedling wail. How could Brian sleep through this? Because he was used to it. He’d been doing this for fifteen years. I’d been “on the road” for three months, tired and dirty and in some deep existential quagmire.
I’d met Brian in New York—Buffalo—drunk, stumbling up the lonely streets trying to find the abandoned park at four A.M. where I’d stowed my pack, when I’d nearly knocked the guy off the sidewalk. An exchange of words, some drunk yammering, bitter feelings, and then blam: I’d woken up the next morning in his garage, early sunlight piercing the darkness like a baby beginning to exit the womb, seeing the world for the first time.
I’d asked Brian to hitchhike west with me and, to my astonishment, he’d agreed to come. Now, a mere week later, after a few days hitching across the USA, we were here, hiding out at “The Bend,” the spot in North Portland where the train tracks bent around a sharp turn and the trains went slow enough that you could hop one.
The heavy whistle blew again and I saw the fat, yellow headlight from the first car of the train. Watching these Titanics of the railroad was fascinating. It was highly illegal and very prosecutable by law. The “yard bulls,” train cops, had the right to beat the crap out of you. I’d heard stories about severed limbs, death.
Ahead of us, to the immediate north, was a fork in the tracks, one track veering left, one right. There was a track switch sitting in the middle. A sign saying, “DANGER: HIGH ELECTRIC CURRENT.”
The train appeared suddenly from around the bend, maybe a hundred yards east, chugging. The incredibly loud crunch of steel wheels rolling ruggedly on tracks began to pump and purr and pop.
“Brian,” I tried again, but he only mumbled something indecipherable.
WOOOOOT WOOOOOOT….WOOOOOT WOOOOOOT
The train whistle blew through my fear and anxiety. I was twenty-six years old. Brian was in his early 30s and a world more experienced than me. I was an intense dude, a burgeoning writer, but very white, very middle-class, and very American, in all the senses of the word. Brian was blue-collar Middle America and an expert in the seductive life of the crime underworld. He’d run away at fifteen and had never looked back, hopping freight trains, stealing copper from warehouses and selling it. He knew things. I respected and also feared him.
The train gained. I roughly shook Brian’s shoulder. “Brian!”
He woke up with a scare, his body shooting into a forty-five degree angle, confusion wrenching itself on his face.
“What is it?” He said.
“Listen,” I said.
The train whistle blew harder than hell. We could actually feel the rumble of the ground as the massive beast approached, as if God were letting us know what he could do. Brian scruffed onto his knees and peered over the brush, his eyes barely over the rim.
“Shit,” he said. “That’s our train. I’ll hop first. Follow me. Wait for my signal.”
My heart began beating harder, like the train’s approaching wheels clacking on metal and the sound of that pounding, pumping, pummeling whistle, announcing the arrival of Zeus.
Before we knew it the head of the train came right at us, the headlight gigantic and all encompassing.
“Get down!” Brian hissed.
I lowered down against the dirt, my breath pushing up bits of leaves and sticks on the ground. The yellow light slowly passed over the bush and the sound of the train chugging around that sharp bend was like a humongous Doberman pincer an inch away from your face, breathing, just out of reach. The scrunch and screech of steel was palpable and it reached into my core, my heart, my soul, grinding it all up. This was magic. This was heaven. This was terrifying.
Brian lunged, hucked his pack on, strapped it tight, and motioned back to me.
My pack secure, we jogged towards the tracks. The train was running fast, but Brian told me it was slow enough. I doubted that but I didn’t argue. Giant red steel cars were racked on top of each other and none seemed rideable. Along the sides it said, “BURLINGTON NORTHERN SANTA FE” in big black letters.
Brian was up ahead of me ten yards. His pack jiggled as he ran. Our boots clomped and crunched on the rocks along the tracks. We were only feet from the passing cars.
And then it came: A yellow loading container. These were containers that held grain, but when the trains headed back to Seattle they were empty. The one catch, Brian had said, was that sometimes the loading boxes were bottomless; they were sometimes only fittings for boxes to be placed on top of them. If you jumped into a bottomless loading container: you were dead immediately, crushed underneath the big steel wheels.
Brian sped up a notch and I followed desperately. My pack felt heavy as I lumbered; it swished back and forth, up and down on my shoulders.
The car had this rusty red ladder that ended two feet off the ground. The train was moving a bit faster now, the majority of the beast past the bend and gaining speed. We ran with the tail of the train.
Brian grabbed the ladder, running alongside it. Then he hurled his body onto the thing, his black boots planted on the bottom rung. He looked crazy, holding onto the side of the train like that. We’d passed the track switch by this point. We’d gone to the right, the direction preferred. Two hundred yards north was the bridge which would take us over the Columbia River out of Portland.
Brian climbed the ladder and jumped into the loading container. There was a bottom. This was the moment of truth.
“C’mon, Michael,” he screamed, his voice half lost against the noise from the train and the wind zipping my face.
I could feel the train again speeding up and my energy fading. My breath pumped out of me wildly. My legs were beyond exhausted. I wanted to give up. But something deep down inside wouldn’t let me. This was a great big Jack Kerouac adventure and I’d be damned if I gave up now.
Brian cupped his palms around his mouth: “Goddamn it, man, FASTER!” He yelled. “Grab that fuckin’ ladder!”
The whole train officially rounding the bend, heading into a forested area which led straight to that bridge, I gave it one last major push. Closing my eyes, I reached my hand out in the direction of the ladder, expecting to touch air.
I had to stop. It was going too fast for me to jump onto and too fast for Brian to jump off. Our adventure was over.
But then, somehow, I clutched the red rusty bar. Brian screamed something but I couldn’t hear his words. I opened my eyes and couldn’t believe I was still running, that I was holding onto the bar with one hand. I could sense my feet beginning to almost need to start dragging along the ground. I was at a critical point: Either I had to commit fully, and try to climb the thing, or I had to let go and slow down, accept that my attempt had failed.
The steel bar felt rough and hard in my palm. I reached my other hand over and clenched the other bar. Holding with my hands as tightly as I could, I knew I’d have to throw both my feet over at the same time.
Brian’s yells distant in my mind, the words a blur, the sound deafeningly loud, the wind terrorizing my face, and my heart punching my chest like Mohammed Ali, I held those bars hard and swung my feet onto the bottom rung, my boots firmly clamped. For a second, I stayed there, in that position, riding the train ladder like a midnight loon, watching the ground beneath me move.
I felt Brian’s hand around my pack, pulling me upward. I got the hint, breaking my crazed meditation, and started climbing. I landed in the container. I unbuckled my pack and hurled it into the corner. Brian looked at me and shook his head.
“I thought you were toast. You crazy bastard.”
We laughed and I let all the nervous, anticipatory energy leak out of my body, hard chuckles wracking my soul from deep within.
Michael Mohr is a Bay Area writer, former literary agent’s assistant and freelance book editor. His fiction has been published in the following: Freedom Fiction Journal; Fiction Magazines; Tincture; Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine; Aaduna; MacGuffin; Gothic City Press; Alfie Dog Press; Milvia Street; and more. His blog pieces have been included in Writers’ Digest, The Kimberley Cameron & Associates [literary agency] blog; the San Francisco Writers Conference Newsletter and MASH. His writing/editing website and weekly blog is www.michaelmohrwriter.com.
- This story originally appeared in Freedom Fiction