Hopping a Train

John Snyder

Call me a vagrant. I think that’s what Melville really wanted to say when he started Moby Dick. Conviction left him though, and he settled on “call me Ishmael,” which is actually just another way of saying the same thing; if you are an Ishmael, likely you have been cast out and have little means of making a living. Whether for the original biblical figure or a Roger Williams, the situation can be difficult. “He is a dangerous Ishmael,” a leader of the Puritan community said of Williams after he had departed into the wilderness; “He turns all hands against us.” 

If for some reason I should be banished, I would rather be called a vagrant. The word is rich in its roots, implying the wanderer in both mind and body-in mind through vagueness, and in body, as in vagabond. The tenth cranial nerve, the vagus, meanders through the viscera, even giving impulses to the heart. It cannot be a reasonable nerve, for, as Pascal said, “The heart has reasons which reason knows not.” 

That nerve notwithstanding, it was a vagrant notion of the railroad that sped my pulse. Nightly the train would pass through town, horn blowing, and I wanted to be on it. Although that might be considered a mental phenomenon, it was the heart that carried me onward. Maybe I had been away from the water too long. Melville’s Ishmael, complaining of the “hypos,” sought the “watery part of the world” to correct his lugubrious state. But I had no desire to knock people’s hats off—I just did not want to study. If I’d only intended to hop a train, I might have been called a vagabond; if I didn’t want to study I could rightly be considered vagrant: I would fall from academic grace and wander of necessity. 

In the unfledged years following high school I had been tormented by what I would do. I would be a lawyer, a scientist, and an artist—nothing seemed impractical and yet nothing seemed possible either. My true calling transcended the minutiae of textbooks; present haphazardness was no indication of eventual glory. I seized upon the ideal of the vagabond, although I was plagued by the specter of my vagrancy. What I needed was to be forced to a decision, which assumed apocalyptic proportions. A day would come when I, like Paul, would be struck down. I awaited my road to Damascus. Meanwhile, the railroad was elevated to a symbol; it was my deliverance, alluring for the arena that it encompassed and the power that it embodied. 

 

One train, a Burlington run called the Highball, left Spokane nightly with six engines and a hundred cars. Following the old Great Northern route, it moved south through Rosalia, Oaksdale, Garfield, Palouse, and Pullman, reaching Moscow around nine. The clatter and rumble resounded through the countryside; traffic would back up for a few minutes, pedestrians would be halted in their migration toward the bars or campus, the train would move on, and silence would return. 

Pigeons flapped among the elevators on either side of the tracks where I sometimes waited for the passage, envisioning a reptilian mass propelled impersonally, solidly, and darkly, maybe perpetually toward some goal. What was that goal? What set the train in motion? The birds were figures of emancipation from its lumbering mass. The evolutionists would have it that the reptiles did not die out-they merely took to the air. 

The Highball returned each morning around 2:00, laden with pulp products from the Potlach Forests Mill in Lewiston in a river valley to the south. It never did stop in Moscow, and it still doesn’t, to the frustration of would-be riders; consequently, I had to do some research. I began to follow it and to allegorize it. It was no longer a train but a “surreptitious serpent,” or “a procession of Great Northern goats and Chessie cats” bounding through the night. I even had a dream about it. I saw it cross Third Street on its way to Main, moving without a sound. The caboose was a rich green, emblazoned with intertwined serpents in red, appearing to memory more like a Chinese dragon. Lights glowed yellow within it, and as I watched I noticed that from the cupola down it changed to brick. By the end of the dream, just before the train went out of sight, the caboose was a solid mansion. 

I know now that Thomas Aquinas was inside. In this mansion he meditated, advancing a thesis, awaiting an antithesis, moving toward a summation. The mansion was the medieval synthesis, an ultimate state of faith. And it wasn’t a hollow achievement. Aquinas had welcomed opposition while ransacking the house feverishly, attempting to exhume the corpus of Aristotle. But why was Aristotle important? Because, from what I can gather, he, more than anyone else, implanted the dichotomy in Western thought. No middle ground remained in the Aristotelian methodology. None of the middle way of the Taoists and Buddhists, none of the perpetual doubling back of the Ying-Yang. All in the West was black and white, good and evil, either/or, which helped Aquinas in his battle between reason and faith: “Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay,” said Christ, “for whatever is more than these cometh of evil.” (The snakes in this dream were perhaps a notion of a Python-killing Apollo asserting the reign of reason over irrationality.) And through this interplay of positive and negative, something could be known. Dichotomies for the Eastern mystic are more a characteristic of the perceiver than the perceived. Maybe that is why the railroad came later to Asia, brought by white men with black hearts. The engines moved, reciprocating between good and evil, rolling on double rails, pulsating, “either-or, either-or, either-or. Follow me or be subdued.” 

The rails and the road diverge west of Moscow as the rail bed cuts through open fields to meet traffic at a junction called “Sunshine. ” In the near darkness the green of the engine lowers to a coalish black and the BN logos offer only a liminal glow. At 50 miles per hour the train bursts from the hills with one gleaming headlight, a pulsating yellow cablight, and a blaring horn sounding for the next crossing: two longs, a short, and a long. The bleating of the horn should be held into the crossing, ” — — • —, ” which in Morse code stands for “Q.” And what is “Q”? I never did ask, for it fit my convenience not to know. 

The Synoptic Gospels share enough details that they are attributed to a common source or writer known as “Q.” The message, despite the hypothetical nature of the source, is the revelatory nature of Christ. He represents the Father among men, not only through his past presence on earth but in his words, forming a tradition to be fulfilled by him. He is the consummation of history. The train calls out the “Q” at another crossing, a kind of immortal “Q.” The whistle alludes to a divine purpose: the train, too, has a place within history, an ironic role, grinding greasily up Railroad Canyon and across fields in completion of its nightly circle. “Take therefore no thought for the morrow…” Christ said. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Yet if the Highball should fail to complete its round, someone down the line, maybe in Seattle or St. Paul, would be sorely distressed. “Q! ” it exclaims. “Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin…. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Two more longs, a short, and a long. 

The train leaves Idaho, a place where the International Workers of the World flourished in the early history of the state. Although perhaps some crimes can be pinned on others, the Wobblies are known for having organized labor riots in the northern mining towns and hanging some Chinese miners in Pierce. One of them shot the governor. In the celebrated Bill Hayward trial that followed, Clarence Darrow came to defend the accused; and William Borah, “The Lion of Idaho,” was the prosecutor. But in that case as in all others, regardless of guilt or innocence, justice is the Lord’s. 

It is another night and I have found where the Burlington pauses in its run to pick up cars from a feeder line. I wait for the train now a bit south of Pullman, but it is very late—even the wanderer’s life can be hard. I do not know if those are the lights of a city or the twilight breaking, but early in the morning, masked in confessional darkness, I hear a rumbling in the east. It grows, carried upon the wind as the mutterings of a priest. I look down to avoid the piercing light bearing vindictively down upon me accompanied by an atoning bell. It peals solemnly and methodically, “Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa. ” 

There are no open boxcars tonight. I walk eight miles home through the dawn, stupefied, on the verge of sleep. 

Rest only increased my determination. For two summers I tried at intervals to catch the train and in my enthusiasm I convinced others to go with me. But successive failures boded more, and I made my way alone to Yardley, the railyard that bears all nonhern traffic funneled from two historical railroads into Spokane. The Great Northern and Northern Pacific, built as competing roads, were both endowed with rich scenery and ample resources used to attract passengers and business west. Their sobriquets were also picturesque: “The Empire Builder” and the “North Coast Hiawatha,” respectively. Towns along the routes were loyal to their roads and with the merger in 1971 some held mock burials for the mountain goat. A proud facsimile of one shot by Great Northern founder James J. Hill stood prominently on the sides of rolling stock for 90 years but it, along with the Northern Pacific Ying-Yang logo, fell under the aegis of Burlington Northern’s green engines. With the merger of the two Northern Transcontinentals, the BN became not only one of the largest and richest rail conglomerates in the nation but also inherited the merits and problems of both roads. The Great Northern, through astute construction, is still known as being shorter, faster, and smoother than its more southerly counterpart. It has more gradual grades and heavier rails, weighing 133 pounds per yard. The 110 pound rails of the NP have been roughed up and warped by heavy unit coal trains east of Butte. But really it was Glacier Park that enticed me to go North. 

Having been told that the Burlington Northern was hospitable to riders, I crossed twenty tracks and climbed a control tower. “Where’s Eleven-eighty-two? ” I asked, using a number borrowed from an informant. “Down on the last track beyond those piggy backs—you’d better hurry. It’s leaving.” 

Freight lines have prospered from a joint effort between rail and trucking companies. On large flatcars the empty truck trailers are returned “piggyback” to their points of origin. The flatcars, also called trailer-trains, double as carriers for ship cargo containers filled mainly with Japanese goods. I reached the cars just as they started to move and found my place between two boxes bearing the Sea/ Land label, one a brilliant orange, the other a pale blue. A devil of air whirled in the gap above me as we moved under and over viaducts and bridges along Highway 20 to Idaho. But the singing of wind and steel soon stopped. I peered around the edge of the massive containers as we entered a large switchyard, Hauser Junction. I waited, walking the cars, looking for a better spot until a yellow pickup drove by. It stopped and a man got out. I knew him immediately as a “yard-bull.” “It’s a federal crime to ride on an open platform,” he said, after asking where I was going. “In some states, it’s a state crime. It’s not in Idaho, but in Montana they’ll arrest you for it. In some of those towns they’ll throw you in jail and forget about you.” He pointed to some dilapidated cars and said, “Go sit on those bad-orders until the next train comes and you can find an empty boxcar.” 

It was an overcast, gray day and I waited, a bit anxious at the uncertainty that had come over my attempt. Another man had apparently gotten off the same train so I approached him. He was more seasoned than I, a true hobo. As in other avocations, train riding has its hierarchy. Hobos hold the highest position; they are traveling to a job. They look condescendingly on tramps (those who ride the rails looking for work) and hold bums in derision. Bums ride for the sake of riding. I was a bum. (Even at my collegiate worst my vagrancy was insincere.) But the hobo showed no animosity. He told me of riding crack trains in the Midwest. One he waited for, and missed, an Illinois Central run said to rend the plains at 100 miles an hour. He caught a slower one and the next day, moving toward Des Moines, he was delayed. There had been an accident. The fast train had left the tracks and leapt an embankment; cars had split when they rolled. Rifles, boxes of white shirts, and big cans of Sterno littered the right-of-way. “Guys who drank the stuff would’ve been in seventh heaven,” he said. 

Another train pulled off the main line interrupting him. Again there were no open boxcars. After a pause for a federal inspection, the engineer gave two short blasts of the horn. “Hop on as it highballs out of here,” my mentor said, ready to run. With a leap he cleared the edge of the flatcar and boosted himself on. Placing his knapsack behind a truck wheel, he crawled under the trailer and was gone. I’d been taken with his narrative and after going back to the bad-orders, I wrote what I could remember of it. Another train came. I began to despair of my legal delivery into Montana; again there were only car-carriers and flatcars. I couldn’t wait any longer, so I searched between the containers for a place and came upon a rat. It had been dead for some time. Now if I had been Buddha this might have been the image of decrepitude and decay his father had diligently contrived to protect him from. My father had merely sent me on my way figuring the consequences were my own. If I preferred to trade all that he had provided for an itinerant’s fare, that was my business. We will have our utopia destroyed by a crippled man or a rat sometime—best to harbor no illusions. 

Unlike Buddha, though, I wasn’t going to get wrapped up in a speculation on valetudinarian principles. I climbed another car, now self-consciously, and watched the sinews of the highway winding through Idaho with the wind spinning above me. It was cool. Because of the containers I could see only what was alongside me, nothing in front, nothing behind. Life was an eternal present, smelling slightly of diesel fumes. I’d been warned not to ride close to the head of the train, especially through a tunnel: exhaust fumes pushed hot from the engine manifold could be overwhelming, though not deadly. I thought of my hobo friend and ate fig newtons. 

Buddha, it is said, was complacent because he sat under the bo tree and ate figs which, modern research has found, contain high levels of serotonin, a vasoconstrictor. It is also found in the brain. A deficiency may contribute to psychosis, while an abundance can contribute to mental health. 

Things were going well as we crossed Lake Pend Oreille on a bridge of black timbers. I had, in a sense, secured a measure of freedom from the depredations of the past and the ravages of the future, and an assurance of sanity. We moved over the water, through Sandpoint, and turned north to Bonners Ferry through a glacial valley. The sky had cleared, and even though leaves and grasses shimmered as we passed, some thought or insecurity covertly assailed my ever-present and eternal sidelong view. Suddenly it occurred to me that I might die. But that sounds prosaic. I would prefer to think of it as “being deprived of my body.” 

Maybe Buddha can help me in this. Buddha was a reformer. That, said the oracle at his birth, was his role—if he should forsake the world. If he became worldly, he would conquer and unite India. His kingly father, hoping for the latter end, assayed to keep the world enticing to him by providing palaces and dancing girls. Before the prince would take to the roads, they were cleared of any debris or signs of decay. So the legend goes. Fortunately the prince, called Siddhartha before the events that made him a Buddha, had no railroads to ride. He would have learned quickly of the resources that fed the luxuries lavished upon him and the cost of providing them. 

As the train moves toward Montana, it follows the Kootenai River east through an unpeopled land. The mountains are rugged blue with alternating scraps of clear-cuts; rocks have been gouged from the river valley to open it for cars and the trains. The road-bed collects all manner of rubbish. A grave in the Bonners Ferry cemetery bears a small plaque. “Unknown man,” it reads, “Found along Great Northern tracks—August 1961.” Of the sights that would make Buddha despair of earthly fulfillment, this, the corpse, would have been the third. He had seen the aging man, and the predations of disease—what remained was the image of the shaven monk and the idea of withdrawal from the world. 

Beyond Bonners Ferry might have been a good place. In the forest, above the river, white crosses mark fatalities on the monotonous, townless highway where I suspect attention waned. Out here, quite alone, Buddha could have listened to the whistle of the train, or an occasional car, and pondered the five skandhas, the five things that cause us pain, the five things that constitute life: body, sense, ideas, feelings, and consciousness. I hadn’t come here to consider these-I’d only wanted to do something scandalous—but the skandhas beset me. Through them I realized that I might die. If the train should jump the tracks and join the detritus accumulated there while depriving me of my body, will the other skandhas remain? I grow disturbed with Buddha, regretting that I even asked the question—I cannot imagine my mind without a body, and I feel fatigued. Mine is a Western mind. It finds it much easier to accept an oversimplification—body and mind—than to deal with the problem of reconciling the two.

 

Beyond Libby, Montana, we pass from light to darkness. I know the tunnel is seven miles long, one of the longest in the world, and I have come prepared with a spare sock. I wet it with my water bottle and press it to my mouth to hold back the fumes. I no longer sense my body, but I am still conscious, suspended on this flatcar wailing through the dark in a commotion of smoke and sound. Except for a light that passes every half mile this could be eternity, and I have not yet been delivered of my body. Here the open-endedness of Eastern thought and the Western dichotomy come together in the ultimate duality of Manicheanism absorbed by the Cathars of the fourteenth century. Buddha reformed an India of resignation where birth and rebirth were an eternal round with no escape, unless through a thousand life times. The medieval Cathar was similarly trapped, ascribing to the doctrines of the third-century Persian, Mani, that all material things were evil, especially the body, in a world where black was literally evil, and white good. A god of darkness, Yahweh, had made them so, at least according to the Cathar understanding of the Old Testament. But the New Testament God, a god of light, offered a way out: the saving gnosis, the embodiment of the word—Jesus, the Son of man. He was not really a man though, but an illusion. In either case, the flesh could not provide salvation-the call to Buddhist and Cathar alike was to come out of the world. We re-enter the light and I draw a breath. 

Before the tunnel was built the Great Northern took a loop up into Canada around the obstructing mountains. But now Whitefish, the last stop before Glacier Park, is a straight shot. I plan to get off there and I do. Body and mind jump from the moving platform and take a roll. It is a dirty and slow way to travel. Buddha’s hair would be filled with soot by now, as mine is—I can hardly move a hand through it. It would only cause him to lament—I am content to be here. I cannot disregard the Western faith in material things, so typified by the toiling train and the soiled rider. Someone has to do the work, and I know the Cathar’s hell, the hell passed through in the body, allows lilies to exist somewhere. I have seen the grime of the railroad and dispelled its glamour—the whistle entices but it leads nowhere permanently. What Thoreau said is true: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” I and millions of others make it move. I am part of the crime. The train pollutes while building the GNP and causes men to think tomorrow is secure by their own efforts; with me as an accomplice. The train, finally a symbol of men’s faith in themselves, calls me at fault with clanging bells. “Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa.” I am going home.