TrainHopping

TrainHopping


I always wanted to jump a box car train and ride it

Tamy and I were driving down highway 97, during our five day road trip through Oregon, when we spotted a train off in the distance. The train was going the same direction as us. "Speed up and find somewhere where we can pull over and watch it go by," I said. Tamy accelerated the Jeep.

Minutes later, we were standing on the side of the tracks, putting our ears to the rail and placing quarters down when the train came chugging around the bend. Seeing a train coming towards you automatically gives you an adrenaline rush. I couldn't contain myself and jumped on the moving train. Tamy smiled as I rolled toward her and prepared to jump off. I let go of the train's ladder thinking it would be an easy step off, but I quickly learned the train was moving faster than I could run. My hands and knees, and almost my face went scraping across the jagged gray rocks that lined the tracks.

Instead of going by, the train came to a stop and we were forced to crawl around underneath it searching for our sure-to-be-squashed quarters. Found em both - one was now the shape of a milk spill, and the other could now serve as a guitar pick. The only sign of either one having ever been a quarter was their still ridged edges.

Ten minutes of sitting there and then the train hissed and then jolted to a slow start. Tamy and I sat back on the hood of our car to watch it depart. Both of us were a little too quiet, and then Tamy spoke.

Tamy: "Where do you think it's going?"
Me: "Next stop's probably Klamath Falls."
Tamy: "How far's that?"
Me: "Maybe four hours."

Me: "What if we rode it to the next stop?"
Tamy: "What would we do about the car?"
Me: "Lock it."
Tamy: "How do you think we'd get back?"
Me: "I don't know. Maybe we could hitchhike back."

Then we were silent again for what seemed like a long time. There were only six boxcars left to go by.
Tamy: "Our time to decide is running out."

My stomach was tingling, and my left leg had begun to tap. I looked at Tamy to try and read if she really did want to jump this train, but I couldn't tell. The train clicked in the background like a timer. I couldn't stand it anymore - I had to relieve the tension. I turned to Tamy and out came a lame cliché, "You only live once."

Tamy bolted to lock the car up. "You should put on jeans," I shouted. "There's not enough time," she said back. "We really need to be wearing jeans," I urged again, as I struggled to pull my own pair of Levi's over my shoes.

It all happened very fast - I slid my jeans on, Tamy tied her's around her waist, we ran for the train and stepped up a side ladder. We were now riding on top of a moving train, with a steady clack underneath us and a blue afternoon sky above.

The train would sway, the wheels would screech, and the trees and track signs would just keep going by as Tamy and I kept reveling in our own astonishment and thrill. We stood up, we looked over the side, we relaxed in the sun, we discussed the possibility of our car being stolen, and we even decided that we'd jump off, holding hands, into any body of water that looked like a survivable leap (because I used to watch a lot of Westerns).

After a while the train stopped and when it started up again we were in for one hell of a surprise. In our lazy slumber we didn't noticed the distance sound that was racing towards us - the sequential sound of train cars being jerked into forward motion. If we had detected the tell-tale sound early in the domino chain we would have been braced and ready - but we weren't, and an explosive jolt rocked our car and scared the shit out of us. We were rolling again.

We crossed from California into Oregon and the train came to another stop. To my surprise I looked ahead down the rails and saw another train coming towards us. Apparently we were at a stop where one train pulls over so that another train, going in the opposite direction, can go past. "I think I see our ride back Tamy," I exclaimed.

We jumped off our train and prepared to jump the new one. As it rattled by us, I was startled by the sight of a man riding on it in a crouched position. In a glimpse the man looked like the artist sketches of the Unibomber suspect: dark sunglasses, hood, mustache and dirty clothes.

With about twenty box cars left, and the engine far ahead, I said to Tamy, "OK, let's run and jump it." It was moving far faster than the first one we'd climbed. Things got intense fast. The rumbling screeching sound of the train does an immediate number on your heart rate.

As you run up near the train and focus your site on the ladder, you have to navigate on incredibly unsure footing: an elevated half a foot strip of jagged rocks. And although you need to keep your eyes on the ladder rungs while watching your step, you can't help but be constantly conscious of the large steel wheels turning near your knees - always ready to cut you in half.

Tamy grabbed for the ladder, but her hands bounced off. "Next car!" I yelled. She ran again and made another grab, but the trains speed was too much for her grip. "Try Again!" I yelled, still running myself. Tamy chose her next box car and doubled her effort. Running beside the train, she raised her arms gropingly toward the metal rung. I found myself focused the steel wheels slicing near her feet. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. A man I knew in college got both of his legs cut off by a train. Tamy made her third grab. Maybe she held the bar for half a second, but she let go of it like a hot potato - and the near miss with danger repelled her off the jagged stone cat-walk and onto the dirt.

"I can't get on it. It is moving too fast. You go ahead," she exalted. I nudged her back into motion and said, "Keep trying. You can get on this train." There were only two cars left within our reach. Tamy shook her head no as she angled toward the third to the last ladder. At this point even running was laborious. Tamy reached towards the bar and then retracted. "I can't," she muttered. "YOU'VE GOT TO TRY AND GET ON THE LAST CAR TAMY," I implored.

Within seconds Tamy was about to intersect the last ladder on the last train car, and from right behind her, I could hear her breathing hard. She arrived at her last chance and both of her arms bolted to ladder. I saw her hands clinch so hard her knuckles showed white. I did not expect what happened next. Tamy's body was jerked into a flying position. In the moment she was a flag flying behind the train. I feared her losing her grip and falling into a broken bone skid. But Tamy held on and her feet fell back to Earth. Some how she used the skipping touch down to propel her feet onto the ladder. She was on, and I was also - after a best effort sprint to catch up with an already departed train.

Riding on this new train was even better. We climbed up the ladder and found ourselves on a boxcar with two catwalks up top, which made it easy to place "fighting cowboys on top of a moving train." (Of course, our stunt fight was much more conservative than those you see in the movies).

Soon we decided to attempt our first "move to the next boxcar." Down the ladder between the two cars we climbed, and then with a quick step over the coupler (and rushing tracks) we were onto the next cars ladder. Up this next ladder we went and presto - we were standing on top of a pine scented lumber train. I felt like I was on a moving patio. We liked leaping from one car to the next so boxcar to boxcar we kept advancing. And then I saw him again. Only this time he was about fifteen cars ahead and moving towards us.

"Holy Shit!" I thought to myself as I alerted Tamy, "Let's move back to the last boxcar." We began scrambling to retreat. We'd go down into the in-between trench and arise only to look back and have our worst fears fueled - the scary-rider was still crossing cars in our direction.

With about three boxcars before the last, we changed our plan. We climbed down into the trench and instead of going up the next ladder, we reversed by going along the side of the car. It was possible to move along the car's side because it was a flatbed hauling lumber. It wasn't easy because not only were we sidestepping along narrow strip, but also the train was swaying and the lumber wasn't much to grip. We were so worried about each other falling.

We inched our way to the mid-point of the lumber car and decided to stop and wait. Our pursuer wouldn't see us unless he peaked over the side. Then again, we couldn't see whether or not he'd pass over our car, unless he peaked over the side.

I don't know how much time passed, but it felt like a lot, when finally the train brakes began to screech in the vicinity of where our Jeep was parked. While our train was rattling to a stop we jumped off. Holding hands Tamy and I walked quickly ahead hoping to reach our car quickly. We were also hoping that we were putting distance between us and the hooded man. But we weren't - that was immediately obvious when he stepped out in front of us, one car ahead. I can only guess that stupid social norms kept us from turning instantly to run. Our hands clinched tighter as we braced to pass him in a matter of seconds.

Clearly in view now all his details were showing: Face black from dirt; ratty baseball cap underneath a hooded blue sweatshirt; hiker's shorts; backpack; sunglasses; beard; and he was talking into a walkie-talkie. He had us locked into his cold stare. Ten steps from us he put his walkie talking into a pocket. Nine steps. Eight steps. Seven steps. Six steps. Five steps, and then he spoke, "Are you riding this train?"

(We are still closing the distance between us).
Me: "Yeah."
Him: "Anyone else riding it also?"

(As we are passing side by side)
Me: "Saw some bedding on one of the back cars."
Him: "On the Northern Burlingame car?"

(One step beyond our intersection)
Me: "I don't know. Why?"

Three more footsteps transpire and I turn my head to look back. The man was about 10 yards away, and following us. Clinching Tamy's hand I pulled her into a fast run. We turned left and bolted over a coupler to the other side of the train. Tamy was not moving her fastest. "Run faster Tamy - he is following us!" I said angrily. "He is?" I heard her reply as she sped up. We began running along side the train toward the engine. I looked back and did not see the man. I urged Tamy to run faster, worried that the man was running as fast on the other side of the train. Our car was still a half-mile ahead and we were prepared to run it, but fortunately the train's breaks hissed loudly, and the tell-tale jolting sound moved down the line like a string of firecrackers. The train was on the move again. We ran and ran until it was moving at an equal speed and then we jumped back on. The moving train felt safe.

We went around one bend and, lo and behold, our white Jeep was still there. It was immediately obvious that our exit from the train was not going to be a cake walk. It was more likely to be a tumbling routine. Ten feet from our car we counted to three and jumped in quick succession - Tamy and then me. We jumped for the downward sloping dirt and rolled to safe stops. We sprung to our feet, retreated to the car and fixed our gaze on the passing train from behind an open car door. It was a long train and blue, red, green and gray boxcars seemed to chug endlessly by, each displaying their classic logos: Santa Fe, Golden West Service, Famous Ma & Pa.

And then we both saw him staring at us from his perch atop Northern Burlingame grain car. He looked like an assassin and he kept us in his sights until the train itself blocked his view. Tamy and I wrapped our arms around one another and yelled with excitement. Three hours later we were watching an Elvis Impersonator at the Klamath Falls fair and rodeo. Ain't life grand.

email Patrick Combs
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