A Dance Between Flesh And Steel
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sunsetsignal.jfif

Sunset on the old mainline outside town


March 2008

The walls of the Geneva Motel were once whitewashed blue, but the years of constant rains had nipped the pigments away, leaving it a dirty swill of gray.

Silhouetted against the cool desert sky was the neon sign, the red tubes that comprised the large G and M having burnt out years ago, leaving it to say, in flickering yellow and sickly green: ENEVA OTEL. Below the title, the Vacancy plaque was illuminated by the lone bulb that hadn't been smashed which cheerily winked in and out.

I nearly froze to death entering that rental office. The AC had been cranked up all the way to the highest setting to combat the day's heat, and the guy behind the counter didn't bother to turn it down when night fell. Still, I was tired from trekking down the city streets all day, with no rides coming, so I decided to hang around and talk a bit before going to my room.

"How long is it to Sacramento?” I felt myself saying aloud.

"A little bit over four hundred miles. Whaddya doin here?” He was munching down on an overpriced bag of nuts that he lifted from the small amenities rack.

"In Barstow, I mean. Not here," he quickly added, and his eyes glazed over as he cracked down on another nut and tapped away at the computer.

My mind searched for an answer to that question. Barstow….what are you supposed to do in Barstow, a town ringed by scraggly low ranch houses where the tracks ran through and the station only stood as a way to get out?

"I came here to see the sights, watch the trains, and get the hell out of here."

He snorted, but seeing that he didn't take his eyes off the computer monitor, it wasn't directed towards me.

"Could you believe it? This guy, he fell for my bluff.” He pecked a key and slowly shook his head, a faraway smile spreading across his face. “How long did it take you to drive down here?”

“Oh, I didn’t drive. I walked.”

He wheeled around on his swivel chair to the window facing the parking lot. Sure enough, it was deserted except for his crappy Corolla parked in the manager’s spot. He turned right around to face me.

“Hmph. So you’re telling me you walked all the way here?” he responded while reaching for the bag of nuts again, “how long did that take you?”

“About a full day.” I held out my arm, peeling, sunburnt from the blazing Southern Californian sun. I could have sworn he reeled back a little in his swivel chair when I showed him that.

But whatever feelings he had towards the guy who decided to end up in his run-down motel that night, paying for a room with a five dollar bill, he didn’t show it. He popped a cashew into his mouth and slowly chewed as he spoke.

“You didn’t have to do that, you know. You shoulda take a lesson from the hippies in the seventies. They stuck out their thumbs and people picked them right up. Could have gotten you to Barstow quicker….and could have saved you that nasty burn.”

“I tried that. When the sun was high in the sky and it was noon, I realized that unless I walked halfway across town to the interstate, which would take me the whole day, there was no way I could get one that far from some car on the street. LA traffic’s hell, anyway. All deadlock.”

“Then how did you get here from Los Angeles, all in one day?”

“I took a train, then walked.”

“Doesn’t the Amtrak go all the way to Sacramento?”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t riding the Amtrak. This one’s different. If you want to have a decent chance at catching it, you gotta run. Run like hell.”


Of all my times hopping trains, none of them sticks out more in my mind than hopping the old Santa Fe1 line, situated between the land of Corvettes and crackheads, Los Angeles, and the railroad town of Barstow, on a sultry summer day in 1989.

I was nineteen in late June of 1989. By then I knew the ropes but there was still so much I needed to master. I spent a good chunk of the month-and-a-half of my time before that working as a typist at a local library in Stockton, rising off the couch of a charity flophouse in the morning and coming home each day with a few bucks. It was pathetic pay, but damn, I rattled away, punching catalog cards and internal memos with that ancient Remington like my life depended on it. Which was true. It was finally in early June of that year that I decided to pack up my savings and leave.

On the way down to Los Angeles I made easy leeway jumping down Interstate 5 occupying the rearmost seat of a church van, reading 1984 while the old folks riding were talking about the merits you would have to meet in order to go to hell. I crashed afterwards for three nights at a friend’s bungalow in Burbank. I had just come off that short hiatus as a typist, mind you, so my hitchhiking skills were quite rusty, but I still clung to the belief that if I tried enough, I would snag a ride further southbound, to see Arizona, New Mexico for the first time and blow off my bucks seeing the Grand Canyon, taking a peek at those winding sandstone canyons, or letting myself drink a cocktail in the middle of a crowded, sparkling dance floor in Lauredo.

It didn’t quite work out like that, save for a Greyhound which would have obliterated my wallet, and when I finally realized that I was going nowhere in particular, I decided to head back to a place that never let me down.

It was late afternoon when I finally made it to the railroad tracks going out.

Rising into the mountains to the northeast of Los Angeles was the old Santa Fe mainline. Starting just behind the fences of Los Angeles suburbia, it meandered uphill, cleaving its way across the rising hills and crumbling rock, winding above the valleys and levees.

From there, the trains would have to plunge through a series of tunnels, for which its portals, under the light streaks of diesel locomotive exhaust, showed the permanent stains the stone received from the days when steam locomotives rumbled over the pass, spewing plumes of oily smoke high into the air, before breaking out and rolling fast into the desert valley beyond.

This mainline was a prime spot for tramps and train hoppers. Freights ran both directions here, some approaching the pass, and some descending down from it, bound for further south. After the strenuous climbs upwards through the pass, or a long ride without any interesting grades, the locomotive engineers would start itching to knock their strings full speed after they clear city limits. Even on a non-hotshot2 train, it would be an easy ride away from the city proper.

I was sitting in the shade of an oak along with the ivy that had spilled over through the slats in the fence of the backyard behind me. I had the pack by my side, leaning back against some railroad tie, about to take a nap, ears tuned for the distinctive rumble of diesel locomotive prime movers popping up from the north going south when I heard a voice shout:

“Hey you!”

I groaned and looked up.

Two kids stood on the track embankment, army surplus rucksacks a size too big slung over their backs. A cigarette hung out of one of the kid’s mouths. He couldn’t have been old enough to buy them.

“Are you hopping?” he said while taking in a quiet drag. A baseball cap was pulled low over his sandy, copper hair which had been cut into a shaggy mullet.

“Yeah…” I replied, “but where are you heading? Sacramento? San Diego? Vegas? El Paso?”

The kid smoking shot a puzzled look at his friend.

“What’chu think we should go, Campbell? North? Or south?”

Campbell shrugged, and wiped away the perspiration on his forehead with the back of a grubby hand.

“North. Sacramento sounds nice. We should bring back a postcard or something and stick it to that bitch of a sub Ms. Judson who said that we don’t know our state capitals.”

“Sacramento…Sacramento…” I racked my brain to find which line, which train to take. “The tracks over the pass out of Los Angeles are shared between the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe. You can try jumping on an Espee3 hotshot heading directly north or a Santa Fe slow one going northeast and transfer later.” I took another good look over the two. They couldn’t possibly be in high school yet.

“A slow one’s your best bet,” I continued, “I doubt you’ll do what it takes to jump and avoid the bulls4on a hotshot. But either way, none of those trains are coming for a while.”

“How do you know we won’t be able to catch a hotshot?” He plopped down next to me, as did his friend. “Are you a trustie? Is that why you say I can’t hop one?”

“What’s a trustie-”

“Yeah, you’re a trustafarian.”

A trustafarian is a rich kid. A rich kid who runs away and hops trains because their mommy and daddy won’t buy them everything.

“Do I look like a trustie to you?” I spread my arms wide, revealing the outlines of splotches of sweat, grease, rust, that had accrued on my t-shirt and which the cheap detergent in laundromats or the hand soap in public restrooms could never fully remove. They must have picked up the term from an old timer complaining while holding down a jungle5 and decided to throw it around just for kicks. “Heck, I couldn’t even catch one. A hotshot, I mean.”

“Nah…I was just kidding,” he quickly said while snubbing out his cigarette which had burned down to the filter, “so you’re one of us.”

“Where are you guys from?”

“What’s there for you to know? That’s none of your business.”

“I’m from Woodland…..well, I used to be from Woodland, before all the crap went down. Just wanted to see if there were any folks from there, that’s all.”

“We ain’t from North Cal. Ethan goes to Porter Ranch. I’m from West Covina,” Campbell said. “It’s our summer break.”

Ethan rummaged in his pants pocket and drew a crumpled pack of Pall Malls, along with a Zippo lighter engraved with the motif of a soldier standing on a beachhead. Its rippled sands were emblazoned: 1939-1945.

“It was my grandfather’s,” he said when he saw me staring at it, “he passed away a few months ago. In Cub Scouts, I always borrowed it from him when the crappy flint and steel wouldn’t work. He taught me to tie knots when the counselors couldn’t, helped me with math when my mom couldn’t. Took care of me, my older sis,” he swallowed, tumbling the lighter, over and over in his hands, the pack seemingly forgotten, "when my dad went out drinking and couldn’t…you want one?” He snatched up the pack and flipped open the cellophane top, producing three cigarettes.

“I don’t smoke.”

“Just take it.” Ethan flicked alight the Zippo, shielding the feeble flame from the breeze with his left hand as he held his Pall Mall up to the lighter, and turned to light up Campbell’s, whose lips were curled up in just a tinge of a smile as he closed his eyes and took in the first long drag.

Now it was my turn. The tip of the Pall Mall caught and glowed red. I held it in between two fingers in my left hand, watching, just watching the wisps of burnt fog, smelling of tobacco, pine sap, pocket lint, lift up into the air.

“Now, watch me. Just like this…” The kid flicked his cigarette back, and ran a tongue over the stray cinders on his teeth. “Or if you just want to watch the smoke, it's fine with me. So…I heard you said that some crap went down in Woodland. What kinda crap?”

“It’s a long story.” I turned the Pall Mall over, watching that tobacco slowly turn into ash. “About a truck driver and his abusive ex who attacked his daughter, an old flame who refused to feed her half-eaten cheeseburger to a starving man and my dad who thought I was less of a man for walking away from her…”


We heard them before we saw them.

At first it was the hum of the rails as vibrations jolted down the track, then the far-off sound of a diesel locomotive’s electric bell. As it drew closer, there was another sound as well. Deeper, more pronounced, a steady drone instead of a pulse, the growl of a prime mover at work—four prime movers hard at work pulling thousands upon thousands of pounds of steel and cargo.

Rounding a corner far down the line came the freight train, spearheaded by four locomotives sporting the yellow and dark blue of the Santa Fe, its sides still coated in a layer of dirt and filth from the mountain ranges of Arizona that it had crossed days before. A pinhead of plaid rode on the platform jutting out in front of the cab.

“Stay the fuck down,” Ethan murmured. In the cool shade beside the track embankment, it was guaranteed that we weren’t going to be spotted, but even kids wouldn’t take the risk of standing up too early.

Trailing behind was a mix of cars going northbound. Hoppers, streaked with grain dust from the Midwest and coal residue from further east of the Appalachians. Tankers, their platforms still greasy, reeking from being loaded at the chemical and gasoline refineries in San Diego and Tijuana. Gondolas, some piled high with sand, which peeked over the lip. And boxcars. Forty, fifty boxcars strong, mingled in between the other cars, all which seemingly stretched for a mile down.

Campbell read the names off as they passed.

Southern Pacific…Cotton Belt6…Seaboard System…Santa Fe…NdeM7…should we wait a little bit more?”8

“Yeah, you probably should,” I said.

“You know what? The engine’s like, what? Ten cars away? Fuck it. We’re catching it out.” Ethan slung his army-surplus pack over his shoulder, wincing and spitting a clump of phlegm on the ground as he stood up. “Are you coming?”

I wasn’t originally planning to go with them. By then, I had formulated a vague plan. My plan was to wait for a train going the opposite direction, down to San Diego, and not backtracking my way back north. But the train, which had reduced speed to a crawl but with all four power units in the front rumbling, raring to go, caught me off guard.

The string’s inching wasn’t going to last long.

I knew the engineer, sitting in the air conditioned cab with the fan blasting, hand poised over the throttle, would hear the dispatcher’s nasally voice squawk “all clear” over the radio and throw it wide open, sending it rocketing down the line, northbound, towards the pass, bound to the rails, through the tunnels, its stained portals swallowing and spitting trains out the other side before they plunged into the desolation that was the Mojave. To go further north, to those fertile fields and cool rivers where the grass bent backwards to drink in the irrigation ditches, it would be a simple matter of jumping onto a neighboring Espee train at a crew change.

I hadn’t felt the freight truly cast a spell over me since the day I left Woodland on the Espee local. Ever since that fateful day, I had it all planned out. All of it. I had the mental picture of exactly where I wanted to go and how I was gonna keep myself afloat.

This train was different. Hazy. Its destination was unclear, but certainly out of Los Angeles. Northbound. Completely the opposite direction of where I was heading. But it was too tempting for me to resist. I felt myself stomp out the dying Pall Mall that never saw a drag and stood up on two feet.


The moment we leapt out from the embankment and bounded across the empty right track to the freight train, we began to try to find a rideable car. Turned out, our options were thin.

“Shit, this boxcar’s locked!” Campbell exclaimed, and kicked the side wall in frustration. “What about the next one, Ethan?!”

“It’s a reefer9. You can’t ride those, dummy!” he shot back.

“Um…how about this grain hopper, the one that says Canada, Government of Canada10?!”

“No!” I stuck out an arm to stop him from jumping on board. “The end platform and cubby hole are facing towards the locomotives! When we roll through crossings, a bull is gonna bust us for sure!”

“How about this gondola? Would be nice to see everything go by.”

“Think! The only thing you’re gonna see is a bunch of wood stabbin’ into your eyes when the train is at speed! And the bull’s truck when it pulls up to the next crew change!”

He smirked.

“You're no fun,” he snickered, and pulled away to catch up with his friend.

There was a blast of air. The engineer up front had released the brakes. The gutteral noise of sixty something freight cars building momentum struck a chord of urgency within each of us.

The wheels started convulsing. By all accounts, I would have called it off if I was going alone. But Ethan and Campbell were different. They continued dashing down the length of the train while freight cars that were inhospitable habitats for tramps and train hoppers rolled by, one by one. I followed close behind.

“Found one…you see it?!” Campbell panted, “it’s that dirty orange one! It says Galveston Wharves…Port of Galveston Railway! That’s the only one with an open door! Go, go!”

The boxcar, covered in graffiti tags that may as well be chicken scratches, its door quivering back and forth on its track, showing a gap just big enough to get in, went straight by us, moving too fast to directly hop in. We would have to catch it on the fly.

The funny thing about doing train hopping, especially on the fly, is that it is not just the simple action of running up, tossing your stuff in, grabbing ahold of the freight car and getting onboard. It’s a delicate dance between flesh and steel.

Ethan and Campbell began the prelude by immediately taking off straight after the boxcar. I followed suit.

It’s a dance that requires intuition, reflexes that buzz and shoot through your arms, legs, chest. No teacher could ever outline for you the little nuances it requires, or the timing that’s needed to pull it off. You have to try it for yourself.

Campbell took the lead. His left hand shot out for the boxcar sill, but it missed, wrenched away when he momentarily slowed. He let out a half-grunt in frustration, barely audible above the screeching of steel wheels. Still, he continued. Continued to dance. Soon, the train and us would be together.

You couldn’t exactly choose the lights or atmosphere on the dance floor either. It must be done in rain, high winds, sunshine, snow.

The Los Angeles sun was brutal that day. There was no shade on the railroad tracks, and we were running with packs filled with gear. I don’t know how those two kids pulled it off. I don’t know how I even pulled it off.

It’s a dance that happens in plain sight, just beyond someone’s backyard, in industrial parks, in the middle of high mountains, smelling of sap and the crisp from a nearby stream, fields, grass, all around.

We busted across a grade crossing. The gates had came down parallel to the train, signal lights flashing, chimes pounding away. A line of cars had accumulated, along with a few pedestrians waiting for the freight to clear. I felt naked, exposed, yet so exhilarated, dashing across twenty or so sets of eyes with my fully loaded pack, trying to catch up with two middle schoolers and a boxcar.

“What the hell are those kids doing-”

“Look, mom!” a little girl exclaimed, pointing. When I twisted my head back, I spotted the emotionless face of the mother. Something magical-three boys pursuing an accelerating freight- had happened before her very eyes and she didn’t even see it.

“Go, go, son!” A elderly man hollered out a pickup truck window. Campbell saluted the guy with a quick wave over his shoulder.

The music was building fast. A misstep now, even a small one like sticking your hand out the wrong way, would leave you behind, injure you, or worse, kill you.

Ethan unslung his backpack, holding it by the strap in his right hand. As he ran, he leaned towards the direction of the train, placing a hand on the boxcar, countering the weight of his gear. As another piercing screech reverberated down the entire length of the train, the kid seemed to pause for a second, as if reconsidering.

But he shook his head. The arm holding the backpack arched forward. It sailed into the air, into the boxcar. Then, he jumped, pushing up on the sill, and rolled in. His head reappeared a moment later.

“Get in, Campbell!” he shouted.

Campbell undid the straps of his backpack and tossed it in. As his friend had done, his backpack sailed forwards, landing harmlessly inside. He braced himself, pushed up, and disappeared into the boxcar.

Now it was just thousands of tons of steel in motion and me. The dance was reaching its crescendo. I felt my legs start to weaken, sore from all the running. Thoughts flashed in my head.

-

What if my pack missed?

All that gear, ripped away from me in an instant?

No.

I can't miss.

I can’t afford to let it miss.

But what if I fall?

What will I do if I can’t get myself up?

Will I be dragged, faceplanting into the ballast?

Or be tugged, by the force of the train, into the undertow below,

to be drowned,

flayed,

asphyxiated,

pronounced dead,

under hundreds of wheels made of steel,

sharpened from miles upon miles of moving across America,

thundering over the rails?

No.

I can’t fall.

I couldn't fall further back.

Deborah and my father made me fall far enough already.

-

I braced myself and unbuckled the pack, gritting my teeth in anticipation for the final act.

-

My hands gripped the lip of the open boxcar door. The heartbeat, sending blood surging through my veins, opened my eyes wide, and the adrenaline and the sight of the ground, a rushing blur of gray ballast laced with the dark brown of ties, felt almost ethereal.

With all my strength, I pushed myself up.

I rolled into the cool belly of the boxcar, my skin, shirt and sanity getting coated with sawdust, feeling the boxcar sway as the train reached speed. Not a moment too soon, either. The train was now moving at a speed that would be impossible to catch.

We each carried pieces.

Pieces of a dance, sacred in our world, between flesh and steel, that they could not, and would not, see.

As I laid there, our train rounded a curve and flashed by a station, the impassive faces of commuters standing on the platform looking straight at us but not seeing us at all.

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