By Robert Wolf
Decorah, IA, USA
I was dwarfed by the boxcars towering over me, walking between lines of cars in the Phoenix freight yards, carrying a heavy pack. At eleven o'clock at night I was looking for the train that a switchman earlier that afternoon told me would leave at midnight. It would head south to Yuma, then northwest to L.A.
I clambered up and over a coupling between cars. I saw another switchman, dressed in jeans and Stetson hat, and asked where my freight was. He pointed to a tank car on a line being made up.
I trudged over to the train and found an open boxcar, threw my bag on the plank floor and hopped in. Lighting a match, I explored the dark recesses at both ends to see if there were other riders, or rats.
The train was still being made up. Every minute it cranked forward and then backed up with speed enough to hook onto a car behind, thousands of tons of metal slamming into metal.
Whenever it stopped pulling forward I was next to a freight car full of winos, all howling to the night wind of the desert, drunk. They were on a car used for delivering autos, a mere skeleton, and had no protection from the wind. They wrapped themselves in cardboard. I was afraid of them, afraid they would wander over to my train and find me, or discover they were on the wrong freight and actually wanted mine. Our cars sat on adjacent tracks. I pictured them climbing into my car. There I would be, haunched in the back, trying to elude observation while they carried on. Finally one would say, "Let's find out what's in this car," light a match, see me and leer, "Hey, kid, what're you doing here?"
Switchman (credit: Robert Wolf)
I would stammer, "Headin' for L.A., same as you, man." Then he would turn to his boys with lips curled over yellowed teeth, look back at me and say, "How much money you got on you?"
I did not unpack my sleeping bag. Instead, I sat on my pack near the open door, on the side opposite from them, ready to run.
Their train stood still, but mine moved back and forth with sudden stops and a slam! each time it added another car. This continued for an hour. Each time we pulled forward and stopped, I was opposite the bums. I kept looking at my watch, wondering how long before midnight and the freight pulled out. The air was frigid and there was nothing in the car to wrap around myself, nothing there except a few old orange crates and some two by fours, one of which I held expectantly.
Finally I heard voices. Brakemen approached, checking couplings. I could see their light as it arced back and forth with the swing of an arm. When they passed alongside my car one of them shone the light inside. He saw me and asked, "Goin' all the way?"
"You bet!" I said, and felt good.
Soon the train pulled out. Wanting to see all of Phoenix stretched out against the starlit night, I stood and leaned against the open door. We were pulling out slowly.
Somewhere near the outskirts of Phoenix we crossed a road with a red and white traffic guard lowered with cars behind it stopped. A couple sat in the first car. Exhilarated by the journey ahead, I waved to them and the woman waved back. I leaned out the boxcar, looked at the long line of freight cars behind, then went to the front of the car, out of the wind, and unpacked my sleeping bag. I stuffed all my clothes inside it and slid in, and despite the hardness of the floor and the symphonic jazz crashing of the wheels and springs, and slept well.
When I awoke the air was chill and wet with dawn. The east was pink. We were in southern Arizona. The land was sandy and covered with mesquite and cactus. I stayed comfortably curled in my bag until the air warmed.
By mid-morning we were entering a desert town. When I saw a cruel looking fortress atop a bluff I knew that was the Yuma Penitentiary, the prison of the Arizona Territory.
The train stopped at Yuma. I wondered for how long. I waited ten minutes before I jumped down, bringing my pack with me, slinging the straps through one arm and letting the pack bounce off a side of my back. I cut across the tracks to a water pipe with a faucet and drank. A hobo with a box of crackers sat on a crate beside the rails, munching. I asked him where he was going.
"South. Where you headed?"
"North to Bakersfield and into the Sierra Nevadas."
"Have some of these," he said and handed me the box of crackers.
Like many another bo his age was indeterminate. His face was a raw slab of meat, unshaven and weathered.
"What're you doing?" I asked him.
Rail Yard (credit: Robert Wolf)
"Nothing, just travelin'. I had me a job coupla months ago as a cat operator. I made good money and when I got enough I left. Whenever I need money bad I do some dozer work. I got into this travelin' racket back east in Ohio when my wife left me. I said screw it. No point in bustin' myself over nothing."
I drank again from the faucet. As we sat talking he said, "Your train's leavin'." I looked up and saw it pulling out. I grabbed my pack and ran across the tracks until I got alongside my car. It was moving as fast as I could trot, and as I ran alongside the open door I wondered, "What if I sling my pack in and it slides all the way across the car and out the other door?" I took the straps in both hands, dumped it in and in one motion put my hands on the floor and swung in, off again across America, out into the blazing desert, the heat pouring into the open car.
That afternoon as I looked out of the car to the west I saw a huge sea. I said to myself, "A mirage! And what a mirage!" But it was not a mirage, as I later discovered, but the Salton Sea, the largest inland lake in the Southwest.
Soon afterwards, as we paralleled a highway, I saw signs reading, "Palm Springs 20 Miles" and I thought of chic people, cocktails, and swimming pools and me in my shabby grimeclothes heading north for the wilderness.
We were in the Mojave Desert—bleak and desolate—but strung with towns every fifty miles or so. Hours later, mid-afternoon, we stopped at Indio, and as I sat on my pack smoking a cigarette and gazing across the land a Mexican kid came up and hoisted himself into the car. At first I distrusted him, but in time we began talking.
He said, "I was heading north weeth my family, my wife, her brother and his wife. Our car broke down. They said it was too long a trip to make. They wouldn't make it, so I'm going alone."
"Where are you going?"
"To the valley to work."
"What do you do?"
"Where were you coming from?"
He was not much older than I, and thin with dark brown skin and speech so convoluted and accented so strangely that at first I could not understand him. Later I became accustomed to his rhythms, his story breaks and lack of continuity. He offered me a cigarette, which I accepted. In fact we smoked his cigarettes all afternoon until he ran out, then started on my papers and tobacco. We sat at the edge of the car with no need to speak, just watching the land.