Not too long ago, I started to get antsy. The urge to see America, or at least as much of it as I possibly could, had hit me and I couldn’t ignore it. I had a friend, a transplanted Arab named Abdul, who was always up for something so I figured I could convince him to come along. One morning at breakfast in a diner I told him I wanted to go traveling and without pausing he said he was up for it, so we went home and packed our bags.
We took a bus down to the railyards and climbed the fence, sitting down in the shade of the trees just outside the yard where no one would see us. Abdul was nervous. I had told him that morning at the diner we were going to hitchhike, but after breakfast I changed my mind.
“We’re going to hop a train.” I told him.
“Your crazy” he told me flatly.
“Yeah.” I said. “And you?”
“Sure, but this is carrying things a little far, my friend.”
“Look. No one hops the freight trains anymore,” I told him, “Its all reservations and airmiles and big leather suitcases nowadays. I want something different, something fast and free and fun.”
Abdul looked at me with concern. Then he shrugged his shoulder.
“I don’t know who the madman is. You, or me for following you.”
So that’s why we were down at the yards.
We waited and waited and Abdul bit his nails and started talking about his fiance back home who he was thinking of marrying, and every ten minutes he lit a cigarette. We tried to call some friends on his cell phone, but he hadn’t paid the bill in months so the phone company’d cut him off. It was just a piece of plastic now. It started to rain but we just sat in it and got wet. A freight train passed and we jumped out from the trees, running after it. I wanted to hop it but Abdul was too slow and hesitated, so I let it go by with hands on my hips.
“Man, why’d I bring you along if you’re going to hold me up like this?” I asked. Abdul looked at me and then turned around and walked off. I ran after him.
“Look, I’m sorry I said that.” I’d forgotten how touchy he could be.
“I don’t even know why I’m here.” Said Abdul. “Its raining. I haven’t been dry in hours. I’m cold, colder than I’ve ever been. And you don’t even seem to notice on your own grand quest to catch a train how bleak things are looking.”
I didn’t know what to say. The idea of hopping a train without my friend seemed very intimidating. So I did the first thing that came to mind – I grabbed Abdul’s bag and started to run down the tracks. He swore at me but didn’t follow after. I stopped a ways up, panting and looking back. Abdul was where I’d left him and I could tell he wasn’t happy.
“Come on, man. I need you.” I shouted. I felt rotten about stealing his bag - Abdul wasn’t rich, he didn’t have many things, but it was the only thing I could do. I waited and finally Abdul started to walk towards me.
A passenger train suddenly screamed round the bend. We threw ourselves off the track and into the ditch, hiding in a foot of water as it passed, our hearts racing and our nerves shooting. We hooted and hollered after it, daring it to come back and take us on. Abdul grabbed his bag from me and even though he wouldn’t talk to me I could tell he wanted to stay.
Back in the trees we waited some more. I wouldn’t let Abdul get down on missing the train and I made him smoke cigarettes faster to cool himself off. Another freight came by and it slowed to a stop a little ways ahead of us so we had an easy time hopping it. Nowadays, there aren’t many old fashioned boxcars around. Flatcars and intermodal cars are much easier to stack, sometimes two levels high, and they transport Hondas and TV sets from one end of the country to the other. We found ourselves on the back of a grain car, a porch protecting us from the rain but leaving us open to the outside, and a couple of inches of water for our seat.
We grinned and slapped hands, and when the train started up again we let out a whoop, we were on our way. Abdul lit a joint he’d kept in his back pack, some hash a friend had smuggled in from Pakistan, and there we were, rolling along on a grain car smoking hash, a white guy and an Arab, stoned and having ourselves a great time.
Abdul and me watched the cars moving along on the freeway that ran parallel to the train tracks. The drivers were all in their own worlds, going back home from work and play and not bothering to look around, so they missed seeing us but we didn’t mind, we saw them. Two little boys pointed at us and got excited and poked their dad at the wheel and shouted but the dad didn’t listen, I don’t think he believed them. A few old timers sat on their deck watching the trains pass by and seeing two vagabonds on the back of a train car was enough to make them stand up in surprise and wave and shout. Abdul was afraid they’d call the train company but I wasn’t worried and just laughed at it all. Little children and old people, are they the only ones who still notice anything?
We got out of the city and the rain gave way. The sun started to set and we watched it from our front row seats on the grain car rolling through the fields. It was too loud to talk and the car let out a tremendous clang every time we hit a piece of misaligned track. The sound of steel on steel kept me listening and I tried to follow each screaming strand, there were many, and they moved up and down and through and around each other.
I looked over at Abdul later that night and he had his flashlight on reading a book, and when I looked closer I saw it was the Koran. He lectured me on it for a while but the train was too loud and I only caught parts of it, something about hell and heaven and honey and virgins. He was trying to get through to me - his face was deadly serious - so I humoured him and pretended to pay attention. After a bit he sat back and I guessed he was thinking about his mother and Lebanon cause he often got homesick. I went back to the music and thought about adventure. We couldn’t sleep, the train wouldn’t let us so we smoked some more hash and just sat.
The train rolled into the city early the next morning through the suburbs and then through the factories and tenements, and everyone was still sleeping in their warm beds except us. I started getting worried about where the train would stop, if it would stop.
“For all I know we could go on to Detroit!” I cried. But we rounded a corner and I saw the train yards and the train started to slow. I wanted to jump off.
“Come on, let’s get off before someone sees us. I’ve heard bad stories about freight workers, lets get off before the yard!”
But Abdul looked down at the ground moving past us and looked back at me and stubbornly refused. I guess by then he really thought I was a madman. I threw my bag over my back and grabbed the ladder, slowly lowering myself down to the ground. I stepped off the last rung, letting my feet dangle in the air a few inches above the moving ground. It was around then, suspended only by my rapidly tiring arms that I realized the train was moving faster than I’d thought, faster than I could run. Panic seized me - I had no idea how to get off a freight train. Then Abdul stepped in and grabbed me firmly by the arms. He pulled me up and into the porch, and we each collapsed on the metal floor, gasping for air.
“Me? I’d rather wait and see how things go than jump and end up in the hospital,” he said, smiling at me.
The yard was deserted. Lines of hollow train cars filled the yard and they cast a shadow over us as we glided in. We got off when it stopped and stretched our muscles and grinned in triumph, snuck out of the yard and into the world, and found a small cafe and had coffee.