April 1, 2010
By Claire Sykes
I didn’t grow up with freight trains. As a child, I didn’t hear the clack of their wheels, the groans from heavy loads, their shrieks on too-tight curves or their whistles in the night. But there were the subways of New York.
Every summer we went there for a day or two, when our family visited my grandma for a week in nearby Middletown, New York. It was in Manhattan that I fell in love with trains. Never mind that the subway frightened me, deep underground like that with its filthy littered floors, cold lighting, and stale sour-moldy stench. And so many people, all of them strangers. My mother would clutch my hand so tightly that it hurt, as she pushed me through the crowd to get us seats. Then zooming through an endless pitch-dark tunnel in a metal fluorescent-lit box linked to other metal boxes, platforms flashing by. It was all so exotic. Most of all, the subway meant going somewhere. Even when the doors slammed shut on my arm once on the way out, I still loved trains. So much that I had to be near them when I finally escaped my middle-class, white-suburban Columbus, Ohio home.
No, I didn’t move to New York City. It would be Kent, Ohio for me. As a college kid at KSU, I’d often walk the town’s railroad tracks alone along the Cuyahoga, tightroping the shiny rails or stepping the ties in long strides, past the backdoors of Water Street’s taverns and into fields of Queen Anne’s Lace and mullein all the way out to the old abandoned roundhouse.
The river on my left, weeds to my right, I’d glance behind every minute or so to make sure a train wasn’t charging toward me. Sometimes I’d come upon a stopped B&O freight, massive and mute. I’d climb up between the cars, or inside one of them. A quick jerk of the train would tell me when the whole thing was about to start its engine and begin hissing, so I had plenty of time to jump off.
What I loved was having the tracks all to myself and seeing that a train was coming any minute. I’d stand as close as I could safely get. As it stormed by in a steady gust, it made my body roar and blew my long hair back, the train’s whistle wailing the whole way—and I’d let out a full-tilt scream.
When I moved to Madison, Wisconsin a few years later, I found myself some tracks again. Did the same thing there; and in Bellingham, Washington, with its Burlington Northern line along the bay and a tunnel cutting through beneath the madrona and cedar, daring you to take the chance for bad luck to catch you there at the wrong time. I never had the nerve to get beyond the opening. But a couple of guys I know did, and they told me how they flattened themselves against that tunnel wall while the train thundered through. The dog didn’t make it.
On an Amtrak trip once from L.A. to Chicago when I was in my 20s (one of my many cross-country rail trips), I met a woman who had hopped a lot of freight. She warned me to be careful how you run and grab hold or leap off and land, without losing a leg, hopefully. She told me not to get in any boxcar that wasn’t open on both sides, in case one of the doors accidentally slammed shut. Hold a scarf over your nose and mouth going through tunnels, because of the carbon monoxide exhaust. And if you can, nab a Chevy or Ford sedan lined up on a flatcar and stretch out in that. They rarely locked the car doors on them, and talk about comfort. She didn’t mention anything about getting caught, but I knew I never would. I was too chicken.
Shortly after that Amtrak trip, I picked up a book in Seattle called Riding the Rails, photographs by Michael Mathers of real-life hobos hunched over a tin-can stove and dangling their legs off the edge of a boxcar. I’d look at the pictures of these men and imagine their lives barreling down two parallel streaks of steel to some distant, unknown point. Everywhere was home and home was nowhere. At that stage of my life I, too, was wandering and directionless. I could relate.
I now make my home in Portland. I don’t walk the tracks near Division Street, though, and it’s been too long since I’ve been down to those in Oaks Bottom across from the amusement park. But I often drive streets in town that make me stop at the tracks to look both ways before crossing, kind of like saying grace. And I love having to wait while a train goes by, even if there’s no one to wave to anymore because most of the lines passing through are all computerized now, running on automatic like a giant model train set. And, sadly, there are no more cabooses.
But one thing hasn’t changed—the rumble and wail. From a distance, and at night especially, the clickety-clack and that harmonic chord are among the most comforting sounds I know. They remind me that there’s always someone out there trekking the tracks and riding the rails, hopping a life as far from ordinary as you can get. And that there’s always someplace I can go.
© Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.
See my essay on Justine Kurland’s book of photographs of hobos of the rail and the road, This Train is Bound for Glory.