I’ve seen people die on the rails, but probably not the way you’d think. You’d think that other people are the real danger out here, but mostly that’s not true. Mostly it’s the trains, though really it’s from being stupid. You’ll learn this.
There’s lots of ways to die of being stupid. There’s missing your footing when catching out to a moving train, and even when it’s not going too fast I’ve seen kids fall and lose a leg, the trains splitting them apart like a pizza cutter going through an extra meaty slice. There’s hopping into a gondola – an open-topped railway car – filled with cargo that isn’t fixed down, so when the train swings around a bend the load shifts and you get crushed to the wall. There’s jumping between moving cars – which is strictly for the birds, in my opinion – where a body can drop down into the gap between the train cars and get turned into so much mush on the tracks below. If you’re unlucky enough – and dumb enough – to fall off a train in the middle of nowhere, you might survive – at first. But the rails are lonely, and America is big and empty like you wouldn’t believe if you’ve only ever lived in cities. Chances of you getting found are low. Chances of you getting splattered by the next freight rolling through are high. The wind and the coyotes will drag your bones away, the rain will wash the rails clean, and your dear old ma will never know what happened to you.
Lately, there’s a new way to die of the stupid. I call this sub-category of death ‘Instagram Suicide’.
Rail kids have changed in the last few years. When I started, it was the punk kids, the outcast kids, the never-fitted-in-anyways. They’re still there, but now there’s this new crowd, these poser kids, these wannabe Instagram-famous with their five hundred dollar cameras and their thousand dollar outfits.
They don’t last too long, these poser kids. They turn up fresh-faced at some railyard, or a siding if they’ve really done their Googling, with brand-new camping gear, pre-ripped jeans, and beautiful clean faces. They’ll ride for a few hours, or a couple days, even maybe a week. They spend their time on the cars looking at America’s freight country through little screens. They’ll step off the trains and go home. Their #nomad #adventure #ridingfreight will give them some cred among normals, who’ll look at their filter-faded pictures and ooh and aah over how wild and free it all is, and how alternative they are for hopping trains for a day or two. The poser kids go back to their lives, except for the ones who die of the special kind of stupid that comes with trying to capture every moment of your life on a screen smaller than your hand. You really want my advice? Best thing you could do is take your cell and throw it under the wheels of the next freight you hop.
Scope wasn’t one of the poser kids. He was a punk dropout, like me and the others who make the rails our home. Except Scope and me, we’re not exactly like the others. Most of the rest of them are running to. We are running from.
We met for the first time in a siding, both waiting for a freight to slide past and take us away. Scope was with a girl who was his girl at the time, and I was alone. They say you shouldn’t ride the rails alone if you’re a girl, but I’ve always been safe, more or less. I get on with folks. It’s a kind of a camouflage. Just be one of the guys and don’t stick your neck out, and mostly nobody bothers you. I hook up with other kids now and then for a time, but eventually I always go back to riding by myself.
When I met Scope and his girl, I was coming off of two days spent hiking the back country all alone, and I was ready for some company. Scope I knew right away was like me. We both had that look; that running from look.
We caught out together, found the holy grail of train hopping – an empty boxcar – and made ourselves comfortable. This is called ‘blind baggage’ – riding unseen, unlike riding on top of a car or on the back platforms, where any security bull going past can spot you easy. The track ran through farmland, endless miles of swaying crops broken by the occasional sprawl of half-ruined barns and farmhouses. The others crouched in the shade in the corner of the open side of the car, letting the wind whip away the suffocating blanket of heat. Scope laughed when he saw me hauling on the sliding door, testing it.
“It’s locked open,” he said, eyebrows raised. He rubbed a grimy hand through his hair and shared an amused glance with his girl.
I told them about the boy who’d got in an empty boxcar and the unsecured door had slid shut on him. It was July in Arizona, and by the time the train rolled into a yard and the workers pulled it open, he had cooked alive in the heat.
“The smell,” the train worker who told me the story had said. “God a’mighty, that smell. I won’t never forget it. I still catch it sometimes, when I take off my clothes. Clothes I bought years after that poor boy was in there. I breathed that smell in, and it’s still cominoutta me.”
Scope laughed again, said I was easy spooked, but after that I caught him checking boxcar doors too.
I saw him on the rails now and again. Sometimes we’d make plans to meet and ride together, and twice we met by accident, which is one of the beautiful things that happens in freight country. People just walk in and out of your life, and you see them when you least expect it. It’ll happen to you too. One of those times was in a friendly railyard in Pasadena, where the workers would boost you into empty cars sometimes if their bosses weren’t around. I was waiting in a stopped car, sprawled out on my sleeping bag, boots up on the side, just looking up at the sky, when I heard scuffing feet outside and the voice of a friendly rail-yard worker say, “Hup – one – two,” and who should fly over the rusted red side of the car but Scope. His heavy boots landed on the car floor with a muffled boom, and an enormous grin spread across his dark face. We cried out and hugged and hit each other on the back, and spent all night yelling over the roar of the wheels, telling each other the stories since we’d seen each other last.
The second time I met him by accident was also the last time I ever saw him. This was a few summers back. I was riding solo, blind baggage in a gondola. My train had pulled into a siding to let another freight past, so I’d hopped out to squat in the woods and was just climbing back up when I heard a scream above the ear-pounding roar of the passing train. I turned to see Scope hanging out of an open boxcar, waving wildly as he whipped past. The wind carried away most of what he was saying, but I saw him making a sign with his hand. It looks like patting the air, and it means ‘wait for me’. So I hung out, even when my train rumbled and moved off. I chilled down in the grass verge, dozing a little until a hand grabbed my shoulder and I was pulled awake to Scope’s grinning, dirty face.
We waited for the next train to come into the siding, which took about seven hours: long enough to do a lot of catching up, some drinking and smoking, and a little sleeping. I spotted another gondola and pointed it out to Scope. But when we pulled ourselves up it was already occupied by three kids, who I picked out right away as Instagram posers. They were pretty clean, for one thing, not grimy with ground-in dirt and soot like Scope and me. They had overfull backpacks and shiny-new boots. And they were all pointing their cameras at us.
One had a big iPhone, one had an expensive looking camera with levers and buttons all over it, and one had a little round camera strapped onto his forehead. Two guys, and one girl.
“Freight-hoppers!” said the kid with the camera on his forehead. He got unsteadily to his feet as the train moved off and held a fist out for us to bump. “Where you guys headed?”
I gave his fist a tap out of politeness, but Scope grabbed the guy in a big bear hug. “How you doin man?” he said, thumping Headcamera’s back. Now, this kid was wearing a soft light blue sweater that a) was way too thin for the temperature and wind in freight country, and b) probably cost a couple hundred dollars. Scope was wearing a shirt that was maybe once white, but life on the freight – the grease and dirt of train cars, rips and tears from boosting yourself up onto platforms, wearing it all day and all night – had turned it a mottled, sweat-streaked grey. Scope gave the kid a final squeeze, then held him at arm’s length, still grinning broadly. Headcamera smiled weakly.
“That’s how we say hello on the rails, man,” said Scope, clapping Headcamera’s cheek, leaving a smear of grease on the kid’s cheekbone. His soft blue sweater was covered in dark streaks and smudges, and he was still looking at it in dismay when Scope bounced past him and threw his pack down in a corner.
The girl with the expensive camera wanted to ‘interview’ us. I said no. Scope, ever the excitable kid, said yes. I listened to him cheerfully making shit up in response to the girl’s eager questions for a few minutes, then climbed up to sit on a crossbar at the lip of the gondola and watch freight country speed past.
We were in Maine, and it was late August. I’d been on this route a couple times previous, and it was one of my favourites. The track wound through thousands of acres of pine forest, climbing high enough that you could look back and forwards and in every direction and only see a rippling wave of treetops. The sky stretched end to end and was cloudless sapphire blue. In a couple hours it would be dark, but for now the light was golden and soft. The wind tugged the hair back from my temples and whipped at my skin. The world was the noise of the rails – the crash of the wheels, unstopping, like if you were at the top of a waterfall. I breathed it in, held my hands out to it. I was alive.
A movement back in the gondola caught my eye. I looked down, and the third kid – the one with the big iPhone – had his camera pointed my way. I dropped down into the car. The kid grinned at me.
“You better not be taking my picture,” I yelled over the noise of the tracks.
“So what if I am?”He backed off, and I followed, my hand held out for his cell.
“What’s going on?” Scope was at my side. He slung his arm around my shoulder.
“Nothing man – she’s just going psycho cause I took her picture or whatever.”
I felt Scope straighten up. “Hey, man, not cool. Delete them.”
The kid’s mouth dropped open, and I saw he was wearing braces. He seemed like he was going to protest, but thought better of it. “Hey, yeah, whatever,” he said. Scope made him turn the phone and show me he was deleting the pictures.There I was, over and over, a dark smudge against the sky, face half-turned away, eyes slitted against the last of the sun – then a finger tap to delete and I was gone. Gone. Gone.
“I just wanted some good pictures, you know. You looked cool,” he said to me. I got the feeling he thought this was an apology, and turned away. I don’t hop between cars, but I was seriously considering it just to get away from these posers when Scope, ever the peacemaker, said, “Take pictures of me, man. I don’t care.”
The Instagram kids all clustered round Scope, boosted him up on the crossbar where I’d been sitting, and began taking pictures, all shouting out how he should pose. He did look great up there. The blue sky, his hair streaming back in the wind, the fading daylight on the dark skin of his shoulders– he looked like a dirty-faced god, balancing easily on the crossbar, endless against that vast, empty sky.
The gondola swayed, and the Instagram kids went with it, stumbling over their feet. I’d been expecting it, so I didn’t fall. The track was taking a turn onto a bridge across a ravine, a jagged scar in the earth with a river flowing far below. Ordinarily I loved looking at it, but the view would be spoiled this time, so I didn’t climb up to see. I sat on my pack, arms crossed, watching Scope pose.
The girl climbed up to sit by Scope. She yelled into his ear, and he laughed and shook his head. She yelled some more, and as she leaned in Scope rested a hand on the small of her back. Headcamera’s shoulders got tight at that.
Scope got carefully to his feet, pulling the girl up with him. I guessed she wanted to pose with them both standing on the edge of the gondola, the Maine forest as backdrop. So #epic.
The girl struck a few poses while Scope made faces and flipped the bird. The girl slapped his hands, laughing. Headcamera’s shoulders got tighter and he gestured for the girl to come down. She ignored him, put an arm around Scope’s waist, got him to turn with her to stare out at the trees. She pointed down. Headcamera climbed halfway up the side and tapped on her bare leg. Come on, he was shouting. Get down. Too dangerous.
She tossed her hair and ignored him. Scope was gazing out at the pine trees. He’d grown up in a city, he told me once. Buildings filled the world. Hadn’t seen a forest until he hit freight country. They still got him, after all this time. The green of them, and the fresh-sweet-smell of the leaves. How endless they were, and how peaceful.
Headcamera reached up, grabbed the girl’s wrist, and pulled. Her foot slipped, and she tipped, arm wheeling, mouth stretched open. Her hand flailed, caught Scope’s shirt, bunched up in it, and dragged him down with her. I saw them disappear, over the side of the car, bodies first and feet last.
I didn’t see Scope’s face as he fell – he was still facing out. I saw hers, still frozen in that stretched ‘o.’
Headcamera stayed where he was, arm out, hand clawed at empty air. The other kid had his iPhone raised, fixed on the point where Scope and the girl had been.
I made myself move, made myself get up and scramble to the top of the car, but not to where they’d fallen – the train had moved past that now. I pulled myself up to the far end of the car, then jumped across to the next car, and the next. My feet flew over empty space, and there was no room in my head for fear because it was full of Scope falling.
I hopped cars until I was at the tail of the freight – we had only been a few from the end, so it can’t have taken me long, though it seemed to. I looked back at the rapidly disappearing track spinning out over the ravine, looked down at the thrashing waters below, looked at where Scope and the girl must have gone.
I don’t know how long I was there, looking back until the trees closed in around me and I couldn’t even see the ravine any more. I don’t much remember walking back to the gondola, but I must have, because the next thing I do remember is standing staring down at the two boys, huddled together with their backs to me. Headcamera had taken it off, and it was dangling from his fist. The girl’s camera was lying at their feet. They were both staring at the iPhone. I could see pictures of them, of the girl, of the train cars. Pictures of the forest and the sky. And pictures of Scope, silhouetted against blue, endless and free. Then a finger tap to delete and he was gone. Gone. Gone.
Header photograph © Jason D. Ramsey.
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